Food & Culture

The Real-Life Inspiration for "Beauty and the Beast" Is Too Dark for Disney

It may be a "tale as old as time," but "Beauty and the Beast" isn't "true as it can be." Like many fairy tales, the Disney classic you're familiar with is really a new, child-friendly version of a historically dark tale. But this story has even darker roots. For thousands of years, folktales from around the world have included descriptions of a bride with an animal groom. When French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve finally published the first written version of the story in 1740, it was based on a sad but true tale.

Bittersweet and Strange

The real "Beast" from this tale was a man with a very rare condition. Petrus Gonsalvus was born in 1537 in the Canary Islands, and he was the first person in recorded history to suffer from hypertrichosis — also known as werewolf syndrome. The condition has appeared in both men and women, and researchers didn't discover its causes until 2011 (basically, an extra set of genes in the X chromosome may switch on an existing hair-growth gene). There have been fewer than 100 documented cases in the world.

Gonsalvus was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he was just 10 years old, he was locked in a cage and shipped off to France as a gift for the coronation of King Henry II. Although he was locked in a dungeon for observation and initially treated like an actual beast, doctors eventually took a page out of Pinocchio's book and concluded that he was a real boy. Here, the story takes a lighter turn, as King Henry decided to give Gonsalvus an education. The king didn't really think it would work, as he thought Gonsalvus was too monstrous to be capable of learning. But that didn't stop the boy from becoming fluent in a few languages, including Latin, and becoming well-versed in high-class etiquette.

Gonsalvus was so successful that he became a treasured member of the royal court. Of course, he was treated like a novelty, but he was a nobleman nonetheless, meaning he got to live a pretty nice life. That is, until Catherine de' Medici came along. King Henry II's wife took over the throne after he passed away, and she wasn't exactly known for being a nice person. Accounts vary as to why exactly she wanted to find a wife for Gonsalvus — some say she found the idea of marrying him off to a beautiful woman "hilarious," others say she wanted to see children who also suffered from hypertrichosis. But by all accounts, it became her personal mission to find him a mate.

Something There

Catherine de' Medici eventually settled on a maiden who also happened to be named Catherine, and the maiden and Gonsalvus married. Whatever the Queen's initial intentions, Gonsalvus outperformed all expectations in his marriage: he and his wife stayed married for 40 years and had seven children together. Much like the classic fairy tale, it seems, she learned to love him sooner or later.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all fun and games. According to reports, either four or five of Gonsalvus' children were afflicted with hypertrichosis, and the family was paraded around the royal courts of Europe as a form of entertainment. Though they appeared in portraits wearing classy attire, in reality, they were exploited for their entertainment value and studied by scientists and academics across the continent. Worse, the hairy children were sent off as gifts to nobles — another example of their perceived status as pets and not as people.

"The situation was strange," Italian historian and Gonsalvus biographer Roberto Zapperi told The Smithsonian Channel. "They were neither captured nor free and they got paid — paid very well." He and his family were able to enjoy a life of relative comfort and status, but at what cost? In the end, the "Beast" was denied last rites, as he was considered more animal than man. Not exactly Disney movie material ... though then again, neither was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

For even more gruesome origins of your favorite stories, check out "Grimm's Fairy Tales: 64 Dark Original Tales." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Cody Gough June 8, 2018

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