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  • Countdown: 5 Creepy Tales That Would be Amazing Retellings
Countdown: 5 Creepy Tales That Would be Amazing Retellings
Contributor
Written by
Laurine Bruder
November 2017
Writing
Contributor
Written by
Laurine Bruder
November 2017
Writing

Halloween is a day rife with ghosts and zombies, witches and ghouls and monsters who bear human faces. It's my favorite time of year, mostly because it gives me an excuse to break out my favorite seasonal movies: “Hocus Pocus,” “Coraline,” “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “ParaNorman.” Then there are the ones that actually terrify me like “The Conjuring,” “Sinister,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “The Evil Dead.”

Notice the lack of fairy tale retellings. It makes me so sad.

There is one horror movie I enjoy that's based on a fairy tale and that's “Snow White: A Tale of Terror.” Otherwise the majority of Hollywood's retellings in the horror genre end up campy gore fests with girls in skimpy outfits.

This baffles me because there's a plethora of fairy tales that are creepy enough to be reimagined as horror novels. So put on your mask, mount your broom, make sure to check your candy, and let's dive into 5 tales that could make truly horrifying retellings.

While there are elements of horror in some of the most popular fairy tales, they've received the Hollywood treatment. But what about the more obscure? It's amazing the amount of murder, dismemberment, gore, and outright creepy imagery there is in fairy tales. All around the world there are children's tales that slaughter animals and mutilate old women. But horror takes more than gruesome imagery to make a story.

Atmosphere, tension, suspense, fear, and like any story, it needs a hero readers want to triumph and a compelling villain who makes that a challenge. The pacing needs to build tension without going too slow. On the flip side, it can't move so fast that there's no time for things to unfold. Blood and gore can add to the horror factor, but true terror comes from the mind. Horror is a challenging genre to write because it's difficult to evoke fear in every reader. Everyone's fears are different, but with some work, these tales can reach in and grip readers by the heart.

The fairy tales on this list are my personal choices. I had a plethora of material to choose from, but I chose these 5 because of their potential to not only be good horror retellings but deep, compelling stories on their own. I also chose them because of their flexibility, to give writers the ability to put their own stamp on the stories. So without further ado, here are my choices for 5 fairy tales that would make great horror retellings.

1. Bluebeard

The tale of a beautiful girl coerced by her family to marry a wealthy man who turns out to be a serial killer.

“Bluebeard” is a French folktale. The most popular surviving version was written by Charles Perrault and published in 1697. “Bluebeard” is rife with imagery seen in horror: facial disfiguration, lavish but isolated estates, temptation, a room full of dead bodies and gore, and a “final girl” in the young wife. It's a cautionary tale about resisting temptation, bewaring excess curiosity, and prizing obedience.

So, how can this morality tale be retold in a way that resonates with modern readers and horror fans?

Any way a writer likes.

The premise is so simple that any writer can put their own stamp on the work. The heroine's curiosity, instead of being the trait that gets her into trouble, could be the very thing that gets her out of it. In the end of the book, it's the wife's sister and brothers who help her escape. That could be changed so the heroine saves herself. She could outwit Bluebeard or lure him into traps to end him. Her backstory could also be changed so that, instead of being coerced/forced to marry him, she does so willingly, establishing motive. Her disobedience changed to independence.

Add in the supernatural and there are endless possibilities for gothic horror. The ghosts of the murdered wives surround the girl. Their dismembered bodies are reflected in artwork or seen in mirrors out of the corner of her eye. There are voices in the walls, whispering to her. Bluebeard is revealed to be a demon or a creature with a taste for beauty. The image of the bloody key appears everywhere after she breaches the hidden room. She has only one day to think of a way to save herself from her husband's wrath.

Add in backstory, personalities, motives, and deepen the story with chills, mystery, and setbacks, and “Bluebeard” has the potential to be a real thriller.

