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Registered User
(1/21/04 2:51 pm)
fairytales like horror movies says Stephen King
Hello all,

I had to write a response paper to an article that Stephen King wrote called Why We Watch Horror Films. In brief, Stephen King claims that horror films are like fairy tales in function. He says that they do the "dirty job" of bringing out "the worst in us" and give our "anticivilization emotions" a place to be free, without restraints. He says they have much in common with the Brothers Grimm.

My response basically said that no, horror films are not like fairy tales for 3 basic reasons: medium, audience, content.

Medium- Oral and literary tradition utilize words (spoken and written) and therefore have an element of abstraction that the listener or reader must interpret to understand the story. Film does not work in the mode, but relates a story by "showing" it visually. Briefly, the mediums are entirely different. If a comparison need be made between mediums it should be between fairy tales and children's films.

Audience- Um, DUH, King. This seems like a no-brainer. Horror films are picture tales that adults create for one another and show to one another. Fairy tales are by adults for children (mostly, there are adults like us who love them, but they are for kids). So, the audiences of these two traditions are entirely different in age and in psychological development and life experience.

Content- Gretel pushing the old Witch into the fire to save herself and her brother is not the same as a serial killer raping and mutilating a vicitim for pleasure. It seems obvious to me that the content of most fairy tales and the content of most horror films are entirely different.

Anyway, does any once else have any comments on this topic? I'd be interested to hear the opinions of others.


Registered User
(1/21/04 6:26 pm)
Erm ...
Dear A.:

Well, I'd have to say that while partially I agree with your first point, I think that you're proceeding from a faulty premise on the second two. Fairy tales, generally speaking, were not intended for children. Straparola, Basile, the authors of the contes de fees (excepting Perrault), and most of the nameless authors of the oral tradition (as far as we can tell from the earliest extant printed versions) appear to have been intended for a blended audience. This began to change with Perrault, continued through the seven editions of the Grimms Kinder-und-Hause Marchen, and came into being fully in the Victorian period ... but the late bowdlerization of the form does not in any way undermine its original purposes of etiology and entertainment for the entire community.

This brings us to content ...while Gretel pushing the witch into the fire to save herself and her brother *is* somewhat different from a serial killer raping and mutilating a victim, I think that you may be comparing to disparate story-points. After all, a cannibalistic old woman killing countless victims in the woods *is* in some ways analagous ... as is the inevitable defeat of the witch by the children, the killer by the protagonist (I tend to try to avoid movies of the "I Spit on Your Grave" oevre as much as possible, but as far as I know, don't they *generally* contain some form of - usually gruesome - punishment for the transgressor?). And, well, if you're talking about that particular motif of violation and mutilation, you might want to take a look at the tale-type of "The Maiden With No Hands," currently being discussed in another thread, which concerns *exactly* such circumstances.

The question of medium is a very important one ... you might want to delve deeper into that to see if there are any parallels (i.e., the fact that, outside of slasher flicks, much *is* usually left to the audiences imagination ...). Hope this helps!


Unregistered User
(1/21/04 6:34 pm)
fairy tales like horror movies
Actually, Atreyu, from the reading that I've done on the subject I've discovered that fairy tales and folk tales were not originally meant for children. They were tales that adults used to entertain each other or to preach a lesson or a moral, or even just to explain life's little quirks. At one point in the past storytellers would attend "Salons" to exchange many of the stories that have become the well known fairy tales of today. These stories were in fact much more gory and infinitely darker than their more recent counterparts.

Stephen King is not far off in my opinion.

Good luck with your paper,

Registered User
(1/21/04 7:40 pm)
Re: fairy tales like horror movies
Atreyu, one more point. Although movies leave very little to the imagination, in comparison to print, many horror movies are based upon horror books, which are a genre in itself. If you think of fairy tales as told in movies, and a great many are (there are several threads on these boards about various movies), then Stephen King has a point.

