Why The Velveteen Rabbit is a Horror Story

The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real is the scariest thing I remember reading as a child. Seriously, I had nightmares. It’s a terrifying book.

Some background

I typically have quite a lot of trouble getting to sleep. When I’m stressed, those racing thoughts make it next to impossible. I’ll take melatonin most nights but last week, I decided to try something new. I have this meditation app, Calm, on my phone. It comes with “sleep stories” which are basically bedtime stories for adults.

Don’t judge me.

I thought I would see if I could get to sleep by listening to a story, since that would help my frantic mind focus and hopefully lull me off to a pleasant dreamland. As I scrolled through the available stories, I came across “The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real.”

Now, I have vague memories of terror around a story about a stuffed rabbit and, at the time, I was fairly sure that story was The Velveteen Rabbit. But I wasn’t totally certain and I thought there would be NO WAY a meditation app would include the horror story I remembered in this list. So, just to check, and because I was convinced I wouldn’t fall asleep during the reading, I selected The Velveteen Rabbit.

Let me tell you about this roller coaster ride, dear reader.

It started off pleasantly enough, read by an ASMR veteran who whisper-spoke most of the story. The Velveteen Rabbit, itself, is a Christmas present to a young, unnamed boy. First loved, then forgotten by the Dudley Dursley of our story, he mingles with the other toys in the nursery, all of whom believe they’re better than him, except for the skin horse. The skin horse, you see, is Real, and he knows that those fancy mechanical toys will never last long enough to be Real.

There’s some class warfare going on here, but they kind of skip over it.

alt=Illustration from the book, where the velveteen rabbit is sitting on a pile of books talking with the skin horse, who stands on the floor next to a doll.
Someday, Skin Horse, I will surpass even you. Just you wait.

Then, one night, the boy can’t find whatever toy he usually sleeps with (he just has one? I covered my bed in stuffed animals, what a poser). His nanny gives him the Velveteen Rabbit, and this begins a magical journey in which the rabbit is subsequently loved so much he becomes shabby and broken down, but it’s okay because he’s happy and doesn’t mind.

That’s… a weird metaphor. The good kind of love is one that breaks you down until you are a worn out, mess of your former self, barely recognizable to your closest friends?

Kids’ books. What can I say?

alt=Dumbledore spreading his hands wide and then putting his hands on his hips. Caption reads: WELP

Anyway, at this point, I am actually starting to drift off. But it’s fine, because there’s been absolutely no conflict. Maybe I was wrong about the story–it’s just a nice tale of a kid who loved his stuffed bunny until it falls apart, then is lovingly put away to be pulled out when he goes to college and looked upon fondly before being donated because he can’t stand to throw it away but there’s no effing way he’s showing that to anyone he dates.

And then…it happened.

The boy comes down with scarlet fever. Dread blooms in my chest as I realize I’m falling asleep right at the part I feared most. Because I know what happens. And it’s horrible.

The author doesn’t move as quickly through this phase. No. The boy’s fever lingers and the Velveteen Rabbit HIDES IN THE SHEETS SO HE ISN’T FOUND AND DESTROYED. While the boy is sick, the Rabbit remains unseen. There are a couple different scenes where the Rabbit is ALMOST FOUND but at the last second, he manages to evade the nanny!

Bullet dodged, my friend.

But not for long. When the boy starts to feel better and leaves the bed, the Rabbit is left behind. He’s still hiding in the bed covers, like he KNOWS what will happen if he’s caught but because this is a kid’s book, the author refuses to show us this existential crisis head on.

Because at this point, the reader and the Rabbit have overheard the doctor say that anything the boy touched during his illness must be burned.

BURNED.

I AM FALLING ASLEEP AND THIS IS MY NIGHTMARE OH MY GOD THEY’RE GOING TO F*CKING BURN HIM.

alt=Gif of a woman screaming in horror, a scene from Game of Thrones
Pictured: Me

I’m struggling to stay awake at this point. Surely, they would not end a bedtime story on such a horrifying note. He’ll be saved at the last moment, placed out in sunlight for 24 hours to kill off any germs. It’s going to be okay.

It is not going to be okay.

When the Rabbit is left with his little velveteen head sticking out above the covers–tucked in like the precious, adorable, faithful, inanimate object that he is--the nanny finds him.

She’s the real antagonist here. She sets up the bunny to become Real only to throw him to his doom in the end.

Oh, yeah, did I mention that? The bunny is FECKING REAL by now. He’s a Real Bunny. He’s been loved so much that he’s Real, whatever the hell that means.

