Traditional fairy tales are so steeped in blood it’s astonishing that children didn’t all grow up to become deranged in days gone by. Take, for example, the popular Japanese fable “Shita-kiri Suzume” (literally, “Tongue-Cut Sparrow”), which tells the tale of a kind old man, his avaricious wife and an injured sparrow. Some versions of the fable end with the greedy woman being tortured to death by demons, serpents and skeletons.
Horror is by no means limited to Japanese fables — it’s a universal revulsion. The original versions of fairy tales that were penned by the Brothers Grimm are full of gore. I was fortunate enough to see some of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s stories in London last month as part of an immersive production based on a retelling by British writer Philip Pullman. The show included an adaptation of “The Goose Girl,” which ended with a woman — women typically bear the brunt of the punishment in fairy tales, I’m afraid — being thrown into a barrel that has spikes hammered into it. And, just in case that wasn’t gruesome enough, the barrel was then rolled down a hill.
Titled “Grimm Tales,” the production was staged in a crumbling old warehouse on the south bank of the Thames, and took place across several floors. Each space was decorated with spooky things such as creepy doll’s houses and broken clocks.
If you stop and think about it, it’s a bit strange that some people genuinely like being scared. Just look at the sheer number of people who flock to see horror movies at movie theaters. Fear, of course, is a vital emotion, and evolved to protect us from the very real dangers of the wild.
Humans have an instinctive fear response. If your life is on the line — and it often was back in the day, when humans lived in caves and died from broken bones or something as small as a scratch — it pays to err on the side of caution. Therefore, being afraid when there’s no real apparent danger nearby — that is, watching a movie — seems to be physiologically pleasurable in some hormonal way.
Greek philosopher Aristotle developed a few ideas about this. He believed that we derive pleasure from depictions of tragedy because it is cathartic. This may be true, but there’s also something to what suspense mastermind Alfred Hitchcock said in 1974: “Give them pleasure — the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”
Fairy tales are also important from an educational perspective. Instinct does seem to feature in our fear of certain animals. There is some evidence that our propensity for fear of spiders and snakes is genetic, but there needs to be an initial trigger. When we’re born, we’re only naturally afraid of falling and of loud bangs. It’s the same with other animals — they don’t seem to be born with innate fear, rather they learn what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of.
One recent and fascinating discovery on this subject concerns smell. We know that certain smells can be associated with fear if they accompany a fearful experience. However, when biologists trained mice to associate the smell of cherry blossoms — of all things! — with electric shocks, they found that even the grandchildren of the trained mice were afraid of the scent of blossoms. The fear response persisted even though the younger generation had never been shocked.
Learning to be afraid of the smell of a predator or the sight of a human with a gun is one thing. However, modern society is rather more complicated than what you find in the jungle, and our fears are rather more sophisticated. Learning what humans need to be afraid of in these modern times takes rather more than a close encounter with a snake.
This explains the evolution of folk tales. Before public health announcements and compulsory education system, knowledge was passed on orally. As a result, folk tales exist in all cultures. As Hideo Toguchi of Chuo University put it: “In this world of pleasure and pain, everybody is on a long journey in pursuit of happiness. Fairy tales express these symbolic dynamics of life.”
Symbolism can be found in virtually all fairy tales. Sexual partners often take the form of animals. In the Pullman adaptation, an ugly frog turned into a handsome prince. In Japanese folk tales, foxes typically disguise themselves as women.
Which makes me wonder. Animals don’t have fairy tales to help them learn about danger. Or do they?
Some fox cubs visited my garden last year and I enjoyed watching them play. They would stalk each other and tumble around on the lawn. At a very basic level, the play-ambush teaches the cubs about the dangers of the world around them. However, it would be bit of a push to call that a fairy tale. Obviously animals don’t have an oral tradition, right? Not, at least, as we understand it. Putty-nosed monkeys in West Africa have a very basic kind of language. The monkeys make different alarm calls depending on the type of danger. If there is a leopard nearby, the monkeys emit a “pyow” call. If there is an eagle, they shout “hack.” Each call elicits a different response from the group of monkeys. A pyow call causes the monkeys to move away, while a hack cry makes them stay still and take cover. And then there’s a third option: If a monkey puts the calls together and says “pyow-hack,” it means, “Let’s move.”
I like to imagine the monkeys at night telling stories to their children by making the calls. Perhaps — and there’s no evidence for this — they act out the movements and reactions piece by piece, making the younger monkeys cling to their mothers in fear while they’re remaining safe in their nests.
Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”).