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Wrong Turn on the Road to Grandma’s House: Horror’s Debt to Fairy Tales

Written by: Jaime Kawamoto, special to CC2K


A YOUNG GIRL hurries down a rough dirt path through the woods.  She squints to make out the terrain beneath her feet.  Every few steps her eyes scan the dense trees.  Nothing.  She stumbles on a gnarled root protruding from the ground.  She scrambles to her feet.  Something stirs the branches in front of her.  A dark shape emerges.  She gasps, stepping uneasily backwards.


Behold the Textbook of Horror

Sound familiar?  Maybe like a scene from Wrong Turn with Eliza Dushku running through the West Virginia woods, pursued by hideous cannibals?  Or could it be the opening of a children’s movie about a girl in a red riding hood going to visit her sick grandma? 

Modern versions of fairy tales and Hollywood horror films serve the same purpose – to teach children lessons.  Stay on the path your parents set out for you.  Don’t talk to strangers.  Little Red Riding Hood ended up in the belly of a beast and you could too!  Horror films are the grown up versions, telling us to behave OR ELSE.  The first two victims of the mountain men in Wrong Turn leave the path in the woods to get physical, making them disposable.  Enjoying sex is a crime punishable by death.  So are drinking, using drugs and, just like in a Grimm tale, straying from your course (“I’ll be right back” equals spilled entrails).  No matter what the subgenre, horror films are simply co-opted fairy tales.  What they aim to teach us, however, is what sets them apart .


The idea for the slasher film stems from Little Red Riding Hood: the Big Bad Wolf chases the frightened girl.  While A Nightmare on Elm Street follows this pattern its plot can be traced to the fairy tale The Pied Piper.  In the Grimm Brothers version the town of Hamelin is besieged by rats.  The Pied Piper appears with his magical song and lures the rats from the city.  Instead of paying what they had promised, the adults of Hamelin turn the piper away empty handed.  The piper exacts his revenge by using his musical gift to draw the town’s children into the forest, never to be heard from again.  Grisly earlier versions of this tale, rooted in historical fact, end with the townspeople finding the mutilated bodies of their children in the forest.

The Pied Piper sure sounds a lot like that villainous knives-for-fingers serial killer Freddy Krueger (‘pied’ means multi-colored clothing – Freddy wears a red striped sweater!).  The backstory of A Nightmare on Elm Street reveals Freddy was a child murderer who avoided prison due to a technicality in the legal system.  The parents of the town took matters into their own hands and burned him alive.  The film starts with Freddy returning and murdering the teenaged children of his killers.  Freddy’s ‘promise of payment’ was his legally won freedom but his payment was not fulfilled when the townspeople decided to kill him, acting outside of the law.  The Pied Piper entrances the children of Hamelin much as Freddy uses dreams in which to capture his victims.  Both punish the children of those who did them wrong.  The moral of the stories: never go back on your word. 

The modern slasher genre was reinvented by Nightmare director Wes Craven’s Scream as a self aware and ironic type of horror. There are endless examples of modern slasher flicks as fairy tales.  Jeepers Creepers sounds like Hansel and Gretel.  Cursed is Beauty and the Beast.  In Scream, Maureen Prescott is so consumed by desire she sleeps around.  Her daughter Sydney’s life is ruined by her mother’s actions.  When the movie starts, the young girl is locked away in a tower-like bedroom in her secluded house.  Her handsome boyfriend climbs up to save her from her loneliness.  She keeps Billy at a distance until she finally throws caution to the wind and sleeps with him.  Then all hell breaks loose.  In Rapunzel, the mother wants vegetables so badly from the neighboring witch’s yard she has her husband steal them.  Rapunzel pays the price when she is taken away by the witch and locked in a tower.  Eventually a prince climbs up to find her and they fall in love.  In the Grimm’s original version, things unravel because Rapunzel has been sleeping with the prince and her growing stomach gives them away.  This fairy tale was told to teach a lesson to young girls about the dangers of womanhood.  The moral is: be careful with your virtue.  Rapunzel faces gravest danger when she has premarital sex with the prince and is sent to a dangerous and desolate dessert.  Sydney has sex with her boyfriend and is immediately confronted with his true serial killer self.  Rapunzel gets the guy while Sydney kills the guy.  Both movies have the same message: young women + sexuality = danger.

The high brow horror film owes as much to fairy tales as it does to the imagination of its creators.  Rumpelstiltskin is particularly ripe for the art house picking as the tale is morally ambiguous.  A poor miller brags to a king that his daughter can spin straw into gold.  The king locks her away but she doesn’t have the ability.  A tiny man does the spinning for her in return for her first born child.  She agrees, thinking she may never have to pay the debt.  The king is so pleased he decides to marry the girl and they have a baby. The tiny man returns for his payment.  The new queen refuses.  They strike a bargain: if she can guess his name in three days she can keep the baby.  The man’s secret lair is discovered and the name overheard.  The queen wins her child back and Rumpelstiltskin, for that is his name, is so upset he tears himself in two.