 

2. The Three Army Surgeons

Three army surgeons were so good at what they did that they rode around boasting of their accomplishments. Eventually, they accepted the challenge of an innkeeper: they would cut off parts of themselves and reattach them the next day without harm or fail. The innkeeper didn't know they had a magical salve that could do this, so when the surgeons provided a hand, a heart, and a pair of eyes, he gave the organs to a servant girl to look after.

Needless to say, she failed when a cat came in and ate the body parts.

Not a problem, the maid says, and she and her lover take a hand from a criminal, a pig's heart, and the cat's eyes to replace what was lost. The surgeons will never know.

But they do. When the hand tries to steal, the heart compels its owner to roll in the mud, and the eyes see every mouse in the dark, the surgeons know they know they've been duped. They return to the innkeeper and threaten to burn his inn if he doesn't give back their original parts. In the end, they're given a great sum of money, but are stuck with the substitute parts for the rest of their days.

Whoops.

While this could be a great horror comedy, I think it would also work as straight up horror. The three surgeons were arrogant jerks and deserved a bit of punishment for treating their bodies so carelessly. The replacement parts could be gathered from anyone. Anywhere. The mounting horror as the hand does things the person didn't want it to. The new heart brings about a dark change of heart. The eyes see things no human should see. As they do more evil with their new parts, the tension mounts. Their original parts are missing. They're slowly being driven insane. Do they take the risk of finding new replacement parts? Do they try to live without hands or eyes? Or do they embrace the changes brought on?

This take could also be reimagined into a zombie story or one where the body parts of notorious criminals are sold as curiosities to collectors. The surgeons could be arrogant braggarts as in the original, a mixed bag of personalities, or they could all be innocents in a scheme to get at whatever enables them to reattach their missing parts. Anything's possible.

 

3. The Dead Mother

A mother's bond with her child can be so strong that it transcends death. This tale comes from Russia and is about the death of a young mother and her bond with her baby. After the mother's death, the grieving husband seeks a wet nurse for the newborn. But the baby rejects the nurse and screams all throughout the day. At night, it's silent.

Deathly silent.

The baby's mother nurses her child by night but when her spirit is caught by her husband, she vanishes. All seems well until the child is found dead the next morning.

This story has the potential to be tragic as well as horrific. The bond between mother and child is something society deems sacred. When that bond is interfered with, the mother, and child, die. Her ghost haunts her baby's nursery. A young, new family moves in. There's a new baby. Maybe it can be her baby...and the tale of woe is retold. Tragedy follows the ghost in that room and if anyone interferes with her and her child again, they better watch out. There's the potential for tragedy, or triumph, depending on what tone the writer wants to take.

Then there's the opposite side of the coin: a lack of a bond or a poisonous one between mother and child. A retelling from this angle can explore the ideas of abuse, murder, revenge, etc. on either part of the child or mother. The mother could have abused her child in her quest to protect it. The discovery of the mother's spirit could result in the father's desire to hurt the child, because it might be possessed. Or poisoned. The spirit of the mother could try to coax her older child to join her in death. The child could become partially dead from nursing from her and become a malicious presence on its own.

 

4. The Three Snake Leaves

The Brothers Grimm are certainly full of creepy fairy tales to choose from. This tale is about a princess who vowed that if she were to marry and die first, her husband should be buried alive with her. She marries, she dies from illness, and her poor husband is locked in the tomb with her. Guards are posted at the door to ensure he stays there until he dies.

Sounds like the start of a good horror story. Add in some zombies and it gets better.

When the young king resurrects his wife using three magical leaves brought into the tomb by a snake, she changes. All of her love for her husband is gone. So much so, that when they sail across the sea, she and her new lover, the ship's captain, attack him while he sleeps. They tie him up and throw him overboard to drown.

Luckily a loyal servant had the snake leaves and was able to rescue the young king. It doesn't end so well for the young queen and her new lover, though. He beats them back to her father's kingdom, tells what happened, and the two are locked in a chest and thrown into the sea to drown in payback.

