Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares

Aimee Heidelberg - December 10, 2023

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…” For generations of children, the opening phrase to this song is a beckoning call for children to learn about the world and receive a gentle lesson in behavior and morality from a “friend.” This call first came from Fred Rogers in his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. His lessons and educational goals continue in its current version, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Daniel Tiger maintains the tone and themes of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, following the rule that children are to be respected. The current show reaches children in 180 countries. But children’s fairy tales and verses haven’t always taught these lessons in such a kind way. Historically, children were frightened into good behavior with the threat of physical harm, monsters, or emotional damage. Read on for some of the most terrifying entertainment and morality lessons from historic children’s books that seem like ‘adult horror’ today.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Inuit children in 1924. Canadian Museum of History (CC 4.0).

The Three-Clawed Arm of Honor

Inuit children who took things that didn’t belong to them heard the tale of the Kukilingiattiaq. This nightmare fuel is a cautionary story to stop children from stealing or looking through other people’s things without permission. In an effort to teach children honesty, respect, and honor, they were told about a terrible beast. The Kukilingiattiaq is a hidden creature, lurking in the shadows, until it spots a thief. When it does, its three-clawed hand snaps out of nowhere and holds on to the thief. It will hold the thieving child until someone comes along to see the crime. The fear of a real-life jump-scare and being held in place by a terrifying, hidden beast is a chilling thought, perhaps making some children think twice about stealing.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
A statue of Jasy Jatere. Patty P (n.d.) Public domain.

South American Children Learn to Nap the Hard Way

In South America, around Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, Guarani children were tormented into good behavior by the threat of Jasy Jatere (or Yasy Yateré). Jasy Jatere is a beautiful child (or small man) with luxurious golden hair. As the god of the siesta, he checks on children as they lay down for their naps. But if a child refuses to take a nap, Jasy Jatere would whistle, luring the children into a forest. Once he had tricked the children into the forest, he would put them in prison, where they would linger. Of course, for some of the more difficult cases, Jasy Jatere would offer the imprisoned child to his brother, the creature Ao Ao. Ao Ao loves to eat children, so their fate is sealed.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
A statue honoring Hua Mulan. Gary Todd (2012, CC 1.0).

Mulan – A Possibly True Story with a Very Non-Disney Ending

Modern telling of Hua Mulan is the story of spirit, determination, and loyalty to family. But in the original story from northern China, a tale so old nobody knows whether it is based on a real person or not, the hero is also the tragic character. Upon her father’s approval and fight training at home, she takes his place for military service, disguised as a man. She assimilated with the other soldiers quite well, fighting-by-side with them for ten years. Over time, she didn’t even have to disguise her identity. The tale’s ending changed over the years. Some versions see her married with her own children. But one tragic version has her father dying and mother remarrying while Mulan is away. The Emperor commands Mulan to become his concubine. But she would rather die than be the Emperor’s concubine, and kills herself in front of his envoy.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
The Funny Side of Physic (1874). No known restrictions.

Children’s Tales of the Early 1800s

Stories and verses were traditionally passed down in oral tradition, which explains why Mulan had so many different endings over time. But with the advance in publishing technology, these stories started to be distributed in books. Early children’s books see children as wicked sinners to be restrained and taught life lessons in the harshest conceivable way. Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, who collected volumes of Puritan children’s literature from the early 1900s, sat for an interview with the Saturday Evening Post in 2019. Rosenbach noted children weren’t “born to live, but born to dye (sic).” Worse, Rosenbach found the stories “provided for them was with the definite purpose of teaching them how they should die in a befitting manner.” Death and religion were persistent themes for young children, but other tales focused on the terrible consequences of disobedience, carelessness, vanity, and other mortal sins Puritans encountered.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Illustration of ‘Poisonous Fruit’ from the 1807 version of The Daisy. Project Gutenberg, public domain.

Elizabeth Turner’s The Daisy Explores a Deadly World

The Daisy is a book of morality and behavioral verses for four- to eight-year-olds, guiding their moral compass. In one lesson, “Dressed or Undressed,´ parents with stubborn children refusing to change out of their night clothes are encouraged to let them stay in their sleepwear. But they are also told to withhold food and play. In The Daisy, good children are rewarded, bad children are punished, sometimes fatally. The verse “Poisonous Fruit,” finds Tommy and his sister Jane coming across berries as they wandered down a lane. They picked and ate some of them, playing with or throwing away others. Shortly after they got home, they felt ill and went to bed. They died of berry poisoning. The lesson of the story is quite clear: Leave forest berries alone.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Illustration of The Giddy Girl in the 1807 version of The Daisy. Project Gutenberg, Public domain.

The Daisy Claims More Victims

Turner’s book continues its onslaught of child accidents. For every story about redemption, such as the boy who decided to step up his game in school to become head of the class or the girl who later felt embarrassed about whining over cake, there are those who never learn their lesson. They are walking targets for heartache and death. In one story, two girls quarrel about the size of their dolls, and their mother sends their dolls away. In “The Giddy Girl,” Miss Helen, a spacey girl who didn’t pay attention to her surroundings, crosses streets without looking and doesn’t listen to her mother. On one fine day, once again disregarding her mother’s warning, Miss Helen decided to look down a well. She slipped, falling into the deep well water. She drowned. The moral of the tale is to listen to your parents and pay attention to your surroundings.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Fairy tales in the Grimmenwelt Kassel by Charles Perrault. Kritzolina (2023, CC 4.0).

1800s Children’s Stories Were Violent and Gory

Stories like Mulan, The Daisy, and the oral legends were good for a scare, entertainment, or to teach a moral lesson so children understood the difference between good, evil, or just bad behavior. Most of what we know as fairy tales today started as ancient oral traditions, some with roots in actual historic events, and passed down from generation to generation. But the terror brought on by certain storytellers of the 1800s left an impression on popular culture. The Brothers Grimm commit their terrifying tales to print in the 1800s, setting the tone for children’s literature for more than a century. Some, like Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffman, created original stories that incorporated blood and gore to tell a relevant story, or to guide children to behave in a proper way. Even today, their stories live on, several of them reworked for modern audiences.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1847; daguerreotype by Hermann Blow

The Brothers Grimm (published 1812 – 1826)

Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm and his brother Wilhelm Carl Grimm were born in Hanau, Germany in the 1780s. Despite their fame as authors, most of their stories were not original. They crafted and recorded folklore passed orally from storyteller to storyteller over generations. But the Grimms were concerned that as the culture changed, the stories would get lost. They wanted to preserve the tales in books. They spoke with storytellers and recorded the tales, first publishing them in 1812. The stories initially targeted an adult audience, though, obvious in the adult themes that permeate the tales. Despite their first book’s name, Nursery and Household Tales, the stories often involved sex, violence (Hansel and Gretel is about child murder and cannibalism at its core), unintended pregnancies, bodily mutilation, even incest. Over decades, the tales were revised as children grew increasingly interested in the stories.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Postcard featuring the climactic scene from the original Cinderella. MCAD Zipes Collection (CC 2.0).

Cinderella: Bloody feet and sadistic birds

In the original Grimm version of Cinderella, she is forced into servitude for her stepmother and stepsisters. She hears of a multi-day festival thrown for the Prince and asks her bird friends to bring her dresses and shoes she could wear to the event each day. The birds happily provide. She meets the Prince but disappears before he can escort her home. The Prince, hoping to delay the girl, lays pitch on the stairs, catching her golden (not glass!) shoe in the sticky mess, but she just abandons her shoes. Later, as the Prince uses the shoes to identify his dream girl, Cinderella’s stepsisters find their feet are too big for the shoe. In their efforts to fit the shoe, one sister cuts off her toes. The other cut off her heel. The Prince finds the perfect shoe match in Cinderella, and birds peck out the stepsister’s eyes.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Snow White meets her second death with a poisoned comb (1852). Project Guternberg, public domain.

Little Snow White – Attempted (and successful) murder

The Brothers Grimm original version of Snow White is far more disturbing than the Disney version. Snow White’s stepmother, the evil queen, is informed by a magical mirror that Snow White is more beautiful. The queen commissions a huntsman to cut out Snow White’s liver and lungs. Unwilling to kill Snow White, he tries to substitute a boar’s liver and lungs. The evil queen eats them, thinking they belong to Snow White. Thanks to the magic mirror, the queen finds the girl hiding in the woods with seven dwarves and tries to kill her three times. First, with a corset laced too tight. Second, she tries a poisoned comb. Both times the dwarves revived Snow White. The final time, she uses a poisoned apple. This works, and the dwarves couldn’t bring Snow White back. They put her in a glass coffin because they couldn’t bear putting her in the ground.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
The Prince carries Snow White’s coffin to his home (1852). Project Gutenberg, public domain.

Snow White: The Evil Queen’s hot dance

But the story doesn’t end with Snow White’s death. As the dwarves mourn their friend, a Prince comes to their cottage in the woods and asks for shelter overnight. He sees the glass coffin and Snow White’s body. He begs the dwarves to let him take it home. After much pleading, the dwarves allow him to take the coffin, but as his servants are carrying it away, they drop it. A piece of the apple, stuck in her throat, comes loose. This revives Snow White one more time. Snow White and the prince marry, even extending the Evil Queen an invitation. The Queen nervously attends the wedding. But Snow White and the Prince actually have a gift for her, a new pair of shoes. The shoes are iron, heated in burning coals, which they force the queen to put on and dance until she dies.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
The willful child won’t rest. Ever. Mendhak via Flickr (n.d., CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Willful Child: Disobedience knows not death

Grimm tales feature criminally violent or negligent parenting, the tale of the Willful Child demonstrates a new level of poor parenting and the era’s fear of being buried alive. In this very short story, a child is disobedient, refusing to listen to his mother. His disobedience angered God, who made him gravely ill. The child died from this incurable illness. After his burial, the child’s arm comes up from the grave, reaching out for help. So unloved was the child that his family members shoved it down and buried it again. But the arm kept reappearing. His mother went to his grave herself and beat the pleading arm with a switch to make him stay buried. After that, the arm finally stayed down. Religious themes and morality commonly intermix in the Grimm’s tales. The child’s hubris against his parents and God doomed him to a fate worse than death.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
An evil stepmother turns an unwitting father into a cannibal. Otto Ubbelohde (1909). Public domain.

The Juniper Tree: Murder and Cannibalism

A man with two children remarries after losing his first wife. The new wife particularly hates the son her husband had with his first wife. One day, she entices the boy to retrieve an apple she had tossed into a heavy trunk. She slams the lid down, chopping off his head. She places the head back on the body and sends her daughter Marlene in to talk to her decapitated half-brother. During the ‘conversation,’ the boy’s head falls off, and the woman tells the horrified girl she is at fault. The stepmother and the little girl use the boy’s body in a soup and serves it to her husband. The man eats his son in the soup, having seconds and thirds, with the unquenchable feeling that the soup was ‘all his.’ Marlene buries her half-brother’s bones under a Juniper tree in their yard.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Rebranded as the Almond Tree, the birds gifts are visible as corner medallions. Walter Crane (1882). Public domain.

The Juniper Tree: The Just Desserts

Soon after, a beautiful bird rose from the tree. The bird, having sung for a goldsmith, a shoemaker, and a miller in exchange for gifts, returns home. When the bird returns, it sings a haunting verse:

“My mother, she killed me,

father, he ate me,

My sister Marlene gathered all my bones

Tied them in a silken scarf,

Laid them beneath the juniper tree,

Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.”

Marlene felt sadness from the verse. The father feel content happy, like greeting an old friend. The stepmother felt horror and fear. After the verse, the bird gave the father a gold chain. The bird gave Marlene a pair of red shoes to cheer her up. And the stepmother? She got a millstone to the head, killing her. Upon her death, the boy returned to life, where he, his father, and Marlene happily shared a meal.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
An old woman helps a young bride escape her murderous groom. Arthur Rackham (1909). Public domain.

