Many folktales are concerned with magical tales of heroism and grandeur. Young people head out on a journey of discovery that makes them a better person. They vanquish evil, help others, and make the world a better place. In the end, the dashing young man usually gets the beautiful girl, and everyone lives happily ever after.
However, some folktales don’t have happy endings. Some folktales can be downright disturbing. Many of the tales in Scandinavian folklore, for instance, are not only grim; some are absolutely terrifying. We selected 10 of the most disturbing for you to enjoy…but, keep a candle burning…
#10. The Sacrificial Beggar Child (Sweden)
The story goes that there was a town named Dalland that was suffering from a disease that was wiping out much of the population and causing many people to flee. The townsfolk were beside themselves with worry about how to stop it, until an old man from Finland came along with sage advice on how to stop the disease.
He told them that only a sacrifice would put an end to it, and explained that they would need to bury a living thing in the ground. The villagers were desperate to stop the disease, so they took his advice. They began by burying a rooster alive in the ground, but their cruel act failed to produce any results, so they upped the ante by burying an entire goat alive. Unfortunately, this also failed.
Feeling there were no other options left, they decided that the only sacrifice worthy enough to end the spread of the disease would be an actual human being. In order to accomplish this, they set their sights on an orphaned boy and offered him bread as bait for their trap. The unassuming child fell for their trap completely and was dropped in a prepared hole.
The villagers immediately began shoveling dirt on top of the hapless child. The boy was terrified and tried to plead with them to stop burying him alive, but they continued on with their work without mercy. Before long, the job was done and the child was simply left to die, in the hopes he would end the spread of the deadly disease.
Some villagers claimed that they could hear his cries from under the ground, even after his death, decrying the cruel act that had been done to him.
#9. The Christmas Ghosts (Sweden)
This tale begins with a woman who was preparing to head to a midnight Christmas Mass.
In order for her and a friend to ensure they made it on time, they both agreed to wake the other, and head out at the same time. Late at night, she thought she heard her friend telling her that it was time to leave, so she grabbed a piece of bread that she had baked in the shape of a cross to eat later as a snack and headed out on her way.
While riding to the church, she came across two witches who wished to murder her on the spot, but they were unable to harm her because of the cross in her pocket. Thinking little of this, she made it to the church and quickly headed inside. She made her way into the church with almost unseemly haste, for she had been trying to catch up with her friend the entire time and didn’t want to be late for Mass.
However, while she was sitting down, she heard something that terrified her out of her wits. A voice told her that she could be killed on the spot, but she would be spared because the speaker was her godfather. He made it clear she was in terrible danger.
Looking around in fright, she realized all of the people in the church around her were headless. She ran from the church and was accosted by even more ghostly parishioners, who tried to grab her by her veil. She managed to escape with her life, but upon her return she saw that the remains of her veil had been seized by the ghosts, ripped into tiny pieces, and distributed among the graves that were outside the church.
Her mind was only able to imagine what might have happened if they had been able to grab her instead of just her veil.
#8. Kitta Grau (Sweden)
This story tells the tale of a very evil woman named Kitta Grau. She was such a despicable person that she knew the Devil when she saw him. She was essentially on first name terms with him and was such a nasty person that even he had some fear of her.
He had been trying to spread discord between a newly married couple, but had been failing. Kitta Grau mocked him, saying that she could easily do the deed and ensure the couple would no longer be so happy. The Devil encouraged her to pull off the wicked stunt, promising her a beautiful pair of shoes if she succeeded.
The wicked woman first went to talk to the wife, telling her that her husband was indeed a wonderful man, but that there was still evil in his heart. She claimed that she needed to shave her husband under his chin to remove the last of the wickedness that resided within him.
The woman, thinking this could do nothing but good, agreed that shaving her husband while he napped was a good idea. Kitta then went to talk to the husband. She first praised their marriage, and the man’s wonderful wife, but told him that his wife planned to cut his throat.
He didn’t really believe it, but couldn’t help but be a bit paranoid regardless, and so when he reclined that day, he only pretended to be sleeping. Carrying out her plan, his wife tried to shave him, and her husband was incensed, convinced that she had been trying to kill him.
The two did not kill each other, but the Devil’s wish to sow permanent discord in their marriage was successful, and Kitta Grau earned a brand new pair of shoes.
#7. The Mill That Salted the Sea (Norway)
Our story begins with a poor man who asked his rich brother for help before Christmas, so he could have a meal for him and his wife. His brother gave him a very nice ham, but made him promise to go straight to the Devil in return, being fed up with his brother being poor and asking him for help. The brother agreed, and eventually found the Devil’s shack.
He made a deal to trade the ham for a mill that could produce anything and was told by the Devil how to stop the mill and restart it again at will. He returned home and quickly went to work, making any food or other object his heart desired. His brother was furious at this, angry that he had given his brother food, and now he seemed to be richer than him.
Once his brother explained the mill, the richer brother offered him a large sum of money to buy it from him, but he never learned how to stop the mill. With the Devil’s mill in his possession, he started using it to make herring and porridge, but he couldn’t stop it and it started flooding the entire town.
