Talking animals, beautiful princesses, and magical spells… What more could a child wish for? Disney cartoons and animated movies are so popular because they’re family-friendly fare, even if they have their bleak sides—like evil step-mothers, pirates, and curses.
But that’s all, right? Well, not quite.
If you dig a little deeper behind most Disney classics, you’ll be surprised to find that many Disney tales actually have sinister origins. Whether they came from the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, many innocent Disney stories were far darker before Disney got their hands on them.
Indeed, many Disney fairy tales were adapted from traditional fairy tales written way back in the 17th–19th centuries, and they had all kinds of grisly details that Disney (understandably) changed.
Here are some of the darker origins behind popular Disney cartoons and animated movies. Readers, beware!
10. The Corpse of Aladdin’s Father
Did you know that Aladdin wasn’t even set in Iraq to begin with? In fact, Aladdin was originally set in China.
Disney’s orphan-on-the-streets sob story originally featured an Aladdin who was a lazy homebody character who mooched off his mom. Plus, the genie character was North African… for some reason.
The origins of the tale are still in dispute today, but it’s thought to come from an Arabian storyteller whose story was translated by a Frenchman named Antoine Galland in the early 18th century.
In the original story, Aladdin isn’t in love with a girl but “Badroulbadour” (which means “full moon of moons”). Apparently, in the original tale, Aladdin’s father Cassim isn’t just killed—he’s ripped in half and sewn back together again. Bit much, don’t you think?
9. The Fate of Cinderella’s Step-Sisters
Cinderella was first penned by Charles Perrault, though the seedlings of the story can be traced back to Ancient Greece, 6th century BCE.
A hundred years after Perrault first wrote the story down, the Grimm Brothers reworked it with the title Aschenputtel (German for “ash fool”). Cinderella is the English translation, which Disney molded into a whimsical children’s cartoon in 1950.
In the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella, there are no cute talking mice or ball gowns. Instead, some pretty white doves befriend Cinderella. Sounds innocent, right? Doves are symbols of holy peace, after all.
But, no. After Cinderella’s wicked step-sisters cut off pieces of their feet to fit into the glass slipper, those same doves swoop down and pluck out their eyeballs.
8. Ariel’s Missing Tongue
In the 1989 Disney movie The Little Mermaid, Ariel makes a deal with a sea witch: exchange her voice for a pair of human legs. In the animated film, Ursula puts Ariel’s voice in a shell for safe keeping.
But what originally happened to her voice?
Danish author Hans Christian Andersen originally conceived the tale in 1837, in which Ariel is a mere 14-year-old girl searching for the man of her dreams under the sea.
The bargain between her and Ursula is a little more costly in his version: Ariel literally has her tongue cut off, and every human step she takes is as painful as standing on knives. Also, she never gets the prince because he marries someone else.
Ariel strikes another deal with Ursula to kill the prince, but she can’t carry it out—so she commits suicide instead, dissolving into a pile of foam.
7. Shakespearean Tragedy in The Lion King
With so many Shakespearean movies out there, sometimes you don’t even know you’re watching one. That might’ve been the case with The Lion King, which is a loose adaptation of Hamlet.
There’s the treacherous uncle (Scar), the fatherly ghost (Mufasa), and a prince in exile (Simba). But as heartbreaking as Mufasa’s death was, Disney’s 1994 movie can’t be categorized as a tragedy—they wouldn’t do that to six-year-old viewers.
Indeed, if Disney had followed Hamlet more closely, Simba would have been poisoned dead by the end of the film.
That’s the true story of Sundiata Keita, founder of the Malian Empire in 1235. It’s a historical story that’s largely ignored in the West, but African storytellers have passed it down for generations—until it sneakily found its way into the Disney studio alongside Hamlet.
6. Tod’s Death in The Fox and the Hound
The Fox and the Hound isn’t a Grimm fairy tale, but rather a novel written by Daniel P. Mannix in 1967.
Mannix had myriad careers throughout his lifetime—as fire-eater, photographer, stage magician, zoologist, the list goes on. When he decided to put pen to paper back in the 1960s, he produced the beloved children’s story that Disney brought to life in 1981.
However, Disney omitted certain parts of the book—like the real ending—so as not to traumatize their young viewers.
We begin in the mind of Copper, a dog who kills his owner’s rival pet, Chief. From there, Copper and his cruel master hunt down Tod, a fox who was rescued by humans. Tod escapes to the wild, so Copper and his master wipe out all of Tod’s little fox puppies with methane.
The Fox and the Hound begins with an anti-hunting message, but later shows how the modern world confuses and endangers animals just as much as hunting does. In the end, Tod drops dead from exhaustion while being chased by Cooper, who only does so out of loyalty to his owner.
