Arts & Culture

The surprisingly creepy origins of your favorite fairy tales

You think you know those lovable stories you’ve been told since you were a kid. They were uplifting tales of awe and wonder, incredible journeys across magical lands, and distinct messages of facing adversity in many shapes and forms.

As delightful as these fairy tales may have been, what you heard was only one version. Some were born of a twisted and macabre beginning, like the favorites included in this list.

The Pied Piper

Photo of a painting of the Pied Piper playing his pipe for children
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This quirky tale of a piper leading rats away from an infested German town has an earlier version that paints the pied piper in a villainous light. After promising to and succeeding in ridding the town of Hamelin of its rat infestation, the piper is refused payment. To exact revenge, he returns to the town later that year and uses his pipe to lure children away. Those that survived the piper’s wrath were left with a disability, from deafness to blindness.

The story of the Pied Piper is said to be a real one, and the street of Bungelosenstrasse is where the children were last seen. One of the most popular interpretations of the classic story state that the Pied Piper represented the plague.

The Little Mermaid

Photo of a painting of a mermaid in water looking at a man on land
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Many children know the tale of Ariel and Prince Eric. Ursula was a frightening fiend, but even the giant octopus witch has nothing on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fable. The core of the story is the same as Disney’s colorful animated iteration, with Ariel, a mermaid, falling in love with Eric, a human. Their differing species creates a dilemma for Ariel as she grows fonder of the handsome prince. To be with her beloved, she approaches the sea witch and wishes to be human, which is where the stories branch off.

In Andersen’s version, it’s not just her voice that Ariel sacrifices. The sea witch makes it so that every step she takes causes her agonizing pain. Additionally, should the prince not fall in love with her by the end of the third day, she’ll turn into sea foam and die of a broken heart.

Peter Pan

Photo of a painting of two fairies and four birds on a tree branch
Credit: Wikimedia Commons Typ 905.12.7265, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The age-old story of a young boy wishing to remain young forever is charming. Many readers can relate to the desire not to grow old, but J.M. Barrie took things a bit further in the original tale. In the novel, which was adapted from the 1904 play “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” Pan creates a rule in Neverland that no boy can grow up. This proves detrimental to the Lost Boys, who don’t have Peter’s ability to remain youthful.

To keep his Lost Boys from aging, Pan “thins them out” when they appear to be growing older. The exact excerpt from Barrie’s work claims that “[t]he boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on.”

There has always been a predominant theme of death in the story of Peter Pan, but the notion that Pan is both obsessed with avoiding it and willing to kill others to enforce his rules is pretty twisted.

Cinderella

Photo of a painting of Cinderella running away from the prince without her glass slipper
Credit: elena ringo / Wikimedia Commons

Considering there are more than 500 different versions of Cinderella, it’s pretty difficult to pinpoint which was the first. Regardless, so many of them are far more morbid than Disney’s interpretation of the classic tale.

While they all follow the same basic format of a downtrodden girl losing a slipper or shoe, thus launching a stately gentleman’s quest to find the footwear’s owner, there are some twists and turns in some. For instance, the first story to bear a remarkable resemblance was “Cenerentola,” written in 17th-century Europe.

In “Cenerentola,” a woman named Zezolla is forced into a marriage with the king and lives with six wicked stepsisters. Sixth-century BCE Grecians had their own version, as well, but it’s in the ninth-century Chinese tale, “Ye Xian,” that things become dark. At the end of the story, when the Cinderella-character finds love, the wicked stepmother is crushed to death. Even the Brothers Grimm had a version where the stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves during Cinderella’s wedding.

Tweaking grim tales for children’s eyes

Photo of a dark, eerie castle surrounded by mist and a lake
Credit: MichaelUtech / iStock

Though these origins may have been dark, it shouldn’t take away from the wondrous stories that have been spun from them. If anything, it should help you appreciate the corny, child-friendly versions you may have grown up on. They may be juvenile at times, but they’re family-friendly classics regardless of what they may be spawned from.