In his influential 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim claimed that children need the horror in fairy tales to help them process their Freudian fears of abandonment, pain, and extinction. Regardless of the average tot’s death instinct, children’s stories from Jack and Jill’s violent tumble down the hill to R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series have happily obliged. The latest round of big-screen fairy tales, including three upcoming Snow Whites and Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight-esque Red Riding Hood, market themselves as unusually dark, but good luck matching the grisly source material in which wolves eat children and queens dance themselves to death in red-hot iron shoes.
The other strain running through the history of children’s literature is didacticism. A 1563 English text, to take one example, exhorted young readers to “remember this well, all you that be young/ Exercise vertue, and rule well your toung." If the traditional purpose of children’s stories is to turn them into proper adults, writers have very often treated that mission with grown-up earnestness.
The cautionary tale lies at the intersection of didacticism and gore. Gruesomeness without redemption is gratuitous (e.g., the Saw series), and didacticism alone (e.g., the simpering 19th-century child heroine Elsie Dinsmore) is dull. Together, they’re magical, and the stuff of a blood-soaked yet pious genre that flourished throughout the 19th century. The typical collection of cautionary tales, including the best-known, Struwwelpeter, includes multiple illustrated stories, usually told in verse, about various wicked youths who meet lurid fates that match their sins with poetic justice; at the end, a narrator arrives to sum up the lesson for readers in rhyme. The formula’s broad strokes echo through everything from after-school specials to fundamentalist “hell houses.”
As early as 1865, the conventions of these little books were so established that Lewis Carroll cheekily refers to them in Alice in Wonderland:
She had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if your hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds.
Flash forward a few homages, and you’ll stumble on the campy 1971 drug-scare novel Go Ask Alice, a worthy heir to the stories Carroll poked fun at.
Here, a look at the traditional children’s cautionary tale through history. Be good and read carefully, or you might meet the same fate as little Johnny Head-in-the-Air, who didn’t pay attention to where he was going and fell headfirst in the river. A lot can go wrong when little boys and girls disobey orders.