I know next to nothing about the horror genre, but I'd find it interesting if someone were to compare it with fairy tales.

All the best,

P.S. The Twilight Zone, which was a kind of horror/science fiction series, did often (to me anyway) have the feeling of fairy tales--where magic might happen at any moment.

Registered User
(1/21/04 7:52 pm)
Re: fairy tales like horror movies
I have to say that I do somewhat agree with stephen king on this topic. While he is definetly not a writer that I care for, this is one topic that I do share the same opinion. Case in point, if you have ever seen the movie version of carrie. I believe that the story in a sense does have a storybook felling to it. You have this outcast school girl who is ridiculed by her cruel classmates. This idea is prevalent in stories such as cinderella and sort of in a way close to the idea of snow white. Students despise an outcast girl and they treat her badly and try to get rid of her. The plot has the storybook feel because it plays out like a story. You have the main character, you have protagonists and antagonists, you have the setting, and yes there is even supernatural if not magical powers involved. It is also true that the grimm's fairy tales were not originally meant for children and if they were, they were meant to teach morals or scare children so to speak, so that they would be good. I guess i first started realizing the similarities between fairy tales and horror movies when I was viewing the dvd edition of carrie and one of the crew members interviewed stated that the story of carrie plays out like a fairy tale. Carrie=Cinderella(the character we like or pity if you know what I mean), students=stepsisters,Miss Collins(the gym teacher)=fairy godmother, tommy ross=prince charming, the prom=the ball in a way. SO there are some very similar plots in horror movies when analyzed.

Registered User
(1/21/04 9:30 pm)
Re: fairy tales like horror movies
Okay, if the audience of a fairy tale (of times gone by) was then "blended" and not strictly children, then I can still argue that the audiences are different:

There is the issue of then vs. now. Fairy tales of the oral type as they were are not as they are. Fairy tales are now children's literature, right? I am not intending to refer to fairy tales as they were, but fairy tales as they are. Fairy tales, as they are, are usually thought of as being for children, not adults, and horror films are usually thought of as being for adults, not children. So, the audiences ARE different in reference to the time period at hand (now).

(As far as fairy tales as seen on film now, they are nothing like horror films, thus (I think) King's choice to compare horror films with the Brothers Grimm, not Disney's version of Cinderella.)

Content- does any one recall a version of Hansel and Gretel that spends a whole lot of time exploring the grusome deeds of the witch the way horror films explore the gruesome deeds in detail (visually) of the perpetrator? "...then the witch ripped the flesh off the still living child, and stuffed her mouth full of the soft, fat flesh and began to chew. Blood oozed from the corners of her lips as the last quiver from the childs face..."
Perhaps there are some fairy tales that do record in exquisite detail the gruesome details as a part of the story itself, but do they in general? My point (as I am discovering it to be) is that:

To a certain degree medium decides content. When we remember Friday the 13th, are we not remembering images that were constructed FOR US via the film? And when we remember Hansel and Gretel (as told to us, or as we read it) are we not remembering it in terms of how we ourselves constructed it in our minds? (Or, ask yourself, what did the witch look like? We all know she had red eyes and a crutch, but beside the details, we all have different pictures in our heads because we constructed them. As far as asking, what did Jason look like? That image has been crafted for us; we share that image in our minds.)

And beyond both being "scary", what do they share in common functionally? If someone would like to take time to make a list of what they do share in common functionally (assuming you agree with King) I think I'd have more to work with as far as looking at specific reasons why I might consider his claims more seriously. He says they both do the "dirty work" of giving us an open place to express anticivilization emotions, the "worst in us".

So are you that agree with King saying that fairy tales are places to vicariously express the "worst in us?"

p.s. I should add that I know very little about fairy tales beyond what I've read as a child (and recently) so all of this is new to me...I'm learning!

Thanks for all the input!

