Trigger Warning: The mention of rape, sexual assault, suicide, domestic violence, and physical brutality may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.
If you grew up watching classic Disney movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella, you’re probably accustomed to thinking of fairy tales as wholesome entertainment for young children. So it might come as a surprise to you to find out that 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. And the princesses in these stories weren’t meant to entertain but to warn people of the darkness and evils of reality. Follow along to uncover the dark and disturbing original tales of Disney’s famous princesses.
A Bit of Background
When the Brothers Grimm published their first edition of Nursery and Household Tales in two volumes (1812 and 1815), it was meant to be read by adults. 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. 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.
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.
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 Grimm’s macabre angle, he did omit some even grislier details. For example, in Disney’s version, the Evil Queen asks the huntsman to go out into the forest and kill Snow White, bringing back her heart as proof. But in the original Grimm version, the queen wants to devour Snow White’s lungs and liver. In this version, at the end of the story, 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.
In the original version, Snow White and the prince don’t meet until she’s unconscious. The prince comes upon Snow White in her glass coffin in the forest, surrounded by the seven dwarfs who are still mourning her. The prince is so taken with Snow White’s beauty, that he asks the dwarfs if he can buy her. They say, “We will not sell it for all the gold in the world.”
The prince then adopts a new tactic, appealing to their emotions, saying, “Then give it to me, for I cannot live without being able to see Snow White. I will honor her and respect her as my most cherished one.” The dwarfs weren’t as creeped out as we were, and they allowed the prince to take her glass coffin with him. The prince and Snow White meet for the first time after she awakens.
And for those of you who need a reminder, in the original tale, Snow White is around 10 YEARS OLD!
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 Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper, the 1697 story by Charles Perrault, that ends with the stepsisters begging Cinderella for forgiveness, which she graciously accepts. But the 1812 Grimm version, Aschenputtel, is pretty horrific. When Cinderella’s stepsisters are trying to fit into the slipper, 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 in the end, the pigeons blind them by plucking out their eyes.
Cinderella’s father, instead of being absent as in Perrault’s tale or Disney’s version, is willfully ignorant of his daughter’s suffering, which makes everything so much worse. Sometimes he even joins in with her stepmother and stepsisters’ torments.
The 1989 Disney adaptation of The Little Mermaid is full of love and wonder. The tale of a prince named Eric, who falls in love with Ariel, the beautiful half-human sea creature, is a model of buoyancy and poignancy. But the source material, an 1837 story by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, is considerably darker.
When Little Mermaid visits Ursula, the Sea Witch, she strikes a deal, swapping her voice and tongue for legs. But unlike the Disney version, Ursula literally takes Ariel’s tongue as payment for the deal. In Anderson’s version, there’s another catch to the deal. As the Sea Witch explains, every step Ariel takes will feel as if she is walking on sharp knives, making her time on land excruciatingly painful.
The original ending of The Little Mermaid is even darker. As part of the deal with the Sea Witch, Ariel is able to return to the sea if she kills the prince and spills his blood. But when Eric ends up marrying another woman, Ariel can’t bring herself to kill the one she loves. Instead, she jumps off of the ship, taking her own life by dissolving into sea foam. However, Ariel soon realizes that she is trapped in some sort of purgatory, being told that she can gain a soul of her own if she spends 300 years as a spirit helping humans.
Oh, and did I mention that in the original version of the tale, Eric is kind of a dick? The book reveals he would often be entertained by “female slaves” that he brought to the palace. He also describes his love for Ariel as similar to the way he would love a little child.
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.
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 bed chamber, 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, Giambattista 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.
In Disney’s 2010 movie Tangled, a young girl’s hair possesses miraculous anti-aging 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 thief, who climbs the tower, and then ultimately cuts Rapunzel’s hair to kill the witch. Rapunzel and Flynn live happily ever after.
The original story is much different and a lot darker. It begins with a man and woman who desperately want a child, but when the woman finally became pregnant, she longed to eat rampion from the garden behind their home, which belonged to an enchantress. When the man went to steal some rampion for his wife, he was caught by the enchantress who threatened his life. But instead of killing him, she makes a deal with him: he must give up the child for the vegetable.
Then, when Rapunzel turned 12, the witch placed her high up in a tower with no doors and only one window. Eventually, a prince shows up and rescues Rapunzel, and they all live happily ever after. At least, that is the version Disney portrays. In the Brothers Grimm version, Rapunzel lets it slip the prince has been visiting, this news angers the enchantress, and she slaps Rapunzel and cuts her hair, then proceeds to take her to a desert place and leaves her there in woe and misery.
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. At least this one has a happy ending.
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