Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scaring children for their own good

In my velvetonthepage etsy shop that makes cards out of vintage book pages, sometimes I’m struck by how scary and threatening the images are. Traditional fairy tales are full of witches who capture and eat children and give young women poisoned apples, wolves who try and devour everything from three little pigs to a sweet old grandmother, and ogres and giants and dragons and evil trolls….
Big bad wolf in red

...and why?

During some training I went through at the Portland Art Museum we learned about a frightful giant ogress called Kwakiutl that Northwest Coast Native Americans told their children about. With huge hairy eyebrows, a mustache (?!) red eyes and a bloody mouth, she roamed the nearby forest with a basket on her back looking for wayward children she could scoop up with her long-nailed claws and stuff into her pack to roast over a fire and feast on. We were all rather horrified that children would be told this story, and then the trainers asked why we thought the children were told this story. Turns out, it was out of pure love. In order to protect their children from wandering out in the forest and getting lost or being attacked by a wild animal, these parents were willing to scare the hell out of their children. I bet it worked.
Portland Art Museum, Kwakiutl, British Columbia, Axel Rasmussen Collection 48.3.410

When my sister and I were children, my grandparents had a very old German book that we always took off the shelf to look at. It was the scariest book I had ever seen. It was called Struwwelpeiter  or Slovenly Peter by Heinrich Hoffmann originally published in 1845 and it was basically an etiquette book designed to keep children in line through fear, worry and threats. It was fantastic.
Struwwelpeter by Hans Hoffman, Dover Publications 1995
It is hard to choose which story was more horrible, Harriet who set herself on fire by playing with matches or the boy who wouldn't eat his soup for five days and ended up in a lonely grave.
Struwwelpeter by Hans Hoffman, Dover Publications 1995

They were all so gruesome and threatening that it would be hard to choose a favorite, but since I was a nail biter and still have to fight the urge, it may be the story of Little Suck-A-Thumb who ended up bloodied and thumbless due to a scary tailor who suddenly dashed into the room equipted with wickedly sharp scissors that really crept into my soul. Good stuff!
Struwwelpeter by Hans Hoffman, Dover Publications 1995
My parents still have that original copy of Slovenly Peter but I had to buy my own copy to have around my house when my kids were little.

Have to keep the little ones in line, after all……
Photo of scary girl from delphiniumsblue on etsy

Check out some more fresh etsy shops that feature strange and wonderful things in this vein:
Red devil-like beast with chartreuse pants and scary hooves by spencershook
Vintage scary clown painting by BooandPie on etsy

Vintage mask scary hippy by RoseLuv Vintage Findings on etsy


  1. First time on your blog and I loved it! Back in my college days, I actually wrote a Rhetoric paper about a similar subject. I dissected the first chapter of Roald Dahl's "The Witches" and set out to prove how his rhetoric scared children, yet comforted them at the same time. Interesting stuff!

  2. How fascinating- Dahl's work is strange- perfect comment!

  3. You made me laugh on this. It IS good stuff. So wonderful to look at now. Isn't it funny how UN-politically correct that stuff was? Can you imagine the ruckus if someone tried to publish something like that now?
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Enjoyed your post! It reminded me of how my mother used to get us to take naps every day. She made up a creature named "Pirotcho." She described him as an evil little man with a black kettle to clap over recalcitrant children's heads should he find us with our eyelids open. Only much later did I figure out that "pirot" means sleepy in Bicolano, her dialect. She probably adapted it to sound like Pinocchio.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...