He returned it to his brother, who forced him to pay even more money, and then went on to become absurdly rich. Eventually, a visiting merchant learned of the amazing abilities of the mill, and set about trying to find a way to get it from its owner, for he envied its abilities. He captained a ship and traveled the seas carrying a cargo of valuable salt.
After very difficult negotiations, for the man did not want to give up his mill, the captain was eventually able to buy it for a princely sum. He was worried that the man might want to renege on the deal, for it was a very valuable device, and so he immediately set out on his way.
Before he had even reached home, his greed got the better of him, and he immediately set the mill to begin churning out salt. Unfortunately, like the rich brother, he had absolutely no clue how to stop the mill once it started. It quickly sunk his ship, taking him to his death at the bottom of the sea.
According to the tale, this is the reason why, today, the sea is full of salt.
#6. The Devil and the Bailiff (Norway)
This tale begins with a bailiff who was infamous among the rest of the townsfolk for swindling people. Essentially nobody liked the man, and they constantly cursed his name, asking for the Devil to take him to hell so they could be done with him forever.
Eventually, the Devil decided it was time to claim the man’s soul as his own and confronted the wicked bailiff, telling him that everyone wanted the Devil to take him away, and that he was clearly a very evil man. The bailiff, being a swindler, immediately set about trying to con the Devil into a deal that would get him out of the trouble he was in. He felt that if the Devil were going to do what people asked, then he should do what the bailiff asked as well.
The Devil likes making deals with mortals for his own amusement, so he agreed to spend some time with the bailiff, and if someone they came across sincerely asked for someone to be taken by the Devil, then the Devil would take that person instead of the evil swindler.
First, they came upon a woman whose pig knocked over the butter she was churning. She cursed the pig to the Devil, and the bailiff believed he had won, but the Devil told him that the woman didn’t truly want her pig gone, for she had need of him, and so it was not truly sincere.
Further on, they came upon a mother who was having trouble with her child’s behavior, and made a similar comment that she wished the Devil would take the child away. However, the bailiff still did not have his victory, because the Devil did not believe the mother truly wanted her child taken away.
Finally, they came upon some farmers who were talking nearby, and the farmers saw the bailiff and the Devil together. The farmers pointed out the bailiff and cursed his name, asking for the Devil to take him away. True to his word, the Devil knew the farmers were being sincere, and dragged the bailiff down with him to the depths of hell.
#5. A Poorly Learned Lesson (Denmark)
A man had three daughters who were all married to trolls. The man went to visit one daughter, and she wished for beef broth for the meal and asked her father to get some. Instead, her troll husband simply rammed his head into a spike in the wall, and soon they had broth enough to eat.
The troll even gave him a sack full of money and sent him on his way. The man left the sack lying on the ground, because he wished to hurry home to see if his pregnant cow had yet given birth. His wife told him it had not, and went back with him to get the money, but it was taken by a thief, and she was quite upset with him.
He told her he had learned his lesson, though, and that the money wasn’t important. Next, he went to visit another one of his daughters, and they needed light to see. The troll said candles were unnecessary and simply stuck his hand in the fire, giving them all the light they needed. This troll gave him two bags of money, and he lost them the same way as the first.
His wife was frustrated, but once again he said he had learned his lesson. He then went to see his third daughter, and they wished for fish to eat. Her troll husband had them row out to the lake, and once his wife said his eyes looked green, he went into the water and came out with a multitude of fish.
He gave his father-in-law three bags of money, which he lost foolishly in the same manner. Once again, he claimed he had learned a valuable lesson. Not long after, the man was with his wife at home and they needed broth, so he tried to jam his head on a spike.
Unfortunately, this failed to produce any broth, and he was miserable for a while afterward due to his self-inflicted injury. Soon they needed light to see, and instead of candles, he burned himself sticking his hand in the fire, attempting to replicate what the troll had done. Eventually, they needed food, and his wife wished for fresh fish to eat.
He wanted to show her he could be a good provider without buying food, and thus asked her to come with him in a boat to get the fish. They rowed out to the lake, and he asked her if his eyes were green, and she said no.
Eventually, he simply convinced her to tell him his eyes looked green, although they did not. Imitating the troll, he went into the water to scoop up the fish, and he never surfaced again.
#4. The Pastor’s Wife (Denmark)
This story tells of a woman who married a pastor and all was well. They were well-respected in the community and wanted for nothing. However, the woman secretly harbored a deep fear. She absolutely did not want to have children.
She sought out the advice of a witch, who told her she would have had seven children and gave her the equivalent number of stones to throw down a well—this spell would prevent her from ever having these children.
Thinking she had nothing to fear, her life went on as normal, but one night she was out walking with her husband when he realized she had no shadow at all. He knew this meant she must have done great evil, and he tried to get the truth from her so she could confess her sins to him as a pastor, but she refused.