Consider Se7en, one of the best films of this subgenre.  David Mills (miller/ “Mills” – coincidence?) is the new cop in town.  He and his retiring partner are on the hunt for a serial killer using the seven deadly sins as his guidebook.  Mills finds the man’s name, John Doe.  The killer eventually turns himself in but not before having murdered Mills’ pregnant wife.  Mills kills John Doe.  Many of the themes are the same.  Mills wants to advance his career so he moves his wife to a big city; the miller wants favor with the king so sends his daughter to the castle.  Tracy is fearful of the violent city but the violence is what will help make Mills’ career as a homicide detective.  Much like the miller’s daughter, Mills thinks only of today and not tomorrow.  The miller’s daughter promises her child, not thinking of the future consequences.  Mills promises his wife safety and happiness.  Neither one sees they may have to pay a debt for moving up in the world.  When the nameless men call on our ‘heroes’, both characters are set on their journey to find the name of their nemesis.  Rumpelstiltskin’s lair is discovered, along with his name; John Doe’s apartment is discovered, along with his name and clues to help the case.  Both antagonists are voluntary participants in their own demise.  Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in two while John Doe has orchestrated his death to fulfill the final of the seven deadlies.  The only difference between the two is John Doe succeeds in taking the child.

Rumpelstiltskin has always been a morally ambiguous tale.  Even in a traditional telling he is not necessarily the villain.  He helps out a girl who has lied to get her hooks in a king.  Whether her father originally boasts to the king or not, she becomes complicit in the lie and uses Rumpelstiltskin to get ahead.  The little man is promised the baby but the queen goes back on that promise.  In the end, he loses his own game and kills himself.  He doesn’t go after the girl or the king; this is his fault.  It is often debated who the moral center of this tale is.  The multiple morals are: don’t be boastful; don’t make promises you can’t keep; greed leads you down the wrong road.  The miller is guilty of the first and his daughter/Rumpelstiltskin are the victims.  The daughter goes against the second and Rumpelstiltskin is the victim.  All of the characters are guilty of the last and Rumpelstiltskin is the only one punished.  While Rumpelstiltskin is justified in his actions, even giving the queen a fair chance to win her child back when he doesn’t have to, none of the other characters have reasons for their sins.  It is hard to call him the villain of the story and hard to call the queen the heroine as they are both guilty of the same crimes.  There is no clear cut moral center.

Se7en is equally as ambiguous.  John Doe murders people to teach the world a lesson.  What makes him so hard to completely vilify is he’s got a good point.  The girl who commits suicide rather than live without her beauty (pride) or the guy who deals drugs to children (sloth) are victims created by our self destructive society.  Rumpelstiltskin breaks our implicit social contract by asking for payment to save the daughter’s life much as John Doe breaks it by meting out his own brand of justice.  Both also realize their own sin (envy) and pay for it.  Both are wrong in their actions but an argument can be made for their motivations.

Mills uses lies to get ahead – he pays a junkie to falsify a police report justifying his own illegal entry into John Doe’s apartment.  He promises Tracy that she will grow to love the city and is so selfish in his own needs that he doesn’t see how he is hurting her.  His greed is in the form of career ambition.  He, of course, gives in to his amoral side when he kills John Doe.  The man is caught and will go to prison but Mills does exactly as John Doe has done: he kills someone in cold blood for their sins.  If both men are guilty of the same crime neither one is the moral center of the story, much as the example of Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter. 

Horror films that aspire to artistic heights question morality rather than trying to slip right wing lessons into a fun romp.  Se7en, and films of its ilk, challenge you to think about the ideas of right and wrong.  Mills is arrested for killing John Doe.  All characters make mistakes and there are consequences.  The film ends with lots of questions about justice and moral worth.  Like Rumpelstiltskin, engaging and thought provoking stories in either medium are few and far between.  Most horror has more in common with the conservative fairy tales of our youth.  Slasher films tell you what to believe.  Everyone cheers when Sydney shoots Billy Loomis in the forehead at the end of Scream.  She kills a criminal who has already been neutralized and never receives any sort of punishment (she’s a college student in the sequel!).  Sydney learns as a young woman she must distrust her sexuality, a very conservative moral.  The film also says you have the right to punish those who have wronged you.  Didn’t Dick Cheney use the same line when justifying enemy torture? 

Horror can be enjoyed for the sheer entertainment value but like any other genre it is the deeper meaning that gives the movie substance.  Masking fairy tale morals with a severed Achilles tendon makes the message more palatable but don’t be fooled.  Scream just made a lot of noise.  Se7en said something.   That’s why Wes Craven is working on a remake of his own movie (Shocker) and David Fincher has just put F. Scott Fitzgerald on film (The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons).  Once upon a time, Little Red Riding Hood lulled you to sleep.  But you grew up to qeustion the anti-feminist theme buried in the woods.  So to should you question what you watch.

Like Jack and the Beanstalk, the moral of this story is: buyer beware!