5. The Violent Side of Pinocchio
Out of all the Disney classics, Pinocchio is already the most messed up. Children screaming for their moms as they turn into donkeys? Pinocchio kidnapped by creepy talking foxes and sold on the market?
Yeah, it’s pretty dark stuff. But in the end, Pinocchio becomes a real boy, guided by a dazzling blue fairy and cute little talking cricket.
While Disney tinged their 1940 animation with a touch of the sinister, it’s nothing close to the horrors of the original. Adapted from a newspaper serial called The Adventures of Pinocchio by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio gets served his karma by the end of the story.
After murdering Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio has his feet burned off. Geppetto builds him new feet despite Pinocchio getting him put in prison.
With this story, Collodi tried to teach kid readers to behave by having Pinocchio hanged for his disobedience (but the editor made him write a happier ending where the blue fairy saves him).
4. Mulan Commits Suicide
Mulan first appeared in a 12th century anthology, known as the Ballad of Mulan. It wasn’t even a story; it was a short poem derived from 4th century Chinese folklore.
There aren’t any talking dragons in this one. It’s just a simplified story of a woman who replaces her father in battle, shocking her comrades 12 years later when revealing her identity. It only got darker over time.
As the story was retold and fleshed out over centuries, it was eventually published as Sui Tang Yanyi in 1675. Chu Renho gave Mulan a fate she definitely didn’t deserve: coming back to find her father long dead.
Her mother remarries a khan, who orders Mulan to become his concubine (i.e. sex slave), which she escapes by committing suicide.
3. Sleeping Beauty’s Sexual Assault
In the 1959 Disney musical Sleeping Beauty, the evil Maleficent tricks Aurora into touching a cursed spinning wheel, which puts her and the rest of the kingdom into a coma. Luckily, her prince charming is saved by fairies and awakens his love with a kiss.
But what did he really do in The Sun, the Moon, and Talia—an Italia fairy tale published in 1634? Well, as if kissing an unconscious stranger isn’t weird enough, the real story has the prince rape her as well.
Giambattista Basile compiled his stories in a collection known as Pentamerone. Included in it are the first known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel, as well as what Disney came to title Sleeping Beauty.
There’s a bunch of different variations out there, but the story essentially follows a baby girl named Talia, who’s born to a powerful ruler who bans all flax after hearing a prophecy that she will die from its touch.
As a woman, Talia’s curiosity is piqued when she sees a woman spin flax for the first time. Upon touching it, she gets a splinter and “dies.” Her father embalms Talia in the wood—and when the king stumbles upon her corpse while hunting, he “makes love” to her lifeless body.
Years later, she falls pregnant—she isn’t dead at all, merely comatose—so when the king returns for round two, he finds a second family.
The queen back home is furious and orders Talia’s children to be cooked into a meal for the king to eat. But when she tries to burn Talia alive, the king swoops in and kills the queen, living “happily ever after” with Talia.
2. Peter Pan Is a Serial Killer
People have long debated whether Peter Pan is a good guy or bad guy. Sure, he seems nice, but if you think about it, he’s just a kidnapper who chaperones kids to the afterlife.
J.M. Barrie’s play-turned-novel featured the “Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” who was an extension of his brother David (who died in an ice-skating accident as a child).
Historians have found that the author had unusual relationship with young boys. Though (supposedly) never sexual, he exhibited a deep fascination with them. Barrie never had his own kids, but he used to befriend boys at the park—probably a warped way to deal with his brother’s death.
We can see this in Peter Pan, who—like David—can never grow up. That context gives Peter Pan a disturbing undertone.
The only difference between Barrie’s novel and the 1953 Disney version is that Peter is a straight-up murderer. Not just a murderer of pirates, but also the Lost Boys (to “thin out” the herd).
Growing up is against the rules in Neverland and the kids must pay with their life. Peter starves them to death and uses the people around him as props in a game—a sadistic game where Peter’s the only hero so he can use them over and over again.
1. Snow White Dancing on Burning Coals
In the early 19th century, the Grimm Brothers published a collection of folklore that proved a goldmine for Disney. Included in that collection was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, supposedly from the Middle Ages.
And given how dark and brutal that era was, you can imagine how sinister the original story was—far from the innocent story that Disney turned it into for their first feature animation in 1937.
Snow White’s evil step-mother was actually her real mother, who wanted to kill her and eat her organs. Originally titled “Little Snow-White,” the queen attempts to kill Snow White on three separate occasions, but she’s saved by the dwarfs who jolt the poisoned apple from her throat.
Snow White then marries the Prince. But at their wedding, her mother shows up again and demands that she literally dance-till-she-drops in iron shoes on a dancefloor made of burning coals.