He kicked her out of the house, and told no one in the village to take her in. He cursed her, saying that there would be a better chance a red rose would grow from the stone table in their dining room than the chance that she would be redeemed.
Distraught, she left the village and eventually came upon another priest who agreed to help her. He told her she must stay in a church overnight with a book he had given her, and that she must not give it up to anyone until morning, although many would ask for it.
During the night, she was haunted by the specters of the children she should have had, who spat at her for her selfish desire to not see them enter the world. In the morning, the pastor told her she had achieved redemption, but that she would die in only one day. She headed back to the village, hoping to see her husband again before the end, but no one wished to take her in due to the pastor’s earlier advice. Eventually someone did, and she died sleeping behind an old stove.
The next morning, the pastor saw a red rose grow on his stone table, and in great worry, sought out his wife. Upon finding her dead, he soon went utterly mad and quickly died of grief.
#3. The Boy Who Was Foolish Like a Fox
This tale begins with a very strange young man who wanted to take the butter that his mother churned and sell it in the local town. She was worried no good could come from this, for he was not very bright, but she allowed him to set out.
He came upon a stone outside the town and, thinking it represented the town, smeared the butter on the stone and told the stone he would be back to collect the money the next day. His mother thought him ridiculous, but he went back the next day to claim his money.
The stone, of course, offered him nothing, but upon moving it he found a pot of money buried underneath. Not realizing his luck or his foolishness, he later went to town with cow meat to sell and sold it to a group of dogs. Later, he came to collect his payment from the dogs, but they offered him nothing because they were just dogs.
Enraged, he decided to take the dogs to the King’s Court to make sure he would get the money he was owed. The guards allowed him into the King’s Court, but only once he had offered two of them each half of what he would get for the meat that the dog had taken from him.
The king happened to have a depressed daughter and was willing to give his daughter in marriage to anyone who could make her laugh. The princess found the boy’s ridiculous story so absurd that she started laughing, and the king offered his daughter’s hand in marriage, although he thought the young man to be incredibly stupid.
The young man refused, and instead asked for 60 lashes on his feet. The king thought this strange, but offered to have him whipped anyway. The young man then explained that the guards were owed 30 each of the whippings themselves, instead of him, since he had made a deal with them. Both of the guards were summarily whipped, and the king, deciding that this strange man was not perhaps as stupid as he thought, convinced him to marry his daughter.
#2. The Leirubakki Ghost (Iceland)
This tale begins with a ship that went down near the coast of Iceland. While the legend of the ghost is a folktale, many of the events leading up to it were real.
An actual Danish ship named the Gothenborg sunk back in the 1700s, but luckily nearly all of the 170 occupants were safely rescued. Unfortunately, this did not mean that the survivors’ troubles were over.
Those who had survived had no way of quickly getting back home. Their ship was sunk and their supplies were gone, so they were dependent on the kindness of local farmers to keep them alive until other arrangements could be made. Sadly, there simply was not enough food to go around for everyone, and some people ended up starving to death, most notably the ship’s cook.
Nearly a century later, two men accidentally brought the cook back from his eternal slumber. The specter simply came out of the ground, and the two terrified men quickly left the graveyard to escape from the ghost. Unfortunately, the ghost followed one of them from the graveyard and began haunting him until the day of his death.
Even when the man moved to Leirubakki, it would not leave him or his family alone, and thus it became known as the Leirubakki ghost. He was not known to be particularly dangerous, but stalked the family wherever they went to frighten them and others around them.
Some of the legends claim that he tore the roof off a barn once, and he was well-known for spooking horses. Some people say that his ghost still walks the Earth in Iceland, looking for people to frighten, taking out his tragic death on innocent Icelanders.
#1. The Sly Fox (Finland)
A wolf and his wife had just had three cubs, but the wife died in childbirth. The wolf needed to find someone to babysit his children and take care of them while he hunted to provide for them.
He began looking through the forest for a suitable candidate, rejecting multiple animals because he did not think that their lullaby was good enough for his precious babies.
Eventually, he came upon a fox who provided a lullaby that he thought was simply adorable. He agreed to let the fox look after his precious cubs and went out hunting. The wolf hunted for a while, and after a time, he returned with some fresh horsemeat for his children.
He wished to visit with his little cubs, but the fox told him they were sleeping and should not be disturbed, so the wolf trusted his new babysitter and went off to hunt again. The fox knew that with the wolf gone, he could get away with whatever he wanted and decided to eat the meat that had been meant for the cubs he was supposed to be taking care of—for good measure, he decided to eat one of the cubs, too.
Days passed as the wolf continued to hunt, and the fox decided that now that he had eaten one, he might as well keep going and quickly feasted on the remaining cubs. The wolf returned and wished to go in to see his children. The fox knew he was in trouble, and so tricked the wolf by claiming there was not enough room in the den. Then he quickly exited before the wolf could realize the betrayal.
The wolf went after him, and pinned his paw in place, but the fox tricked him into thinking his paw was a root so the wolf would let it go. Then he vanished into the forest, leaving the poor wolf in utter despair.