Bruno and the Dark Fairy Tales



Fairy tales were meant to be dark. Dark and sinister, full of evil stepmothers, vengeful ogres, big bad wolves and seemingly unsolvable problems. Fairy tales take us into hidden realms of the psyche, thus giving an opportunity to explore, provoke, and discover new power.

No one understood this better than 20th century child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today I pay homage to this man, born on August 28, 1903, in Vienna, Austria.

bruno b

Having spent the greater part of his professional career involved with emotionally disturbed children, in 1976 Bettelheim published his masterpiece The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.   In this book, Bettelheim explained how fairy tales are symbolic of healthy human development. He advocated fairy tales as necessary for children to make the process of ‘growing up’ easier.  A good dark fairy tale gives the child a chance to stimulate his/her imagination and think up creative solutions to problems.

While Disney was busy sanitizing Cinderella, and while the censorship dogs fanned the flames of banned books, Bettelheim became an advocate for exploration of the scary monsters, the bloodthirsty giants, the magic mirrors.

Bettelheim himself was no stranger to the Dark Side. His life was a series of unfortunate incidences, but it was also full of unprecedented victories.

Born just after the turn of the 20th century, Bruno was the son of a wood merchant. His family was Jewish and middle class.  In his early twenties he began study at the University of Vienna but when his father became ill he quit school to take over his family’s lumber business. Dark strike number one.

As it turned out – the illness Bruno’s dad was suffering from happened to be syphilis. This reportedly brought a slow and painful death, not to mention irrevocable shame and stress upon his family. Dark strike number two.

In 1930 Bettelheim married his first wife Gina. Eventually he returned to the university, earning a Ph.D in philosophy. In 1938 he became an accredited psychiatrist and was one of the last Jews in Europe to be awarded a Doctorate degree before the Holocaust.

Enter the Nazis. In 1939 Bruno was arrested by the Gestapo. He was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald. Dark strike number three.

bruno b buchenwald

Luckily, he was released through payment (Nazi officials not being beyond bribery.) Upon returning to a blighted Vienna, Bruno found that his wife had left him, his home and business were devastated, and he had lost virtually everything. Dark strike number four.

In 1941 he married his second wife Gertrude Weinfeld. They emigrated to the United States in 1943 and became citizens.  Bettelheim published his experiences from the concentration camps in his 1943 work:  Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.  He eventually became a professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Chicago from 1944 until his retirement in 1973.

Bettelheim also served as director of the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a home for emotionally disturbed children. His work there was world famous.  The Uses of Enchantment became a best seller. It was awarded the U.S. Critic’s Choice Prize for criticism in 1976 and the National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought in 1977.

burno b quote

To be fair, it should be noted that Bettelheim was also considered controversial. He has been called “inspiring, aggressive, irascible, dismissive of fools, and capable of both great kindness and great unkindness.”

Perhaps he had to be. He was up against academia and a culture that, for the most part, does not like to examine its own flaws.

The need to sanitize fairy tales was no doubt well intended. Walt Disney himself was also no stranger to the Dark Side.  His remedy was to create likable dwarfs that whistled while they worked and a sweet as pie Cinderella that never did harm to anyone.


Never mind that the original Cinderella sent her birds to pluck out the eyes of her stepsisters. Never mind that the stepsisters literally mutilated their own feet with knives in a effort to fit the slipper. Never mind that the dwarfs had prurient intentions toward the nubile Snow White — who might be considered a prototype for Nabokov’s Lolita.  Some things are simply not for children’s eyes and ears.

However, Bettelheim argued that an attempt to hide hard and sinister truths from children would only hinder their development, making them less able to cope as adults. (Besides that, it would cut out a good deal of the fun!) Most children are very interested in the Dark Side. It has a magnetic quality.  They love to hate the villains and identify with the heroes.



As our society becomes more self conscious and politically correct, we are more in danger of sanitizing reading material. This trend could greatly damage young people.

I once read an internet review of Alice in Wonderland in which the adult reader claimed this story was ‘way too scary for children.’ Having been raised on the story myself, I was somewhat appalled. (I also thought – what if my own parents had deemed Alice ‘too scary’ for me and prohibited my reading it? Now THAT would have been truly horrific!)

I considered the so called scary parts of Alice. Tumbling down a big rabbit hole and then having no control over your own growth. Facing a queen who threatens to behead the entire world. As a kid I loved it! As an adult I love it!

alice mushroom

Bettelheim argues that this type of scary story is good for kids because it allows them a chance to face terrible circumstances in their imagination, and follow the hero to a creative solution. When faced with a real life problem, it will not be so overwhelming.

Around the time I read this assessment of scary Alice, I read another online review of Oliver Twist. The critic also deemed the story ‘way too scary for children’, this due to the fact that Bill Sykes murders his girlfriend Nancy, is haunted by her ghost and goes on to hang himself.

As a kid I loved Oliver. These horrific events did not phase me. Not one bit.

I have often wondered if we, as adults, lack coping skills and unwittingly disempower children through our own fears.

