INTO THE WOODS: Fairytales and Childhood Anxiety
by: Dave Pace on: 2013-01-27 05:37:37
In light of the recent spate of fairytale-inspired shockers, Dave Pace takes a look at the ways that even the grimmest of fairytales reflect and address childhood fearsin a constructive way.
“As our eyes grow accustomed to sight they armour themselves against wonder.”
― Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game
The trappings of childhood have always been fodder for horror. Be it the cruel games children play in pantomime of the vicious adult world around them, fear of the dark, salivating monsters in the closet or under the bed, the creepy toy a child will regard with nervous sideways glances or the bizarre and sick tales that we have weaned our children on over centuries, rarely stopping to consider their gruesome realities. Fairy stories. Folk tales. Read unblinkingly before the lights go out and the child is left alone in darkness, vulnerable in the seemingly vast and alien landscape of their bed. Abandonment. Murder. Rape. Cannibalism. This is what we fill their minds with just before we leave them with nothing but their imaginations for the night.
It’s no surprise then that we see so many themes from these stories appear in our adult horror stories as well. Not only are these innocent fables inherently more sinister than we give them credit for but the scars, jagged and beautiful, that they leave upon us inform our future selves and the stories we choose to tell. Recently we enjoyed the release of HANSEL & GRETEL from The Asylum, while HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS also hit theatres this week – and since last week audiences have been treated to the Guillermo del Toro-produced fairy story shocker MAMA. We thought it might be fun to lift the veil a bit and see what is happening with these stories and with our childhood psyches that helps these tales endure and terrify kids and adults alike.
The quote this piece opens with isn’t mere poetry; leading thinkers in child psychology all seem to agree there is a funnel-like effect whereby our fears exist in proportion to our understanding of the world around us. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter newborns quickly develop a fear of falling and loud noises. As early as 6 months, fears of strangers can begin to manifest and progresses to fear of large animals, darkness and masks. All of these fears as easy enough to account for as a sensible evolutionary response to very real threats – anxiety is after all an activation of our fight-or-flight response.
Where things get interesting is in the pre-school years, as children’s capacity for abstract thinking and understanding of a larger world outside themselves and Mommy and Daddy develops at a rapid pace. This is the point where fears of the supernatural seem to manifest in our culture. This is not simple fear of the dark, which is such an innate fear in us as human beings – this is a fear of unknown forces, unknown beings and creatures. This is where horror is born, in this magical twilight hour between a world of reason and a world haunted by demons – a world where it might as well be little homunculi doomed to act out plays inside the confines of our television sets and ritual sacrifice of a goat will clear up a computer virus.
Is it the growth of our imaginations, wildly out of pace with our rational understanding of the world that allows these mysterious ideas to germinate and plague us or is it fed by how we have chosen to spread the myths and folk tales of our culture? It seems it must be a bit of both. The very charming little fairy tales we have lulled our little ones to sleep with each night helped flesh out the Ogres living in the toy chests and the notion that there are forces in the universe that don’t live by our rules – that swirling chaos is alive around us and dark witchcraft can harness it.
Don’t think those old stories were so bad? Think again.
Let’s consider the classic Hansel and Gretel as a prime example. We all know the story: children lost in the woods, they leave a trail of breadcrumbs hoping to find their way home again but birds have eaten them up. They stumble upon a cottage in the forest made of gingerbread and sweets. Starved they descend upon it and meet the occupant – an old crone who encourages them to devour all the candy they wish only in order to fatten them up before she puts them in the oven to devour them. The plucky pair get wise to the scheme, outsmart the witch and push her in the oven instead.
That’s not so bad right? It’s only cannibalism and burning an old woman to death remorselessly in an oven!
Now consider that this is the cleaned up version of the story. Maria Tatar, Harvard program chair for Folklore and Mythology, explains that in the version of the tale published by the eponymous brothers Grimm in their 1812 book Kinder – und Hausmarchen the children were the progeny of a poor woodcutter and his wife. Unable to afford to feed the family the children’s mother hatches a plan to have their father lead them into the woods and abandon them to their fate. The woodcutter is initially opposed and they argue over the plot while unbeknownst to them, Hansel and Gretel are listening. It’s worth noting at this point that the only anxiety that is unique to children which is acknowledged by psychologists is separation anxiety, where there is an irrational or persistent fear of being apart from a caregiver such as a parent.
When the woodcutter finally relents to the certain slaughter of his brood Hansel sneaks out to gather pebbles which he uses to mark their trail the next day and allows he and his sister to find their way home, much to their mothers disappointment. A short time later she orders the woodcutter to make another attempt, taking the children further into the deep, dark woods. Hansel’s pebble trick is thwarted when he finds he and Gretel are locked in their room for the night so he attempts to make do with breadcrumbs from a slice of bread spirited away from the family breakfast table.
Unfortunately birds eat the crumbs and the pair are hopelessly lost. They stumble on the cottage and the old woman, who lures them inside and then promptly traps them in a cage. Gretel is yoked into household slavery while Hansel is fattened up to be eaten by the cannibalistic crone, whose vision is so crippled Hansel is able to trick her into thinking he is still too thin to eat by passing off a bone found in the cage from a previous victim when she reaches out to him to see how he is plumping up. After weeks of this she finally resolves to eat him regardless and after weeks of slim pickings she decides to consume Gretel as well. A clever little girl, when prompted to get in the oven she pretends not to understand what she is being told to do and the hag demonstrates for her and Gretel seizes the moment to push her into the oven to burn to death.
