Written By: Aurora Caskey
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Disturbing Fairy Tales – The Story of the Flayed Old Woman
It’s common knowledge that fairy tales, while now thought to be for children, originated from gruesome folk tales. The best-known collection of these disturbing fairy tales was Grimms’ Fairy Tales, published in 1812. But the Brothers Grimm was not the first to put together morality tales for mass consumption. In 1634 and 1636, The Pentamerone was published in two separate volumes. The Pentamerone contains fifty stories and includes early incarnations of Cinderella (called Cenerentola), Rapunzel (Parsley), Puss in Boots (Pippo), Snow White (The Young Slave), and Sleeping Beauty (Sun, Moon, and Talia). These are set within a framing story Princess Zoza, whose rightful husband is stolen by a treacherous slave girl. The slave gets pregnant and demands that she be told amusing stories, or else she will crush her unborn child. The prince enlists five people to tell ten stories each.
One of the more shocking and disturbing fairy tales from the Pentamerone is the tenth story from the first day, called The Flayed Old Lady. There were once two sisters, old women far beyond their youth, who lived near a king. While their bodies were wizened and old, they still retained their beautiful singing voices. One day the king heard them begged for a meeting. The sisters agreed to only show the king a single finger through the keyhole of a door. They applied grease to their hands to make them soft for the king. But he wanted more. He convinced the oldest sister to meet with him, but she insisted that it be at night and with no candles so that he couldn’t gaze upon her. She pinned her loose skin behind her back and off she went. Everything was going according to plan until the king felt her loose skin and discovered that he’d been deceived. Enraged, he threw the old woman from the window and her skin snagged on a tree.
“She pinned her loose skin behind her back…”
Some fairies passing by saw her and out of pity or boredom, worked their magic on the old woman. They turned her back into a beautiful young maiden, as she had once been. Some time later the king passed by. Not knowing the beauty before him was the same person he was so cruel to earlier, he asked for her hand in marriage. She accepted and at their wedding her sister, beside herself with jealousy, demanded to know how the older sister has reclaimed her youth. After being pestered, the older sister finally blurted out that she had had her old skin removed to reveal the beautiful new skin underneath. The jealous sister immediately found a barber and paid him to cut off all her skin. By some accounts, she died that day. By others, she continued to live a painful and miserable life. As for the older sister, eventually the king grew tired of her. Feeling lonely, she went to find her little sister, who by that time was already dead. The moral of the story? Jealousy and vanity are sins to be punished. Yet somehow the king comes out unscathed.
The History of Flaying
Far from a beauty treatment, flaying was a method of slow painful torture and execution. Some of the earliest accounts of flaying humans alive date back to 2500 B.C. of the Assyrian Empire within the Middle East. Carvings dating back to the rule of king Ashur-nasir-pal II depict prisoners being skinned alive. Flaying continued to be used as a rare but brutal punishment for the harshest crimes into ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and up through the antebellum American South of the 1800s, where a United States slave by the name of Nat Turner was skinned and hung for causing a rebellion cause the death of approximately 60 men, women and children. Throughout history flaying seemed to most commonly be used for political crimes committed by rebels who challenged authority, however, these barbaric methods of torture were later implemented by other people.
“Flaying was used as a rare but brutal punishment…”
From the 19th Century on, serial killers and murderers have been found to skin their victims. The best-known case is Ed Gein, who had been robbing graves and making crafts out of the dismembered bodies. Eventually he moved onto killing people, including Bernice Wooden, who was found flayed “like a deer” in Gein’s house. Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered at least 17 boys and men, also had a penchant for skinning, dismembering, and even eating his victims. In one case, he boiled the skull of a victim to strip off the skin so he could decorate the bones.
Just How Bad is it?
Being skinned alive is arguably the worst and most painful way to die. The History Collection talks about the experience. The process starts with loosening the skin from the muscle, which can be done by immersing the victim in scalding hot water. Then, the skin from the face (which is extra sensitive) is removed first. When done “right”, the process of slaying is very methodical. Long, specific cuts are made for the skin to be removed in large sections. Will it be painful? Oh yes, terribly so. The act of ripping the skin off the muscle means your nerve endings are slowly torn to shreds, rather than severed cleanly. Nerve endings go deep into the skin, which means that you will still feel every cut.
What Actually Kills You?
Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung wrote about what happens to the body when a body is flayed and was cited as an authority. It is without saying, common sense that flaying causes a significant amount of blood loss, and opens the victim up to infection. Without the protective layer of skin on your body, you will get very cold and possibly succumb to hypothermia. Eventually, you will go into shock, but it may take days for someone to actually die from being skinned alive. But without skin, no human can survive, even with medical intervention.
According to Medicinenet, when our brain is faced with unfathomable bodily harm, it releases chemicals to make the experience less horrifying. It’s the reason people sometimes don’t realize they’ve been shot or stabbed until they notice blood; adrenaline and endorphins give you a natural high and make it harder to feel physical pain.
If the skinning is done the right way, once the nerve endings are cut, they won’t be able to grow back because they have been stripped of their protective layer. So, once the skin is completely ripped off, you should go numb. If you ever find yourself being skinned alive, the best you can hope for is to go unconscious as quickly as possible. When faced with extreme pain (and blood loss), blood pressure drops drastically, which can trigger the body to temporarily shut down. As a result, most flaying victims will most like pass out fairly quickly and never wake up. From disturbing fairy tales to serial killers, flaying has defined some of the most brutal tactics used by mankind.
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