The Robber Bridegroom: Body Parts Flying About

A young girl, about a be married, visits the house of her fiance. She wanted to learn more about groom. However, the house is empty except for an old woman lurking about. The old woman warns her that murderers occupy the house. They hear a group of men approach. The old woman hides the bride in a barrel. The men had brought another young woman to the house. They proceed to kill and chop her up, sprinkling salt on the dismembered pieces. When one robber had trouble getting a gold ring off the murdered girl’s finger, he chopped at it, flinging the finger into the barrel where the bride hid. She and the old woman escape. Shockingly, the bridge continues with her wedding plans. But at the wedding, she produces the severed finger. The groom and his cohorts are executed for murder.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
A man steals a bride and tells her not to go in the basement. R. Anning Bell (1912). Public domain.

Fitcher’s Bird: Seriously, Don’t Go in the Basement

A father and his three daughters live in poverty in the countryside. One day, a man shows up to request the first daughter for his wife. She is given a golden egg that she must never, ever drop or dreadful things will happen and told not to go into the basement. The girl goes into the basement, drops the egg. She disappears. The next year, he comes back for the second daughter. She, too, drops the egg, and disappears. The man returns, asking for the third daughter. When the two reach their destination, the groom tells her to prepare for their wedding, but is given the egg and told not to go into the basement. Which, of course, she does as soon as he leaves. There she sees the heads of her sisters hanging on hooks amidst a gory torture chamber.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Arthur Rackham illustrates the dramatic escape in Fitcher’s Bird (1917). Public domain.

The Revenge of the Fitcher’s Bird

The sister’s eggs are covered in blood, as they dropped them when they saw the basement horrors. The man saw the bloody eggs as evidence of their disobedience and killed them. But their sister, who had set her egg down in another room, puts their bodies back together, brings them back to life, and hides them in a gold basket. She asks the man to bring the basket to her father as a gift, which he does, as her clean egg showed her loyalty and obedience. While he’s gone, she dons a bird costume and escapes the house. She puts a skull in the window to make it appear she is at the wedding feast. When the man gathers his friends for the wedding. The girl, her reanimated sisters, and their father trap them in the house. They set it on fire and watch as the group burns to death.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Portrait of Hans Christian Andersen (1867). Public domain.

Hans Christian Andersen

Dutch author Hans Christian Andersen started his writing career while working in Copenhagen as an actor. His acting career didn’t lead to his fame. But a director of the Royal Theater saw potential in him, raising money for Andersen’s education, when his writing career began in earnest. Andersen published his first short story in 1829. His well-received work quickly gained recognition, even as he struggled in his personal life. He won a grant from the King in 1835, giving him a chance to travel and gather inspiration for his work. He started writing fairy tales that same year, diversifying his writing for both child and adult audiences. His literary connections (he was friends with Charles Dickens) helped his works gain notice around the globe. Andersen incorporated very mature themes in his children’s tale, presented in a relatable way.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
The Little Mermaid makes a deal with a sea witch (c. mid 1800s). Public domain.

The Little Mermaid: No Dancing Fish Here

Hans Chrisitan Andersen’s original mermaid love story, mermaids they can visit the surface at will. On one of these visits, the little (and unnamed) mermaid saves a prince from drowning, and wants to become human to find him. She seeks the sea witch, who, after giving her chances to back out, turns the little mermaid human. All she had to do is have her tongue cut out so she could neither speak nor taste. And her legs will hurt agonizingly with every step. Despite the pain, the mermaid agrees. She becomes human, finds her prince. But the Prince is already engaged to the princess he believes saved his life. She knows, though, if she kills him and his blood lands on her legs, she will re-grow her mermaid tail. But she chooses not to, instead hurling herself into the sea, killing herself and turning into sea foam, a mermaid’s death.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
The mermaid’s sisters give her a knife to kill the Prince to use his blood to reverse the spell. Public domain

The Little Mermaid: Afterlife

The Little Mermaid, however, isn’t a complete tragedy. In the story, the mermaid has a conversation about mortality with her grandmother. Her grandmother explains mermaids live about three hundred years, but when they die, they dissolve into sea foam, gone forever. Humans don’t live long but have an eternal soul. This makes her choice at the end of the tale especially tragic. The mermaid knew by flinging herself into the sea she would be gone forever, dissolved into seafoam with no eternal soul. But in a twist that isn’t seen in many of these tragic tales, she is resurrected from the foam, and becomes a ‘daughter of the air.’ Like mermaids, they don’t have souls. But after three hundred years, if they earn it through kindness and good deeds, they can earn a soul, something the little mermaid desperately wanted.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Inger uses a loaf of bread to keep her shoes clean (1899). Public domain.

