Hand coming out of the ground

I have a few irrational fears, but only one is relevant to today’s tale, “The Willful Child” by the Brothers Grimm. I don’t know when it started, but I was young and I think we had read a story in school that somehow contributed to it, but I’ve always been afraid of being buried alive. I’m not talking about being in a cave or tunnel and having it collapse, I’m talking about being buried like I’m dead when I’m not. I know it’s impossible now, with all the modern science and chemicals they pump into you, and I’ve only recently given up the idea of being cremated when I die, but only because my husband doesn’t like the idea. I doubt I’m the only person with this fear, which probably explains both why stories like this one were told and why they can still strike us with terror.

“The Willful Child” is a short story, scary in its simplicity. In the original it is unclear if the child is a boy or girl, but this translator has decided the child is a daughter.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.


We know that the Grimms like obedient children, but this seems a little overboard, even for them. First the child is punished by God for not doing what the mother want. Who knows what orders she was giving the child? Then, the child is thought to be dead, because I’m going to assume they thought she was dead when they buried her, that they weren’t just horrible people, but when she claws through the earth and reaches out her hand, trying to cling to life, they push the arm back down and cover it up. The arm kept popping back out, disobedient to the last apparently, so the mother hit her child’s arm with a stick, at which point the child apparently gives up. Somehow I don’t think her rest was peaceful though. How could a mother do that? It’s clear here that it is the child’s mother, not a step-mother, not a witch who stole the child from her true parents.

The Grimms seem to be giving a message here. Willfullness, selfishness, disobedience leads to punishment.

You can read the story on-line in several places, including here. This version is from Household Tales by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, translated by Margaret Hunt, published in 1892.

By the way, The Bicentennial Edition of The Annotated Brothers Grimm comes out next month, but you can pre-order it now on Amazon with a pretty nice discount. I’ve already added it to my wish list.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

This was my first short story for R.I.P. VII, a reading event embracing the ghastly and ghostly, mysterious and grim. R.I.P. VII is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.


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  • I remember seeing a book about “breaking the spirit of the willful child” when I was in elementary school, and I remember thinking that sounded awful–so perhaps this is a horror version of that idea!

  • The new edition of the tales looks worth checking out, just for the illustrations. I do not remember this story. Must have put it out of my mind. The story is creepy, but the idea that parents would terrify their children into obedience with a story like this is also horrifying.

  • I just checked out the movie Buried with Ryan Reynolds 😉 Jason and I want to be cremated, but if someone I left behind (mom,dad, Gage) had a problem with it after I’m gone then they could do what they want. It would mean more to them at that point, right?

  • Wow, perfectly spooky. I really enjoyed this review and it’s not difficult to see why this isn’t one of the better known stories by the Grimms. Bit too scary for children by the sounds of it! I loved the picture and your thoughts about being buried alive – it brought back lots of old horror movies. I remember one in which the guy was terrified of being buried alive and he had all sorts of devices in case this should happen – like, he was going to be buried in a tomb, there would be all sorts of ways to get out of the tomb if he awoke and failing that poison! I cannot for the love of Pete remember the name of the film though! Your picture made me think of Count Yorga – which starts off with grimy, dirt covered hands coming out of the soil!! The first vampire horror movie I ever watched where the vampires weren’t beautiful and where the ending goes horribly wrong. Would probably look really bad/dated these days but it scared me and my sister to death! We had to run up the stairs holding hands.
    Lynn 😀

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