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?


Review of a new myth: the Kingdom Keepers Series

I was at Disneyland the first time I discovered Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series. I went to the park after a session at Pacifica, during which my cohort and I were discussing the intricacies of modern fairy tales. During the class, I had the epiphany for the perfect video game, one that would fuse the principles of Kingdom Hearts (i.e. a hero who is assisted by the Disney characters over the course of his adventure) with a murder mystery or some other mystery of some sort, and this particular mystery would be set at Disneyland. Each attraction would hold some clue toward the solution of the mystery. And if you remember that old Nintendo game that was set in the Magic Kingdom (whose name has long left me), then you understand the premise that us, the player, would have to wind our way through the virtual attraction in order to get the clue.

So imagine my happiness that someone had already written the story for me!

The Kingdom Keepers series is about 5 kids who are hired by Disney Imagineering to be turned into DHIs (or Digital Hologram Imaging), which act as digital hosts through Walt Disney World, becoming themselves an attraction. Unbeknownst to the kids, the Imagineers (or rather, at least one key old timer) did some wonky programming that gave the kids the ability to turn into their DHI while they sleep. The reason? The Overtakers, primarily comprised of Disney’s villains and other shady characters, were threatening to, well, over take Walt Disney World to destroy the magic. Being villains, they are easily able to do this, but just can’t get organized enough to actually succeed easily (something about the evil ego). The point of the series seems to be the continual thwarting of the OTs in the interest of preserving the magic. Thus far, there are four books to the series: Disney After Dark, Disney at Dawn, Disney in Shadow, and Power Play. The first three books are set in a different park at on the WDW resort, and the fourth one is currently all over the place. Pearson has hinted on his Twitter (or maybe others have hinted for him) that at least one of the future books will take place on the Disney Cruise line.

Hey, Ridley! When are the OTs going to threaten Disneyland!? Or what about the other resorts around the world?

There are a few different mythic themes at play in this series that makes it so fascinating, and I don’t just mean the obvious setting in Disney:

1. Collective hero/collective villain – In the traditional frame of the ubiquitous (perhaps now cliché) Campbellian hero’s cycle, the hero ventures into a magic “otherworld” and undergoes this journey to get the boon or some other reward, depending on the nature of the quest. While this hero does have magical friends and other helpers, the hero must ultimately conquer the villain alone. However, in recent popular mythologies, we are seeing more and more a trend for a collective hero. While Finn is considered the “leader,” he recognizes that each of the other Keepers has his or her own strength, which always comes in handy to succeed in the task. Recognizing this, the OTs also realize that they have to work as a collective if they are going to overshadow the Keepers. Typically, in Western literature, the evil villain got to that point by being extremely ego-driven, often perceiving his or her helpers as a means to an end, and easily disposable. However, in these books, the OTs are learning (because they’re out for power) that by working together, they become a force that can almost completely trump the Keepers. A collective fighting a collective, not solo hero versus solo villain. That there are a number of stories emphasizing the concept of the collective (hero more often than not) suggests to me that there is a shift happening in our cultural psyche, perhaps even in our collective unconscious, that recognizes that the black-and-white paradigm of previous heroic myths will not restore the balance to our swiftly-tilting planet (as evidenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender).

2. The use of technology – Technology is scary. Many commentators – and you know who they are – are quick to point out that technology is bad for us, pointing to various social issues that underscore this point: movies such as Terminator, Blade Runner, or even Avatar; or the astonishing statistics that technology makes kids stupid (which, let’s be honest, is really the fault of a poor educational system, not that they play video games). The Kingdom Keepers, however, utilize technology as the means by which they can enter into the mythic realm or otherworld and play on the same plane as the OTs. However, they also utilize technology as their primary means to communicate and coordinate. In the first novel, VMK (Virtual Magic Kingdom) was still open (and I wish it would re-open!), and the kids used their virtual avatars to communicate. Despite what one may think, technology is here to stay, and the Kingdom Keepers demonstrates a good use of it, rather than the super scary, apocalyptic use – that’s for the OTs.

3. A meta-fairy-myth setting – Disney theme parks are a fairy tale setting unto themselves. They are a real life otherworld that all of us are capable of visiting, and having that mythic experience that we otherwise can only read about. The Kingdom Keepers are a myth, tackling our culture’s images of “evil villain” and keeping the evil at bay (the whole good versus evil thing). They are acting out the myth in our culture’s fairy tale setting. This is really groovy.

Now there are games you can play at the Kingdom Keepers website, making the books an interactive experience. Next step? Actual DHIs or maybe a virtual Kingdom Keepers attraction at Disney? (BTW, Disney, if you’re interested, I’ll be glad to send you a prospectus of the latter.)

These are the perfect books for any lover of suspense fiction, young adult fiction, and fairy tales/myths. And now, to finish the fourth book.