The Girl Who Trod the Loaf: The Downfall of Pride and Vanity

Long ago, there lived a beautiful but terrible, cruel and arrogant little girl, Inger. To tame her behavior, her mother sent her to work for a wealthy family. They were kind to her, but this made her more arrogant. Inger went home for a visit, but she turned back before reaching her family, embarrassed by their poverty. The second time her employers sent her home for a visit, they gave her some bread to bring to her family. Wearing a pretty dress and new shoes, she trod home, but mud blocked her path. She threw the bread down to step on it so her shoes would stay clean. The bread sank down, down, down, with Inger on it, into the underworld brewery of the Marsh Woman. The Marsh Woman’s brewery lay in a squalid, cold, smelly, terrible place crawling with toads and snakes. Inger became stuck there.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Inger stuck to the loaf. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1899). New York Public LIbrary, public domain.

The Girl Who Trod the Loaf: Inger Goes to Hell

The devil and his great-grandmother noticed Inger, with the loaf of bread stuck to her foot like glue and brought her to hell. She stuck to the ground by the bread, stiffening into a statue as damned souls swarmed around her. Even so, she happily convinced herself that the other souls are enraptured at her beauty, despite her being covered in creeping snakes, slime, and toads. But she grew hungry. Her body had stiffened, though, and could not reach a piece of the bread sticking her to the ground to satiate her hunger. As her suffering increased, she heard the terrible things people were saying, including how she brought on her own fate. She became redeemed when one soul felt pity for her and made her rethink her misdeeds. Repentance in her heart, she changed into a bird, flying free from hell.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Karen’s desperate cursed dance across the countryside (1913). New York Public Library, public domain.

The Red Shoes: Another Warning About Pride and Vanity

A beautiful, but poor, girl named Karen grew up associating red shoes with the best things in life. When it came time for her to be confirmed in her church, she proudly wore new red shoes. But her source of pride was also her downfall. Despite warnings, Karen wore her red shoes to church. An old soldier she encountered after church exclaimed, “Dear me, what pretty dancing shoes!” and Karen obliged by dancing a few steps. But the now-cursed shoes would not let her stop dancing until she took the shoes off. Later, Karen chose to wear the shoes to a ball rather than tend to her caretaker’s sickbed. But once she starts dancing, she cannot stop. She tried to take off the red shoes, but they kept going. Her only escape from the cursed shoes was to repent and ask an ax man to cut off her feet.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Disney’s Snow White left out the Evil Queen’s torture with burning iron shoes. Project Gutenberg (1852), Public domain.

Disney-fication of Grimm and Andersen

Most of the Grimm tales are familiar to today’s audiences. Since 1937, when Walt Disney first interpreted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs(1935) for movie screens, the Walt Disney Company has cornered the market on reinterpreting the original Grimm tales. Disney takes away the scary bits to make it palatable for families. Cinderella‘s stepsisters keep all their body parts. Neither The Little Mermaid and Mulan commit suicide. Snow White and her prince don’t revenge-torture the Evil Queen with iron shoes full of burning coal. Disney made the Grimm stories palatable. For almost ninety years, the Disney tales have defined what being a princess should be, leaving out the gruesome Grimm endings in favor of weddings and happily ever after.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Heinrich Hoffman, author of Struwwelpeter (1845). Daderot, public domain.

Life Lessons in the Most Horrifying Way Possible: Struwwelpeter (1845)

One children’s book stands out as a collection of gory horror stories masking as gentle morality tales is Struwwelpeter. The six illustrated stories, intended for children ages three to six, taught consequences for common childhood sins. These sins might be refusing basic grooming, refusing food, or sucking their thumb. German physician, Heinrich Hoffman, having dissatisfied with the era’s children’s books originally wrote the book in 1845 for his three-year-old son. The book was a guide for children toward the ‘right’ behavior by showing what happened if they disobeyed. He shared it with his friends in a book club, who encouraged him to publish it. Its first run sold somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 copies. By its second year of release, the book grew so popular it required another run. The book sold over 20,000 copies in its first three years.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Struwwelpeter (1845). Heinrich Hoffman. Public domain.

Shock-Headed Peter Learns About Grooming

In Struwwelpeter‘s title tale, a boy stands with dirty fingernails grown into talons and a shock of hair that would rival a 1980s heavy metal band. “Never once has he combed his hair. Anything to me is sweeter than to see Shock-Headed Peter.” The tale is a criticism of children who refuse to follow the basic standards of grooming, preferring instead to let themselves become a sort of self-made monster, with fingernails of frightening proportions. Peter’s miserable expression intended to deter children from following his footsteps. This is one of the shorter tales in the book, but its message and image left a daunting enough impression to become the title and cover for the entire book.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Illustration of Flying Robert from Struwwelpeter, Heinrich Hoffman (1858 ed.). Public Domain.

Struwwelpeter’s Flying Robert Gets Carried Away

Robert loved walks in the rain. Good boys and girls, of course, stay home and play with their toys when it rains, sheltering from the weather and its potential killer impacts. Despite the vicious weather, with rain and strong, almost hurricane-force winds, Robert grabs his umbrella, thinking “No, when it pours, it is better to be out of doors.” The wind caught his umbrella, he holds on as he is swept up into the air, to be carried off instead of just letting it go. “No one heard his screams and cries.” Nobody ever sees Robert again. This tale is a clear caution to stay indoors during stormy weather, lest they be swept up and taken away from their homes forever.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Frederick’s animal cruelty. Mural in Niederwallstraße, Berlin, Germany. Singlespeedfahrer (2023, CC 1.0)

Dog Bites Back in Struwwelpeter’s Cruel Frederick

Frederick is a bit of a psychopath, and if current research is correct, has one of the markings of a future serial killer. He is a “cruel, wicked boy” who likes to torture animals. Frederick tears wings off flies, kills birds, and threw a kitten down a flight of stairs. He also “whipped his Mary,” whether his sister, mother, or nurse isn’t clear, but he is a terrible child. Frederick turned his attention to Tray the dog, whipping and kicking the pup. However, Tray bit back hard enough to draw blood. While sore Frederick had to recover in bed, Tray got to sit in the boy’s chair and eat his dinner. The lesson for young children? Cruelty to animals and people may come back to (literally) bite. It is a horrifying tale of animal and interpersonal cruelty, but Frederick learned a bloody lesson.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Harriet burns and children are traumatized. 1858 ed. of Struwwelpeter. Public domain.

Harriet and the Matches

Struwwelpeter’s Young Harriet didn’t have sadistic tendencies like Cruel Frederick, but she lacked any sense of self preservation. She had an affinity for playing with matches, despite her mother and nurse’s warnings. Her cats warn, “Me-ow, me-o, You’ll burn to death, if you do so.” But she ignored her talking cats and lit the matches just to watch them burn and crackle. And sure enough, her dress catches fire, spreading to the rest of her, and just as the cats warned, she burns to a pile of ashes, with only her shoes remaining and the cats mourning her loss. Only her little red shoes remained. This was a terrifying way to remind children not to play with matches. Its graphic depiction of a burning girl must have induced more than a few nightmares.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Little Suck-A-Thumb gets his thumb scissored off. Heinrich Hoffman (1845 ed.). Public domain.