I recently had a nine year old student ask me if she could read Shakespeare. (This was her idea, not mine!) Of course I said YES!! We read through a children’s edition of Romeo and Juliet. My nine year old read the murders of Tybalt and Mercutio without batting an eyelash. The story intrigued her. She was not disturbed by it, she was INTERESTED in it. Likewise the suicides of R and J. My nine year old came away loving this romantic story, remembering the good parts, working through the bad. It would have been a mistake to deem it ‘too violent’ ‘too scary’ or simply ‘unacceptable’ for a child.

Bruno Bettelheim and Albert Einstein both knew this. Einstein, a great fan of fairy tales, often advocated for the use of them in education. Magic hits us in the quantum heart.

einstien fairy tales

If we want our children to be free thinkers, problem solvers and imaginative  individuals, we would do well to let them to explore the dark side of fairy tales.

Happy Birthday Bruno!






30 comments on “Bruno and the Dark Fairy Tales

  1. […] witchlikeBruno and the Dark Fairy Tales […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vicky V says:

    Great tribute! Bruno Bettelheim and Marie-Louise von Franz were key theorists for my fairytale chapter in my thesis. I love their work. I totally agree that over protecting children, either physically or mentally, does them no favours. I grew up reading fairy tales and Dracula, it didn’t do me any harm 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, that sounds like a really interesting thesis! I’d love to read it sometime. I think we need Bettelheim back for this modern age. Too much over protection. Much of it here is fueled by people getting offended over every little thing. But — when we have already been in Dracula’s parlor, very little will offend us 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. sailajaP14 says:

    An amazing read, as always. Thank you for sharing, Christine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John W. Leys says:

    I think far too often, with the best of intentions, people underestimate children. They are capable of understanding and handling much more than is generally thought. And dark tales and stories, in my opinion, better equip them for the world better than sanitized tales where nothing bad ever happens.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, that is exactly so. People often have good intentions, thinking they will shelter kids from harm, but we forget how resilient they actually are. Sometimes I think they handle death better that adults! I find very few kids that do not love horror and scary tales 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. cmieko says:

    I knew of Bettelheim but didn’t know anything of his biography. It makes his work even more poignant.

    When I hear that children shouldn’t read scary stories, I always think of my librarian friend who argued that books were the safest possible place for children to encounter danger (or dangerous ideas). Would we prefer they meet danger first in the real world, where there are real-world consequences, or in the pages of a book?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, that is how I think of it also. In a book, they know it is not ‘real’ yet it gives them some ideas about coping with a real situation. Also, the super scary stuff is likely to be much worse than anything they will actually encounter. Your librarian friend is wise!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. cmieko says:

    I didn’t know anything about Bettleheim’s biography. It makes his work even more poignant.

    When I hear people worrying that books are too scary for children, I always think about my librarian friend’s argument: Books are actually the safest place for children to encounter danger (or dangerous ideas). Would we rather they meet danger and darkness in the real world, where there are real-world consequences, or in a book, where they might gather some knowledge that will help them either avoid or face real-life risks?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a wonderful tribute to Bruno Bettelheim! And much food for thought! I agree; sanitizing reading material will hinder coping skills later on.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nicely put together and very informative with an effective personal slant. Once upon a time we were all children …

    Liked by 1 person

  9. An excellent essay with a great deal of truth behind it.

    I remember several years ago, there were news stories of numerous Canadians freaking out when 6 Canadian soldiers were killed in a single day in Afghanistan.

    God only knows how many would have been freaking out when 946 Canadians died landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th 1944.

    Not to say the numerous deaths that then followed the rest of the campaign.

    No doubt the politically correct crowd would have been demanding we give up the war against Hitler as there were too many casualties.

    In today’s world- particularly the Western world- many people do have a particularly sanitized version of life.

    I know in Canada they stopped teaching fairy tales in a lot of public schools starting in the 1980s and the generation since has been quite squeamish when it comes to fighting evil.

    Thank goodness for Harry Potter.

    School teachers would have had to fight to remove a book about Harry from a child’s hands.

    The figure of Voldemort teaches kids that there is evil in the world.

    And of course there’s also the values of loyalty, friendship and courage which is taught in the Harry Potter books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is strange when you think that we have such vivid available communication through technology today — and yet this big fear of ‘reality’ — hence the sanitizing of death, etc. and all the political correctness.

      Wow, I did not know they stopped teaching fairy tales in Canada! I wonder if this was by law/ education standards? Or maybe just public preference. At any rate it is a bad decision!

      Yes, Harry Potter was really a great thing for kids. Interesting that the kids themselves chose him! Thus proving my point — that kids are naturally attracted to, and able to cope with the Dark Side of stories.

      Thanks so much for your comments! 🙂 Glad you liked my essay.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. poeturja says:

    Outstanding! Tweeted! I remember taking my sons to see “Never Ending Story” and I left the movie teary but uplifted. They were completely blank about it, preferring to see robots and aliens. Sigh…where’d I go wrong 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  11. aliciagaile says:

    I’ve never heard of this man before, but I agree wholeheartedly with his ideas about leaving the darker side of children’s stories intact. It’s important that little girls who love princesses and fairy tales understand that those happy endings don’t come easy. Even if a prince saves the Day in the end the heroines often undergo serious strife and struggle before he shows up. And I also think that since most of the heroes are the unassuming, unexpected youngest/smallest that it gives children the message that they can overcome big obstacles too.

    Liked by 1 person

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