Edited by: atrayu at: 1/21/04 11:30 pm
Rosemary Lake
Registered User
(1/22/04 1:51 am)
Luthi, Tolkien, Campbell, Chesterton
I don't know much about horror movies, but from the few horror books I've read, I tend to agree with you that the differences are more important than the similarities.

Of course it depends on what one means by 'fairy tale'. Some folk tales do seem mostly horror and/or humor, and there are tales like some old versions of Red Riding Hood with horrible elements (but the child outwits the monster by saying she has to go to the bathroom). And the Salon des Fees -- woops, Cabinet des Fees -- added sadistic elements.

I strongly suggest you read Max Luthi! He distinguishes 'fairy tale'/maarchen from 'local legend', which is more like a horror story. I think there's a 'hard core' set of tales that Luthi and Tolkien describe, that are characterized by everyone getting what they deserve, and what Tolkien called 'eucatastrophe': big extra bonus happy endings. Often with all the damage healed, everything back 'twice as good as it was before', etc. There's also often a strong moral element: promises kept etc.

Maybe you could research the definitions that Tolkien, Lewis, Luthi, Propp, GK Chesterton etc gave -- and contrast that sub-group with the stories King is talking about.

Or contrast STAR WARS and Campbell's 'hero's journey' / 'monomyth' with the movies King talks about. The Empire did bad things, and we saw some of them -- but that wasn't what the story was *about*.

Must go, more later....


Registered User
(1/22/04 7:52 am)
Re: Luthi, Tolkien, Campbell, Chesterton
Most fairy tales rely on their compression of events (and missing links) for their power. But horror novels reply on intense and up-close descriptions of the horrific events to please their audiences.

To me that is a major difference.


Laura McCaffrey
Registered User
(1/22/04 7:54 am)
horror movie audience
Haven't had time to go over the rest of the posts closely, but have some thoughts to add to the mix. I work with preK-8 kids, and some of horror movies/books biggest fans are boys aged 11 and up. And when I was that age, in the eighties, the same was true. King's On Writing also describes his fascination with horror at an early age, and he's in his fifties, I believe. So, if such personal experieces allign with statistics, there is a younger-than-adult audience for the genre and has been for years.


Registered User
(1/22/04 9:26 am)
the genre, and oral telling
But are you making a difference between horror movies and slasher movies. A good example in the former genre does just what Jane describes in tales, it leaves out pertinent information and allows you to "fill in the gap" - often wrongly, which is what makes the movie so gripping. You can see this in movies from the old classics "Dracula" (a fabulous movie) and "Frankenstein" to much of Hitchcock to the more recent movie "The Others." Slasher movies focus mostly on the gore and less on the suspense. They are definitely on the same continum, however, so I can't tell you when one becomes the other. I can tell you though that I like horror movies and hate slasher movies.

Fairy tales seem less like horror films than the old ghost tales. Having said that, there are elements of horror in them. Baba Yaga tales have wonderfully frightening descriptions of her house and yard. Is it Kate Crackernuts that has her mother chopping off her head? The images are there, but they tend to be only one part of the story, not the whole.

As for Hansel and Gretel, you picked one of the more gruesome examples. Try picturing this story slowly ,with the augmenting details of an experienced storyteller; this might lead you to imagine the boy deperately grabbing the stick to give to the old woman, the inside of her deadly hut, etc. Reading them in bright light in a warm, safe chair with a glass of milk or cup of tea doesn't have the same impact.


Edited by: jess63 at: 1/22/04 1:33 pm
Registered User
(1/22/04 9:45 am)
Re: the genre, and oral telling
Agreeing with Laura, back in the mid 50's, when I was 11/12,
I became facinated with the "horror" of Poe. The pleasure
there, which I've mentioned in another thread, was the use
of the imagination.

There is nothing to compare to the absolute of your own
dreams (Nightmares) when it comes to your imagination.
This is the pleasure of books. Films on the other hand, are
the process of someone else's dementia and don't leave you
to visualize anything.

