Disney’s 6 Most Disturbing Fairy Tales

©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

We tend to think of Disney movies as cheerful tales of princesses, princes and talking animals. But a lot of the stories that inspired Disney movies are actually very dark, violent and unsettling, and some dark scenes ended up making it into the films. Here are six of Disney’s most disturbing fairy tales:

6. Aladdin and the King of Thieves

Remember the two sequels to Aladdin? In the third movie, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, which was released direct to video in 1996, Aladdin’s long-lost father Cassim stops behaving badly so that he can attend Aladdin’s wedding to Jasmine. But this story was inspired by Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which was part of 1001 Nights. In the original version, Cassim finds out about some gold treasure from his brother Ali Baba and runs to the cave to snatch up as much as he can carry. But he’s so overcome with excitement that he forgets the magic words to get himself out of the cave. Thieves find him, kill him and even cut up his body into pieces that they place at the cave’s entrance to keep other robbers away. Perhaps dismemberment was a little too dark for Disney’s version?

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5. Tarzan

You might not think of Tarzan as a disturbing fairy tale, but there’s one scene that’s actually shown in the movie that seems to be a little dark and creepy for kids. In the climax of the movie, Tarzan faces off against the antagonist, Clayton. Clayton ends up getting caught in a bunch of vines and can’t free himself, no matter how hard he tries. He ends up essentially hanging himself. We don’t see Clayton’s actual death, but we do see a vine growing looser as the hanging body is implied. The most disturbing part is the crazed look on Clayton’s face, as if maybe he’s choosing to kill himself. The metaphor is that he got caught up in his own mistakes, but it’s still a weird moment in what’s basically a kids’ movie about friendly animals.

TARZAN (US 1999) Date: 1999

4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Everything about The Hunchback of Notre Dame is dark. The movie begins with Claude Frollo killing Quasimodo’s mother and leaving her on the ground in a pool of her own blood. When he tries to dump baby Quasimodo on the steps of a church, someone asks what he’s doing and he answers, “This is an unholy demon. I’m sending it back to Hell where it belongs.” Yikes! In the original version of the story by Victor Hugo, that isn’t the worst  part: When Esmeralda is charged with attempted murder, she’s tortured in a dungeon until she finally confesses, even though she’s innocent. Then she’s sentenced to death by hanging, and Frollo tries to rape her and later laughs while she is executed. Not exactly the kind of story you’d expect to be inspiration for Disney.

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3. Pocahontas

The Disney movie of Pocahontas (1995) is a sweet tale of love, forest, and singing about the colors of nature. But the real-life story of Pocahontas is actually violent, disturbing and tragic. First off, English settlers met Pocahontas when she was just ten years old — not a grown woman. When she was seventeen, Englishmen captured her and held her for ransom. Her husband, Kokoum, was killed and she was raped repeatedly, resulting in a pregnancy. She was forced to convert to Christianity and marry English tobacco farmer John Rolfe so that her child wouldn’t be a bastard. In 1615, Rolfe brought Pocahontas back to England, where she was presented as a symbol of a “savage” who had been tamed. She ended up getting violently ill and dying at the age of 22 — and while some think she might have come down with pneumonia or small pox, others suggest that she was purposefully murdered by way of poison because she knew too much about the English’s plan to take over Native American land in America. Not exactly a happily-ever-after story — and sadly, it’s not a fairy tale. It really happened.

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2. Dragonslayer

Have you ever heard of the Disney movie Dragonslayer? Released in 1981, it was nominated for Academy Awards for its visual effects and score. It tells the story of a young man named Galen who is tasked with killing a dragon who has been eating young girls. The dark background of the story, though,  is that the dragon has been eating virgins who have been sacrificed to the him by the evil king. Many of them were killed by being burned at the stake. After the dragon is killed, Galen and his love, Valerian end up riding off together into the sunset (quite literally, on a horse) — but it’s still a pretty disturbing setup for a PG rated movie.

©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

1. Sleeping Beauty

The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty is sweet and romantic, but the fairy tale it’s based on is filled with death and disturbing violence. In the classic story from the Brothers Grimm, Briar Rose ends up sleeping on a pile of corpses because all the men who come to see her get stuck in thorny vines and die very painful deaths. Gross! The earlier version of the story, Briar Rose from Sun, Moon and Talia by Giambattista Basile, is even darker: Sleeping Beauty gets raped by a king while she’s sleeping, which causes her to get pregnant and give birth to twins. When the queen finds out, she tries to have the babies killed and burn sleeping beauty alive. Luckily, the king saves her and burns the queen instead. Then Sleeping Beauty and the king live happily ever after, despite the fact that he’s a rapist. Quite a romantic fairy tale, right?


Amanda Young