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The Cautionary Tale

Updated on November 9, 2013

Eat, Fry, Love - A Cautionary Tale with William Shatner/State Farm

Want Your Teens To Stay Away From Sex?

Society says something like this:

If you want your teens to stay away from sex - SCARE 'EM into staying IN the house!

Tell them about hook-handed murderers (The Hook), knife-weilding back-seat stabbers (Killer in the Back Seat), strange bunny-killing insane asylum escapees (The Bunnyman of Clifton) and literally make them afraid to leave the house and terrified to to park in lover's lanes with their current (or future) sweet heart!

Terrify your kids into NOT DATING (Skinned Tom happened to pick the wrong woman, didn't know she was married, was quite innocent, but still incurred the deadly wrath of the woman's jealous, murderous husband) - frighten them into staying single.


Tell your teens all sorts of gruesome, horrific cautionary tales.

You might cause paranoia or neurosis in your kids, but heck, at least they'll stay away from sex, right?

Misha Collins' Cautionary Tale: Stranger Danger

The Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale is one which warns against danger and includes three important elements.

  • Taboo - It tells of a taboo or about something prohibited in society (a particular behavior, place or situation is said to be dangerous)
  • Narrative - A narrative is told...the warning is in the form of a story - and becomes a story about something taboo/prohibited performed in the story by a person who almost always is aware of the taboo/prohibition but disregards it
  • Unpleasant fate - the person who disregards the rules meets with a grisly end or some monumental punishment which is related in bizarre or horrific detail

The cautionary tale isn't always in complete or total agreement with the actual norms of the society in which it is told, however, cautionary tales do impose the idea that norms are important, should be adhered to, are in place for a good - if not transparent reason - and that violators of societal rules do get punished in the most terrible ways.

Cropsey Trailer (Was it just an urban legend?)

Cautionary Tales are Flexible

Cautionary Tales don't need to subscribe to the current values of the society in which they are told, however, most of them do. For instance, it has been established that in most Western-minded cultures, there are certain rules for dating which include monogamous behaviors and partnership. Although, in reality (?), people in Western-minded cultures say that dating more than one person at a time is okay or that dating more than one partner at a time is acceptable if there is mutual agreement from the individuals involved in this matter, a primary and older set of norms and acceptable standards seems to still permeate throughout Western cultures.

Therefore, cautionary tales which end in a violator being horrifically punished for 'playing the field' abound and still carry remnants of older (monogamy is acceptable, other pairings are not) cultural values. These older cultural values continue to strongly exist and act as a norm, no matter WHAT subscribers to the current norms say.

Old traditions die very hard - rather - instead of dying, many end up in cautionary tales, told, told again, and re-told for generations.

The teller of the tale and the tale itself are/is flexible in that a cautionary tale can give a very unclear or ambiguous message about whatever taboo/rule is in the tale, as well as the characters in a tale. Cautionary tales might give confusing statements/conflicting data about what the actual 'wrong' in the tale happens to be (is it the taboo/societal norm or is it the character actions?) - and they often incorporate a blend of different genres (horror fiction, flash fiction, satire, etc) and messages all at the same time. Sometimes even if we, listeners, are a bit confused, a tale is told anyway and we are made to assume that the characters within DO UNDERSTAND the taboos and rules, even if we don't - so mixed messages and flexibility here do not ruin a good cautionary tale.

A single tale can show more than one taboo and contain a likeable characters who trespass against the taboo. We often aren't sure whether or not to like a main character and often we DO LIKE the character who commits a wrong act. In the end, there are always final consequences.

Where there are confusing taboo/rule statements, the fact that there ARE taboos and rules (that rules necessarily exist in society) is the whole main point that is highlighted. Societies have rules...even if they don't make sense or even if they are bad rules, and rules are designed to have accompanying consequences...this last part is often the most important part of the cautionary tale and the point which binds a tale together beyond anything else that is flexible or ambivalent in the story.

What is not flexible is the structure (mentioned in the module above) of the tale. There must be a taboo, there must be a tresspass of the taboo and there must be a consequence.

Movie length Cautionary Tale - Reefer Madness - Don't do drugs, kids!


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    • Jellybird profile image

      Jellybird 5 years ago

      It probably comes down to the individual. Different strokes.... and maybe respect. Thank you for your hub. Peace+

    • mythbuster profile image

      mythbuster 8 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

      HI kuboje - thx for commenting. Cautionary tales aren't the most effective ways to positively affect youngsters.

    • profile image

      kuboje 8 years ago

      I think I found more cautionary tales in my childhood than what most kids have these days. Even not all of them giving positive impacts, they just got stuck in my brain, and made out my own rule to acts. Great hub, thanks for sharing.

    • mythbuster profile image

      mythbuster 8 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

      You're absolutely RIGHT, ralwus - cautionary tales do not work with some kids. Some kids actually flip over into 'legend tripping' and 'ostension' (re-enactment of urban legends) based on some stories they hear. Legend tripping can be dangerous if the individuals place themselves in the role of a victim in an urban legend because usually in a cautionary tale, the victim subject is doing something said to be 'wrong' or immoral in society (drinking, sex, displaying vanity, too adventurous and straying too far from home) - thus, real kids place themselves in urban legend situations - voluntarily and consciously.

      "I Dare You" games are often legend-tripping attempts -modelled after snippets of urban legends

    • profile image

      ralwus 8 years ago

      I don't think it will work with some kids, they have the idea it could never happen to them and remember when we thought it was safe to hitchike? Many girls were warned against it and still did it just like the missing prostitutes that heard the same warning, they are now gone.

    • Enelle Lamb profile image

      Enelle Lamb 8 years ago from Canada's 'California'

      What a great idea! I might have to pilfer one of your stories and build on it lol...