7 Fairy Tales With Dark Origins

Fairytales never go out of style. Adults flock to theaters to reminisce over modern takes on beloved classics or share the magic with their own children.

Fairy Tale Turned Nightmare

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“Once upon a time” and “happily ever after” are the bread and butter of a good fairy tale. Throw in a wholesome message about good triumphing over evil, and it’s no wonder these stories get passed down from generation to generation.

But what if the stories everyone adores are a little less… happy than Disney and storybooks let on? We share the origins of some of our favorite tales, which are twisted at best—dark and gruesome at their worst.

1. Cinderella

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LMPark Photos // Shutterstock

Cinderella is perhaps one of the most well-known fairy tales in the Western world. It’s a tale of an abused and neglected girl with a kind heart and a gentle spirit.

When Cinderella gets her well-deserved happy ending, it is a triumph of good over evil. Happy ever after… except remember that wicked stepmother and those awful stepsisters?

Stepsisters Ill Fate

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While Disney and other adaptations opt to pivot quickly from the trio’s fate, the original tale took pleasure in tormenting the evildoers.

You know the glass slipper that led to Cinderella’s ever after? Well, the stepsisters put up a good fight to get that shoe on—including chopping off bits of their own feet!

They Were Left Blind

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One sister cut off her heel, and the other sacrificed a toe. Unfortunately, mutilating their feet wasn’t the win they’d hoped for.

Oh, and that kind heart of Cinderella’s? It led her to graciously invite the horrible stepsister to her wedding… where a flock of doves pecked out their eyes.

Apparently, violently crippling and blinding two main characters was a little too dark for Disney. It’s probably for the best that they left that part out.

2. Pinocchio

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Berke // Shutterstock

Lying is bad. That’s the essence of this tale about a wooden boy who comes to life. Each time Pinocchio lies his nose grows, and boy does he love lying.

Pinocchio is painted as a mischievous little boy in modern retellings. His trickery and misbehavior are seen as endearing and charming—a very “boys will be boys” take on the character.

A Horrible Execution

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Pinocchio’s creator, Carlo Collodi, had the opposite intention. The sentient puppet is meant to serve as a warning against evil and wickedness.

The original story is a tragedy that ends with Pinocchio getting hanged from a tree, a noose around his neck, in a brutal and graphic execution.

So much for becoming a real boy.

3. The Three Little Pigs

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wonderisland // Shutterstock

“I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!”

The Three Little Pigs is really a tale about how hard work pays off. The two lazy pigs flee to their brother’s brick home when theirs gets blown to bits by the Big Bad Wolf.

The three pigs are safe and sound and learn a lesson about taking the easy way out. Or at least, that’s how the story gets told nowadays.

Things Go South For All Parties

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The original was a little less forgiving to the first two pigs. Their cheap shortcuts merited a more severe punishment—namely, getting digested by the wolf. Yeah, the three little pigs get whittled down to one by the end of the original story.

It’s okay, though, because the wolf also meets a gruesome end for his villainy. The last pig avenges his brothers by… boiling the wolf alive. Hooray?

4. Snow White

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OlgaKan // Shutterstock

Speaking of punishment, remember Snow White? The beauty with skin as pale as snow spends most of her story as a victim of the Evil Queen.

The queen’s misdeeds include hiring a huntsman to carve out her stepdaughter’s heart, which she intends to consume in order to gain immortality, and slipping the girl a poisonous apple.

Taking Revenge

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Not the nicest things to do, which is perhaps why the prince who saves Snow White decides the queen should suffer justly for her crimes. His idea of justice is simple and effective—he forces the queen to wear a pair of red-hot iron slippers and dance until she drops dead. Cruel, but festive.

5. Hansel and Gretel

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Marbury // Shutterstock

The lessons in Hansel and Gretel are… interesting. Definitely don’t eat random candy you find in the woods. Also, murder is okay sometimes if the person really, really deserved it.

In the original tale, the siblings are left in the woods because their parents can’t afford to feed them. Upon finding a house made entirely of candy, the starving pair rush to it.

Getting Trapped By a Witch

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Diego Grandi // Shutterstock

They get trapped by the evil witch inside, who locks Hansel in a room to fatten him up and turns Gretel into her own personal maid.

When Gretel learns the witch is less into candy and more into flesh, she tricks the witch into leaning over the oven. Gretel then shoves the witch inside, bolts the oven door, and lets her captor slowly burn to death.

Going Back Home to Dad

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She robs the witch blind for good measure. The kids find their way home—where their father (and almost every adaptation since) conveniently sidesteps the fact that he left them to rot in a forest—and live happily ever after with their stolen loot.

6. The Little Mermaid

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Balkonsky // Shutterstock

The most recent of Disney’s live adaptations, The Little Mermaid is a beautiful love story about people from two different worlds coming together against all odds.

The lovely mermaid Ariel gains legs and woos Prince Eric, who marries her in the end. Except Hans Christian Anderson, the original author, thought it made sense for the mermaid’s new magic legs to cause her excruciating pain.

It All Ended in Tears

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Todamo // Shutterstock

Each step was like stepping on shards of glass. Yikes. It was worth it for true love, though, right? Wrong.

According to Anderson, a better ending was for the mermaid to lose her prince and watch him marry another.

She could win her legs back though, if she kills the man she loves and pours his blood on them. But the mermaid can’t bring herself to do it, and instead, she hurls herself into the sea, dies, and becomes sea foam. Happy ever after…? 

7. Sleeping Beauty

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Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl cursed by an evil sorceress named Maleficent. The young princess pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, and it lights out.

But don’t fret; she’s awoken by Prince Phillip’s kiss of true love. Simple, romantic, a fitting end for a princess.

Well, let’s just say Disney and other adaptations took A LOT of creative liberty with that ending—and for good reason.

The Original Tale Couldn’t Be Any Worse

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In the original tale, Sleeping Beauty is r*ped by a traveling king while still under her cursed sleep.

She remains unconscious, gives birth to twins, and only wakes up when one of the babies sucks the poisoned splinter from her finger. Let’s all be grateful Disney kept that horrific ending out of their blockbuster adaptation.

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This article was produced and syndicated by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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