The Horror of Children’s Stories

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This is repost from an earlier one. It’s still relevant though.

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might think the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.

My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

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Don’t Drop Jesus!

When I was a professional actor, which was some time ago now, I became involved in the presentation of Christmas shows at Brisbane’s Southbank. If you’ve never been to Brisbane, Australia, you may not be aware of Southbank, which (as the name suggests) is on the south bank of the Brisbane River, one of the finer waterways in the civilised world. It’s a public recreation area very popular among the local population.

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Anyway, I would be part of the Christmas shows there. Each year I would be involved in the week leading up to Christmas. The public would come to Southbank and we would put on a variety of entertainment. Now, I don’t know if I was good or bad, but the truth is I was offered a different role each year, like they were trying me at everything until I found what I was good at. Actors worry a lot about how good they are.

So I did a different role each year for five years. With the Christmas season upon us, I thought I’d reveal some the good (and bad) times involved with being an put-of-work actor struggling to put bread on the table and taking on whatever was on offer in order to do so.

Year One:
This will live in my memory forever. I was a gypsy dancer. Yes, me. For those who don’t know me personally, I have absolutely no sense of rhythm. None. And the first year I had to dance the length of Southbank in a parade, accompanied by a gypsy band (guitar, drum, violin and flute), while proclaiming something or other that had something to do with Christmas. I forget what it was now.

I was married at the time. At one of the performances my wife was present along the route and I ran over and kissed her and later the band members were saying to me: “You did know that chick, right?” which probably meant my role as a hot-blooded gypsy was fairly realistic.

I wore the same costume each night, which mostly failed to make me look anything like a gypsy. It got soaked in sweat because of course it’s summer here in Brisbane at Christmas time and Brisbane is a particularly humid part of the world. It also didn’t help that accompanying me and my gypsy band was a fire-eater, who would shoot great gouts of flame from his mouth as I sang and danced my way along. I had to time things just right or else he would have blasted me with fire, which would have upset my Mum.

Year Two:
This year they put me at the head of the parade. I was there complete with foot-long beard, dirty robes, staff and loud voice, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. The first person the assembled crowd saw was me. Two moments stand out. The first was when a boy (must have been about 18, but a boy to me) stepped out in front of me and said ‘Can I have your staff?’ I mean, really! Here I am, floor-length filthy prophet’s robe, obviously using my staff as a vital prop, and this kid wants to use it for some reason or other. I just ignored him and moved on.

The other moment was when I spied a friend in the audience, a fellow actor named Jacy. She was right at the end of the parade, sitting with some of her friends. I remembered my success of the previous year when I kissed my wife and it made a major stir, so I went over to Jacy and said hello and announced loudly, “It’s very lucky to kiss a prophet!” and planted one on her. Fortunately she took it well and accepted the kiss. It made good theatre and people thought “Here’s a prophet we can relate to!”

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Year Three:
This is the Don’t Drop Jesus bit.  I was one of the Three Wise Men this year. Mr Myrrh, in fact. We were further back in the parade this time riding camels and preceded by Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus represented by a doll. Mary rode on a donkey led by Joseph, holding Jesus in her arms. We paraded along the river then went to a stage area where Joseph and Mary sat in a Nativity scene suitably decorated with real animals. At a certain time we Wise Men entered and presented our gifts with appropriate speeches.

Being Mr Myrrh, I was in line behind Mr Gold. So I had a pretty good view of Mary on the donkey, so I was in a good position to see precisely what happened.

Mary was, as I said, riding the donkey. At various points on the path that follows the Brisbane River at Southbank there are brightly-coloured mosaics set into the cement. The donkey, which up until this point had had no problem with these mosaics, for some reason stopped suddenly at one of them. Maybe it had noticed it for the first time and got a fright. Anyway, its sudden stop meant trouble for Mary. She was riding bareback and side-saddle, being dressed in robes, with the doll representing baby Jesus in her arms. This  meant she couldn’t hold onto anything else, but Joseph was walking beside her leading the donkey in case she needed help to stay on at any time.

Anyway, the donkey pulled up sharply. Mary, according to Newton’s First Law of Motion, kept her momentum and continued along Southbank, slipping forwards over the donkey’s shoulder. As she clutched at the animal’s neck to stay on, she let go of Jesus, who, also in accordance to Newton’s laws, took off out of her arms. Mary let go of the donkey and fell off. Fortunately, she landed on her feet and managed to catch Jesus who was at that point descending in a head-first power dive towards the cement path. The crowd applauded and we Wise Men breathed a sigh of relief. Mary climbed back on and the parade continued as if the whole incident was just part of the show.

We congratulated Mary afterwards in the dressing room for her brilliant save. The girl who played Mary explained she’d been rather good at netball when she was at school, so it’s good to know the Mother of God had a keen interest in wholesome team sports, and found them useful.

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Year Four:

This year I was Santa’s Head of Security. You may think the he doesn’t need such a thing, but I took the role very seriously. So there I was, dressed as an Elf (yes green tights and all) with sunglasses and a rather fiendish looking “Naughtiness Detector” which could make various sounds when buttons were pressed. I’d mingle among the crowd prior to the show starting and run the detector over children and adults, making the detector beep and bray according to whether the target had been naughty or nice that year. Of course, all the children had been nice and all the Dads had been naughty. This amused the kids, of course, as well as the parents.

I also had the job, as head of Security, to announce Santa’s arrival. I’d get on the public address and make announcements like “The Fat Man is five minutes away”, “The Fat Man has landed”, etc. All good fun. Santa was played by a man who actually ran a Santa School teaching other people how to be Santa. He had an amazing trick he did with the kids who came to visit him in his tent. He had an Elf assisting him. The child would enter the tent while Santa was talking to another child. The Elf would ask the waiting child their name, and then pretend to look them up in his big book that he had in front of him. Now, I don’t know how it was done, but by the time the child arrived in front of Santa, he already knew their name. Santa would smile and say, “Well, hello Billy!” or  “I remember you, Sally. I visited your house last year!” Because, of course, Santa knows the name of every child in the world. He never missed it once. Since he was talking to another child at the time, it was hard to see how he could overhear what was going on between the waiting child and the Elf, especially as he was several metres away on his big chair. It was a neat trick, but out of respect for his methods I never asked how it was done.

Year Five:

This was my last year with the Christmas Show because I moved out of town after that. My final gig was a storyteller. There were several actors scattered around the arena and while the families waited for the show to start we would gather kids together and tell Christmas-themed stories to keep them occupied.

I remember my story was about a Green Tree Frog and while I told the story I acted out the Frog. I had an assistant who would play the other parts in the story and help with the voices and narration. It was a lot of fun and the story was actually quite funny.

The only incident of any note happened when a small boy, no doubt assuming that since I was a frog and therefore liked water, decided to shower me with his drink bottle right in the middle of the story. Since I was squatting down pretending to be a frog at the time he was tall enough to upend his water bottle over my head. It was actually quite refreshing on a sticky December night.

So those are five Christmases I remember fondly. I haven’t been with the Southbank show for ages now, but I had a great time and I hope the crowd did too.

Have a great Christmas and New Year.

holly

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com