5 Popular Legends Inspired By Real-Life Horror Stories

Published November 15, 2017
Updated September 12, 2018
Published November 15, 2017
Updated September 12, 2018

Hansel And Gretel

Hansel Gretel Witch

Alexander Zick/Wikimedia CommonsHansel and Gretel meet the witch.

Hansel and Gretel is the story of two children who’d been abandoned in the woods to die by their father only to then come across a mysterious gingerbread house. Unfortunately, the house turns out to be inhabited by a witch who imprisons them and begins fattening up Hansel in order to eat him. Luckily, the quick-thinking Gretel kills the witch by shoving her into her own oven before she can devour the boy.

The story carries a lot of the famous fictional motifs in legend, particularly the idea of a child being abandoned in the woods by a family that can no longer feed them. Unfortunately, there is a very real historical basis for this motif.

In the Middle Ages, families were often only one bad harvest away from starvation. And during times of famine, children were often abandoned by families who couldn’t provide for them.

The act served two purposes: First, it was a way to ensure that at least some of the family would have enough to eat. Secondly, there was a glimmer of hope that a passing traveler with better luck would find the child and raise them as their own.

The story of Hansel and Gretel likely originated during the Great Famine, a period in the 14th century when massive crop failures in Europe forced many people to acts of infanticide and even cannibalism.

The story of the witch planning to eat the young abandoned children likely reflects a reality that many desperate people in Europe were familiar with but reluctant to talk about openly. The legend may have been a way to twist this tragic reality of starvation and infanticide into a positive story where the children actually survive.

Wyatt Redd
Wyatt Redd is a freelance writer from Nashville, Tennessee.
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