10 Fairy Tales That Are Way Darker Than You Realized as a Kid

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Little Red Riding Hood
There are several versions of "Little Red Riding Hood;" the two best known versions were written by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you grew up watching classic Disney movies such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Cinderella," or reading the Little Golden Book version of "Pinocchio," you're probably accustomed to thinking of fairy tales as wholesome entertainment for young children.

That's why it may come as a shock to watch "Snow White" again as an adult and realize that it's a bit macabre. For example, when the jealous queen orders the huntsman to kill Snow White, she demands that he bring back the girl's heart in a jewel box as evidence of his violent deed. And that's just the relatively sanitized, Disney-fied version. In the early 19th-century version published by the German brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, the queen wants to devour Snow White's lungs and liver.


The original versions of most of these fantasy stories are filled with plot twists that belong in a modern slasher film. In part, that's because fairy tales didn't start out as children's stories, but rather as tawdry folktales that grownups told for entertainment after the kids went to bed.

When the Brothers Grimm published their first edition of "Nursery and Household Tales" in two volumes in 1812 and 1815, it was meant for adults [sources: New Yorker, Meslow]. Only after disappointing sales did they decide to tone down the material and make it suitable for kids. The tales mostly came from friends and relatives, which the brothers significantly revised. Many were variations of French fairy tales already written by people like French writer Charles Perrault.

But even after the Brothers Grimm sanitized the tales, they didn't totally eliminate the scary stuff. That's because fairy tales were intended not just to entertain children, but also to educate them about the consequences of evil deeds [source: Evans]. The late psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, for one, argued that the creepy stuff helps children to grow emotionally, by allowing them to grapple with fears that are a part of growing up.

Here are 10 fairy tales that are far more disturbing than you realized as a kid.

10. 'Pinocchio'

Disney portrayed Pinocchio as a happy boy, when in reality "The Adventures of Pinocchio" novel is much more grim. Public Domain

When you think back to the 1940 Disney version of "Pinocchio," you probably remember the puppet's nose growing to indicate fibs, and his cute little pal Jiminy Cricket, who sings the movie's memorable song "When You Wish Upon a Star."

But as Time magazine critic Richard Corliss notes: "The movie also taught moral lessons in the most useful way, by scaring the poop out of the little ones." The script emphasizes, for example, the dangers of running away from home and falling into the clutches of an evil adult. As kidnapper Stromboli tells Pinocchio, "When you grow too old, you will make good firewood." But the film's source material, an 1883 story by Carlo Collodi, is even more disturbing. When Pinocchio is teased about his wooden head by his cricket companion, the enraged puppet throws a hammer and kills him.


9. 'The Little Mermaid'

The Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 "The Little Mermaid" is perhaps one of the darkest fairy tales because it involves suicide and murder. Public Domain

Film critic Richard Corliss praised the 1989 Disney film version of "The Little Mermaid," the tale of a prince named Eric who falls in love with Ariel, the beautiful half-human sea creature, as "a model of buoyancy and poignancy." But the source material, an 1837 story by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen is considerably darker.

In the film version, Ariel makes a deal with Ursula the sea witch, who converts her temporarily into a human in exchange for her singing voice, which the witch puts inside a seashell. In Andersen's telling, the witch silences the little mermaid by cutting off her tongue. And unlike the movie, the original story doesn't end happily ever after. Instead, the little mermaid loses her prince to a human bride and smiles at him one last time as she and her sisters rise slowly to heaven.


8. 'Cinderella'

Charles Perrault's 1697 story "Cinderella" ends on a high note with the stepsisters begging for Cinderella's forgiveness. But the 1812 Brothers Grimm version ends much, much differently. Public Domain

The 1950 Disney film "Cinderella" depicts a beautiful young woman who's been virtually enslaved by her evil stepmother but gets a chance at happiness when her fairy godmother intervenes. The godmother transforms Cinderella's ragged attire into an elegant gown so that she can attend a royal ball and meet Prince Charming. Her magical reprieve only lasts until midnight, however, and she flees, leaving behind one of her glass slippers. The prince finds it and goes looking for the mystery woman who's enthralled him. Cinderella's two evil stepsisters try on the slipper but their feet are too big. The shoe is just right for Cinderella, and she marries the handsome prince.

That's pretty much what also happens in "Cinderilla" or "The Little Glass Slipper," the 1697 story by Charles Perrault, which ends with the stepsisters begging Cinderella for forgiveness, which she graciously accepts. But the 1812 Grimm version, "Aschenputtel," is pretty horrific. The evil stepmother hands a knife to the eldest of her two daughters, and orders her to cut her toe off, "for when you are queen, you will never have to go on foot."


The prince is fooled and rides off with her, until two talking pigeons alert him to her blood-soaked shoe. The younger stepdaughter then tries to fool him by cutting off her heel, but the pigeons tip off the prince again. Ultimately, when he identifies the girl of his dreams, the two evil stepsisters attend the wedding hoping to curry favor. But the pigeons blind them by plucking out their eyes.

7. 'Little Red Riding Hood'

Little Red Riding Hood
French images of "Little Red Riding Hood," like this 19th-century painting by François Fleury-Richard, show her wearing a much shorter red chaperon. Public Domain

There have been many versions of this venerable story through the ages, all with the same basic storyline. A girl in a red cloak is traveling through the woods to deliver food to her ailing grandmother, when she meets with a hungry wolf. After the wolf urges her to spend some time picking flowers for grandma, he races ahead to beat her to the destination. There, he eats the grandmother, dresses up in her clothing, and lies in wait for Little Red Riding Hood.

In the Grimms' version of the story, "Little Red Cap," Little Red Riding Hood is also devoured by the wolf, but she and her grandmother are then rescued by a hunter who arrives just in the nick of time. Instead of shooting the wolf, he cuts his belly open with a pair of shears, and the girl and her grandmother miraculously emerge, unscathed.


At least there's a happy ending. In Charles Perrault's version, which he intended as a warning to young women to avoid sexual predators, he simply allows the flirtatious Little Red Riding Hood to be eaten.

6. 'Hansel and Gretel'

Hansel and Gretel
In "Hansel and Gretel," the mean old witch locks up Hansel to fatten him for eating later. clu/Getty Images

If you're a fan of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer in "The Silence of the Lambs," then this German fairy tale is right up your alley. It features a villain who's equally creepy, and perhaps even more insidious — a seemingly kindly old woman who lives in the woods in an edible gingerbread and candy house, which she uses to ensnare children so that she can kill, cook and eat them. (Though, in fairness, she at least doesn't boast of dining upon their livers with fava beans and a nice Chianti.)

In the Brothers Grimm 1812 version, she decides that Hansel would be the more succulent child, and locks him up in a cage to fatten him, while starving his sister Gretel. Eventually, though, the witch decides to eat them both anyway, but is outsmarted by Gretel, who at an opportune moment, pushes the witch into the oven and burns her to death. By comparison, Lecter — who at the end of "Silence" has escaped from prison — gets off pretty easy.


5. 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'

Snow White
In the Grimm's Fairy Tales version of "Little Snow-White," Snow White's stepmother has to dance at her wedding until she falls down dead. Public Domain

This story is especially notable because it launched the modern trend of sanitized fairy tales. Back in 1938, animator Walt Disney decided to make the Brothers Grimm story, "Little Snow White," into his first full-length movie. Naysayers — including his own wife, Lillian — tried to talk him out of it, warning that adults wouldn't sit through a musical featuring a bunch of bearded dwarfs, but he trusted his gut and borrowed $1.5 million to make it [source: History.com].

As it turned out, Disney was right. Depression-era audiences in need of uplifting flocked to see the tale of a beautiful young woman who bests a villainous queen and captures the heart of a handsome prince, and the movie became a huge hit. While Disney kept the Brothers Grimms macabre heart-in-a-box angle, he did omit some even grislier details. In their version, for example, Snow White's evil stepmother is invited to Snow White's wedding, where the guests heat a pair of iron shoes on burning coals. She's then forced to step into the red-hot footwear and dance in agony, until she falls down dead.


4. 'Rumpelstiltskin'

Rumpelstiltskin is an imp who spins straw into gold in exchange for a girl's firstborn. Seems normal. Public Domain

In this tale, originally told in print by the Brothers Grimm, a miller lies to the king, telling him that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king locks her up in a tower filled with straw and demands she spin the straw into gold by morning or else. She of course, cannot spin straw into gold, but suddenly, an imp-like creature, Rumpelstiltskin, appears. In exchange for her necklace, he spins her straw into gold. This exchange continues until Rumpelstiltskin eventually demands her first child.

Its enduring popularity is pretty remarkable, when you consider that it's the story of a creepy little man who tries to steal a child, for who knows what unsavory purpose. Rumpelstiltskin, who has magical powers, transforms the humble miller's daughter into a queen, in exchange for a promise that she would turn over her firstborn child to him. When he comes to collect, her only out is to correctly guess his name. But when she manages to do just that, things get even weirder.


"The devil has told you that!" the little man shouts, and he gets so angry that he stamps his foot and somehow plunges his entire right leg deep into the Earth. When he tries to pull himself out, he tears his body in two [source: Grimm].

3. 'The Snow Queen'

Snow Queen
The Disney movie "Frozen" is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Snow Queen." Public Domain

"Frozen," the 2013 Disney movie hit, bears little resemblance to its ostensible inspiration, Hans Christian Andersen's 1844 story "The Snow Queen." The movie version features two sisters — Elsa, who has the paranormal power to create ice and snow, and Anna, who's endangered by her sister's abilities. Elsa grows up to become queen of the northern kingdom, but things get complicated after Anna accepts the marriage proposal of the secretly creepy Prince Hans, visiting from the south. After some ice-related plot twists, all ends well when Elsa deports Hans and Anna finds true love with an ice-seller [source: Lemire].

The Andersen story, in contrast, is more like something you'd encounter in a nightmare. A little boy named Kay gets shards of glass from a broken magic mirror embedded in his eye and heart. The glass somehow turns to ice, which — for reasons that aren't clear — leads to Kay being abducted by a mysterious woman in white who swoops down on him during a snowstorm. His sister Gerda then has to launch a search-and-rescue mission to retrieve him from the Snow Queen's palace, which is guarded by an army of bear cubs, snakes and porcupines.


2. 'Rapunzel'

In the Brothers Grimm's version of "Rapunzel," the prince doesn't exactly kill the witch and save his lady in distress. Not by a longshot. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 3.0)

In Disney's 2010 movie "Tangled," a young girl's hair possesses miraculous antiaging properties, which leads her to be kidnapped and imprisoned by a witch who uses the hair to maintain her own looks. Eventually, she grows into a beautiful woman and is rescued by a daring, courageous prince, who climbs the tower by using her tresses, and then ultimately cuts Rapunzel's hair to kill the witch. Rapunzel and the prince live happily ever after [source: IMDB].

In the original Brothers Grimm story, though, the prince's job is a little more difficult. After the prince climbs the tower to woo Rapunzel and apparently impregnate her, the witch cuts Rapunzel's hair and then abandons her in the desert. When the prince returns and climbs the tower, he's confronted by the witch, who taunts him by proclaiming that he'll never see Rapunzel again. The prince, in despair, jumps from the tower and lands in bushes whose thorns pierce his eyes. He then wanders for several years as a blind homeless person, until by chance he meets Rapunzel, who's struggling along as an unwed mother of twins. Fortunately, Rapunzel's tears have the same healing power as they do in the movie, and the prince's sight is restored. The two return to his kingdom to marry.


1. 'Sleeping Beauty'

Sleeping Beauty
The earliest versions of "Sleeping Beauty" find the young woman comatose in the nude where she's impregnated and gives birth, all while sleeping. Yikes. duncan1890/Getty Images

Disney's 1959 film "Sleeping Beauty" told the story of a young princess whom a sorceress tries to doom, by casting a spell calling for her to die at age 16, when she pricks herself on a spindle. That curse can only be partially undone by a good fairy, with the result that the princess will slumber until awakened by the kiss of her true love, the prince to whom she has been betrothed [source: IMDB].

That's pretty much what happens in both Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm versions of the story as well. But they cleaned up the story from earlier versions, such as 14th-century France's "Perceforest," in which the prince returns to find the young woman lying in a bedchamber, nude and comatose, and can't resist the urge to have sexual intercourse with her. She becomes pregnant and has a child, all while remaining asleep. But her infant bites upon his mother's finger, mistaking it for a breast, causing the flax chip from the spindle to fall out and the young lady to awaken.

In another version, Gimbattista Basile's 1634 story "The Sun, the Moon and Talia," it's a king who impregnates the sleeping maiden, who gives birth to twins. When his queen finds out, she sends her cook to get the children, to kill and cook them, and serve them to her wayward husband as punishment. Fortunately, the cook can't bring himself to do it and serves lamb instead.

Dark Fairy Tales FAQs

What is the oldest fairy tale?
"Rumpelstiltskin" and "Beauty and the Beast" are two of the oldest. They're said to be around 4,000 years old.
What is a classic fairy tale?
Fairy tales are stories that are told to children, and feature magical creatures such as witches, wizards and elves. They often have a lesson at the end.
Why are original fairy tales so dark?
Some say this is because a few of them are based on actual historical events. Today's versions have been made palatable by removing themes of torture, rape, cannibalism and the like.
Why are Grimm's fairy tales so scary?
This is because most of the stories we know as fairy tales today were not meant for children to begin with. These stories were shared among adults in order to while away time performing daily tasks.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Fairy Tales That Were Way Darker Than You Realized as a Kid

Before I researched this article, I have to admit that I'd never actually read any fairy tales, and that I really didn't know much about them. As a young child growing up in the 1960s, I was always more interested in science-fiction stories about rocket ships, moon bases and robots than fairies, elves, magic mirrors and wicked stepmothers. What little I knew came from the parodies of them, such as the "Fractured Fairy Tales" segment on "Rocky and Bulwinkle."

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