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Fairy Tales, Child Development, And Unconscious Learning

Fairy tales communicate strong, unconscious messages to children in terms they can grasp. This is because these stories possess genuine resonance and dreamlike power.
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I just read a review of what sounds like a fascinating new book by film historian David Thomson, called The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder. Thomson explores the far-reaching cinematic influence of this seminal film, a legacy that he argues lingers on today in the increasingly cool depiction of violence in movies and the growing disconnect between filmic images of gore and its actual emotional content. The famous, much-studied shower scene with its gouts of crimson (shot in black-and-white, no less) broke new ground in the way it aestheticized violence. Today, we routinely watch buckets of fake blood merrily exploding every which way in movies, on TV and the internet, all in the name of a quick adrenaline burst, a dark laugh, a gruesome visual. What's missing is the emotional, psychological and even cultural meaning of that vital red fluid - the fear, terror, even wonder.

This is odd, when you consider that according to the National Institute of Mental Health up to 18 percent of Americans, mostly women, suffer from phobias -- the most common being fear of blood. Maybe it's intrinsically hard-wired into our brains; after all, if one is watching blood spurt out of someone's torso, especially one's own, who wouldn't assume something has gone horribly wrong and start freaking out? And yet we know that blood is also a healthy part of an everyday, non-pathological body process, namely menstruation. As a result, most grown women can deal with their periods without the panic brought on by, say, the sight of arterial spray. But what about children? In the days before sex education and femcare marketing, how were clueless little girls taught that the sudden and unexpected appearance of blood wasn't a fearsome thing, something to shriek at and cower from in abject terror?

Enter Bruno Bettelheim, whose seminal 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, remains a must-read for anyone interested in childhood development and kids' literature. In it, he claims that classic Western fairy tales -- with their improbable heroes and heroines, cannibalistic villains, impossible tasks, talking animals and magical talismans -- are in fact the best tools to teach young children how to handle the basic, underlying fears, problems and questions in their lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way fairy tales deal with menarche, menstruation, and a girl's transition to sexual adulthood.

This doesn't mean it's overt; trust me, you'll be searching the Brothers Grimm until hell freezes over if you're looking for specific references to the endometrium, follicle-stimulating hormones, or Fallopian tubes. But even the most metaphor-challenged can't help but notice how many times the color red plays an important role in a fairy tale involving a young girl, or how often blood is a significant part of the plot: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty ... even Cinderella and that weird little bird singing "there's blood in the shoe".

Fairy tales communicate strong, unconscious messages to children in terms they can grasp and even carry into adulthood. This is because these stories possess genuine resonance and dreamlike power, the kind you're just not going to find, say, on your average TV sitcom. As for sitcoms, I've found that literal references to menstruation in film and on television, while more common than you might think, are singularly underwhelming. Even when a woman's period isn't treated as the eye-rolling punchline to another sophomoric joke, the best-intentioned references tend to be bland and safe, with a distinct lack of resonance or importance attached to the process. Nothing I've seen as an adult even hints at the mystery and potential psychological power of menstruation the way fairy tales do... with the possible exception of one movie.

Carrie, the 1976 movie directed by Brian DePalma, written by Lawrence D. Cohen and based on the first novel by Stephen King, is one of the most whoppingly effective fairy tales ever made for adults. It's a Gothic horror story, a supernatural fable about menstruation, the taboos surrounding it, and the power it can unleash -- filtered through a Roman Catholic sensibility and juxtaposed against 70s American suburbia. To some, it's a cheesey camp-fest; to me, it's one of the best horror films ever made and, I bet, probably the only one about primary amenorrhea.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big Hitchcock fan, and Psycho definitely makes it on my desert island list. Yet it's intriguing to think this classic film may have helped usher in a new era of stylized storytelling... in which the resonance has basically been bled out of blood.