Did you feel better after hearing the story of Hansel and Gretel before bed?
Many of us will remember well, the bedtime stories we were told by our parents, other family members, or babysitters and friends, while growing up. Some of these, supposedly meant to entertain us and help to make us sleepy at bedtime, were (and still are), actually quite macabre in their content. Hansel and Gretel is an excellent example, as are all of the Grimm Brother's original versions (and even the ones that have been modified to be less 'horror movie' like). Here we have a brother and sister who wander off into the woods. Now, even though most of us are taught as children not to wander off, at least they left a trail of bread crumbs so they could find their way back home (of course, they didn't count on the bread crumbs being eaten by birds). They come upon an incredible house deep into the woods, made entirely of candy and gingerbread. This, for many kids, is a dream come true. A seemingly friendly, elderly woman invites them in for every delicious treat imaginable. Unfortunately, there is more to this elderly woman than first meets the eye. It turns out that she is a wicked witch who eats children, and she has basically stuffed the faces of the children to 'fatten them up' for her own cannibalistic purposes. She traps them in cages and plans to continue to feed them until they are big enough for her to cook. Now, even though the children end up escaping by outwitting her and even shoving her into the hot oven she had prepared to cook them in, running from the house and finding their way home (despite the bread crumbs), is this really a happy story? Is this the type of story a child wants to hear before trying to sleep? Is this the kind of story parents and other caregivers want to be telling children at all? Yet, this story and numerous others have been (and still are), told to kids as bedtime stories. This article begs the question: "Why do we do this?"
Most Faerie Tales have some kind of lesson to be taken from them (the moral of the story; what one should and should not do and what happens or can happen if they do or do not). This seems to be the motivation behind most of these bedtime tales. With Hansel and Gretel, we find out what may happen to children who wander off without their parents; who talk to strangers; who enter the homes of strangers; who accept candy and other treats from strangers. The whole tale is concerned with safety. As morbid as Hansel and Gretel is, sadly, in our world there really are strangers who would do unspeakable, heinous things to children if given the opportunity. This makes this Faerie Tale not far fetched in any way (well, except perhaps for the gingerbread house; but even that is symbolic of 'bad' people using some kind of lure to attract children to them; like strangers offering children candy if they will get into their cars). So, do we tell our kids these stories strictly for the morals, or do we also find some enjoyment in the stories?
Scary Movies, Roller Coasters, and Faerie Tales
Sometimes, being scared is fun...if you know that you are actually safe and that what you are experiencing is a 'simulated' scare. Many people love roller coasters because the rush of being dropped from the top of an enormous hill, spun around, and turned upside down, is fun right? Why is it fun? It's fun because we know that it's a ride and that while it scares us we know at the end of it we will be okay. We are permitted to have the thrill and excitement of simulated and perceived danger, in a controlled setting where measures are taken to ensure our safety. This also applies to scary movies; some people love them for the same reasons others love roller coasters. You get to see things that scare you, jump, scream, and laugh about it at the same time with your friends, and at the end of the movie, it's all over and you're safe. We may certainly include Faerie Tales here. We get to tell, or listen, to creepy, frightening stories, however, what is happening in the story is not happening to us, and when the story is over, we're still alright; we're safe in our beds. So perhaps it's not just the morals that we want to share in telling these tales, but the eerie excitement as well. Many have been altered to have happy endings, which is a good example of turning them more into 'literary roller coaster rides'; however, even the ones that have not been altered and have endings that are strange, disturbing, or certainly not 'happy' per ce, even though the main characters survive, have a kind of allure because they take you up a strange path that peaks with some kind of freaky excitement, and then winds down to an ending people can resolve as either happy or at least not terrible.
Why do scary stories give us a thrill?
Not everyone likes Faerie Tales and similar literature. Some people will not read them at all. This is no different than the fact that some people love horror and science fiction, while others stay away from those genres altogether and prefer comedies or action films because they find the violence upsetting. So what is the difference between those of us that find violence and fear in what we read or watch (or danger in what we do such as participate in extreme sports), so exhilarating and such a blast, and those who feel the complete opposite about it (and of course we will always have some people somewhere in 'the middle')? Are our brains wired differently? Is it how we were raised? Is it more environmental or are there genetic factors? Or is it something different altogether?
