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Dissecting Stephen King in A Fairy Tale Sense (Laura Sighinolfi)

The horror-ethusiast himself, Stephen King Credit: Google Images

The horror-ethusiast himself, Stephen King Credit: Google Imagescz

As I read the original tales of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding hood, Cinderella and Snow White I couldn’t help but be remotely attracted to the sexual and violent thematic concerns that are found in the Grimm’s Collection. Each original fairy tale reminded me of every horror story that I’ve ever seen. For this essay I’d like to propose the following question, what is it about a gruesome tale that ignites our interest? I believe it is why we are a generation who are obsessed with the obscene. It is why we are attracted to law and order, horror movies, and late night scary stories. Just as the Grimm’s used violence to create an entertaining story, so do many authors. I believe that horror stories are merely fractured fairy tales. In this essay I’d like to compare Stephen King’s stories and how they relate to original fairy tales.

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve followed trails about mothers killing their infants, reading articles about mothers eating their babies because of drugs, or fathers molesting their children. I believe what makes the Grimm’s fairy tales so appealing is the idea that these twisted stories are not far from the truth. I believe that’s what creates such an intense horror story, that it’s not far from the truth. In Dissecting Stephen King: From the Gothic to Literary Naturalism , Heidi Strengell explains that “King has inherited fairy-tale archetypes from the Brothers Grimm and recast them in a particularly gothic format. King considers fairy tales the scariest existing stories, arguing that the stories for children from conduit leading to what adults call horror stories. Not only frightening in themselves, these stories also provide access to a time in our lives when we were more scared and more vulnerable than we are as adults. Just as a hypnotist is capable of hypnotizing a subject by using a special word, fairy tales perform a similar feat, making us regress instantaneously into childhood. King deliberately employs fairy tales in his fiction to evoke a specific effect.” Strengell then goes on by explaining that fairy tales and horror stories continually overlap because they have similar themes and primal phobias. Each fairy tale consists of a breakup of familiar relationships, death, and isolation and in both the reader is forced to confront these issues and participate in attempts to resolve them. Just as Maria Tatar explains that violence, incest, abuse, starvation and exposure are underlying themes in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, King deals with all these themes and frequently follows the fairy-tale formula. Strengell also argues that …” King has merely changed the setting of the fairy tale and shows us the malignant forms not in castles or caves but in the contemporary settings.”
Don’t believe me? Think that King’s short stories and terrifying movie scripts can’t possibly be based on precious fairy tales? Let us consider one of King’s most famous works, Carrie. Carrie is merely a fractured fairy tale, a reverse spin-off from the original version of Cinderella. Carrie, an isolated teenager shunned from society because of her differences and abused by her religion-crazed mother finally gets to go to the prom (ball) but instead of living happily ever after is humiliated by her classmates, blahblahblah.. kills her mother and seeks revenge on those whose who have hurt her with her supernatural powers. 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, there are even supernatural if not magical powers involved, and an overall universal theme. It contains a didactic story about morality. Sure it may be unrealistic for a teenage girl to develop telepathic powers, but how realistic is it to turn mice into horses? Each fairy tale contains a universal message, we are merely more attracted to those that contain gore, and revenge.
Along with literary critics such as Strengell, I agree that King’s original plots contain a fairy-tale plot, just twisted and more violent to entertain his audience. He merely writes fairy tales targeted for adults to emphasize on a societal critique. The origins of children’s fairy tales states that “encasement of the instructive material that adults taught their children would need with an entertaining format that children might be supposed to want.” King simplifies his story but instead of creating an entertaining format for children, he creates them for adults such as the Grimm Brothers did. Consider his tale of Hansel and Gretel ,