I also concur on the seperation of Horror and Slasher. The
latter is visual extreme just for the sake of the shock
value and holds little or no entertainment for anyone over
30 years old... (generalization there). A good Horror Flick
however, can lead you down a long, dark hall, let you
hear a creaking door, show you a darken room and the
briefest glimpse of something moving away from you...

For me, I don't need a bloddy chainsaw to scare me, in fact,
it (and that type of film) does not invite me to the Theater!

A good book, a quiet place and my imagination! That's the
pleasure that this/these current generation(s) are missing
out on

Nursery Rhymes also have been cleaned up for the nursery.
No one is explaining to the infant, what Contray Mary is
about, or the Plauge Sores or why it was wrong for Jack
to rob and murder a certain Giant.

Rym Rytr

Registered User
(1/22/04 11:28 am)
Hi Jane. I think that you were comparing horror novels to fairy tales in a written down format. Yes when you read a long involved horror story and compare it to a fairy tale there is a huge difference. But king was talking of the similarities between fairy tales and horror films not horror novels. While there are many film adaptations of horror novels they are not as involved as the books themselves which I agree with you on. But take a look at the exorcist as a film it was an excellent horror movie with a great plot line and a sort of mystery weaved into one.

But in the novel there is a long and drawn out description that the house keepers once had a daughter who was involved with drug dealing which is not even mentioned in the film. So I do agree with stephen king that fairy tales are like horror movies not horror novels. Some seem to have mistaken the horror movie for a horror novel.

Registered User
(1/22/04 1:30 pm)
Punishment of the transgressor
One small note: according to Gerhard O. Mueller, the punishment of transgressors in fairy tales were generally consistent with the punishment meted out by society for the same crimes at the time (presumably) of the tale. For example, the historic punishment for "witchcraft and attempted cannibalism" was "death by fire", which is precisely what the witch in Hansel and Gretel received. See Mueller's article "The Criminological Significance of Grimms' Fairy Tales (Table on page 220), in FAIRY TALES AND SOCIETY, edited by Ruth B. Botteheimer - please excuse the incorrect citation form. This contrasts with the typical slasher film in which the transgressor often recieves a punishment similar to what he has wrought. And what of Horror films?

Oh, and as for really horrific fairy tales, look no farther than the Bluebeard type tales. In these tales, we often get decriptions of the horrors in the cabinet.


Edited by: jess63 at: 1/22/04 1:31 pm
Rosemary Lake
Registered User
(1/22/04 10:05 pm)
King's example vs what kind of 'fairy tale'?
I couldn't find the King essay on the web. Rather than mix and match all the possible meanings of 'fairy tale' with all the possible meanings of 'horror film', why not take one or two specific films and tales and contrast them? What examples did King give? Did he mention any specific fairy tales, making clear what versions?

Did King say he was talking about old versions of folk tales and their original audiences, or current popular versions (Disney, Perrault, Lang, etc) and their current audiences? I'd expect the latter....

In ONCE UPON A TIME: ON THE NATURE OF FAIRY TALES, Max Luthi explains the differences between what he calls 'fairy tale' and 'local legend' by contrasting two stories about bringing a doll to life. See Chapter 6, "The Living Doll." This might be a good way to approach your paper: show point by point the differences between a horror story version and a popular fairy tale version.

I think long ago I saw him quoted talking about what a modern horror story based on "Hansel and Gretal" might be like. The parents would be in financial trouble and decide to kill the children for their insurance. They would take the children on a camping trip and plan a murder that would look like an accident. The children would hear their plan, escape, and come to a cabin in the woods. It would turn out to be inhabited by a maniac who would imprison them. Etc. This could make an excellent horror story, even with most of the violence suggested rather than shown.

But how similar is this to what most people mean when they say a 'fairy tale'...? The emphasis and the outcome would be different. In the King version no one would live happily ever after. At best the children might escape and be sent to a foster home and get some therapy. Even allowing for lack of magic, I doubt the cabin would be anything especially charming or attractive. The nice ingenuity with the breadcrumbs and pebbles, and the duck carrying them across the lake, would be changed to something less attractive. The time given to all these things would be different. If they did find some sort of treasure, I doubt it would seem very auspicious....