I’m starting to have flashbacks to when my Mom donated my favorite Sonic the Hedgehog toy (yes, Mom, I do remember that).

And all this time, I’m falling asleep because the freaking ASMR lady’s voice is just so calming and peaceful as she narrates the impending annihilation of our main character.

The bunny is placed in a TRASH BAG (he is NOT TRASH YOU MONSTER, HE IS REAL) and placed outside for the gardener to burn (because the nanny is too good for that task). But the gardener can’t get to it that day, because we have to draw this shit out.

So the Rabbit sits there in the bag, wondering what he did wrong and why he’s been abandoned. He’s Real now, he’s been loved so completely that he’s Real. Why is this happening to him?

The Rabbit cries a tear–an actual tear, because that’s how effing Real he is. He is grieving for his boy, who has evidently forgotten the Rabbit after receiving a brand new bunny (I hate this kid, by the way). He is grieving for himself, because he knows he became Real and his reward is to be BURNED TO DEATH. The only thing missing is whether or not his little velveteen consciousness will remain if even a single thread is left unburnt.

Then I fell asleep. Right after the “cried a tear” part.

My worst fear had been confirmed, The Velveteen Rabbit is the story that instilled in my a deep, long-lasting fear of becoming sick, because then all of my stuffed animals would be BURNED. That was the takeaway message, to childhood me. You get sick? BURN ALL YOUR FAVORITE THINGS. BURN THEM TO THE GROUND.

I woke up the next morning and immediately googled The Velveteen Rabbit. Those of you familiar with the story probably remember what I knew, logically, would have to happen.

Of course the bunny isn’t burned. Of course he makes it out. But just like that poor kid from A.I., he’ll never be with the one person who loved him more than anything. That boy made the bunny the happiest little stuffed animal in the world only to immediately abandon him once a shinier replacement was found. What a dick.

If I had managed to stay awake another thirty seconds, I would have heard that a flower blooms from the bunny’s magic tear (his head is sticking out of the bag, it’s a kids’ story, don’t question it). From the flower comes a magical fairy, because the author wanted to make the Rabbit a real, bonafide rabbit and after the Scarlet Fever Incident, really had no idea how to do that in the appropriate length of a children’s book.

In comes Deus Ex Machina Fairy, who takes a cue from the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and turns the Velveteen Rabbit into a real rabbit. He hops off to join the other rabbits (who made fun of him earlier in the story, because literally everyone in this universe is awful), to make lots of rabbit babies with his brand new body parts and then be eaten by a fox.

See? I told you it was a horror story.

Author: JA Goodsell

I write YA fantasy, blog about it, and then take my dog out for therapy. My current manuscript is ANATHEMA, a story of two sisters caught up in a war between the gods. Find me on Twitter at @JAGoodsell or Instagram at books_and_dogs

5 thoughts

  1. I am gonna up the ante here a bit. My association with the Velveteen Rabbit is its presence as a plot point in a lifetime movie back in the day wherein the protagonist has been injured in such a way that her mouth is (burned? sewn?) shut, rendering her mute. I think it was supposed to be touching, but actually it was the worst thing ever.

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  2. It is a horror story because children’s lives were horrific and children’s tales are meant to create a sense of understanding why this horror happens. My mom had a friend in elementary school that had scarlet fever and survived and her toys were also burned. The class pitched in to buy her a doll, but they didn’t give it to her until after she was better or it would have been burned. This was a real thing that happened when the story was written, and so the story that the burned bunny actually became real is an attempt to comfort the child that their toys are not a pile of ash in the yard.

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    1. Your comment comes off as pretty condescending, so my response is in light of that reaction:

      The whole point is the book is not written as a horror story. It doesn’t use horrific imagery, it barely discusses the ramifications of the Rabbit being burned. Because it was offered as a sleep story–a calming, relaxing reading designed to help people fall asleep–I think it’s clear that most people do not view it as a horror story. Hence, why I wanted to write my interpretation of it.

      I’m also well aware that scarlet fever is a real disease and this really happened. I don’t need this fact or the idea that some children’s books are written to make such terrible things better explained to me. It doesn’t change my feelings about the story. I hope it’s clear in the post that this book did not comfort me as a child and the entire post is my personal reaction to hearing it again.

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      1. I apologize it came off that way. I didn’t mean it. I was just agreeing with you that it is a horrific story based on real events. I won’t bother you again.

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