Sure, we’re all familiar with “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and other well-known folktales and stories from childhood. But the world of fairy tales is wide and vast—and many of the more obscure fairy tales out there are also among the creepiest. Stories of people voluntarily removing their own skin or chopping off various body parts sound more like the stuff of horror movies; yet, you’ll find all of these and more within the pages of the very collections you thought peddled primarily in “Once upon a times” and “happily ever afters.”
To be fair, many of the most celebrated fairy tales are creepy in their own right, too. The Brothers Grimm version of “Snow White,” for example? The way it actually ends is this: The evil queen is forced into a pair of iron shoes that have been heated up until they’re glowing red, and then made to dance in them until she dies. (Disney, uh, chose not to dramatize that part of the story in their 1937 animated hit based on the tale.)
But things get spookier the deeper into the fairy tale archives you go—whether you’re looking at tales from Germany, Italy, Russia, or beyond. Be warned, the nine stories listed below might give you nightmares instead of sweet dreams!
The Three Army Surgeons
Collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and published in the second volume of their 19th-century work Kinder- und Hausmärchen—Children’s and Household Tales—the story known as “The Three Army Surgeons” is full of body horror. In it, the titular army surgeons stop for the night at an inn where the innkeeper asks them each to demonstrate their professional skills. The first surgeon, utterly confident in his abilities, says that he’ll cut off his own hand and reattach it in the morning. The second, not to be outdone, says that he’ll cut out his own heart and replace it in the morning. And the third, attempting to show up both of his companions, says that he’ll cut out his own eyeball and reinstall it in the morning. Accordingly, all three surgeons remove their own body parts and give them to the innkeeper’s servant for safekeeping overnight.
However, that night, the servant carelessly leaves open the cupboard in which the limbs and organs are being stored, which in turn allows the inn’s resident cat not only to get into it, but also to run off with all of the surgeons’ body parts. Her sweetheart, a soldier, tells her not to worry and supplies a few substitutes: the hand of a thief hanging on the gallows, the heart of a pig, and the eye of the inn’s cat.
Using a magical salve they carry with them at all times, the surgeons reattach these replacement body parts to themselves in the morning—only to find themselves adopting strange behaviors seemingly connected to these foreign pieces. They return to the inn to find out what exactly happened to them while they were there—and once they figure it out, they extort the innkeeper for everything he’s worth, threatening to burn his inn to the ground if he doesn’t pay up. He does and they collect—but they’re stuck with the borrowed hand, heart, and eye for the rest of their lives.
Penta of the Chopped-Off Hands
An Italian fairy tale, “Penta of the Chopped-Off Hands,” was originally recorded by Giambattista Basile for his 17th-century fairy collection Il Pentamarone. This collection contains the earliest recorded versions of many well-known European fairy tales, including “Rapunzel” (here called “Petrosinella,” meaning “parsley”) and “Sleeping Beauty” (titled “Sun, Moon, and Talia”).
“Penta of the Chopped-Off Hands” starts off with a bang and just gets freakier from there. Penta’s brother is the king of the land in which the story begins—but after his wife dies, he begins pursuing Penta. She asks her brother what he’s most drawn to about her, and although he heaps all manner of praise on her, what he really focuses on is how beautiful her hands are.
So she cuts them off, figuring, “Well, if he likes my hands so much, maybe he’ll leave me alone if they aren’t there anymore.” Makes sense, right?
Angered, the king locks Penta in a chest and throws her into the ocean. A fisherman rescues her and brings her to his home, but her troubles are far from over. Penta, it turns out, is still beautiful even without her hands—and the fisherman’s wife quickly becomes jealous. So, she locks Penta back up and throws her into the ocean again.
Then another king rescues her from the depths of the sea, and she becomes a lady-in-waiting for the queen. This royal couple seems pretty okay, all things considered; both of them are fond of Penta, and when the queen becomes sick, she tells the king to marry Penta once she’s gone. He does so—but the fisherman’s wife is still jealous of Penta, and performs all sorts of machinations resulting in Penta’s expulsion from the kingdom.
There’s ultimately a happy ending—Penta’s brother repents, she and her husband are reunited, and the fisherman’s wife is, uh, burned alive for her crimes—but geez. Talk about not being able to get a break!
Another tale collected and published by the Grimms in Children’s and Household Tales, “Fitcher’s Bird,” has a lot in common with the more well-known stories “Bluebeard,” which is French; “The Robber Bridegroom,” which, like “Fitcher’s Bird,” is a Grimm tale from Germany; and “Mr. Fox,” an English folktale. They all have the same basic frame—a young woman is set to be married to a mysterious and wealthy man; while at his home, she’s instructed not to enter a certain room; she enters it anyway; she finds that her husband-to-be has been killing all of his fiancées instead of marrying them; and, through her own cleverness and the help of her supportive family, she’s able to escape and give her bloodthirsty suitor a taste of his own medicine—but “Fitcher’s Bird” is a whole lot weirder.
