by Gina Simoncelli
Ursula had just made her big-screen appearance when Lucy buried her face in a pillow. The four year old peered out, eyes wide with fear, and jumped when Ursula’s henchmen swam onto the screen. She was scared stiff, and buried herself firmly beneath a layer of protective covers. I was momentarily surprised by her fear; while I had been happily absorbed in the charm and nostalgia of The Little Mermaid, I had completely forgotten that through a new set of eyes, even Disney movies can have their moments of terror. Lucy saw something in that instant that I had forgotten: even the happiest and most magical fairy tales have elements of darkness to them, and that darkness has a history.
To look back at early versions of many fairy tales, “happily ever after” wasn’t always the name of the game. Those stories were often violent and gruesome, with harsh morals intended to frighten children into good behavior. And frighten they did…If poor little Lucy was spooked by Disney’s Ursula, how would she have handled Hans Christian Andersen’s original tall tale? Would I have dared to tell her that Andersen’s Little Mermaid did indeed trade her tail for feet, but that each step she took felt like “treading upon sharp knives?” Could I have possibly told her that the Little Mermaid’s sweet heroic Prince fell in love with another woman? Would I have the heart to reveal Andersen’s tragic ending, in which the Little Mermaid dies alone and dissolves into sea foam?
I personally would not, could not, tell Lucy any of the dark history lurking behind The Little Mermaid, yet many even more horrific stories used to be standard fare for kids just like her. Early versions of Cinderella featured a gruesome sequence where the two evil stepsisters sawed off their own toes in a bloody attempt to fit their feet into the glass slipper. Likewise, the evil queen in the original Snow White was not simply defeated in the end, she was punished by being forced to wear a pair of red hot iron shoes and “dance” until she dropped dead. Perhaps worst of all, the original Sleeping Beauty didn’t wake when the prince kissed her, nor did she wake when he assaulted her sleeping body…she did, however, wake up from the pain of childbirth nine months later.
In short, these stories are scary. They’re harsh and gruesome even for adults, and it’s hard to imagine a time when blood and gore were such routine elements of a bedtime story.
By and large, these tall tales have since been declawed. The stories that make it into theaters these days lean heavily on magic and sappy songs instead of bloodshed, and scary hide-behind- the-pillow moments are few and far in between. The difference between a Disney-ified story and its original counterpart is pretty dramatic, and it seems like a colossal jump for fairy tales to have gone from horror stories straight to the sweet and sterile stories that we know today.
I spent a lot time wondering why these tales transformed the way they did, what could’ve provoked the softening of such harsh stories, and why the Disney effect took hold so powerfully when it did. I came up with a myriad of theories involving World War I, child labor, early childhood development psychology, and Victorian England…I think I was poking somewhere around the Great Depression when I realized that the important question to consider may not be “how did we get here” so much as “what do we make of this now that it’s in front of us?”
Now that fairy tales have been censored and pared down, are these softer stories really benefiting and protecting today’s children? Sure, the older stories were scarier, but given the great big world of things that could harm or frighten or traumatize a child, is literature really what children need to be protected from? Moreover, how do we view this change? As censorship? Coddling? As a means of shielding children from the people and things that lurk in the darkness? Or do we read these changes as a merciful means of allowing children to remain wide-eyed and innocent for a little bit longer?
I can’t answer these on my own, but I will say that in all fairness, the world has changed tremendously since the days of the Brothers Grimm. Children no longer have to toughen up and join the workforce at age six, and they (hopefully) no longer have to adjust to the concept of death and despair as a normal part of their young lives. Fairy tales have evolved with the times, and whatever way you look at it, one thing is clear: the “happily ever after” is here to stay, and neither me nor Lucy are complaining.
This is the first in a series of posts on dark literature and its impact on readers, particularly young readers. The series will explore why there is a modern trend towards "disney-ifying" these stories, as well as the pros and cons that exist in terms of allowing young readers to experience darker truths through text.