Fairy tales are often misremembered. Cultural appropriation and sanitized media versions change the stories, and tales heard or read in childhood tend to mutate, as all memories do.
“The Frog Prince” is the king of altered plots. There’s a whole modern folklore built up around the concept of kissing frogs—that is, slogging through the disappointments of dating, taking romantic risks, believing the lie that love can cure an abuser. But in the story, no frog is ever kissed. “The Frog Prince” has an agenda much darker than mere mating games.
The princess wants nothing to do with the frog, who deliberately provokes her. Beneath her father’s message of keeping your promises and behaving with honor, the real drama is the violent relationship between frog and princess. Being a jerk pays off for the frog. When the princess has had it with him, she throws a fit and hurls him against the wall and kills him.
Popular culture converts this act of murder into a kiss.
Violence transforms the prince: as his frog form hits the wall and dies, he bounces down, and lands all handsome and human in her bed. It’s a dubious happy-ever-after. More like a steamy-ever-after, given the strong personality of the princess and the frog’s penchant for pushing her buttons.
Back to the kiss that never happened. Enchantment is broken by transformative violence. Other fairy tales feature an enchanted animal, object, or servant (footnote: the fact that these three things work as parallels in the world of fairy tales is a whole other issue I’m not even getting into today) that talks or tricks someone into releasing them through murder. Most killers aren’t as gung-ho as the haughty princess pursued by a slimy frog. More often, enchantment can only be broken by someone who holds the enchanted dear.
It must make for some awkward moments in a relationship. “Come on, hon, all I’m asking you to do is hack off my hands with this chainsaw and let me bleed out. You love me, don’t you? Trust me, it’s the best thing for both of us.”
The plea for transformative violence spurs a decision in the heroine or hero, who always chooses murder without any knowledge of the enchantment, without a full understanding of their actions. The protagonist often kills the beloved in a last ditch attempt at self-preservation. Other times they don’t know there’s a threat, and they kill out of pure faith when the beloved demands it. Still other times, it’s an accident.
In less popular fairy tales, protagonists are vagrants or criminals, or just not very good people. There’s a whole underbelly of folk tales about socking it to The Man that never made it into children’s books. Bad heroes kill the animal out of hunger, greed, vengeance, or for no reason at all. Just like people in real life. The result is the same, regardless of the motive: the spell is broken and the one bound by enchantment is released.
The violence in fairy tales speaks volumes about what we are as humans. Killing the animal comes from the Neolithic hunt and our ancient mythologies built around sacrifice. We need to believe some magic is at work, or else all our killing makes us nothing but monsters, right?
Killing or harming an animal in a story is a huge taboo. This is doubly true in horror, where long-suffering editors must be inundated with I-can’t-even-imagine how many senseless stories of human cruelty. Most calls for entries specifically forbid it. It’s the kind of thing I read in submission guidelines and wonder what kind of creep would write that stuff?
Then I realized I’d done it. I’m that creep. I wrote a dark version of “The Frog Prince” from the point of view of Henry, the servant who shows up at the end, bound in irons. I made Henry the central character, and along the way I also made one big, bloody mess of a little frog.
In context, killing a frog doesn’t sound so bad. The problem is that after this realization, the ideas around killing the animal kept coming after me. It’s a personal taboo. But what are we doing writing horror if we don’t go to dark places? The challenge is in exploring cruelty without enacting it. Coming from a place of compassion, even for the most cruel and difficult of characters.
I agree with Mr. Crowley that “sacrifice is a wrong idea.” Sacrifice, though, is embedded in religion and folklore. And in the personal mythologies of dysfunctional families. Killing the animal releases an enchantment. Killing a taboo releases—what? The opportunity to get blacklisted? It’s dangerous ground. The steaming bowels that spill out of the animal create more questions than happy-ever-afters, more problems than princes.