The Fairy Tale Horror, Little Red Riding Hood

Apr 14, 2023

Book Club Culture Virtues

By: Brandon Quakkelaar

Edited By: Jesse Denzin-Weber

Photo of a public domain image of Little Red Riding Hood talking with the wolf in disguise. Photo taken by Brandon Quakkelaar.

When I decided to analyze Little Red Riding Hood, I was not expecting to find a story that bludgeoned the reader (or listener) over the head with a spiked bat. But that’s exactly what this version of the story does. It’s a full fledged horror story that has a moral for the kids, but there’s also a moral for the adults reading it.

The version of Little Red Riding Hood featured in the Junior Classics Fairy and Wonder Tales (published in 1918) was originally written down by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century, though people point out that he’s probably not the source of the original idea. He merely preserved this version by writing it down. Some say that he may have heard it from his children’s nurse who participated in an oral tradition of storytelling. Stories of a girl meeting a wolf in the forest date back hundreds of years before Perrault.

Perrault’s story is incredibly abrupt. The beginning and middle are unsurprising to anyone who’s heard a version of the story before. There’s a beautiful girl with a red riding hood. She’s loved by her mother and her grandmother.

Once upon a time there lived in a certain village a little country girl, the prettiest creature ever seen. Her mother was very fond of her, and her grandmother doted on her still more. This good woman had made for her a little red riding-hood, which became the girl so well that everybody called her Little Red Riding-Hood.

― Little Red Riding Hood by Perrault

Her grandmother becomes sick. Her mother sends Little Red Riding Hood to bring her grandmother some things to eat. Along the way, she shares too much information with a wolf. The wolf takes a fast route to Grandma’s and, in the meantime, she takes the long way and stops frequently to smell the flowers.

Perrault picks up his spiked bat right around when the wolf gains entry to the grandmother’s house. Grandma simply gets eaten. She’s just gone. Done. Finished.

The Wolf pulled the bobbin, and the door opened, and he fell upon the good woman and ate her up in a moment, for it was above three days that he had not touched a bit.

― Little Red Riding Hood by Perrault

Bam! That hits the reader in the face. More sanitized versions have the wolf hiding her in a closet, but no such thing here. This wolf takes care of loose ends.

The next beat of the story hits: Little Red Riding Hood arrives at the house and begins her interaction with the wolf, whom she believes to be her grandmother because the wolf is in drag. Red climbs in bed with the wolf and their conversation progresses through the visible clues that something isn’t right. The common lists of clues encountered nowadays tend to include the ears, the eyes, and the teeth. But I’ve also heard versions that talk about big noses and large hands. Perrault’s version forgoes the nose and hands, but includes arms and legs.

“Grandmamma, what great arms you’ve got!”
“That is the better to hug thee, my dear.”
“Grandmamma, what great legs you’ve got!”
“The better to run, my child.”
“Grandmamma, what great ears you’ve got!”
“The better to hear, my child!”
“Grandmamma, what great eyes you’ve got!”
“The better to see, my child.”
“Grandmamma, what great teeth you’ve got!”
“To eat thee up!”
And saying these words, the wicked Wolf fell upon Little Red Riding-Hood and ate her all up.

― Little Red Riding Hood by Perrault

Perrault’s final blow with the spiked bat came with the words “…and ate her all up.” The end. Yes, really. That is where he ends the story.

Imagine being a kid and hearing this. No one saves the girl. No one saves Grandma. The wolf wins. This is not a sweet fairy tale wherein everyone lives happily ever after. No. This is a terrifying horror story with anthropomorphized bloodthirsty wolves, and two innocent people die.

The Horror Of Little Red Riding Hood

Though it may be surprising, apparently this version is sanitized. Other versions have the wolf demanding many terrible things of Little Red Riding Hood. Sometimes the wolf makes Red burn all her clothes before telling her to get in bed with him, and other times the wolf literally tricks Red into eating her own grandmother. To be clear, this isn’t merely the threat of cannibalism, like is found in Hansel and Grethel. Rather, Red engages in actual cannibalism. This is indeed a horror story.

There were attempts to tell a happier story, but they’re not exactly less horrifying. In one version, after the wolf eats the two, he falls asleep and a huntsman comes to the house. Then the huntsman carves open the sleeping wolf’s belly, and the grandmother and Red come out alive, like Jonah after getting swallowed by a big fish. So, yay. Red and her grandmother survive. But here comes that bat again: then the wolf meets a horrifying end when they fill his open belly cavity with stones. When the wolf awakes, he’s weighed down. He can’t run away, and he dies.

Stories like these will definitely harden a kid’s emotions. I’m not going to lie, this isn’t pleasant. My modern mind is having a tough time thinking this is the best way to teach a kid morals.

The Two Morals Of Little Red Riding Hood

The 1918 Junior Classics book doesn’t seem to have included Perrault’s moral with the story. But in my research I came across the same story with a moral at the end that reads like this:

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

― Little Red Riding Hood by Perrault

This first moral seems like a solid one to me. Basically, be careful. There are predators out there who disguise themselves as being sweet and gentle. Kids should guard themselves against them, if they can.

A parent reading this might be wise to take away a second moral: Don’t send your kids into the wilderness where wolves will prey on them. We don’t have the same forests and wolves lurking about, but we do still have predators. Parents would do well to be mindful of this and not give away their kids so easily to be cared for by strangers. There are plenty of predators disguising their true nature who lure children to destruction.

Further Reading

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