Hansel & Gretel; Image Credit: Google Image

Hansel & Gretel; Image Credit: Google Image

“A good but rather weak man discovers that, because of inflation, recession and his second wife’s fondness of overusing his credit cards, the family is tottering on the brink of financial ruin. In fact, they can expect to see the reposition men coming for the car, almost new recreational vehicle, and the two color TV’s any day; and a pink warning-of-foreclosure notice has already arrived from the bank that holds the mortgage on their. The wife’s solution is simple but chilling: Kill the two children, make it look like an accident, and collect the insurance. She browbeats her husband into going along with this homicidal scheme. A wilderness trip is arranged, and while wifey stays in camp, the father leads his two children deep into the great Smoky wilderness. In the end he finds he cannot kill them in cold blood; he simply leaves them to wander around until, presumably, they die of hunger and exposure. The two children spend a horrifying three days and two nights in the wilderness… “
King creates this twisted but realistic fairy tale. He explains that “the mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized . . . and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark. For those reasons, good liberals often shy away from horror films.”
King elaborates on the importance of horror in fairy tales explaining “If we share a brotherhood of man, then we also share an insanity of man. None of which is intended as a defense of either the sick joke or insanity but merely as an explanation of why the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time.”’ I think the correlation between what qualifies a story as a fairy tale, and what is qualified as a horror story is how you precieve the characters.

Discussion Questions:

Can you think of any horror films that are adaptations of original fairy tales? Do you feel as if these horror stories have more in common with the Grimm’s original version rather than the one created as a bed-time story for children?
Why do you think that we, as a society are attracted to gruesome and disturbing tales of incest, sexual abuse, and childhood neglect?
Can we analyze horror stories with psychoanalyst as we do with fairy tales?
Why do we crave horror stories just as children crave Fairy Tales? Does it open up a sense of imagination?
What do you think Stephen King was trying to when he created his modern version of “Hansel and Gretel?”
King, Stephen.“Why We Crave Horror Movies“” Web. February, 6th 2013.
King, Stephen “Now You Take ‘Bambi’ or ‘Snow White,’ Now That’s Scary!” Web. February, 6th 2013.
Strengell, Heidi. “Disecting Stephen King; From The Gothic To The Literary Naturalism.” University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. Print. .




  1. erdoll says:

    I thought this post was extremely interesting. I also found the Grimm Brothers versions of fairy tales much more enticing than the Disney versions. I found myself telling my friends about the original versions of the tales and how disturbing I found them to be. However, I found them intriguing because there is something about a step-mother killing her stepson that is just more fascinating than a stepmother not letting her daughter go to the ball.
    I thought that your comment about how horror stories attract us because there is a part of us that knows that this could actually happen in real life was the most interesting. The fact that humans could be so cruel draws us in and makes us want to know more, watch more, and read more. This reminded me of the most recent season of American Horror Story on FX. In this season, the setting is in an asylum in the 60s. The show features topics like serial killers, torture, insanity, experimental medical procedures, and exorcisms. To me, this was more terrifying than some classic horror stories because it talked about the cruelty of humans. The fact that humans could actually do some of the things in this show was what was most terrifying to me. On the other hand, movies and shows about romance and comedy are slightly less intriguing because, while these things do happen, they are less disturbing and more “normal” in human life.

  2. juliasilverman says:

    Okay I have to start off by saying that I am so excited you brought up Stephen King! He is one of my absolute favorite authors of all time and I never would have thought to compare him to Fairy Tales.
    However now that you bring it up it is kind of hard to stop making comparisons. King’s portrayal of children is extremely interesting because many times (as in the case of the Shining or Salem’s Lot) the children are far more capable than adults. This is interesting because the reason for their abilities stems from their innocence. Many of the villainous characters in King’s books are evil as a result of their being adults. For King, adulthood symbolizes a loss of innocence and faith and also a life of sin.
    A perfect example would be ‘It’. The child gang in ‘It’ is fighting a villainous monster that only they can see. It’s almost as if only they can recognize the evil in Derby that has been swept under the carpet by the adults. It is their faith, their innocent friendship, and their role as the underdog that allows them to take on the monster. Even as adults, when they return to Derby they revert back to children (Bill starts stuttering again) before they can defeat the monster.
    I really like your question about psychoanalyzing horror as well as fairy tales. Since they seem to go pretty hand in hand (there have been horror film adaptations of ‘Snow White’ and others) I would say you can definitely psychoanalyze horror.

