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Scary Morality Tales for Children
Lessons for life. And death.
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One of the great truths of the world is that if you want to get the attention of kids, one of the best ways to do it is to make it fun.
The other way is to scare the hell out of them.
If you can do both, then you’re a legend.
Aesop had long been a teller of morality tales, but those stories were short, straightforward, and fairly anodyne.
The first successful attempt at coupling children’s stories with horror was the book produced by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812. The first volume of Children's and Household Tales (German: Kinder- und Hausmärchen) contained 86 stories; the second volume, released three years later, contained 70 more.
The Grimms were particularly interested in the upbringing of children, as their childhood and young adulthood had been a struggle. Their father died from pneumonia in 1796 at the age of 44 and they and their 8 other siblings fell into extreme poverty; at the age of 11 Jacob became head of the household and had to provide for his family.
Still, Jacob and Wilhelm, one year younger, became excellent students and made their way to university in 1802/03, following in their father’s footsteps. But then their mother died in 1808 and once again Jacob had to step in as a father figure. By then, the family had become so poor that they could barely feed and clothe themselves, and Jacob and Wilhelm became concerned about the family’s stability.
When they produced the original version of their book, it contained themes that today we might call unsuitable for children: child abuse, pre-marital sex, wicked mothers (and later, stepmothers), incest, anti-Semitism, and graphic violence.
These stories became known worldwide, and the Brothers Grimm have been immortalized in their hometown.
While we think these topics would be fair game for cautionary tales of leading a good and upstanding life, the reality is that through the eyes of children, they can seem like outright horror stories.
Chucky, Hold My Beer
So when I saw this post on Threads from the UK's National Trust, I wondered how this doll might have contributed to night terrors somewhere throughout history…
We didn’t have to provide a name, as he already has one: Struwwelpeter (or Shock-Haired Peter). He was the title character in the children’s book Der Struwwelpeter written in 1845 by Heinrich Hoffman.
He didn’t think there were enough good children’s books available, so he wrote one for his three-year-old son as a Christmas gift.
As you read through the summary of 10 stories, it’s hard to imagine a three-year-old reacting to these horrors:
Struwwelpeter describes a boy who does not groom himself properly and is consequently unpopular.
Die Geschichte vom bösen Friederich (“The Story of Wicked Frederick”): A violent boy terrorizes animals and people. Eventually he is bitten by a dog, who goes on to eat the boy’s food while Frederick is bedridden.
Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug (“The Very Sad Tale with the Matches”): A girl plays with matches, accidentally ignites herself and burns to death. Only her cats mourn her.
Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben (“The Story of the Inky Boys”): Nikolas (or “Agrippa” in some translations) catches three boys teasing a dark-skinned boy. To teach them a lesson, he dips them in black ink.
Die Geschichte von dem wilden Jäger (“The Story of the Wild Huntsman”) is the only story not primarily focused on children. In it, a hare steals a hunter's musket and eyeglasses and begins to hunt the hunter. In the ensuing chaos, the hare’s child is burned by hot coffee and the hunter jumps into a well.
Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher (“The Story of the Thumb-Sucker”): A mother warns her son Konrad not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb-sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.
Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar (“The Story of Soup-Kaspar”) begins as Kaspar (or “Augustus” in some translations), a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days, he wastes away and dies. The last illustration shown is of his grave, which has a soup tureen atop it.
Die Geschichte vom Zappel-Philipp (“The Story of Fidgety Philip”): A boy who won’t sit still at dinner accidentally knocks all of the food onto the floor, to his parents' great displeasure.
Die Geschichte von Hans Guck-in-die-Luft (“The Story of Johnny Look-In-The-Air”) concerns a boy who habitually fails to watch where he’s walking. One day he walks into a river; he is soon rescued, but his briefcase drifts away.
Die Geschichte vom fliegenden Robert (“The Story of Flying Robert”): A boy goes outside during a storm. The wind catches his umbrella and lifts him high into the air. The story ends with the boy sailing into the distance.
Thumbs cut off, death by starving, mourning cats. Heavy lessons for a toddler.
Meanwhile, today we have librarians quitting over draconian guidelines and harassment.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.