The Darker Side of Disney: The Terrifying Origin Behind Your Fairy Tale Favorites

By November 29, 2017 History, Other, Rabbit Hole

As Children we grew up on the Disney classics, immersing ourselves in the magical world of our favorite fairy tales. Many of us grew up picturing our own lives in these movies.

When your parents demanded that you complete your household chores you imagined yourself being visited by your fairy godmother prepared to make all your dreams come true. Or there was the time when you stood in the middle of the forest while camping wondering why when you sang the birds and animals didn’t come swooping in, drawn to your side.

The truth is that many of us live in a state of blissful ignorance, with our only knowledge of fairy tales being provided by the Disney corporation. However, if you take the time to do your research and look into the origins of these beautiful tales of love, acceptance and self-discovery you will find a dark past.

The original fairy tales were compiled by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, a couple German academics, philologists, cultural researchers, and authors. The brothers spent years collecting and compiling some of the most well-known folk tales from around the world, releasing their first book in 1812 titled ‘Children’s and Household Tales.’ This collection, now available in more than 100 languages, differs greatly from the Disney version that we have been introduced to. The original folk tales behind stories like Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are dark, twisted and disturbing.

Be prepared to have your childhood turned upside down as you read the frightening truth behind these favorites:

The Little Mermaid

Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1989 Disney released The Little Mermaid, introducing a new underwater world to children everywhere. After falling in love with Prince Eric, Ariel trades her voice to Ursula the sea witch in exchange for legs, promised that she can remain human upon obtaining true love’s first kiss. The original story tells a much more gruesome tale. Ariel is raised in a large family with a number of older sisters, all of which are incredibly dangerous to the sailors who come upon them. Drawn to their beautiful songs of why they shouldn’t fear being underwater, the sailors meet a sad end, drowning once they enter the water. Ariel, falling for the prince like she does in the Disney version, makes a deal with the sea witch who cuts out her tongue in exchange for providing her with a pair of legs. While the Disney Ariel must either obtain true love’s kiss or become Ursula’s slave, in the original tale the alternative to accomplishing her mission is quite bleak – death. To further add to the experience every time that Ariel transforms into a human it isn’t some beautiful, graceful transformation like in the cartoon. Instead, the tale talks of her agony feeling as though she is walking on knives with every step. She does all this for a condescending prince that treats her like a young child, a prince that doesn’t win in the end. She is given one last chance to save her life by her sisters who traded their hair to the witch in exchange for a magical knife. In order to live, Ariel must “kill the love of her life as he lies on his marriage bed.” Sparing the life of the man that she loves she leaps into the waves to her death, swept up by the ‘daughters of the air’ for a life in purgatory.

Sleeping Beauty

Source: Wikimedia Commons


For those of us who grew up watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, first released in 1959, the most frightening aspect of the entire tale was the evil Maleficent. This couldn’t be further from the truth after reading the original story. The two start out almost identically with the beautiful princess pricking her finger on a spindle and falling into a deep sleep, however, it is at this point where they couldn’t be further from the same tale. Disney shares a story of a princess who sleeps peacefully awaiting her prince, awoken by loves true kiss and living happily ever after. For Talia, the princess in the original story, her ‘rescuer’ was a king who came upon her sleeping body. This king did not set out to wake the sleeping princess, instead he “gathers the fruits of her love.” Confused by the older form of speech? He raped the young princess while she slept fathering twins. After the princess gives birth (still sleeping) one of the twins sucks the splinter from her finger, waking her up. To top it all off? The king was married. His wife, understandably upset by the entire situation, develops a master plan to draw Talia and the children out of hiding at which point she will kill them and serve them to the king for dinner without his knowledge. While her plans fail, one can’t help but wonder whether this tale is appropriate for an adult audience, let alone impressionable children!


Source: YouTube


The beautiful and heartwarming tale of Bambi, released in 1942, tells the story of a young deer as he faces life in the forest along. Opening with a scene that brought tears to even the hardest of hearts, Disney turned this story into a favorite of children everywhere. The original story, Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten paints a much darker picture. The story starts with Bambi’s first walk through the beautiful forest that he calls home, however, the forest isn’t as peaceful and loving as the one that is portrayed by Disney. He hears many different creatures threatening to kill one another, and witness the death of a little mouse. The hunter responsible for the death of his mother also shoots Bambi in the original story. He survives being shot and is taught by another deer to spread his blood by walking in circles, confusing the hunter and allowing him to escape. The story changes to one in which the deer learns of the many risks and traps of the human population, discovering the tricks necessary to keep himself safe. In the end, he is shown the dead body of the hunter, shot and killed by another man, a lesson that even man is not all-powerful. The deer that has been teaching Bambi throughout his life refers to him as ‘my son,’ raising the question of whether he has actually been Bambi’s father this whole time, dropping this bomb before going off to die.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Source: Wikimedia Commons


The classic Disney Film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ came out in 1937, sharing the tale of love and friendship as we are introduced to a beautiful princess living among her friends, seven dwarf miners, while trying to hide from her wicked stepmother, saved ultimately by true love. While moments, such as when the queen demands Snow White’s heart, may seem a little dark and twisted, the Disney version is a much nicer portrayal than the original Brothers Grimm version! The witch tries personally to kill Snow White twice before the well-known ‘apple incident’. In one attempt she sells Snow a corset that causes her to pass out when she puts it on because it is too tight. Mistaking the unconscious beauty as being dead the witch believes that she has succeeded only to be disappointed. Similar to the Disney version, she gives the poison apple to Snow, however, how she is then woken up differs in some version. Some agree with Disney, relying on love’s first kiss, while others are far less romantic. In one version, the prince asks to make the funeral arrangements for snow and his servants come to take her coffin away. One of the servants trips, jostling the coffin and causing the lump of apple to dislodge from her throat waking her up.  In the end, the prince and Snow are happily married and the evil queen is required to dance at their wedding wearing iron-hot shoes that proceed to painfully burn her feet until she dies.


