Fairy Tales Return to Their Horror Roots

I spent a lot of my childhood reading the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library, which is highly recommended for the semi-macabre young person in your life. They’re particularly a good reminder of what our fairy tales really are, and how sanitized Disney in particular and Hollywood in general have made them for mass consumption. But I wonder if we’re at a moment when fairy tales might be having not merely a resurgence, but recovering some of their original, horrific power.

First, there was Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. The movie was a huge disappointment, failing to fulfill its promise to do something novel with the identity of the wolf, and full of cheap-looking foam sets and MTV-styled hair. But it at least had the right impulse: Hardwicke wanted to restore the sense that the night is dark and full of terrors, particularly when you’re surrounded by the big woods. And she was wise to suggest that order can bring fear with it, too, though the message gets watered down a bit when it comes in the form of Gary Oldman in doofy facial hair and wielding the power of a Torture Elephant:

A short film called Red (thanks to io9) does a better job of getting at those ideas. It’s bloody and it’s heartbreaking: if you have to cut your way out of the belly of an animal that’s devoured you and drag the broken body of your grandmother out with you, even if you win, you’re likely to end up fairly traumatized. Becoming a warrior is not always a particularly delightful experience. And having to kill to survive is exhausting:

RED from RED on Vimeo.

Snow White and the Huntsman, which arrives in theaters in June, appears to be going the same route, albeit with a bigger special effects budget. The Queen’s evil isn’t implied, she’s not killing her victims with anything as quaint as a poisonous apple. She’s sucking the life force out of them, stabbing them in bed, ravening for their hearts. The forest may be more full of wonders than terrors, but said wonders aren’t of the adorably singing woodland creatures variety. And becoming a hero means going to the front lines in a medieval siege, an enterprise that carries as much risk of grisly death as it does potential for glamour:

By contrast, the dreadful-looking Mirror, Mirror looks like an anachronism precisely because it’s so pristine. These aren’t dark woods so much as they’re a Hollywood set, or an incomplete CGI rendering. It’s hard to be terrified of a world where people’s teeth literally sparkle, and curses turn people into adorable simulacra of puppy dogs. These people are plastic: even if you cut them to the quick, there’d be no blood or guts to spill into that snow.

Once Upon a Time has a bit of that shininess problem, though conceptually, it’s gone darker. There’s a girl who turns into a wolf, and an actual heart in a box that’s been identified as belonging to a character we’ve gotten to know. That’s upsetting, even if we don’t see the organ itself. Grimm, which recently got a second-season pickup, and has improved by focusing on the core relationship between the detective and the werewolf, has been horrific from the beginning: we’ve got stolen organs, fights to the death, and incredibly ugly acts of murder all of them. The premise of the show itself is deeply unnerving—that there’s something else hiding under the skin many of us present to the world.

And Once Upon a Time and Grimm are nodding at a question it’ll be important for fairy tale storytellers to consider if this trend is to continue. In the absence of the dark woods, the arbitrary nature of feudal lords, the horror of high infant mortality rates (at least in the developing world), the wolves that steal the sheep, what are our terrors? And which stories are the best matches for telling them? The persistence of crime dramas would suggest that the big city has replaced the big woods, that serial killers are our ravening beasts. But I’m not sure we have myths to embody the new fears generated by a world that’s much larger than the village, or the disembodied terrors of the digital age.