Monsters Aren’t What They Used to Be
Nowadays, I am sorry to say, monsters aren’t what they used to be (from the Los Angeles Times)
With Halloween nearly here, with ghouls and ghosts about to pound on our doors, this may be the time of year to consider the fortunes of scariness in children’s stories. It used to be that youngsters would sit around the fire and listen to hair-raising tales about the evil queen in “Snow White” and the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” about witches and ogres, about La Llorona and Baba Yaga. Nowadays, I am sorry to say, monsters aren’t what they used to be.
The most frightening children’s book of all times, most Europeans would agree, is Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter.” First published in Germany in 1845, Hoffmann’s illustrated storybook went on to be translated into dozens of languages and sell so many millions of copies that scholar Jack Zipes has called it “the most famous children’s book in the world.”
Hoffmann aimed to scare children into being good with tales, for example, about Harriet who plays with matches and is burned up, and Augustus who refuses to eat his soup and shrinks to stick-like proportions only to die in five days. But the consensus is that the most frightening of these is “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb” where Conrad is warned by his Mama about his offensive habit but when her back is turned, he puts the digit in his mouth and the Scissor-man (a tailor) bursts through the door and snips off both the boy’s thumbs. The last picture shows a chastened and amputated Conrad.
“When I was a child, ‘Struwwelpeter’ terrified me,” Marina Warner wrote in a typical reminiscence about the book. “I did not find it funny because I sucked my thumb and I was truly afraid the tailor, drawn like a leaping pair of scissors, would come to get me and cut off my thumbs, as he does to little Suck-a-Thumb. . . . I must have been around seven when I read ‘Struwwelpeter,’ and it took such possession of me that I kept going back and looking at the Scissor-man until I could bear it no longer and took the book to my father when he was gardening and asked him to burn it on the bonfire.”
A little more than a hundred years later a different scary book came down the pike when Maurice Sendak published his now beloved “Where the Wild Things Are.” Max is misbehaving in the opening of Sendak’s story and then finds himself in a land of monsters, the Wild Things, who seem as horrific as Hoffmann’s Scissor-man: “They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” But in the next scene, Sendak departed forever from tradition and indicated that this was not your grandparents’ scary story.
Sendak’s Max is not intimidated like Hoffmann’s thumbless Conrad. After the monsters do their best to terrify him, Max gives them a start and “tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened.” Then, as the story continues, Max marshalls these critters to do his bidding and they all play together.
As much as I love “Where the Wild Things Are,” it must be said that Sendak’s book marked the downfall of monsters. Soon, Roald Dahl in “The BFG” would tell the story of the little girl Sophie who is abducted by the Big Friendly Giant and transported to monsterland where they trump a miscellaneous band of oversized ogres (Bonecruncher, Childchewer, et al.). It wouldn’t be long before the scary story would be retold from the sympathetic point of view of a frightened monster (Philippe Corentin’s “Papa!” is only one example) and Raymond Briggs (in “Fungus the Bogeyman”) would provide a comic account of everyday life in monsterland. A final stage in the domestication of fears was reached when Mercer Mayer published his bestselling “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet” where it is the monster who is terrified by the child and has to be tucked into bed and consoled.
The same is true in films. Nowadays, thanks perhaps to over cautious parents, children are introduced to loveable monsters–our buddy Shrek and the bogeys uncertain about their profession in “Monsters Inc.” All this seems a long way from the heart-pounding moment in MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy is accosted by the Wicked Witch who cackles, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.”
It used to be that our children’s stories taught youngsters the very useful knowledge of what is to shiver, have your heart thump and hair stand on end. Now, where is MGM’s Margaret Hamilton when we need her?
Originally appeared as “Fee Fi Ho Hum” in the Los Angeles Times (28 October 2002). I devote a chapter to “Scariness” in my book “Feeling Like a Kid.”