5 Horrifying Folktales from 1980s Childrens’ Books

I work at the public library, and occasionally my duties involve culling books that have either been circulated too often or not recently enough to keep them around anymore. While pulling fairy tale books, I noticed a few of these were quite disturbing, which launched this listicle in my mind.

 5. The Monster and the Tailor: A Ghost Story, retold and illustrated by Paul Galdone

Yeesh, these illustrations! Why does that horse have a thousand-yard stare?

A poor tailor is summoned to the Grand Duke’s castle for a commission. Seems the Duke wants a new pair of trousers; however, he has some wonky demands to go with the job: “You must stitch the trousers in the old graveyard at night. Only then will I have good luck when I wear them—that is what my soothsayer told me” (6). Because I guess he wants crappy-looking pants that were sewn in the dark.

“I want the ugliest trousers anyone’s ever seen, it’ll totally be good luck!”

In exchange, the tailor is offered a purse of gold. Unfortunately, the cemetery is haunted by a monster that comes out only after dark, because purses of gold don’t earn themselves. The tailor heads down there and picks a “nice gravestone for a seat” (9). Although according to the illustration, these gravestones are anything but nice. I worry for the people of this town that they’re just throwing their dead bodies higgledy piggledy in the ground like that.

Dude, don’t look at me, you agreed to come here. It’s creepy, really, knock it off.

Naturally once the tailor assumes he’s safe, the monster rears its giant head and starts asking repetitive questions, starting with, “Do you see this great head of mine?” (14-15). In what sounds increasingly more like come-ons than threats, the giant brags about his neck, chest, and arms.

“Can you see up this great nose of mine?”

Luckily he takes so long to get all the way out of the ground that the tailor has time to sew a full set of slacks and get a head start. He escapes successfully, gets his gold, and the monster disappears forever for no particular reason.

4. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, retold by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon


This, unlike the other four books, was a great favorite of mine as a child. It’s comprised of old-timey stories from African American culture, often involving slavery, recounted in a folksy, informal way that probably wouldn’t fly today. (I swear it’s not as cringe-worthy as it sounds. Hamilton was a Black woman preserving her heritage and emphasizing the beauty of simple freedom. As a white ten-year-old, it gave me a lot to think about.) The tales, along with the artwork, are gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Though I can’t help but giggle at this story, “The Talking Cooter,” given that the word cooter is also southern slang for lady parts

And some of them are creepy as fuck.

“Bwah, you’re supposed to be pickles!”

But the most eerie, in my humble opinion, is “Wiley and the Hairy Man.”

Kill it! Kill it with fiiiiiire!

We find out in the first paragraph that our child protagonist Wiley has lost his father to the titular creature after falling in the river: “And say they never found him. But they heard a great bad laughin way off across the river. And everybody sayin it, ‘That’s the Hairy Man.’ Sayin Wiley’s papa never got across Jordan because the Hairy Man block his way. ‘Wiley,’ his mama tell him, ‘the Hairy Man’s got your papa and he’s gone get you if you don’t look out” (90). Fortunately, ol’ HM is afeared of dogs, so all Wiley has to do is keep his dogs with him at all times. Which is swell until the monster distracts them and they run away. “Hairy Man just grinnin at him. Hairy Man was ugly, even when he grinned. He was coarse—hairy all over. His eyes burned red as fire. He had great big teeth, with spit all in his mouth and runnin down his chin. He was a terrible-lookin hairy man” (95).

Oh shit Wiley, he’s got your axe now! Game over, man!

Happily, Wiley is able to trick the Hairy Man by calling his dogs. His mama then reveals that he can again trick him (which would have been good to know earlier), and if he tricks him three times, HM will have to leave him alone forever. After the second time being fooled, the Hairy Man comes straight to Wiley’s house, demanding, “‘Give him over. If you don’t I’ll sure bite you and poison you.’ ‘I’ll bite you right back,’ Wiley’s mama said” (101). He’s fooled again ’cause Wiley’s mama is awesome, and Hairy Man goes storming away. However, “They say that Hairy Man is still deep in the swamps somewhere. Say he is waitin on the right time” (103).

3. Rumpelstiltskin, retold and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

The illustrations of people are perfectly lovely

A miller’s daughter (who has no name, natch) is possessed of a shit-talking father, who tells the king that she can spin straw into gold. The king decides that sounds nifty and throws her ass in a large room full of straw, reassuring her that, “ ‘You may spin all night, but if you have not spun this straw into gold by morning, you will have to die,’” (10). Luckily a funny little man shows up and does it for her, in exchange for her necklace. Unluckily, the king isn’t happy with one room full of gold and dumps her in an even bigger room with the same instructions. The man again shows up and saves her in exchange for her ring.

Yecccchhhhh kill it with fiiiiiire!

“The king rejoiced at the sight of so much gold, but still he was not satisfied. He led the miller’s daughter to a third, even bigger room that was piled high with straw. ‘Tonight, you must spin this straw too,’ ordered the king. ‘And if you succeed, you shall become my wife.’ Because, he thought, I could not find a richer wife in all the world” (20). Score! What an amazing husband this guy will be! Rumpy shows up a third time and demands her firstborn son. MD decides that it’s possible she won’t even have kids, so she agrees since she’s out of options. And then she actually marries that asshole king. Once their son is born, back comes Rumpelstiltskin for his prize.

What’s going on with the architecture here? The king should have had her weave a floor that doesn’t have random hills.