I've heard that a bird's skeleton is similar to ours, except that the finger bones have been expanded into wings and the hands and arms and shoulders have condensed. A horse's hoof is just one big toenail. A change in proportion makes a complete change in function. And sfaik, horror stories don't even have the major landmarks of current fairy tales, such as something especially wonderful happening in the middle, and the good people living happily ever after....

And that's one of the most horrifying of current popular fairy tales.


Registered User
(1/23/04 12:04 am)
Re: King's example vs what kind of 'fairy tale'?
Thanks for all the thoughts everyone!

So many different ideas floating around, where to begin?

First of all, the exerpt from the article that I read was entitled Why We Crave Horror Movies if anyone is doing a search, sorry, I misquoted the title accidentally.

Second, King said that there are 2 kinds of horror films 1. socio-political and 2. Fairy tale -the latter producing "higher" forms of art. He said that the "Fairy tale" kind of horror films have more in common with the Brothers Grimm than with the socio-political type of horror films. So the "kind" he was referring to is the Brothers Grimm specifically.

The commonality that he claims between them is that they both 'do' the same thing in society: the "dirty work" of providing our "anticivilization emotions" a place to "excersize". He does specifically mention the act of murder. The words he uses are: "the fun comes from seeing others menanced, sometimes killed". He suggests that this is "psychic relief" for us.

Thanks for the names and suggestions, I'll look into some of those when I have the chance. I'd like to get a list of good fairy tale criticism, I don't really know where to begin. I've recently read Tolkien's On Fairy Stories but that's it.

Must think more for now....


Edited by: atrayu at: 1/23/04 12:19 am
Registered User
(1/23/04 10:34 am)
Re: King's example vs what kind of 'fairy tale'?
He does specifically mention the act of murder. The words he uses are: "the fun comes from seeing others menanced, sometimes killed". He suggests that this is "psychic relief" for us.

What this quote comes down to is something the the human psychie has suppressed:

The pure pleasure of killing a living thing!

What this planet would be like, if we had no moral fibre what-so-ever! View it overall, from space, as an Alien and see that the greater part of the 9th planet is infact, infected with the disease of oral, self-gratification (that is, "greed"; me-first; disdain for the suffering of others).

BUT!!! and that's a big butt :0 there is hope!!!!!

Rosemary Lake
Registered User
(1/23/04 10:45 pm)
catharisis, Bettelheim, Lewis's OF OTHER WORLDS
I found the King essay, or part of it, here. Not sure if it's complete, as it didn't seem to mention everything you mentioned. jdoleh/English%201301/Why%20We%20Crave%20Horror%20Movies.pdf

If you like Tolkien, you might like Lewis's OF OTHER WORLDS. It's a collection of essays etc by L; it talks about Tolkien's and similar definitions.

On King's idea that we can deal with negative emotions by watching bad things happen to someone else -- search for 'catharsis' and 'Greek drama'. Bettelheim's USES OF ENCHANTMENT has some ideas a little like King's.

King talks about a particular kind of horror movie. "The mythic horror movie ... deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized .... Dawn of the Dead"

In context, this sounds like he is saying in those movies the audience identifies with the monsters, wants to see innocent people killed in nasty ways. That doesn't fit with the most popular fairy tales, even Grimm's versions. The people we see killed (or maimed) are the villians (except in a few less popular tales, and those few good people eventually get healed "twice as good as new"). Usually when innocent people die terribly it's in the past, off stage. Even with the villians, it's not given as much wordage as the nicer parts of the story.

Colorful, unbelievable deaths happen in fairy tales (and science fiction) and in horror movies, but there's usually more death and torture, dwelt on more, in westerns, detective stories, spy stories, etc.

