On Fairytales and Horror Movies
Here’s something I was thinking about today (well, actually, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in my Folklore & Film classes, but the idea to post this as a blog hit me in the shower this morning).
There are four key fairytales which create narrative patterns for the vast majority of horror movies. I want to say all horror movies, but then I’d just be proven wrong by a horror geek with a better memory than I have, so I’m hedging my bets.
Firstly, there are several key books which have inspired these random thoughts:
Brottman, Mikita. (2005) Once Upon a Time in Texas. In Offensive Films, pp. 96-112. Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press.
Rankin, Walter. (2007) Grimm Pictures, Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films. London, McFarland & Company.
Short, Sue. (2006) Misfit Sisters, Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage. Palgrave
Zipes, Jack. (2011) The Enchanted Screen, The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. London, Routledge (Who knew Zipes had his own page on Wikipedia?)
Right, so my proposition is that there are four key fairytales which form the four key paradigms in horror movies:
1. Little Red Riding Hood: In this story, the protagonist, while on the road from A to B, encounters the monster and the monster follows the protagonist home; turning the ‘safe place’ to the ‘bad place’ (to appropriate Stephen King’s useful phrase). We can see this paradigm in Halloween – where Michael Myers follows Laurie (et. al) back to the suburban idyll of Haddonfield.
2. Hansel & Gretel: In this story, the protagonist(s), on their travels, encounter the monster in his/her own ‘bad place’. Unlike the monster in the ‘Red Riding Hood’ narratives who follows the protagonist(s) home, the monster in the ‘Hansel & Gretel’ films is already at home when the protagonist(s) come knocking. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the archetypal film in this narrative paradigm (as Brottman noted), wherein the kids discover what they believe is a place of succor, only to discover bad stuff happens in the ‘bad place’
3. Bluebeard: In the ‘Bluebeard’ narratives, the protagonist(s) discover what they thought was a ‘safe place’ is in fact the ‘bad place’ through the discovery of (what Angela Carter called) The Bloody Chamber – the place of carnage. While Texas Chain Saw could be seen to use this paradigm, films such as Hostel, where travelers discover, what they thought was a safe tourist destination, isn’t, might better fit this paradigm. In the ‘Bluebeard’ narratives, the revelation of the charnel house must change the perception of the ‘safe place’ – that the ‘safe place’ is the ‘bad place’. Unlike the other two types of narratives, in which the ‘safe place’ is turned into the ‘bad place’ (‘Red Riding Hood’) or in which the ‘bad place’ is come upon (‘Hansel & Gretel’).
4. Beauty & the Beast: ‘Beauty & the Beast’ narratives are those wherein the monster reveals itself to be often more human than the human protagonist(s); certainly the monster is revealed to be more of a lover than a killer. These are some of my favourite horror narratives: Phantom of the Opera fits in here, as does Frankenstein, King Kong and my favourite of these movies, Candyman.
There may be other films/fairytale relationships, but I think these are the key ones.
So, just off the top of my head:
Psycho – ‘Bluebeard’ (although the case could be made for ‘Hansel & Gretel’ too)
Dracula – ‘Red Riding Hood’
Scream – ‘Bluebeard’
My Bloody Valentine – ‘Bluebeard’
Friday the 13th – ‘Hansel & Gretel’
… and we could go on. This could be a fun pub game.
Now, this is where the important part fits into the discussion. To leave analysis at the level of identification is to only do part of the job – and the weakest part too. To leave the discussion at the level of identification of the paradigm is to fall into the same trap as the reductive studies of Christopher Brooker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (Continuum, 2005) or worse, the superficial Stuart Voytilla’s Myth and Movies (Michael Weise, 1999). Once we identify that a particular film is this fairytale or that (and despite using the word ‘myth’ – both Voytilla and his inspiration, Joseph Campbell, are actually talking about fairytales, not myths), we need to consider what this particular adaptation of the traditional story is doing. As Zipes suggests in studying the fairytale film, we need to contextualize the film in its historical moment – what were the contemporary discourses which facilitated this adaptation as it was brought to life by this particular film.
We need to consider the impact on the narrative (as a source or conduit of meaning) in terms of these paradigms. What roles do the protagonists and antagonists take on by this patterning – images of youth in the ‘Hansel & Gretel’ narratives, of innocence for ‘Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Bluebeard’, of miscegenation and various forms of illicit love in ‘Beauty & the Beast’?
So, using my random examples above, if Alien is a ‘Red Riding Hood’ story, what role does innocence play in the film? Innocence that the Wayland-Yutani Corp would prize its crew over its cargo?
If Friday the 13th is ‘Hansel & Gretel’, then what are the factors (social, cultural, ideological) which enable the ‘kids’ to invade the space of Mrs. Voorhees and then Jason himself?
What does a film like My Bloody Valentine have to say about community and local history when the relatively safe place of Valentine’s Bluff is revealed to have covered up earlier crimes, and works with the ‘Bluebeard’ narrative paradigm? (The same question could also be asked of Scream)
And, with the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ paradigms, what kinds of conditions are categorized as ‘monstrosities’ (race in King Kong and Candyman; deformity in Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein)?
This is probably requires further discussion …