“Scary” Fairy Tales

Recently, a topic of “scary fairy tales” came up in an online forum I am a member of. A concerned young father wrote about being worried about exposing his little kids to the violence in folk tales (the wolf being not only cut open, but having his belly stuffed with rocks; a witch being burned to death in an oven after attempting to eat little children, etc.). This is something I think about a lot, coming more and more to a conclusion that we shouldn’t fear “violence” and death in old stories and fairy tales and certainly never try to censor it out. To censor them is akin to scrubbing your whole house with bleach out of a wish to protect your children from all the potentially harmful germs; you may achieve the objective for the moment, but you will disable their immune systems in the long-term. Those stories – violence and all – are a crucial part of the development of the psyche, and especially a young psyche. They serve many goals: the more superficial ones are showing children the beauty of storytelling or teaching them the difference between right and wrong, or, on a deeper plain, good and evil. The still deeper ones, however, and there are many, are less obvious, but essential none the less. The sometimes rough language and imagery of fairy tales and myths give voice to the truths of life and to the truths of ourselves. Through metaphor and symbol, they teach little ones to accept the Negative (the “evil”) in themselves, as well as the world outside, and to know that it too has its place, but must ultimately surrender to the Positive (the “good”).

Without the help of honesty in tales and myths, children would be left in a much more frightening world in which nothing outside of them would echo the not always cheery reality of their inner worlds. In my experience as a psychotherapist, the worst, most desperate neurotics are those who cannot accept their full selves — who keep wanting to be “nice people” all the while denying half of their natures, the part which Jung called “the Shadow.”

Some time ago, I remember seeing another comment about a great way of changing fairy tales another member and his son figured out: why would a little girl in a Russian fairy tale have to run from stove to tree to river like an ignorant idiot, looking for the wild geese who took her brother? Why, she should have just printed out a Google map and there she’d find him! It’s cute, sure, but it misses the whole point – the journey is a metaphorical one, all the creatures who help (or refuse to help unless treated with due consideration) are within the girl — within the reader, and to deny the reader that journey is actually to deprive them of an essential psychic road map which one cannot find on Google Maps or with a GPS.

It’s interesting to note that it is the adults who get spooked by the violence in fairy tales; kids, for the most part, accept them completely. If they do get scared on occasion, that too is good — it builds the very psychic immunity I wrote about earlier. Parents who worry about scaring their kids often cannot remember their own childhood reaction, most likely because they had a perfectly normal non-reaction, wherein the good work of fairy tales took place in their unconscious, while their conscious self just enjoyed a good story. The violence in fairy tales, which may seem excessive to adults, is also quite necessary for children. They need to make sure that the wolf or the witch are dead “for sure” — not driven out of the realm, but killed in a most final way, so that they can never, ever come back. The evil must be punished and vanquished thoroughly; if it isn’t, that actually frightens kids more, and rightfully so.

If you’d like a more in depth and certainly more eloquent take on this subject, read Bruno Bettleheim (“The Uses of Enchantment”), Joseph Campbell (especially, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” but other books too), Erich Neumann (“Amor and Psyche”, “The Origins and History of Consciousness”), and, of course, Jung. Different thinkers interpret the symbolism of fairy tales differently, but all of them agree on the power and necessity of the symbols.