The idea of being buried alive is horrifying in and of itself. To be trapped with a corpse in a dark, airless room, and all because of a promise. The character development potential is fascinating. Does he regret his choice? How close does he come to death before the snake leaves appear? What would he think of? What dreams of his are unfulfilled? Does he try to escape or does he fight against his fate? Then, a miracle happens. His wife is alive again and they can leave the crypt together.

Or is it his wife? Things could be paradise for a while. All is well, you think the book is over, but it's only the halfway point. What could possible happen?

So many things.

A writer could take the route of the original story where the wife wants to kill her husband because she doesn't love him anymore. The love turns to hatred for condemning her to a half life and she wants him to suffer for it. Or the wife could become obsessive in her love for him. He saved her from death and she will kill anyone who tries to interfere in their idyllic life. She could come back with a sense of displacement and a yearning to return to the grave, taking anyone else along for the ride. Including the husband.

 

5. The Girl With the Rose on Her Head

This Portuguese tale is of a brother/sister prince and princess. When the prince goes to war, he bids his sister to look after the thing he loves most: his rose gardens. She promises, he leaves, and she becomes so devoted to the care of his gardens that she doesn't leave there, even to sleep. One day, the princess has a baby girl with her.

Read into that what you will...

The baby grows into a stunningly beautiful girl with a rose on her head, but her mother forbids her to make herself known to anyone or she'll kill her. So the girl grows up quiet, hidden, and alone. When the prince returns, the princess again warns the little girl not to make herself known to him, but through events beyond her control, the prince notices the little girl. When the princess finds out, she beats her severely, locks her in a trunk, then locks the trunk in a room, and makes the prince promise, on her deathbed, not to enter that room. The prince promises, the princess dies, and the little girl is left locked in the trunk.

Oh, but wait, it gets better.

The prince does marry, but when he tells his new wife about the room, his mother-in-law badgers her so much about opening it that she caves in and they open the door. They find the trunk and open it. Upon finding the beautiful girl, the new wife flies into such a jealous rage that she and her mother burn the girl's face all over with flat irons and present her as a “mulatto servant”. Thankfully, the prince does eventually learn of his daughter/niece and has his new wife and mother-in-law punished with hot irons too. He never remarries and he lives together with his niece forever after.

Ah, fairy tales. So whimsical. So charming.

This story is a mountain of creepiness. Incest, child abuse, racism, imprisonment, and mutilation are all present. Even if you took out the magic, the story of an innocent child first abused by her mother for being the product of a shameful secret, then locked away for years, only to be horribly disfigured upon being freed...that's dark stuff. This story has so many angles it could be retold from, all of them creepy.

The prince could follow his role in the story, innocent and unknowing about his daughter/niece. Or he could be the villain. The princess could stay the abusive monster of the story or she could be the victim of her brother's perverted lust. The girl, instead of being born with a rose on her head, is born with something else that isolates her and causes her mother/father to abuse her. But when she's locked away, she bides her time. Eventually she finds her own way out and takes revenge on her mother, her father/uncle, or both.

There's little need for the new wife, since the family dynamic could be changed in so many ways. But if she was included, she could be a neighbor or the new girlfriend who finds out about the abuse. She finds the child locked away from the world. How does she handle it? Does she try to help the girl? Or is she so afraid she has to live with the secret until it drives her insane? Or does she follow her role in the original story and abuse the girl herself? The ending could stay hopeful or be more tragic, with the possible death of the girl and/or others. Personally, I prefer hopeful endings, but that's just me.

Either way, this story would make an epic retelling.

There they are, my picks for 5 creepy tales that would make excellent retellings. Whew. That was a lot to get through. But when talking about ideas and writing, I do admit to getting carried away. There's just so much potential. So many stories to tell.

Thanks for stopping by, like, reblog, or leave a comment if you like this blog post or have suggestions for fairy tales that could be reimagined into horror novels. Look for new posts on Tuesdays and be sure to keep an eye out. I've got some surprises coming up in November. Until next time, dear readers, take care and happy Halloween.

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