The Rise of Dark Fairy Tales

It is probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am a fairy tale enthusiast. It’s a topic I keep returning to time and time again, and it’s a topic that provides hours of academic muddling for this mythologist. That’s what scholars such as the Jungians find so fascinating about fairy tales. In their simplicity, they speak archetypally, deeply, meaningfully… They can become whatever story the reader or listener wants them to be.

And it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a Disney fan, and that Disney’s versions of fairy tales are hands-down my favorites. Why, you might ask? This is a complicated answer, and one that I don’t have lying around, but part of the answer lies in the fact that Disney’s retelling of these stories captures that magic that attracts readers to them in the first place while also translating the stories to a new medium. There’s something that Disney “gets” in its storytelling that makes these stories speak to the culture. Sure, perhaps 200 years from now, Disney’s fairy tales will be shelved along with Grimm’s as future readers try to find the next new gripping version of a tale that’s already been told 1000 times.

Finally, it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a lover of the Disney parks, notably Disneyland since that’s the only one I’ve visited with any capacity to build memories. The parks do for the experience what the films do for the fairy tales. They capture the magic that attracted us to them in the first place. I’ve been to Universal Studios, Six Flags, and my childhood theme park, Eliches (or however it was spelled). But Disney keeps me coming back time and again because of the experience. I trust the rides to not kill me (even with those few scary stories of accidents); I trust the park to be clean and safe; and I trust that, even if I’m tired, sore, and cranky, that the day in the park will still make me very happy.

I am a product of the Disney mythos.

So here’s my point. My love for all three of the above things are combined in the book series Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, also known for his adult thrillers and his work on Peter and the Starcatchers. The Kingdom Keepers are a group of teenagers hired by Disney to be the models for DHIs, or Digital Host Interactive, digital tour guides through the parks at Walt Disney World. What these kids don’t know is that they have also been recruited to help the Imagineers fight against the Overtakers, who are Disney villans who come alive when the park closes at night. Villains such as Maleficent, Pirates, and Crash Test Dummies. The other Disney characters come alive as well, but they are powerless by themselves to stop the Overtakers from fulfilling their goal of overtaking the park. So the teens at night, when the fall asleep, become the DHIs, and spend their nights in constant battle against the Overtakers, receiving missions from the Imagineers, and trying very hard not to be caught in Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, which occurs when the DHI is prevented from crossing back over at the end of the night and the human teen is locked in a mysterious coma-like sleep.

These books capture the essences of the park and Disney magic and are thrilling for anyone who is either a fan who knows the parks intimately, enjoys a good sci-fi thriller, or even dreams of going to the park one day.

The most recent installment of the series, Shell Game, begins the process of moving the DHIs and the Overtakers to California from Florida by way of the new cruise ship. Having never been on a cruise, let alone a Disney cruise, I was a little skeptical about reading this book. But, of course, I enjoyed it thoroughly (having read half of it on the airplane to and from my dissertation defense). And, of course, in typical Disney fashion, find myself really wanting to take a Disney cruise now to share in the experience.

But that’s still not my point. In one particularly potent scene, the leader of the DHIs, Finn, confronts Maleficent, who is believed to be the leader of the Overtaker operation (though no one is certain about that). Finn and the other DHIs are in an auditorium doing a presentation for the cruise guests when they are besieged by pirates (of the Caribbean). Maleficent appears on the monitors and makes a rather bold statement:

 “Behold the New Order,” Maleficent said in her eerily calm and grating voice. “The dawning of a new age. [. . .] Enough of all this prince-and-princess spun-sugar nonsense. It’s time for the Grimm in the fairy tales to express itself. The woods are dark, my dears. The beasts within them will eat you for supper, not sing you a song. Wake up and smell the roses.” (484)

Remember up above when I said that Disney “gets it?” There is something happening in fairy tales right now, a sort of paradigm shift. In 2010 Disney claimed they were no longer going to make fairy tale animated features. At the same time several, albeit bad, fairy tale features were released by other studios. In 2011, Disney gave us Once Upon a Time. It’s as though the songs of the princesses in the forests have lost their magic for us. And it’s no wonder, given all of the darkness surrounding us as a culture. We are hungry for the magic; we are hungry for the good hero to defeat the dark evil bad person. But we are also hungry for the darkness to become a part of us, because it already is.

There is a shroud of darkness on American culture today, and it is spreading into other parts of the world. Perhaps this is because of the prevalence of our cultural exchanges, or perhaps this is a darkness that has been trying to take over (the Overtakers) for decades (think Great Depression, atomic bomb, and Cold War), but the American optimism has always kept it at bay. That optimism has taken a vacation, it seems. Even Disney, who always gave us a message of hope and happiness in our darkest hour is putting forth messages that this is the time of monsters (KK) or that the fairy tales have forgotten who they are (OUAT).

Meanwhile, fairy tales are being retold with a vigor that we haven’t seen in a while. New Grimm texts were found. Movies retell the stories. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are everywhere and literally eating us (though occasionally, they may sing us a song to lure us in their charms).

It’s difficult to describe the change that is happening while being in the middle of it happening. Hindsight is always 20/20, but At-the-moment-sight is typically blind. We’re still looking to the past, expecting it to have all of the answers. Oh but wait, you’ll notice we’re looking at the 1950s for those answers. Just because television and the movies painting the decade as Pleasantville, the decade was anything but. Darkness perpetuating darkness.

We haven’t learned anything from our previous encounters with Darkness in the past, which is why it is still bothering us. Call it the shadow or whatever, but until we start communing with this Darkness and learning something from it, we’ll be on this endless cycle for a while yet.

Lessons we’re learning from today’s myths: 1. Believe in magic. 2. Remembering or finding your true identity or self is the first step toward dealing with the darkness. 3. Listen to your elders–you don’t know how much longer they’ll be around to advise you. 4. Don’t listen to your elders if you know they’re advising you poorly. 5. Saving good from evil has no room for EGO.

That said, I’m looking forward to the last two KK books. If the DHIs are successful in bringing down the Overtakers, perhaps we could stand to learn a thing or two from them?

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