October 15, 2012

Haunted Folklore (Part Three): The Ghosts of Classic Fairy Tales, by Kristina Wojtaszek

Editor's note: Who can resist reading about ghosts and fairy tales? Not me. Here's part three of Kristina Wojtaszek's "Haunted Folklore" series for EC. You'll notice plenty of favorite tales listed below, plus some lesser-known ones. 

Kristina is one of the authors in the delightful anthology Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales. I am reading the anthology and am enjoying all the stories, including Kristina's called "Cinder." For a little taste of "Cinder," click here.

“Cinderella,” “The Goose Girl,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”--all classic fairy tales, and all of them haunted. In “Cinderella,” the "fairy godmother" has actually evolved over the centuries from the talking bones of a fish. The oldest roots of the tale are found in China, in the tale of Yeh-Hsien. Her only friend, a fish, is viciously killed by her cruel stepmother, but its faithful spirit continues to serve Yeh-Hsien as she lovingly cares for its bones. Later, we see the fish replaced by a branch planted on the grave of the poor girl's mother. In some tales, her mother's bones are said to grow with the branch into a tree that pours down blessings, offers food, and even sheds a beautiful gown or two to ease her daughter's plight. The Russian “Cinderella,” “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” is sometimes called “Vailisa's Doll,” referring to the enchanted doll given to the girl by her dying mother. In voodoo fashion, the doll's eyes glow and it comes to life once fed, speaking to Vasilisa and aiding her through the trials set forth by the well known Baba Yaga. 
A "Cinderella" illustration, by Eleanore Abbot
In “The Goose Girl,” Falada the horse speaks to his owner through his disembodied head. Eerily, the three drops of blood on her mother's handkerchief have a voice as well. But it is the North African version of the tale that takes on a true haunting, as the girl goes to bathe each day where she is set to scare the birds from the crops, and in seclusion, beats upon the earth with her staff, calling for it to open up and reveal her dead parents. Indeed the deceased appear before her and even provide her with food.

“Hansel and Gretel” may actually have been accosted by a cannibalistic ghost according to the Japanese version of the tale, “The Oni and the Three Children.” Oni can variously refer to an invisible spirit, god, ogre or ghost. Although the tale hints at the Oni being an ogress, there are too many tales of cannibalistic ghosts (like the Native American Wendigo) to ignore the implications. The white bird that appears in many versions to guide them home also seems symbolically spiritual.

“Rumpelstiltskin” is a bit sneakier, but just as he cannot hide his name, nor can he hide its meaning. In German, rumpelstilz is closely related to rumpelgeist which literally means "rattle ghost" (referring to unseen spirits that rattle household objects). Poppart is another name used for ghosts and “The Poppart” is among the titles listed for “Rumpelstiltskin.” The German geist is also used in the word poltergeist which translates simply to "noisy ghost," a well suited name for the little "man" who can't seem to hold his peace. 

“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” has many spooky versions, some bordering on the horrific. In “La Ramée and the Phantom,” a guard must stand watch over the cursed body of a princess, who is said to rise out of her coffin at midnight. Each night a guard is chosen, only to have disappeared before morning. Other versions have the princesses traveling to a kingdom in the underworld, to a fairy mound, or to hell itself, where they may dance with princes, fairies, or devils. The endings are just as varied. The princesses may marry, be hung, or have their bellies slit open to let the devils out, after which point their bodies are entombed and reenact the tale of the rising dead as previously mentioned. Conversely, there are other versions in which the companion of the protagonist is a ghost. He does the young man the favor of aiding him through seemingly impossible tasks in order to win the hand of a princess enthralled with the devil, or to solve the mystery of the worn out dancing shoes. All this after the young man simply ensured his friend had a proper burial. As is typical of many ghost stories, he does not find out that his companion is an apparition until the end.

There are plenty of lesser known ghostly fairy tales, including “The Juniper Tree,” “The Bird of Folklore,” “The Singing Bone,”  “The Boy Who Drew Cats,”  “The Young Man Who Went Out in Search of Fear,” “Anne Lisbeth,” “Aladdin”( and plenty more from The Arabian Nights), to name a few. Though they may seem odd, these ghoulish tales are deeply spiritual, and hardly uncommon among classic fairy tales.

Kristina Wojtaszek grew up as a woodland sprite and mermaid, playing around the shores of Lake Michigan. At any given time she could be found with live snakes tangled in her hair and worn out shoes filled with sand. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management as an excuse to spend her days lost in the woods with a book in hand. She currently resides in the high desert country of Wyoming with her husband and two small children. She is fascinated by fairy tales and fantasy and her favorite haunts are libraries and cemeteries. Follow her @KristinaWojtasz  or on her blog, Twice Upon a Time.


  1. Its hard to believe how scary and quite often morbid fairy tales can be! Growing up all the fairy tales I knew of where fairly happy, even though there were evil parents, step-parents, siblings, etc. good always over came evil and everyone lived happily ever after. Looking back as an adult I have found darker undertones to these beloved fairy tales but they are nowhere near the level of darkness that many ancient fairy contain. It’s understandable though; that there were darker fairy tales, people in ancient days most certainly enjoyed a good scare just as much as people of today. The level of scary evilness rivals horror films of today; dead people reappearing, blood talking, cannibals and talking disembodied heads! Oh my! It is incredibly interesting, especially this time of year when scary things come out of the wood-work, to discover the scary side of fairy tales. Thanks for the insight!

    Anna W.

  2. I agree with what Anna said. :)

    I also find it fascinating that there are so many versions of the same story from different cultures..kind of like the story of the global flood.

    I've enjoyed reading Kristina's posts...thanks, Kristina and Kate!

  3. There is no better time of the year but now to be in the mood for haunted folklore tales. This topic really drew me in because of the relations between ghosts and spiritual meanings in fairy tales. One of the recent fairy tales I have read that was mentioned but not further discussed was “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm. I was surprised to find that it was not talked about much. When first reading I was especially drawn to the tale because it had been one of the most eerie and freaky fairy tales I have read yet. The role of the Juniper tree was very symbolic, given godlike, magical powers by taking place of the deceased mother and reincarnating her son at the end. The story also has some connection found in the bible as said in verse Luke 17:2, “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin”. Hmm makes me wonder. The more we dig deep into fairy tales, the more it connects with everyday life.

  4. I knew that some folklore was haunted but I would never expect tales like Cinderella to be haunted folklore tale. It is also interest to learn about the different versions of Cinderella in the world. I grew up, listening to a west African version of the story, wish talks about the Cinderella losing her mother at birth, and father got married, and she lost him at the age of seven, after the death of her father who truly loves her, her step mother decided to enslaved her . Cinderella would work hard for days and sometimes was never feed. Cinderella never had a fairy god mother; it was her beautiful voice, and love for music that brought her and the prince together. I would never imagine this tale to have a haunted side; however different versions love to add their own unique style to set their versions a side from the original. Learning about the different versions of folklores is amazing. Thanks for the new insights.

  5. Haunted Folklore (Part Three): The Ghosts of Classic Fairy Tales, by Kristina Wojtaszek
    Fairy tales are not haunted in any way. They are just stories that have a meaning behind them and that have a message they want other people to see or for children to learn from. Like in Cinderella living a life the way she did with evil step sisters and step mother is the way people think that they have a hard life but when you look into other people’s lives they are not so bad. When you grow up into a family where your birth family is gone and being raised up by none birth parents. That parent will feel like they have to take care of you but do a half way job at it. I do like the picture they chose to have with the fact that birds helped her get through life and the fairy godmother has two by her head like the two are the same.
    Christina S