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Posted by Gina Freitag
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Folklore and Horror: Once Upon a Time

By David Demchuk

For many of us, our first exposure to horror was when we were children reading fairytales. Cutting open the wolf to free Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother? Terrifying. Cannibalistic witch baked in her own oven? Horrific. Sisters cutting off their toes so they can try on the glass slipper? Revolting. Having your tongue cut out and feeling like you’re dancing on knives? Nightmarish. Pricking your finger and falling into a hundred-year sleep? Sounds pretty good, actually!

Many classic and contemporary works of horror draw on folklore and fairytale, including the stories we were told when we were children. Why? Because they resonate with us across generations, with unforgettable imagery and indelible scares. They have the same dream logic, vivid shocks and feelings of vulnerability and inescapability that first gripped us when we were young. Telling adult variations of those stories takes us right back to when we were snug in our beds, eyes wide, reconciled to a week of sleepless nights. Plus we know these stories in our bones–they were passed down to us over generations and we in turn will read them, or watch them, with our children and their children.

Many folktales already have filmic horror elements baked in (pardon the pun), or lend themselves well to cinematic adaptation through a horror lens:

  • Generally limited scope and scale
  • Plain/natural settings; evocative landscapes; ancient/historic locations
  • Unsettling narratives
  • Archetypal characters and conflicts
  • Shocking surreal violence
  • Sometimes uncomfortable/ambiguous resolutions

Folklore and fairytale vary greatly from country to country and region to region–and often local versions change geographic details, central characters, and even beginnings and endings. Wilhelm Grimm made numerous changes to Hansel and Gretel between its first publication in 1812 and the final version in 1857, most notably changing their mother to a domineering stepmother. However, in both versions she is the one who decides to leave the children in the woods, and in both versions she dies before the children are returned home to their loving regretful father. 

Where can you find out more about folklore? I have a few suggestions.

The Folklore Podcast takes a close look at folklore from around the world, some of it delightful and fantastical, some of it horrific, over five seasons so far. The site includes links to past lectures, book reviews and merch. Spectral dogs are a fascination of mine, and their recent lecture ‘Beyond the Hound of the Baskervilles’ was particularly insightful. Their twitter account is @folklorepod

Lore podcast has just passed the 150-episode mark. It examines the frightening history behind common folklore, telling true-life tales about serial killers, cryptids, shipwrecks, haunted tunnels and swamps and lighthouses, and first-person accounts of vampires, werewolves, elves, fairies and gremlins. Says creator Aaron Mahnke: “They are all factual in the sense that people reported these things and believed they were true.” Their twitter account is @lorepodcast

And! If you follow Folklore Thursday, you’re bound to pick up a few extra tidbits every Thursday on Twitter (@FolkloreThurs or #FolkloreThursday).


>>Join me for my Black Museum lecture Mirror, Mirror: Folklore, Fairytale and Legend in Horror on September 30th and then head over to twitter after as I take over The Black Museum’s feed (@blackmuseumTO) to provide colour commentary on the Finnish slasher film Lake Bodom (2016) (available to stream on Shudder Canada or Shudder US). We’re aiming to press play at 8:30pm ET–don’t get pushed into any ovens before then!

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