    • Great point about kid characters in Stephen King! While not an avid King reader, your comment makes me realize that the relationship between horror and childhood is, perhaps, a departure from what I see in other texts and films. Often horror authors and filmmakers frame the child as villain, demon, or evil force to be destroyed. But here, adulthood is the enemy.

  3. abbysearfoss says:

    While I don’t think I have really read King work, your mention of Law and Order at the beginning of the post made me think of my addiction to SVU, and why I love the show so much, and then in turn why children have the desire to go see the scary R-rated movies before their parents think is appropriate. I truly think that this gruesome, horrifying, aspect of shows, movies, and literature, whether it be murder, child abuse, rape, etc., is so attractive because for many of us it is so foreign, but also because it seems to grown-up. Being allowed to see those R-rated movies is such a rite of passage and I think that it is the same for reading a scary book, because it seems like you are doing something very mature and kind of crossing the line into adolescence or adulthood. Especially in these adaptations of fairy tales, it is very clear to a kid growing up which one is the “childish” version of the story and which one is for adults, and I think that when they are allowed to see that adult version, they truly feel like they have left the child category. It symbolizes that leap into a new realm of entertainment, and whether or not the child likes the feeling of being on the edge and not knowing what gruesome act is going to come next, I think the maturity factor is the biggest draw as a society to this kind of literature.

  4. Hey there. I am a huge Stephen King fan and I devoured his books when I was a kid. I really liked Julia’s comment – namely that kids are far more competent than adults when fighting evil because they’re far closer to something primal or innocent. Julia’s right. “It” is a perfect example as well as “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” “Hearts in Atlantis,” and “The Shining.”

    That being said, I was really interested that you compared the story of “Carrie” to “Cinderella.” It didn’t feel very Cinderella-ish to me when I read it. It felt more like a story in which a young girl was in tune with a primal power. Think about the opening scene of the novella: Carrie’s in the locker room after gym class and she gets her first period. She doesn’t know what’s happening and she thinks that she’s dying. The other girls are disgusted by this and start throwing tampons at her and screaming, “Plug it up!” After this huge change in Carrie’s life she begins acquiring powers. However, the idea that Carrie goes to prom with a prince i.e. one of the best guys in school, and then gets pig’s blood thrown on her IS very anti-Cinderella and I can see where you and other critics got your ideas.

    I don’t know why stories like this fascinate us. The first time I read “Carrie” I was distraught and couldn’t read it again; however, I’ve returned to King’s other books dozens of times. Maybe we like these stories for pure entertainment, or maybe we hunger to learn about stuff like this because it’s so foreign to us.

  5. jonathanbates2013 says:

    I feel that, as a society, we are interested in the gruesome aspects of horror stories because of the taboo associated with them. It probably stems back from our childhood. Parents play the role of life mediator in our lives. they tell us what is good and bad and differentiate right and wrong, at times without an explanation. Sometimes they would tell us not to do certain things and then we would turn around and do them because we want to see why we shouldn’t do them. The same goes for horror stories as adults. We know certain things are bad and are not appropriate to discuss, but then horror novelists decide to add them to their stories. Curiosity steps in and drives us to sit down and open up these stories to see what it’s really all about.

  6. chelseacmarcus says:

    I think it’s really interested that you question the psychology of old time-y fairy tales and horror movie because, even though I can’t readily identify a horror film based specifically on a tale type, I think that both of them are very rooted in psychology in different ways. Obviously, we talked in class about how tale-types can be psychologically analyzed in multiple ways, but what I think is interesting is how horror films have almost an opposite psychological effect. We’re the ones who analyze the fairy tales, but the horror films almost analyze us and exploit us for what we’re afraid of.

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