Dark origins: the disturbing stories about our childhood games

Dark origins: the disturbing stories about our childhood games

Childhood: a time of innocence and whimsical games untainted by the dark realities of life. Right? We’d like to think so, but sometimes the nasty stuff – disease, racism, immoral behaviour and, yes, child sacrifice – finds its way into the sacred space of kiddiedom. Read on for some of our favourite (if not 100% guaranteed factual) childhood horror stories.

Mass death: Ring Around the Rosie

You may have already heard the story behind the most celebrated dark children’s rhyme. Famously, the innocent-sounding words chanted while holding hands and dancing around in a circle are a chilling recounting of the symptoms of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, that ravaged Europe in the 13th century. The ‘pocket full of posies’ refers to the medicinal flowers worn to ward off the killer disease, ‘a-tishoo, a-tishoo’ speaks for itself, and then ‘we all fall down’: dead.

(Of course, folklorists have been patiently explaining for decades that the above is a load of old nonsense, but it is just too ghoulishly good not to be true, right?)

London Br 1794c J.M.W. Turner
1794c J.M.W. Turner "Old London Bridge" 

Child sacrifice: London Bridge is Falling Down

Another one that falls into the ‘so horrifying we really want to believe it even though it’s probably not true’ category is the ‘immurement’ theory behind childhood favourite, London Bridge is Falling Down. There are a number of theories behind the rhyme, the most sensible, boring and thus probably true being that the bridge was hideously rickety and needed constant repairs – unsurprising, when you consider that there were 200 buildings crammed onto it by Tudor times.

Much more spine-chillingly pleasing is the idea that small children were literally built into the bridge’s foundations alive, to die slowly of thirst and starvation, in a sacrificial ritual once thought to guarantee the stability of man made structures. This horror, dating back to Roman times, was widely practiced enough to have been given an actual name – immurement – but there’s no evidence to prove it was actually employed at London Bridge. Bo- ring!

Total racism: Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo

Some of us are old enough to remember when this cute counting song with its fanciful jingle about catching a tiger by the toe was anything but innocent. Before it was a tiger being caught it was a tigger, and before a tigger a very similar-sounding word beginning with ‘n’. Although counting songs like it date back centuries, the ‘n-word’ version of Eeny Meeny was the one in common use amongst American schoolkids in the late 1800s (and in some Aussie schoolyards almost a century later), and Rudyard Kipling ensured its ongoing popularity by publishing it in a book for scouts and guides in 1935. Nice one, Rudy. Thankfully, like ‘Little Black Sambo’ and golly dolls, this version of the rhyme has fallen out of current usage.

ob f3e3fb snake and ladder2

Straight to hell: Snakes and Ladders

In the ‘we probably should have realised there was more to it than that’ category is Snakes and Ladders, a favourite kiddie board game due to its absolute simplicity – roll the dice, if you hit a snake go down, hit a ladder go up, first to the end wins. The original version is somewhat deeper. A British import from colonial-era India, it was concerned with Hindu philosophy and the idea of karma – that after your death, the good you do in life (the ladders) will enable you to attain salvation, while the bad (snakes) will send you down, down, down to be reborn as a lower form of life – an insect, maybe.

The original British Victorian-era versions of the game retained the moral element while dropping the religion, but that’s been worn away over the years so that in most versions these days it’s a simple game of judgement-free chance. Should we read anything into this about the moral decay of modern times? Definitely not.


Extreme theft: Monopoly

Looking for the dark side, one could be tempted to point to the cold capitalistic values, dehumanisation of societal relations and slum landlord behaviour that the world’s favourite board game promotes. But no, the real dark origin story of Monopoly is that it was flagrantly stolen from its original creator – who intended it to be practical demonstration of the rather socialist idea that property ownership by individuals is inherently unfair. Darkly ironic, no?

‘The Landlord’s Game’ was invented by Elizabeth Magie in 1903 as a protest against the evil monopolies of the time. The idea was picked up by a man called Charles Darrow who sold it on to Parker Brothers – they both went on to make millions after Monopoly became a huge hit in Depression-era America after it went on the market in 1935. Lizze Magie is said to have made only $500 from her invention. In fact, it’s probably the perfect dark genesis story for the board game that has gone on to teach generations of children how to be good little capitalists.




Main Image: Randy Fath