Inside the cottage they discover a hidden trove of jewels and other riches and make off to find their way home. When they get back they find their mother has died and their father is relieved to have them back. With the witches stash they are able to live happily ever after.
Later revisions of the story have the mother become the step-mother which is a common theme in the “toning down” of many children’s tales of folklore and leading to the archetype of the Wicked Step-Mother which persists to this day.
There is a line that can be drawn from Hansel and Gretel all the way to Tobe Hooper and the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. After all, it boils down to youths being lured to the secluded home of a psychotic cannibal. One wonders if Hooper’s mother or father ever read him the story as a child and that was where Leatherface was born. It’s believed that Hansel and Gretel was a folk tale out of a great famine in the 14th century where families were actually abandoning children they could no longer care for in cowardly acts of self-preservation and those on the fringes turned to human flesh as a diet staple.
It’s curious indeed then to imagine this line stretching from the desperate realities of 14th century survival to the Grimm’s in the 19th century to a young Tobe Hooper in the 20th century and finally to a modern cinema legend, a chainsaw-wielding dweller in modern people’s nightmares.
Child psychology seems to indicate that Leatherface was unlikely to be born any other way. As we age and as the gaps in our understanding of the world are filled in with practical knowledge, our fears change. Boogeymen go away and are replaced by more practical and worldly fears – death, war, crime, failure in school, failure at our jobs. The overwhelming dread of the swirling chaos of a maniac with a saw and craving for flesh or a supernatural being intent on our very soul give way to fear of how to make our mortgage. This is the banality of evil. As we pass the milestones of our growth as human beings we leave behind our childhood fears of the unknown and mysterious. This is exactly why this writer will submit that it is in that brief window, that twilight period, where the seeds of horror are planted and take root. There is no other time in our development for this to happen. Tobe Hooper didn’t dream up Leatherface the night his mother read him Hansel and Gretel, but it was that exposure to those concepts at that stage in his life which gave him something to tap in to as an adult as he conceived his Texan terror. On a serendipitous axis Hansel and Gretel, Ed Gein, Nixon’s America and Vietnam and a host of other things both acknowledged and obscured all met and new mythology came of it.
Hansel and Gretel is of course not the only story with darker origins. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t woken by a kiss in early versions of the tale, old Prince Charming had his way with her in an act we can only recognize as blatant sexual assault. She even is impregnated while sleeping and gives birth to twins which suckle at her while she slumbers. It is this suckling that removes the sliver which cursed her to eternal sleep in the first place. You certainly won’t see that in any Disney movie, yet it lurks there in the roiling slurry of our cultural myths. We almost know it wasn’t just a kiss without even knowing of the prior tales, as if we are drawn to darkness.
Rapunzel is cursed to live in a tower with a wicked witch. Her crime? Her father stole plants from the witches garden and to spare himself the witches curse he promised his first born to her. Again, adult cowardice and the consequences of adult actions paid for by children. Later in the story when the prince finally comes to rescue her, he is tricked by the witch who noted Rapunzel’s pregnancy and cut off her hair. When the prince ascends the golden locks he is met with the sorceress instead, who pushes him from the tower where he falls into a thornbush and blinded. He wanders the countryside blind and half mad for years in search of his love.
It is in our earliest years, the years we have not yet allowed an often bland rationality govern our worldview, that we hear these stories and still believe in the power of magic. Still believe that strange arcana can transform and overcome nature. That there are forces in the universe which aren’t all benevolent – that in fact some of those forces might not like us one little bit and may want to see us dead. This may be the cradle of the whole genre we care so much about. The forces which shape us into people who love horror are set in motion before we have any real say in the matter. In a way we are destined to be thrilled by the world of horror and the phantasmagorical, destined to seek it out. Destined perhaps to read this very article. Something about those formative fears came along with us, survived the trip down the ever-narrowing funnel where our fears and fantasies give way to reason and now here we are.
We’re so glad you made it.
All Illustrations by HJ Ford
A copy of the journal piece from the Harvard Mental Health letter is
available online here:
Goldsmith HH, et al. “Linking Temperamental Fearfulness and Anxiety
Symptoms: A Behavior-Genetic Perspective,” Biological Psychiatry (Dec. 15,
2000): Vol. 48, No. 12, pp. 1199-1209.
Northey WF, Jr, et al. “Childhood Behavioral and Emotional Disorders,”
Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (Oct. 2003): Vol. 29, No. 4, pp.
Vasey MW, et al., eds. The Developmental Psychopathology of Anxiety. Oxford
University Press, 2000.
Velting ON, et al. “Update on and Advances in Assessment and
Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Children and
Adolescents,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Feb. 2004):
Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 42-54.
Williams TP, et al. “Pharmacologic Management of Anxiety Disorders in
Children and Adolescents,” Current Opinion in Pediatrics (Oct. 2003): Vol.
15, No. 5, pp. 483-90.
Maria Tatar has a page here on the Harvard faculty website:
The publication of hers I draw from in the story is The Annotated Classic
Fairy Tales -
_b_1 specifically pages 44, 45 and 54.