Scientific research tells us that it could be all of the above, but that some of us (for whatever reason), do not feel stimulated by the average, every day activities that others find exciting and fulfilling enough in their lives. Extreme sports is a good example on a larger scale than Faerie Tales, but not so different regarding that rush one gets from some fear or some danger. Some people are stimulated only when they are participating in activities that involve greater risk, of some kind, than the average person. They seem to require (and this is not a judgement of any kind, nor being presented as negative), a higher level of risk taking in their activities to feel enough stimulation to make their lives interesting, exciting, and to feel 'alive'. To receive an adrenaline rush that is enough to give them the thrill another may receive from just a horror movie, they feel the need to put themselves not just in imaginary or simulated risk, but at real risk and possible danger (mountain climbing, race car driving, cliff diving, are all examples, but there are many more). We're not yet sure why this difference exits among human beings, but we are aware that it is present. When looking back now at the allure of the Faerie Tale and other scary stories, perhaps some really do enjoy the rush of these imaginary worlds, where imaginary characters are in peril, come close to death, and at the very last minute, are somehow saved. The morals, the rush, and the ability to let it go, knowing it's 'just a story'.
Do all of us really 'let go' of the fear invoked by Faerie Tales?
This question is important because of the phobias, fears, and anxiety we see in children and adults where we have to ask 'from where did these originate'? Some people who speak of being absolutely terrified of the dark, are able to relate it to trying to get to sleep after their bedtime stories as kids. It's just a story, until some start to wonder..."But what if?" When people begin to imagine themselves in the situations of literary characters, some are able to enjoy the ride and then let it go as just that; a ride like a roller coaster, but now it's done. Other people, because we are all unique, hang onto that question of "But what if this happens to me?" It may not be a gingerbread house, but it certainly could be a stranger's house...it may not be a wicked witch (with all due respect to Witches)...but it may be a person with intentions that are cruel and harmful...and hey, does everyone really escape or get rescued just in time? Not in the real world.
Faerie Tales seem to take us on a journey not just into an imaginary world, but they make us aware of the very real dangers in our own world. The reality of what people are capable of doing to each other, the presentation of the idea that monsters and other things that go bump in the night may exist not just in stories but in reality as well, are the things that Faerie Tales also alert us to when we hear them or read them. This is not a bad thing, unless it evokes such fear in the person listening to them or reading them that the fear remains - not as a healthy fear where you remember the moral of the story and you don't talk to strangers because you feel that fear if you are ever in that situation where a stranger approaches (that is a healthy fear that could save your life) - but as an obsessive fear that becomes something you think about so much that it makes the world a more frightening place for you than it should be for any person. In this way, damage is done and anyone suffering from a phobia or other form of anxiety will tell you, that it is an awful thing to be so afraid of one or more things or situations, or just generally fearful.
This is not to say that we should give up Faerie Tales and the like, but more to examine how we tell them and what we say to who we are telling them to, or to ourselves, afterwards. There needs to be some kind of resolution so that no one is left feeling frightened after the book closes. Sure, it's common to feel spooked for a little while after hearing a macabre tale, but if someone is still feeling that fear weeks later, then something was left unresolved within that person after hearing or reading that tale. It may be resolved by just talking about the fears it brought up for them, or perhaps they could write their own version of a similar story but with an ending they feel good about. Whatever the case, Faerie Tales aren't going away (and many people love them and don't want them to), so just being aware that not all of us are the same is the important thing here, and it's okay that we are all different; that is what makes each of us unique, beautiful, interesting, and a gift to this world.
What do you think about Faerie Tales and other scary stories? There's no right or wrong. You are always entitled to your feelings and your opinion.
If you are interested in reading more about Faerie Tales, Scary Stories, Urban Legends, and similar literature, here are some links you may enjoy, as well as the video I have included with this article that may peak your interest: