Most people have read some of Grimm's Fairy Tales during their lives, or at least have seen Disney adaptations of the most popular stories. However, many readers don't know how terrible and creepy fairy tales can really get. Pages of these classic books are peppered with murder, incest, anthropomorphic sausages, and even dismemberment just for fun. While many of these scary fairly tales come from the Brothers Grimm, some of them go back farther. They're enough to make you wonder why fairy tales are ever considered okay for children.
To be clear, there are some stories here that do have childish themes. They feature silly games, fairies, and even little songs and poems that are sung by birds. But in each one of these stories, some darker theme emerges. Often those innocent plot points end up seeming all the more morbid.
The worst things that happened in fairy tales aren't for those seeking happily ever after. Even the ever-optimistic Cinderella would have run from most of the princes in these stories.
The title of this Italian tale is "The Flayed Old Woman," and it certainly delivers on that name. Two old, ugly sisters live together near a king's castle. One day, the king goes for a walk, and hears one of the women singing. Her voice is so beautiful that the king assumes she is young and fair, and falls for her instantly. The women, realizing this as a chance for glory, attempt to fool the king into thinking they're young by sucking on their wrinkled fingers and only showing him those. Then, they pull back all of their saggy skin and approach him in complete darkness. Still, the king discovers their ruse, and throws one of the women from a tower.
She gets caught in tree branches below rather than dying, and she hangs there by her saggy skin, weeping. Some forest fairies hear her, and decide to help her out. They give her fine clothes, servants, anything a rich lady could ask for, and they make her young. The king sees her, and decides that even if she was an ugly old liar before, she's pretty and rich now, so he marries her.
So, happily ever after, right? Not quite. The other old sister is extremely jealous, and decides she wants to be young and beautiful, too. She demands her now-young sister tell her how she was transformed. The sister becomes so irritated with her questions that she says she flayed herself. The old sister believes the lie, and goes to a barber to be flayed. He's dubious, but eventually consents, and flays her alive. As the old woman bleeds out on the floor, skinless, she reminds herself that you must suffer for beauty. Then, she dies.
A fairy tale from Russia, "The Dead Mother," is equal parts sweet and horrifying. A husband and wife live happily together, awaiting the birth of their baby. When the baby is born, the mother is so happy that she dies. Everyone weeps and mourns, and the man hires an old woman to look after the baby. The child screams and cries all day, and refuses to eat. But then, when nightfall comes, the baby is silent.
Eventually, people got pretty curious about the baby's habits. The husband, old woman, and some of the townsfolk get together and enter the baby's room. There, they find the baby's dead mother, dressed in her bloodied burial clothes, breastfeeding the baby. The dead woman looks at them, then sadly puts the baby to bed and leaves. When the group checks on the baby, they discover that it had died.
Never try to separate a mother and her child.
There are two versions of this German story, and both of them are terrifying. Both start with a pair of children who decide to pretend that one is a butcher and one is a pig. As you might guess, the story is called "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering" for a reason. The boy playing the butcher takes the game too seriously, and tackles the pig boy and slits open his throat, killing him.
This is where the story diverges. In one version, the mother of the two children playing sees the killing while bathing her youngest child, rushes down in a fit of rage, and kills the older boy herself. She then goes upstairs to discover that her other child has drowned in the tub. The distraught mother hangs herself, and when her husband comes home to find everyone dead, he dies from grief.
The other version is less morbid, but it's arguably more distressing. A councilman witnesses the killing, and brings the boy in for trial. However, everyone agrees that it was just supposed to be a game, so they can't tell if the boy is evil or not. They decide to test him by setting out some money and a shiny apple. If he chooses the money, he's bad, and if he chooses the apple, he's good. The boy chooses the apple, and isn't punished for committing murder.
In the Brothers Grimm tale "The Three Snake Leaves," a son of a poor man leaves to find his fortune, and takes a job fighting in a war under the king. He rises to prestige during the conflict, and the king takes notice. He thinks his daughter may be right for the young war hero, but she's a little strange in one aspect. She won't marry a person unless they are willing to be sealed up in a tomb with her dead body, so they could never marry another. Surprisingly, the war hero agrees to this unconventional arrangement, and the two are married.
Then, his bride becomes sick and dies. As was promised, the young man has himself walled up in the tomb alongside his beloved, with only some bread, wine, candles, and a rotting corpse to keep him company. Then, a snake slithers into the tomb. The man kills the snake, hacking it into pieces, but another snake comes out with magical leaves to heal the animal. Seeing the leaves' magic at work, the man takes the leaves and uses them on his dead wife. Lo and behold, she comes back to life!
Still, this is not a happy ending. The young wife suddenly finds that she doesn't love her husband anymore. In fact, she's fallen in love with a skipper on a voyaging ship. She and the skipper throw her husband into the ocean, killing him. Luckily, he still has those leaves, and comes back to life with the help of a servant. Heartbroken and angry, he hunts down his murderous wife, and tells the old king what had happened. Disgusted by his treacherous daughter, the king places her and her lover in a ship full of holes to sink and drown.