Firstly, the bride-killer in “Fitcher’s Bird” doesn’t use his wealth and charm to convince young women to marry him; in fact, he does the opposite: He’s a wizard who disguises himself as a beggar and, in this guise, straight-up kidnaps the women he decides he wants for his own. Secondly, two young women from the same family end up in his grasp over the course of the tale—one of whom doesn’t survive until the end. Thirdly, the young woman who does manage to escape does so by setting a skull in the window of the bride-killer’s home to act as a decoy of herself and then covering herself in honey and feathers so she looks like a giant bird. And fourthly, the bride-killer isn’t just executed as payment for his crimes; he’s trapped in his house and burned alive by the young woman’s family and an angry mob.
For the curious, there was also once yet another “Bluebeard”-type story included in Children’s and Household Tales called “Das Mordschloß”—“The Murder Castle.”This story includes the young woman finding not just the remains of her spouse-to-be’s other brides hidden in his home, but also a woman whose literal job is to process these dead women’s intestines. No wonder that one never made it beyond the first edition!
The Dead Mother
With such a cheerful title, you know that this one’s going to be a barrel of laughs, right? “The Dead Mother” is a Russian fairy tale recorded by Alexander Afanasyev in the 19th century and translated into English by William Ralston Shedden-Ralston in his 1872 collection Russian Fairy Tales: A Choice Collection of Muscovite Folk-lore. Interestingly, though, at its heart, this one is really a ghost story more than anything else. (Content warning: Child loss.)
In this short and spooky tale, a happily married couple living in a small village welcome a child into their family only for the mother to die tragically in childbirth. The father, now a single parent, subsequently hires an old neighbor woman to act as a nursemaid for his child—but no matter what she, the father, or anyone else does, the child won’t eat and won’t stop crying. To make things even weirder, at midnight every night, the old woman hears the door to the baby’s bedroom open on its own, after which the child falls mysteriously silent.
After a few nights of this, the old woman tells the father what’s going on. He turns to the rest of his village for help, and everyone agrees to watch the baby overnight. Gathering together in the father’s house, they set a candle nearby and wait to see what will happen. When the door opens and the baby stops crying, they light the candle—and discover the ghost of the dead mother breastfeeding her child.
She leaves when the room lights up, but when they go to check on the baby, they find that they’re too late: The child has died.
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are all pretty dark; just look at the original version of “The Little Mermaid,” the ending of “The Little Match Girl,” or the horrors of “The Red Shoes” for proof. (Spoiler: They all end in death, often accompanied by a side order of intense personal sacrifice.) “The Shadow,” however—which was originally published in 1847 in the second volume of New Fairy Tales before seeing republication several other times within Andersen’s lifetime—really takes the cake.
At the center of the story is a kindly writer who, after making a few whimsical observations about his own shadow one night, wakes up in the morning to find that his shadow has somehow disappeared. “How odd,” he thinks—but he soon begins to grow a new one, and doesn’t give the whole strange episode another thought.
Several years later, though, his old shadow shows up on his doorstep, now fully fleshed out into an actual person. The writer invites the shadow in, and as they talk, it soon becomes apparent that they have diametrically opposed views of the world: The kindly writer looks for the good in everything, while the shadow is convinced that the world is full of nothing but evil.
More time passes, during which the shadow seems to prosper as the writer diminishes. The shadow offers the writer an all-expenses-paid trip to a health spa to improve his failing health—on the condition, that is, that the writer agrees to become the shadow’s shadow for a time. He agrees. Eventually, though, the shadow meets a princess—and when they become engaged to marry, he offers the writer a position at court in exchange for becoming the shadow’s shadow permanently. The writer refuses and threatens to reveal everything to the princess. Before he can do so, though, the shadow has him arrested and convinces the princess that the writer is, in fact, the shadow—and that he’s gone mad, thinking that he’s a real man.
The princess has the writer, whom she believes is a shadow, executed. The actual shadow marries the princess and lives happily ever after.
The Death of the Little Hen
This story collected by the Brothers Grimm begins with a hen choking on a nut, and ends with a host of adorable talking animals dead due to a series of horrible, yet somehow also comical, misadventures.
Does that seem like a lot? Well, it is. Here’s what happens:
First, the hen chokes on the nut. Then, her rooster friend goes to the river to fetch some water for her to drink. But before the river will give him the water, it requires the rooster to go get a piece of red silk from a young woman living nearby. However, before the young woman will give the rooster the red silk, she demands that he fetch her wreath from a nearby willow. Now, the rooster carries out this monster of a fetch quest, but by the time he finally makes it back to the hen with the water, she’s already choked to death.
