Beware Gingerbread Houses

Posted on December 2, 2008 by


In addition to the various folk tales and fairy stories they collected in their publications, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm also collected supposedly true stories of tragedy, such as the infamous Children Play at Hog Killing, from the first edition of their book and dropped from later editions as too grisly. In these types of stories a group of children, usually after witnessing a butcher slaughtering a hog, play a game to reenact the spectacle with the end result being the tragic death of the child playing the role of the pig.

print by Arthur Rackham, 1909The butcher boy story may or may not be an exaggerated tale based in actual occurrences, as analogs are found in other regions and cultures. But regardless of the butcher boy’s veracity, there are real life tragedies, ones we can read about in our hometown newspapers, that occur often enough to reinforce the importance of these folk stories as cautionary tales. They may even give us some clues to the origins of some of the various prototypical fairy tales that have maintained perennial popularity and invited repeated revisitation and reinterpretation.

The recently reported story of a teenage boy, held captive with chains about his ankles in a perfectly kept suburban home in one of the safest communities in Northern California, tells us as much about the nature of our species and our society as any folk tale. Hollywood couldn’t concoct a more chilling tale. Here is your stereotypical “they looked like a normal happy family” from the schlocky Saturday matinee horror feature, in the flesh. Here is your warning about the dangers that can lurk behind a pretty facade. Here is your wolf in sheep’s clothing, Snow White’s beautiful but poisoned apple, your fallen morning star tempting you with pretty sin. Here is your gingerbread house, with white collar witches inside, waiting to gobble you up and strip away innocence like marrow sucked from a bone.