College of Humanities and Social Sciences
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Walter Rankin on Fairy Tales and Horror Stories

by Emma Epstein

Walter Rankin published his first solely authored book, entitled Grimm Pictures: Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films through McFarland in fall 2007. We scared him into answering some questions about the similarities between the characters in two such contrasting genres.

Which is your favorite scary movie, fairy tale, and why?

My favorite scary movie is The Silence of the Lambs for several reasons: I think the film provides genuine chills on a deep, psychological level, and it's incredibly entertaining from beginning to end. My favorite Grimm fairy tale is probably "Cinderella." When we look at the Disney version, we see this lovely young woman with little birds happily landing on her finger and cute little mice making her a dress. In the Grimm version, Cinderella is a much spunkier heroine, and her sisters are just as beautiful as she is. Now the contest has real merit. And at the end of the tale, she invites her sisters to the wedding and has her little birds peck out their eyes. This princess doesn't mess around singing happy little songs.

Why do you think certain subjects are considered scary, or taboo?

I think certain subjects immediately create an emotional and physical response of recoiling in disgust - these are the topics that we tend to consider taboo. And these topics have historically caused the same type of reaction in Western society. For example, cannibalism is a taboo topic that has been explored in Greek tales (The House of Atreus) and in satirical works like Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which he proposes eating children. It's a theme in several of the Grimm fairy tales and in films like The Silence of the Lambs. Yet, there are a number of real instances of cannibals, such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Armin Meiwes, the so-called "German cannibal," who actively recruited human meals in a cannibal chatroom. Taboo topics tend to be those topics that most horrify us, because we know that they can also happen in real-life, not just in works of fiction.

What do you think is the purpose of telling a scary story and why do you think people like to listen to them?

Scary stories and films offer us the safe opportunity to enter a dark, dangerous, taboo world. Occasionally, there is a lesson built into the tale, but I doubt that this is really the draw. For those of us who enjoy being scared and judging by most box office results, we are in the minority when compared to those who enjoy comedy, fantasy, and romance these types of works can also be oddly comforting. They tend to follow the same type of formula and the audience knows what to expect. Like fairy tales that have been told again and again, these works tell us a simple story with a predictable outcome. And best of all, when the story ends or the credits roll, we can turn on the lights and soothe our nerves with a glass of milk, some cookies, and a loved one.

Rankin serves as Deputy Associate Dean of undergraduate Academic Affairs of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He received his bachelor's degree in 1992 from Christopher Newport University and completed his PhD in 1997 at Georgetown University.

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