Source: Culture Club | Getty Images


How many of us learned of the importance of telling the truth by the growing nose of Pinocchio, guided by his trusty conscious and friend Jiminy Cricket in his quest to achieve his dreams of becoming a real boy. This 1940 Disney classic has provided us with many a teaching opportunity, but the original story created by Carlo Collodi used a very different approach to drive this message home. When the ‘talking cricket’ as he was referred to (he wasn’t given a name in the original story) tried to give the puppet some solid advice, Pinocchio killed him with a mallet. Throughout the story, the puppet was tortured as punishment for his bad behavior. The story even tells of him having his feet burned off, a result of the karma of his bad deeds. Originally Collodi concluded his story with the puppet being hanged and left for dead but, despite the graphic nature of the rest of the story, the public demanded a better ending. Rewriting his conclusion, he had the puppet’s life spared but not without adding more graphic and violent punishments.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Source: Wikimedia Commons


In comparison to many of Disney’s other works, the Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably one of the darkest tales. Released in 1996, it tells the story of Quasimodo as he rescues the beautiful Esmeralda from being burned at the stake. He then accidentally kills his guardian Frollo when they both fall from the balcony of the cathedral, sending Quasimodo into hiding. When he does finally emerge from his place of hiding he is accepted into society, free from his lifetime of isolation and loneliness. As dark as this may be, in comparison to other Disney tales, the original story is even more upsetting. After saving Esmerelda, Quasimodo is betrayed by Frollo when he turns her into the authorities. She is once again sentenced to death, this time in a public hanging which Frollo watches from the cathedral, laughing as she takes her final breath. This causes Quasimodo to snap, throwing Frollo from the balcony to his death. Quasimodo is so heartbroken by Esmerelda’s death that he refuses to leave her gravesite, eventually dying of starvation. When someone discovers his body and attempts to pry it away from his lost love, he crumbles to dust.


Source: Batuza


With the release of Tangled in 2010, Disney brought a classic fairy tale to life, captivating the children of today. Girls everywhere began to value their own long, beautiful locks dreaming of growing their hair out similar to Rapunzel. If parents were presented with the original tale from the Brothers Grimm we would wager that they wouldn’t be quite as quick to share the story with the younger generation! Let’s start with the fact that at no point does Rapunzel cut her own hair creating an easy to use ladder to climb out of the tower – Stockholm Syndrome much? In the Grimm version of the story, Rapunzel is given to the witch because her parents stole plants from the witch’s garden. The princess is then raised by the witch, trapped in the tower, where the prince eventually finds her. Once again, no one considers cutting her hair to free her. Instead, the prince welcomes this ‘booty call’ arrangement where he can come to the princess night after night. The visits from the prince are revealed to the witch when Rapunzel asks about her growing waistline revealing that she is, in fact, pregnant. Angry, the witch throws the young woman out forcing her to give birth to twins alone in a desert. When the prince returns to the tower, climbing the golden locks only to find the witch holding them instead of the mother of his children he leaps from the window of the tower in an attempt to commit suicide. He does survive, however, having landed in the thorns at the base of the tower his eyes have been torn out, blinding him. The tale ends when Rapunzel comes across the blind prince, taking him back and her tears are revealed to have magical powers curing his blindness.


Source: PHAS | UIG | Getty Images


One of the most iconic Disney Princess stories out there, the 1950 movie Cinderella taught us the power of hope, painting a beautiful picture of the magic of love and the promise that good will always win. Throw in some adorable, friendly mice and a fairy godmother that warms all of our hearts with her caring and motherly ways and you have a tale for the ages. Unlike some of the other tales shared here, Cinderella doesn’t have one trackable source. In fact, one academic set out to study the history of this story only to discover 345 versions of the story! Some of the more common versions include ‘Cendrillon’ published in ‘Tales of Mother Goose’ by Charles Perrault in 1697 and ‘Aschenputtel’ from the Grimm Brothers. In Aschenputtel the fairy godmother as we know her doesn’t even exist. Instead, Cinderella takes a twig from her father and plants it on her mother’s grave, watering it with her tears and it grows into a tree that gives her everything she wants. When the prince is traveling around in search of the woman that fits into the iconic glass slipper, her stepsisters go to incredible lengths to be considered. One of the sisters cuts off her big toe while the other cuts off a portion of her heel. The prince is alerted to this scam by doves that draw his attention to all of the blood spilt by their actions. The story ends with these same doves pecking out the eyes of both stepsisters at Cinderella’s wedding.

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