"HOW THE CHILDREN PLAYED
BUTCHER WITH EACH OTHER" (edited)
"A man once slaughtered
a pig while his children were looking on. When they started
playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other:
'You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher,' whereupon
he took an open blade and thrust it into the brother's
"Their mother, who was
upstairs bathing the youngest child in a tub, heard the
cries and quickly ran downstairs, and when she saw what
had happened, drew the knife out of the child's neck and,
in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the other child.
She then rushed back inside to see that her third child
had drowned in the bath.
"The woman was so horrified
that she hanged herself. When her husband returned home
from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that
And they lived happily
"How the Children Played
Butcher" was removed by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
after the first edition of their "Nursery and Household
Tales" was published in 1818. But the story's stark brand
of shocking imagery and harsh resolution stretched throughout
subsequent stories, printings, media, and centuriesstill
acting 200 years later as the fables that darkly reflect
our simplest desires and fears.
George Bernard Shaw loved
Grimms and Dickens confessed that Red Riding Hood
was his "first love." J.R.R. Tolkien adored the tales,
and C. S. Lewis admitted to reading them on the sly for
years. Even today, Grimms fairy tales are ground
into impressionable brains early on in life, and those
among us who grow up to be storytellers unconsciously
clock them, then replay and recycle them. Their influence
is likely second only to biblical tales.
Interestingly, the period
that spawned these brutal stories was not inundated with
extreme strife and turmoil, but rather extreme boredom.
Nineteenth-century Eastern European folktales began in
a peasant culture that arose in opposition to the feudal
state's ruling class. Peasant life was often uneventful
and dull. Adults sat around the fire and told stories
to amuse each other, the storytellers contributing their
own voices, characters, and sly entendres and topping
each other with subtle wit and particularly nasty plot
twists. The children, meanwhile, listened from their place
on the ground, rapt.
The tales were grounded
in some reality. Child abandonment and infanticide were
and Gretel," for example, reflects both. Many mothers
died during childbirth and many (evil) stepmothers replaced
them, often overburdened and hostile to the children.
The Brothers Grimm began
to collect these mostly German tales in 1806. They "collected"
by listening to the stories being told aloud and then
trying to reproduce the oral performance with wordsthe
imaginary "Mother Goose" was, in fact, an amalgam of storytelling
grandmothers. In a Grimms fairy tale, the characters
tend to be indistinct and vague, but this was done to
allow the "Mother Geese" of the world to fill in the blanks
with their own inflections, grins, shouts, and gestures.
The brothers continued
to add, subtract, and revise until their seventh and final
edition in 1857. They edited with their moral pen firmly
in hand, for the most part removing sexual references.
Rapunzel was no longer impregnated by her tower-scaling
Prince ("Tell me," she asks her wicked Godmother, "why
my clothes suddenly fit me so tight"), and Little Red
Riding Hood no longer strip-teased the Wolf before eating
the flesh of her own grandmother.
However: Cinderella's stepsisters
still cut off their toes to fit inside the glass slipper,
and their overflowing blood still tips off the prince;
Snow White is still poisoned, still returns from the grave,
and still exacts a gruesome revenge; villains are still
tortured, disemboweled, and blinded, seemingly on every
other page. In short, the grisly violence remainedand
On occasion, the Grimms
influence manifests itself in particularly obvious ways.
In 1954, E.C. horror comics, including such infamous titles
as "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Haunt of Fear," were
vilified before the Senate by obsessed decency crusader
Fredric Wertham. His seven-year study, "Seduction of the
Innocent," blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency,
noting that Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality and
Wonder Woman promoted lesbianism. After a lengthy public
beating, the number of E.C. titles plummeted from 650
to 250. But the "damage" had already been donethe
wildly inventive E.C. comics influenced children who would
grow up to run today's entertainment industry. This was
evidenced by the ecstatic Hollywood reception to HBO's
nostalgic Tales from the Crypt cable series.
A typical E.C. yarn, entitled
"All Washed Up": Femme fatale Marcia has a rendezvous
with her fiance Harry at a wishing well. Harry is too
poor to buy her an engagement ring so Marcia dumps him
for the wealthy Gregg, who immediately proposes. The jealous
Harry secretly bashes Gregg's head in with a rock ("Soon
it felt as if he were pounding an old moth-eaten pillow")
and tosses Gregg into the well, noticing too late the
expensive ring Gregg had in his pocket. Harry begins wooing
Marcia by day and fishing into the well by night, never
hooking the ring but occasionally hookinggulphunks
of Gregg's flesh. Finally, knowing Marcia requires a ring,
Harry dives into the putrid pool, where the "rotted, bloating,
whitened, grinning thing" of Gregg's corpse drags him
prevailed. And if they weren't avenging themselves from
beyond the grave, E.C. victims often went insane in the
final panels, ice-picking their tormentors with a mad
glint in their eyea
gooey, gory money shot. Likewise, most Grimm tales also
ended with a surprise dash of extreme violencestepmothers
put in spiked barrels and rolled down hills, stepsisters'
eyes picked out by ravens, witches burned at the stake.