But we’re not done yet! All of the other animals living nearby hear the rooster’s sobs of sorrow and show up to help him mourn her and give her a proper send-off. They all pile into a carriage specially made by six mice to bring the hen to her grave. When they reach a river that lies in the path of their funeral procession, a piece of straw, a lump of coal, and a stone all try to bridge the gap for them—but each fails; the carriage falls into the river, and everyone in it except for the rooster drowns.
The final line? “Then the little cock was left alone with the dead hen, and dug a grave for her and laid her in it, and made a mound above it, on which he sat down and fretted until he died too, and then everyone was dead.”
And… that’s it. That’s the story.
The Flayed Old Woman
Another tale from Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone, “The Flayed Old Woman,” is a particularly grisly meditation on beauty and greed. It tells the story of two sisters, both wizened, bitter, and old, but who nonetheless possess beautiful singing voices. The king who lives across the street from them doesn’t know what they look like but falls instantly in love with the older sister the moment he hears her sing. He convinces her to spend the night with him, thinking that with a voice like that, she must be young and heart-stoppingly gorgeous—so the older sister, after agreeing to meet with him, pins her wrinkled, sagging skin back in an attempt to hide her age before she goes.
The king finds out her true age and appearance, of course, and has her thrown from the window. However, instead of falling to her death, she gets caught in a tree when her loose skin catches on the branches—but she’s still in pain, not to mention humiliated. The old woman’s agony attracts the presence of some nearby fairies who laugh uproariously at her situation. Eventually, though, she escapes, tearing herself out of the tree limbs—and finding, to her surprise, that her skin is suddenly smooth, young, and beautiful.
In some translations, the source of the older sister’s newfound youth and beauty is kept vague, described only as a gift from the fairies granted in exchange for the laughter her plight provided them. In others, it’s a bit more explicit: Her beautiful new skin isn’t the result of magic, but of her old skin literally ripping away from her body.
The latter makes more sense, narratively speaking—because when the younger sister finds out how her sibling acquired this new skin, she pays a barber to cut and peel her own skin from her body as well. Alas, though, she’s left not with new skin underneath but without skin entirely and dies as a result.
As for the older sister? Well, she approaches the king, who does not recognize her; struck by her beauty, however, he marries her. Predictably, though, he eventually tires of her, leaving her alone—and when she goes to reconcile with her sibling, she finds only a faded old corpse sitting before the fire in the house they once inhabited together.
The Story of a Mother
This 1847 fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen is just as dark as “The Shadow,” but somehow even more heart-wrenching. (Content warning: Child loss.) In it, a mother spends days watching her sick child grow weaker and weaker—but when an old man appears at her door and she sleeps for the first time in days, she awakens to find that the old man was Death and has spirited her baby away.
She chases after him, completing a variety of tasks for beings, creatures, and personification as she goes along in order to gain the information needed for her to track down her child. Eventually, she finally catches up to Death, who is amazed at her persistence (when he asks her how she could have traveled faster than he did, she replies only, “I am a mother”). She threatens to tear up two flowers from Death’s garden unless he returns her child to her, only for him to tell her that one flower represents a blessed future and the other a harsh and terrible one—but the kicker is this: One of the flowers also represents her own child’s future, the other someone else’s child’s future—but he won’t tell her which is which.
The mother, unable to risk damning her child to a hopeless future, falls to her knees and watches Death bear her child away from her forever.
The Strange Feast
Like “The Murder Castle,” “The Strange Feast”—in German, “Die wunderliche Gasterei”—is no longer included in Children’s and Household Tales; it was only published in the collection up through the second edition, which came out in 1819. It is also, by far, the weirdest story on this list.
It stars two sentient sausages—one blood sausage and one liver sausage. The sausages are friends, and one day, the blood sausage invites the liver sausage over for dinner. The liver sausage of course agrees—after all, they’ve been friends for a long time—but gets an uneasy feeling upon arrival. The blood sausage’s house, it seems, is full of odd things: a broom and a shovel beating each other, a monkey with an enormous wound on its head, and other assorted bits of bizarreness. The liver sausage asks about all of the stuff in the blood sausage’s house, but the blood sausage brushes it all off and goes into the kitchen to check on the meal.
Then, a mysterious someone—it’s not specified who—appears to the liver sausage and warns it that it has come to visit a house of death. “Hurry up and leave, if you value your life,” this mysterious someone says.
The liver sausage obliges and creeps out of the house. As it runs away, the blood sausage sticks its head out the window and cries, “If I had caught you, I would have had you!”
It’s up to you to decide whether the weirdest part is the fact that the sausages are sentient—or the fact that the blood sausage was seemingly planning on eating the liver sausage for dinner.
The next time you’re in the mood for a spooky story to send some shivers down your spine, put down that Stephen King novel and pick up a fairy tale volume instead. You never know what unexpected scares you might find inside those magical pages!