Fairy tales are full of creepy and terrible things, and the original "Little Red Riding Hood" is no exception. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off parts of their feet before the ball. In the Hans Christian Andersen version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid commits suicide. And even popular collections of fairy tales like the one from the Brothers Grimm include stories like “The Girl Without Hands” and “The Death of the Little Hen.”
Little Red Riding Hood’s full story is pretty dark. Unlike the modern version, where a naive and trusting girl who can't tell the difference between a wolf and her grandmother escapes in the end, in most older versions, Red is eaten alive. And that’s only the beginning of the horrible things that happen in "Little Red Riding Hood."
The versions circulating in 17th-century France, when Charles Perrault first wrote down the story in his collection called Mother Goose Tales, featured a cannibalistic granddaughter and a pedophile wolf who tells Red to strip down before she climbs in his bed. No wonder the fairy tale was changed – it’s for children, after all!
Long before it was first written down, "Little Red Riding Hood" was a folktale told for centuries. Anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argues that the fairy tale was not invented by the French writer Charles Perrault, the author of Mother Goose Tales and the first person who wrote it down. Historian Robert Darnton explains that most of Perrault’s stories came from the oral tradition – most likely through his son’s nurse, where he borrowed the name Mother Goose.
But the story of Little Red Riding Hood had much deeper roots, and it went through a number of versions. Even after Perrault’s French version, the story spread to Germany and England, carried by French refugees of the Wars of Religion and later conflicts, until the Brothers Grimm wrote it down again in the 19th century. In fact, the story of a girl wearing red who wanders off and runs into a wolf dates back to at least the 11th century, when a Belgium poet recorded the tale.
The long history of the story includes a number of changes that transform it from a disturbing tale of cannibalism and pedophilia to the much friendlier version children hear today, which has a happy ending.
One of the defining features of Little Red Riding Hood is her red hood – it appears in nearly every image of the story produced in the last 200 years. But in some versions of the story, the little girl didn’t wear a red hood at all. One folk version told in 17th- and 18th-century France described the main character as simply a “little girl.” In other versions, the hood is made from gold. The red hood doesn't appear until the 17th century.
Where did the famous hood come from? It was most likely invented by the original Mother Goose, Charles Perrault. In his version, first published in 1697, the girl’s mother “had a little red riding hood made for her.” Perrault explains, “it suited the girl so extremely well that everybody called her Little Red Riding Hood.” And after that, the red hood stuck around.
The red hood made its first appearance in Perrault’s version, but it was such a popular detail that it came to define the story. In fact, much has been made of the red color. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm claimed that the red hood was a symbol of menstruation, turning the tale into a morality lesson for young girls who might “stray from the path,” putting their honor at risk. The wolf, in Fromm’s version, becomes a seducer of young girls.
Red was a color associated with sin when Perrault first wrote the fairy tale in the 1690s. And many folklorists point out that the red color was often a symbol that a girl had come of age, linking it to menstruation. When the wolf tricks Little Red Riding Hood and eats her up, the message is clear: beware of predators who want to take advantage of young girls. And there’s a twisted part of the earliest French versions that really drives the point home.
The original version of "Little Red Riding" gets creepy very quickly. Once the little girl is at her grandmother’s house, where the wolf has disguised himself as her grandmother, the wolf asks Red to strip off her clothes. In the story, the wolf says, “Undress and get into bed with me.” When Red asks what do do with her apron, the wolf says, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more.”
After Red tosses her apron in the fire, the wolf also makes her take off her bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings. With each item of clothing, the wolf says “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it any more.” Once she’s taken off her clothes, Red climbs into bed with the wolf. That’s when she notices that something is not right with her “grandmother.”
“Oh grandmother! How hairy you are!” Red declares. In today's version of the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood definitely doesn’t get naked.