No-one does creepy quite so well as children. In truly scary horror films, the antagonist is more often than not a terrifying child, spewing bile and imitating an owl in their incredible head-turning abilities (see Regan in The Exorcist) or proving the devil incarnate in the guise of a little boy who drives maids to their deaths and owns a lethal tricycle (the eerily well-presented Damien from The Omen).
At least the children in these films are more-or-less fictional, give or take the odd very, very loose basis on a true story. However, real-life kids can be just as unnerving from time to time. A 2013 thread on Reddit asking parents to disclose the creepiest thing their child has ever said wielded some truly disturbing results. Choice selections from the site include “My 3 year old daughter stood next to her newborn brother and looked at him for awhile then turned and looked at me and said, ‘Daddy it’s a monster…we should bury it'”, “A friend of mine’s child told him “Daddy, I love you so much that I want to cut your head off and carry it around so I can see your face whenever I want”, and the token visiting demon recount: “My 5 year old at the time had night terrors and would scream in her sleep. One night I said ‘mama’s here, it’s okay’. She looked right at me still asleep and screamed “mama? But who is that behind you?'”
No doubt about it, children can be terrifying. But is it any wonder, really, considering the dark origins of some of the fairy tales, legends and nursery rhymes that are blithely recounted to kids throughout their most influential years? This article numbers five of the most unnerving events to have inspired nursery rhymes, thus ensuring generation after generation of downright creepy kids and creeped out adults…
5. Three Blind Mice
Beginning the list is a well-known classic, the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. The rhyme can be both recited and sung, presumably much to the joy of long-suffering parents, and is fairly violent even when read with no ulterior meaning: the entire text details blind rodents whose unfortunate circumstances are worsened by the brutal severing of their tails. Only slightly more horrifyingly, the rhyme is said to be based on the ruthless rulings of Queen Mary I of England, also known as “Bloody Mary”. The Queen was a Catholic, and the three blind mice of the poem refer to three Protestant noblemen who were accused of plotting against her, and subsequently burnt at the stake (no prizes for guessing who the farmer’s wife represents).
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?
4. Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home
Another even superficially disturbing rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away Home details the burning of a ladybird’s home and the death of all of her offspring, save for one — incongruously named Ann — who took refuge underneath a skillet. The nursery rhyme is believed to be based on the events leading up to the Gunpowder Plot. The word ‘ladybird’ is derived from the term ‘our Lady’, which is typically associated with Catholicism. Initially, the rhyme was assumed to have served as a warning to Catholics to attend Protestant services, as required by the Act of Uniformity which was actioned in 1558. The practice of Catholic mass was punishable by execution, and offenders were at risk of being burnt at the stake, hence the reference to the insect’s home burning. The American version of the rhyme changes the word ‘ladybird’ to ‘ladybug’, possibly as a result of the word association with ‘Firebug’, meaning a pyromaniac. There is also some speculation that the rhyme may refer to the Great Fire of London in 1666; either way, there’s no doubt that it’s a fairly grim subject matter for a children’s poem.
Ladybird ladybird fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one and that’s little Ann,
For she crept under the frying pan.
3. Georgie Porgie
Georgie Porgie seemingly refers to a naughty little boy with a penchant for desserts who harassed little girls, before running for the hills when faced with the prospect of interacting with boys. A bit problematic, but not quite as upsetting at first read as the previous two nursery rhymes on this list. However, the story behind the rhyme is a lot more intriguing and most definitely unsuitable for the tender ears of a child.
The title character of the nursery rhyme refers to the salacious George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, whom King James I had taken as a lover. Allegedly a gorgeous man, he was infamous for his numerous liaisons and his at best questionable moral conduct, which explains Georgie’s multitudinous advances in the nursery rhyme. Perhaps Villiers’ most scandalous affair was with Anne of Austria, who was Queen of France and married to King Louis XIII. Villiers was disliked by almost all of the English public, but King James’ unfathomable affection for him allowed him numerous liberties for many years — the King, in the sense of the nursery rhyme, was effectively holding the boys at bay.
The Parliament eventually cracked and put a stop to King James’ intervening on Villiers’ behalf, and in time Villiers met his end when he was stabbed to death.
Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
2. Jack and Jill
At number two is the tragic tale of a pair of companions who had an unfortunate mishap on their way up a hill, injuring themselves horribly as a result. Relatively pleasantly, the two verse version of the rhyme reassures us that Jack at least survives the accident, hurrying home to bandage his injuries, although the same cannot be said for the events which inspired the poem.
The gruesome story behind this rhyme comes courtesy of French monarchy, a refreshing change from the English influence of the previous three rhymes. The Jack and Jill figures of the rhyme are said to represent King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, both of whom were beheaded in 1793. The lyrics of the rhyme were first published in 1795, which ties in with its supposed subject matter. The nursery rhyme was adapted to have a happy ending, thus making it less traumatic for children to listen to and recite (why on earth the subject would seem one suitable for a nursery rhyme in the first place is still baffling).
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water,
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper,
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.
1. Ring a Ring a Rosy
Arguably one of the most upsetting nursery rhymes known to man is Ring a Ring a Rosy, also known as Ring Around the Rosy, Ring a Ring o’ Roses or various amalgamations of the three. The American version of the rhyme substitutes the word ‘ashes’ for ‘atishoo’ in the third line, but since this interpretation of the lyrics relies on the English version we’ll focus on the original lyrics.
The harrowing truth behind this rhyme is that the words are said to refer to the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in England. The symptoms of the disease included a red rash in the shape of a ring, sneezing, and eventually the fairly serious symptom of the death of the victim. These are all obviously referenced throughout the rhyme in the words ‘ring a ring a rosy’, ‘atishoo! atishoo!’, and ‘we all fall down’. The rhyme also discusses filling one’s pockets with sweet-smelling herbs – ‘a pocketful of posies’ – a preventative method against the disease at the time, since it was believed that the disease could be transmitted through smell.
Ring a ring a rosy,
A pocketful of posies,
We all fall down.