Struwwelpeter’s Little Suck-a-Thumb Learns a Bloody Lesson

Conrad is a boy who has a thumb-sucking habit, as many children do. Like Harriet’s mother, she left him all alone one day. But before she left, she warned him that the “great tall tailor” goes around looking for thumb-suckers. When he finds these naughty children, he pulls out his scissors and lops those thumbs right off. Sure enough, the moment his mother leaves, Conrad’s thumb is in his mouth – and soon the Great Tall Tailor bursts through the door. In a moment of nightmare-inducing gore, the tailor uses his massive scissors to cut Conrad’s thumbs off, leaving him standing in his spot with nothing but stumps. Instead of suffering a massive panic attack, Conrad’s mother just looks resigned at the sight of her son’s bloody stumps. She exclaims, “I knew he’s come to naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Augustus wastes away after refusing to eat his soup. Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter, 1858 ed. Public domain.

The Story of Augustus, Who Would Not Have Any Soup

Struwwelpeter demonstrated not just the sin of being disobedient, but also of being stubborn. Augustus, normally a good eater, one day balked at his soup, declaring it “nasty.” He refused it the next day, too, and refused to eat the soup, each day growing thinner and more frighteningly gaunt. By the fifth day, Augustus died, a victim of his own stubborn refusal to eat his soup. The “nasty soup” decorates his grave instead of flowers. No mention, of course, of the negligent parenting that would allow a child to starve to death over a bowl of soup, but the scary image of literally wasting away sent a powerful message – you must each the food you are given, or you could starve to death.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Hoffman’s Inky Boys in Struwwelpeter, 1899 ed. Public domian.

Morality Lesson Gone Wrong

Struwwelpeter has one entry with a surprisingly modern message, but presented in a questionable way. In The Inky Boys, three white boys tease a black boy. This angers a local man, Agrippa, (depicted as a sort of wizard), who yells at the white boys to stop their teasing, how it isn’t fair or nice. Agrippa grabs the boys and dips them into an ink pot. The message is to show how teasing people of different ethnicities is terrible and wrong. By itself, the message of racism being wrong is rather progressive for the times. But there’s still the implication that being ‘dark’ is a bad thing, when the boys are dipped in ink and forced to be ‘dark’ to experience how it feels. While it reflects the sentiments of the time, it is a rather blatantly racist viewpoint when observed by modern readers using today’s standards.

Historic Children’s Fairy Tales That Will Haunt Your Nightmares
Struwwelpeter has been on stage before. 1901 production Shock-Headed Peter at Garrick Theater. Public domain.

Struwwelpeter Persists To This Day

Struwwelpeter terrified off-Broadway audiences in a musical than ran in the early 2000s. Shockheaded Peter became a musical geared for adults, however, ramping up gore and terror. Its showcase of puppetry, music, and melodrama earned it the 2002 Olivier Award. And Struwwelpeter continues to terrify. Artist Bob Staake most recently published an updated version of Struwwelpeter with modern illustrations in 2006 as a reaction to how watered-down children’s literature had become. Staake’s editors expected either a tame version of the stories, softened for today’s child audiences, or a tongue-in-cheek version for adults that played to an audience who loved horror. Staake refused both directions. In an interview with NPR, Stakke recalls, “…they said, Now, remember, you know, this is a children’s book that’s aimed for adults. And I said, No, absolutely not. This is a children’s book.”

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

5 facts about the Brothers Grimm. B. Myint, Biography.com, 11 June 2020.

10 holiday creatures from around the world that aren’t Santa. Brittany Rose, b98.5.fm, 12 December 2019.

11 Original Fairy Tales vs. Disney Movies: how many do you know? Angela Poch, Halloweencostumes.com, 23 August 2019.

Meet Krampus, the Christmas devil who punishes naughty children. Becky Little, 18 December 2020.

Struwwelpeter: Merry stories and funny pictures. Heinrich Hoffman (1845), Frederick Warne & Co, Inc. New York (English version). Public domain via Project Gutenberg.org.

The 19th-century book of horrors that scared German kids into behaving. Sarah Laskow, 14 June 2017.

The return of ‘Slovenly Peter.’ Rachel McCarthy, National Public Radio (NPR)/ MPR News, 9 April 2006.

The true stories behind classic fairy tales. Valerie Ogden, Huffington Post, 5 November 2014.

he twisted history of Snow White. Adam Gidwitz, International Literacy Association, 24 October 2013.

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