As with E.C. comics, these violent deaths were not just
pleasurable catharsis but an assurance that there WAS
a certain order to the world. The connection between E.C.
and Grimms was finally made explicit with the recurring
E.C. "Grim Fairy Tale," which were gory riffs on classic
fairy tale themes.
Both collections of stories
used stock characters: for the Grimms it was kings, princes,
peasants, and witches; for E.C. it was evil businessmen,
conniving sexpots, and good-hearted blue-collar men. The
Grimms protagonists found shelter in nature, which
literally divided peasants from royalty. In E.C. the wilderness,
less relevant to a 1950's audience, was replaced by suburbiaE.C.'s
domestic horrors were the uneasy reconciliation of the
good American economy and the disturbing fact that, having
dropped the atomic bomb, we were all, in a sense, mass-murderers.
Add in a dash of McCarthy paranoia, and prestono
one was safe.
Horror comics disappeared
by 1955, but horror films continued to satisfy the Grimm
urge. In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King adroitly
summarized the twenty scariest movies ever as fairy tales.
For example, The Haunting: "Once upon a time, a
sad lady named Eleanor went on an adventure in an enchanted
castle. In the enchanted castle, Lady Eleanor was not
so sad, because she found some new friends. Except that
the friends left, and she stayedforever."
Unfortunately, few horror
films know how to wield our age-old primal fearsRosemary's
Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The
Blair Witch Project are among them. Closer to the
oral tradition of the Grimms are the modern-day urban
campfire stories that take on the personality of the person
telling the tale. The most famous is "The Hook": a kissing
teen couple hears about an escaped hook-handed lunatic
on their car radio and peels out of the woods only to
find a rusty hook swinging from their door handle.
It is children who savor
these tales the most. Children often find the Grimms
mutilations hilarious (probably due to equal parts delight
and released anxiety), and it is no surprise that the
thrill of horror movies/urban legends is often equated
with sexual excitement (again, probably due to equal parts
delight and released anxiety). To teens, the moral of
"The Hook" is not "sex is bad," it is "those kids got
away with it and they're just like us."
Although there has yet
to emerge a definitive Jacob and Wilhelm of urban legends,
many of them are neatly collected each week in the form
of supermarket tabloids. The leap from "Rumpelstiltskin"
to "Bartender Poisons Nine CustomersBecause
They Never Tipped Her!" is not a long one. Simply take
the downtrodden protagonist and mystical interference
of the Grimms, add the visceral jolt of E.C. comics, and
affix the "I swear it's true" quality of the urban legend.
Weekly World News
is the most popular collection of modern-day fairy tales.
As in the Grimms, a priority is given to women and children
protagonists. Instead of distraught peasants there are
wayward Satanist-teens on glue. Science is constantly
being refuted by the mystical ("Mystery Light in Northern
Sky Baffles Scientists!"). Instead of vindictive kings,
we have "[George] Bush joined the Skull & Bones Brotherhood
of Death while he was a student at Yale."
Love is still achieved
by fulfilling a checklist. In Grimm, this means meeting
a prince, passing some sort of test, and marrying him
for the sole status of it. In tabloids, love takes the
form of "New Test Tells If Your Mate Really Loves You"
quizzes. And magic is as prevalent in Weekly World
News as it was in Grimms. Just check the back page
advertisements: enchanted amulets and somewhat foreboding
talismans like the "3 Wishes Miracle DollGuaranteed
What truly binds tabloids
to Grimms Fairy Tales is the sheer joy of telling
the tale. Each story is heavily colored by the wit
of the individual writer. In the article "Shoplifter Stuffs
4-lb. Frozen Chicken Down Her Bra," author Joe Berger
flexes his double entendres and innuendoes with phrases
such as "Ample Evie's tale of fowl play" and "Paramedics
rushed to the scene to revive the wide-bodied belle, loosened
her clothing and found the chilly chicken nestled against
her chest." Just like E.C.'s tour guide, the Crypt Keeper,
the tabloid author is pictured next to her story, reinforcing
her as our tabloid Mother Goose.
of the Grimms and their myriad descendents are many, but
because the tales are mostly message-free, they are all
too easily filled with agenda. The Nazi party cherished
the Grimms tales as parables of the weak rising
to power. Women's groups see Red Riding Hood as a rape
parable. Freud, of course, saw manifestations of dreams.
It was J.R.R. Tolkien,
however, who said, "Fairy tale analysis yields not insight
into our capacity for thought, but by how we physicalize
psychological realities." Fairy tales are important to
us not because of any definite representations or symbolism
but simply because they excite us. Our emotions get fired
up, we laugh, we gasp, and the dangerous thrill of being
alive stays with us, story after story, year after year,
century after century.