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Once Upon a Terror: What Fairy Tales and Horror Movies Have in Common

Tales of knights and elves aren't so different from movies about knife-wielding maniacs and serial killers.

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  • Photo Credit: Focus Features

On the surface, fairy tales and horror movies might seem very different, but in fact they operate under similar laws. Both genres rely on sets of rules that the audience is familiar with, and threaten characters with strict or even fatal punishments when they deviate from those rules.

In a fairy tale, we know that pricking your finger on a spindle is never a good idea, and that stepmothers are always evil; just as we know that horror movie characters should never, ever read aloud from a book made of human skin, and that gruff locals lurking around the cabin are always bad news. Both genres often believe in absolute evil, and punish characters for carelessness, deceit, lust, and pride.

In fact, fairy tales and horror are governed by such a similar set of principles that you can basically create a continuum from movies featuring knights and elves, to movies about knife-wielding maniacs and serial killers. Let’s take a look at five movies—ranked from most fairy tale-inspired, to most horror-inspired—and see the creepy ways the genres connect.

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There’s something almost tragically endearing about cult classic Legend: It’s the little film that couldn’t. This dark fantasy from director Ridley Scott underwent more than a dozen rewrites, and has multiple editions that were released on different continents.

In Legend, Princess Lily (Mia Sara) “upsets the natural order” through her prideful desire to touch a unicorn, and accidentally incites the coming of the ancient Lord of Darkness (a delightfully devilish Tim Curry). Lily breaks a tacit rule of Legend‘s universe by not listening to Jack’s warnings regarding the unicorns; as punishment for her impudence, she must face the Lord of Darkness, and watch as her world is plunged into chaos.

Legend incorporates the morality play element of fairy tales, where transgression means punishment. Despite also featuring macabre imagery and a truly demonic villain—both elements that would also be at home in a straight horror movie—it’s certainly the most archetypal fantasy film on this list.

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Based on the book by genre juggernaut Neil Gaiman, Coraline is one of the purest modern examples of a traditional fairy tale. The story follows a young girl—Coraline—who discovers “Other World,” an alternate, and at first more interesting, version of her everyday life. Coraline eventually becomes trapped and, in order to escape, has to go on a quest to please her captors. Through her misadventures, she comes to appreciate the mundane world she once sought to escape.

Since fairy tales were often told to children as a way of getting them to obey their parents, the structure of “not having to follow the rules seems cool, but really…” is baked into those stories. Just as Princess Lily in Legend is punished for her unicorn transgression, Coraline also faces the dire consequences of upsetting the natural order of her world. What makes Coraline somewhat unique in the modern sense, and moves it a little closer to horror on the fantasy-to-horror spectrum, is how willing it is to be out-and-out scary in its threats to the young protagonist.

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro’s Academy Award-winning Pan’s Labyrinth takes the basic fairy tale structure seen in Coraline and inverts it. Yes, the fantasy underworld that protagonist Ofelia moves through to prove herself a true princess is dangerous and often horrific. But unlike the Other World in Coraline, the titular labyrinth is nowhere near as scary as reality. Pan’s Labyrinth shows us the brutality of life in Spain under the fascist rule of Francisco Franco, and the cruelty of Ofelia’s stepfather General Vidal. The story echoes elements of fairy tales, and of horror, but never more than it highlights the cruelty of reality. Pan’s Labyrinth subverts the traditional rules of both genres to show that sometimes humans can be scarier than the most horrific of monsters. 

House (Hausu)

One of the most surreal horror films out there, House is more deeply unsettling than out-and-out terrifying. With a script inspired by fears of the director’s 10-year-old daughter, the ultimate result feels less like a structured movie and more like a creepy story told third-hand from a friend of a friend of a friend.

House also bears similarities to familiar fairy tales, particularly Hansel and Gretel: The six young protagonists go to a beautiful house in the country to visit a mysterious aunt of seemingly impossible youth, but before long, they recognize something is deeply wrong.

Unlike Coraline or Princess Lily, however, these young women are not in the sort of story one walks away from. House showcases the brutal difference between horror and most fairy tales: In horror, even the virtuous (or at worst, the harmlessly insensitive) have no guarantee of being rewarded with survival.

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Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Sure, on the surface slasher movies don’t have much in common with fairy tales—but lift the mask and you’ll see they’re governed by the same principles as many beloved fantasy stories.

The killers in slasher movies are often framed as figures of legendary, absolute evil, like the Wicked Witch or a dragon that returns annually to terrorize a village. The mockumentary Behind the Mask takes the core trappings of fairy tales—monsters, and rules, and punishments for the wicked—and strips the supernatural out of it altogether, comically emphasizing the humanity of the movie’s titular slasher. Through this unique perspective, Behind the Mask demonstrates how rules and legends are often created as a means of explaining arbitrary, evil acts. The movie frequently emphasizes humanity’s need to unify against one absolute ‘monster’—but in this tale, that monster is disturbingly pedestrian.

Behind the Mask exemplifies the creative results that can come from our culture’s current fascination with fairy tales. We write and rewrite them, putting the monster front and center and showing how fairy tales embrace hope and horror simultaneously, often side by side. Behind the Mask shows how, maybe more than any other genres, fairy tales and horror understand a little part of our collective id.

Featured Still from “Coraline” via Focus Features

This article was originally published on October 28th, 2016.