She begs and pleads and he feels sorry for her, so he gives her three days to guess his name. She tries every name she can think of, even some doozies like “Beastyribs,” “Leg O’Ram,” and “Stringbones” (30). Good thing the queen has servants out spying for her, because a maid finds him dancing around yelling his own name. When the queen guesses his name, he loses his shit, yelling “ ‘The Devil told you that! The Devil told you that!’” Then “in a fury he jumped on his cooking spoon and flew out the window” (37). Don’t ask me what he was cooking with that spoon. And, I’m sensing a pattern here, he was never heard from again. As gross as this story is, it beats the original Grimm version from 1808, Rumpenstinzchen: “In this story a young girl, given flax to spin into linen, is distressed to find that only gold thread comes out of her spinning wheel. A little man appears and offers to help her by causing a prince to carry her off and marry her” (40).

Ew, his come-hither stare is worse than his threatening glare

2. The Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel, retold by Elizabeth D. Crawford, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

We begin with a poor family in famine times: father, stepmother, son, and daughter. The wicked stepmother comes up with a plan to improve their lot: “ ‘You know what, husband, replied his wife, ‘tomorrow morning early we will take the children into the forest and give them each a morsel of bread. Then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will never find the way home again, and we will be rid of them.’” (3) To which he replies, “I was thinking of just cutting our unlimited data plan, where did that come from?” Just kidding, he reluctantly agrees.

Hansel…Hansel…Why do you have no eyes?

Hansel leaves a trail of stones, and they come home. Of course Stepmummy is delighted. The narrator kinda tries to explain the husband’s motivation to try to lose them again: “But the woman paid no heed to what he said and nagged him and reproached him. Once you’ve said yes, it’s hard to say no, and because he had given in the first time, he gave in the second time too” (8). This time Hansel uses bread crumbs, which get eaten, so they’re super lost for days. Then they see the gingerbread house, and can’t resist pawing at it with their little germ-laden hands.

Look at these assholes, struttin around like they own the place

The witch pretends to be nice, but “Whenever a child came into her power, she killed it, [not sure if it’s disturbing to have the child deperson-alized with the pronoun “it” or neat that a book from the ‘80s didn’t automatically revert to “he”] cooked it, and ate it, making a feast out of it” (19).

Jeez, Hansel, isn’t that lid hot? Slow down and save some for Gretel!

She proceeds to put Hansel in a kennel and make Gretel cook food for him that she is fully conscious is meant to fatten him up for being eaten. Meanwhile, she gets scraps. Hans tricks the witch for a month by letting her think he’s not gaining weight, but she decides she’ll eat him anyway. This is when Gretel shoves her in the oven. (And kills her with fiiiiiire!)

“I say, I don’t care for this a-tall!”

Ever blasé, they realize they have the run of the place, now full of treasure for some reason, which they don’t hesitate to pocket. Suddenly they know the way home after riding a duck across a lake, and they go back to their dad, who’s totally sad about murdering them. Also, “The woman had died” (25). Happy ending: “Then all their troubles were at an end, and they lived together in complete happiness. My tale is done, and there a mouse does run. Whoever catches it can make a big fur cap of it.” Whatever the bloody holy hell that means.

1. The Pancake Boy: An Old Norwegian Folk Tale, retold and illustrated by Lorinda Bryan Cauley.

Kill them with fiiiiiiire!

The book opens with a recipe for pancakes, in case its readers are eager to create their own anthropomorphic monstrosity. Goody Poody, Goodman Poody, and their seven hungry children are waiting for one pancake to feed all nine of them. No one notices it has a face. How about some potatoes, maybe?

Potatoes only have eyes, waka waka!

Clearly they’re insane with hunger. “Look how fat and happy it lies there,” they muse (12). “When the pancake heard that [despite its lack of ears], it was afraid, and in a trice it turned itself over, and tried to jump out of the pan” (14-15). It succeeds in escaping, even though the family is yelling for it to stop; it’s faster than they are.

If I had a nickel for every time my meal got up and rolled away by itself…

It continues traveling, and comes upon a random guy. “ ‘Good day, pancake,’ said the man. ‘God bless you, Manny Panny,’ said the pancake [so now it knows names? And let’s not get started with what kind of theology humanoid breakfast foods follow.] ‘Dear pancake,’ said the man, ‘don’t roll so fast. Stop a little and let me eat you up’” (18). Surprisingly, Pancake does not go for this, and rolls away taunting the man.

“Seriously, Manny, I’m all gross and dirty from rolling on the ground, what is wrong with you?”

It next comes across a number of creatures that want to eat it: a hen, rooster, duck, goose, and gander. Then a pig pretends to be friendly in a scheme to eat it. “ ‘Nay, nay,’ said the pig, ‘you needn’t be in such a hurry; we two can then go side by side and see one another through the wood; they say it is not too safe in there.’ [Why, there could be ten farm animals that want to eat it. Or a wild animal. Or two wild animals!] The pancake thought there might be something in that, and so they kept company” (29). Then the pig eats it (33).

“Ouf ouf.”–actual quote

My tale is done, so go catch a rodent and make a hat out of it or something.

Works Cited

Cauley, Lorinda Bryan. The Pancake Boy: An Old Norwegian Folk Tale. New York:

Putnam Juvenile, 1988.

Crawford, Elizabeth D. The Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel. Saxonville:

Picture Book Studio, 1988.

Galdone, Paul. The Monster and the Tailor: A Ghost Story. New York: Clarion

Books, 1982.

Hamilton, Patricia. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. New York:

Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Zelinsky, Paul O. Rumpelstiltskin. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1986.

Published by GhoulieJoe

I wuvs the horror movies and like to write snarky reviews about them. I also included some pretentious as hell microfiction (don't worry, it's at the bottom).

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