The "mythic horror movies" may be as simple and black and white as fairy tales, and may work at the same level. But not necessarily to do the same thing. Some popular fairy tales don't have violence or horror at all ("Twelve Dancing Princesses", many Cinderella variants.


Registered User
(1/23/04 11:32 pm)
Re: catharisis, Bettelheim, Lewis's OF OTHER WORLDS
A little OT, but it is about stories expressing the need of society to have anti-societal behavior. I have some pretty strong recollections of a story I read in about the 6 or 7th grade, which I believe was entitled "The Lottery". The whole premise of the story follows the line of thinking that King is discussing. In reading the story becomes almost apart of the "game." Interesting thought that literature or stories give us the ability to experience violence vicariously and safely. I found this story was a much more direct "experience" than reading a Grimms fairy tale.


Registered User
(1/25/04 3:45 pm)
Re: Rosemary

Yes, that link is incomplete. The handout I have specifically mentions fairy tales and the Brother's Grimm as being like this "mythic fairy tale" type of film. I can't find a complete version online either.

That suggestion King makes that all of us need to 'act out' in brutal ways is problematic to me, and the precise reason I have a problem with his conclusions. This fundamental assumption seems to endorse all sorts of behavior, indeed any violent behavior, (experienced vicariously) as being necessary to the 'healthy' individual. The rest of the article is quite disturbing in that regard. Anyway, food for thought.

Thanks for the suggestions, I am eager to learn more about fairy tales.


Unregistered User
(1/29/04 11:37 pm)
Good comments here.
Point one: I think one of the main mistakes younger people make when it comes to identifying horror stories is that they are all of the "splatter" variety, or about serial killers or butcher knife-wielding maniacs. This is a fairly recent development (last 30 years, which spans the age range and expectations of at least two generations), and even now the genre seems to be getting away from this, as it is getting "old" by now. There is a long history of horror that does not include maniacs, body count, or spurting arteries. Only those who are older or have at least had some background in other forms of horror stories don't just assume that all horror comes in multiple sequels about characters who can't be killed stalking nubile young people.

Point two: I like all horror, INCLUDING splatter movies, the original classics of which were great and hilarious without intending to be. Now you have stupid attempts at remaking them like "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Scream #85" and worst of all, Troma Films, which lack any creative ability other than to flash T&A and lukewarm violence and call it "horror." That having been said, splatter has seen its day, most especially due to these horrible attempts to recapture a grassroots movement by Hollywood hacks, and now suspense and mystery is returning to the genre.

Point three: traditional fairy tales covered the same territory as horror stories and films do, from the fantastic, to morality plays (most splatter movies), to incredibly grim and violent stories involving multiple horrible deaths and far from happy endings (also most splatter movies).

In my opinion, fairy tales and horror and the genre known as dark fantasy pretty much cover the same territory, even if they aren't played out exactly the same or with the words "Once upon a time." I don't always agree with King but he knows what he's talking about. It's more of an abstract point than a literary one.

Unregistered User
(1/29/04 11:59 pm)
Two more points
Thought about this after posting - sorry!

Horror, fantasy, and fairy tales are always evolving. It's easy to compare traditional fairy tales to modern horror films, but what is the stuff that Neil Gaiman writes? There are many authors who cross those lines these days (and some who always have), even as fantasy writers cross lines into mainstream with urban fantasy. I have also always found it amusing that the same people who read Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith turn up their noses at splatter films. Now THERE is irony! There are a lot of Lovecraft stories they couldn't make into films without giving them an R or even X rating. With the exception of maybe two, all attempts have been bad, watered down versions of the stories they were robbed from.

Someone above wondered what a modern day film about Hansel and Gretel might be like? Check out Wes Craven's "The Children Under The Stairs." Not scene for scene, but definitely Hansel and Gretel by any other name. A great film, intense, even a little tongue in cheek, but with very little bloodshed (as I recall) for a Wes Craven movie.

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