The earliest tales we consume are those of witches and goblins, princesses awaiting rescue and trials of good and evil. Fairy tales have survived generations due to their imaginative folklore worlds and the tales they weave through their enchanted spinning wheel. Though on the surface these tales seem simple, below that guise hide lessons of morality and good behaviour. We were taught to be good and just, to not trust strangers, to treasure love over riches and to question your grandma if her beard had grown into full body fur. These lessons shaped and guided us on the right path through the treacherous woods of life. Though we may be all grown up now, it would seem we have not escaped the need for these lessons, only now pretty fairies come with razor-sharp teeth, ready to gnash away at our eyes.
Similarities between the horror genre and that of fairy tales are remarkably high for two genres that market themselves to wildly different audiences. On the surface, we have the sharing of folklore components like witches, demons or creatures from mysterious crevices and even a similar setting with their fondness for dark and brooding woods. Even if we addressed only the original content of the Grimm Brother’s collections, the gore element is pretty similar – after all, the original ending of Cinderella did conclude with the sisters mutilating their own feet to fit into the slipper. However, the biggest similarity is that of their core themes. They are both tales of good vs evil; only in horror, good doesn’t always prevail. The most striking parallel is their educational subtext. Whether imparting wisdom to keep safe, or morality to stay good, horror preaches similar lessons only to a (hopefully) older audience.
Perhaps when it comes to lessons of behaviour for how best to survive, it’s inclusion in horror was an obvious idea; of course, a story about a knife wielding killer would make us think “hmm, maybe I should try and NOT get stabbed.” Despite this, the specific storytelling parallels are still interesting. Considering the popular tale of Hansel and Gretel, in which we were taught not to trust strangers – this cautious suspicion is always a recommended behavioral trait and horrors like Australia’s terrifyingly uncomfortable Wolf Creek only aids to hammer home that lessons. Again, fabled truths Hansel and Gretel promote can be seen in horrors like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: don’t invade strangers’ homes or you may risk being cooked and eaten. A bit hyperbolic but hey, I’m certainly not going to go bounding into someone’s property without their consent now.
Apart from the simple don’t-be-a-reckless-jackass life lessons, the main thing horror and fairy tales impart is morality. The morality promoted in horror can be seen to change over time, dependent on what seemed most important. Between the years of (roughly) 1970 and 2010, the stereotypical trope in horror was their cookie-cutter cast of misfits. You had the jocks, the ‘sluts’, the drug takers, the bullies and inexplicably hanging out along with this bunch was the pure and innocent young lady. Guess who had a better chance of survival? As the wise Randy of the Scream franchise taught us: drink, drugs and sex is a big no-no.
These films acted as morality propaganda, teaching the youth – who would be the main consumers of this media – that only the good and pure survive (or at least, survived the longest). Fairy tales promoted the same lesson. If you were a beautiful, kind and pure, a charming prince will come and rescue you from your torment. You win the prize of happily-ever-after because you were not cruel or ugly, or power-hungry like your evil step-mother or local witch (who stand in as examples of what women should not grow up to be). In horrors like Suspiria, the fairy tale trope of beautiful heroine vs ugly witch perfectly plays out with Suzy’s struggle to topple a coven and be the sole, pure survivor.
Thankfully, society has moved on a little and lessons of morality are no longer solely reserved for young women and those darn kids with their rock and roll. Nowadays, the commentary horror explores is more general, relating to wider groups in society and more diverse and interesting components in life. Jordan Peele’s Us critiques society’s selfish tendency to ignore repressed classes, too distracted by their material goods to offer a helping hand. Train to Busan shows how greed can kill and that capitalism often involves throwing others under the bus (or into a group of zombies) to succeed. The Babadook teaches a more individual lesson to survive our personal threats, which is that we must face our demons and address our issues if we ever wish to live with them. These modern and mature fables act as adult fairy tales, showing ordinary people in extraordinary situations just trying to survive and live long enough to learn.
We’re never too old for fairy tales, but if we ever wish to avoid the judgement from consuming too many Disney films, at least we know the horror genre has our backs. They may not have as many mood-lifting ballads, but they do at least still possess some of the most important content we get from fairy tales. Thanks to the bloody allure of horror, audiences will flock to experience terror, too focused on the on-screen gore and their personal struggle to not topple their popcorn everywhere to realise they’re actually absorbing a lesson of morality, just as they did with their favourite fable during their first story time.
by Michaela Barton
Michaela is a freelance journalist living in Glasgow who watches far too much Netflix so might as well make a career out of it. Her one true love is procrastination but she’s also a fan of feminist and queer theory, ugly dad shirts, and abducting cats.
Categories: Anything and Everything