The Forest Through the Trees: Anxiety and Trauma in Disney’s Snow White

Updated on January 11, 2020
Joshua de Vries profile image

Joshua is a huge Disney nerd who also really misses writing essays in grad school, for some reason.

It’s very easy to dismiss Walt Disney’s animated Snow White as a pretty-but-ultimately-silly animated romp. It’s filled with sweet songs and sunny pastel colours. It ends with true love’s kiss and a marriage between a princess and a nameless prince who has met her exactly once before. It is the fairy tale template that so many recent Disney films have sought to undermine, replacing true love’s kiss with sisterly sacrifice (Frozen) and having the princess defeat the great evil and return home to rule rather than get married (Moana). But beneath the thick fondant of outmoded fairy tale tropes and the sweet woodland setting, Snow White offers up some eternally relevant statements about trauma and anxiety by which many today can still benefit.

Early in the film, our dear sweet princess, condemned to death by the jealous sorceress queen, is faced with the huntsman’s knife. Overcome by conscience, he doesn’t kill Snow White, and instead tells her to flee, but the damage has already been done. Not only did Snow experience the adrenaline shock of imminent death, but immediately after that, she faced two horrifying truths in rapid succession. First, her caretaker, the queen, wants her dead. Second, she no longer has a place to live and must somehow survive in the forest. She has no provisions and no support system.

The scene that follows deserves special attention. Like Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch’s famous painting Der Schrei der Natur (popularly known as The Scream), the “dark forest” sequence is a terrifying portrait of what an anxiety attack feels like to one experiencing it. But let me back up for a quick moment.

Snow is a child. She has undoubtedly been enduring emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of the queen for an unspecified amount of time. We know the queen has required that she wear rags and act as a servant girl as a way of hiding her natural youth and beauty. We also know that, when Snow is outside the palace doors, in view of the public, she’s allowed normal princess garb (such as the yellow dress she’s wearing while picking flowers) so no one else suspects that she’s being mistreated at all. She copes by singing and constructing a fantasy escape scenario wherein a heroic prince rescues her. But the truth of the matter is that, deep down, possibly at the levels of denial, Snow is miserable. Understandable, given her treatment.

The huntsman’s murder attempt, though arrested immediately, acts as an unpleasant cathartic release, forcing Snow to suddenly confront everything she’s been ignoring about her living situation. She realizes that the queen could have easily killed her at any minute, and it was this one man’s conscience that saved her. She survived by sheer chance. When she flees into the dark forest, her thoughts are so chaotic that they literally tear at the walls of her own reality. Her denial of her situation was a fantasy, and when she’s forced to confront that, her mind rebels.

In the dark forest, it seems to her that the very trees come to life, each with malevolent faces and grasping hands. Bats swoop out of hollows to attack her, and floating logs open crocodile-like jaws to devour her. Soon, even these hallucinations give way to an abstract wall of leering eyes that surround her until she collapses into tears. It’s quickly revealed that the horrors were all imagined, and the eyes are those of sweet forest creatures who are merely drawn by the commotion, but the brief, terrifying episode is important for what it is and what it represents.

Even today, with an increased awareness of mental health issues, anxiety is still frequently dismissed either by those who don’t understand it or who don’t want to understand it. Because anxiety takes the mind into irrational places, it seems easy to many to dismiss the victim as simply “being irrational,” which ignores what’s really happening.

In the example, Snow suffers an anxiety attack, and it’s represented by a fear that the trees are out to get her. Now, the fear of the trees WAS irrational, but the cause of the whole episode was a very real moment where a man pulled a knife on Snow and revealed that he nearly would have killed her to fulfill the queen’s wishes. Snow has valid reasons for being terrified. The adults in her life can’t be trusted and she is hurtling into an unfamiliar future where human needs as basic as shelter and food are not guaranteed. But the mind sometimes can’t cope with deep-seated terror about life-shattering events, and so it re-directs fear to more manageable things. The Disney animators beautifully render this when they have Snow’s fear about the queen’s plot to kill her redirected to a vision of a grasping trees.

Anxiety manifests in different ways, and can have many different causes, but this one form, that of an anxiety attack brought on by outside forces, is probably the one most familiar to the largest population. There are others, of course, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or various panic disorders where the symptoms are generated by mental imbalances and generally need to be treated by medical professionals. But anxiety triggered by real outside forces can be harder to deal with because the things one is afraid of are worth being afraid of (such as abusive friends or family, poverty, or terrible headlines that promise harder times ahead).

In moments like that, one’s fear gets redirected to smaller things, each of which seems to be a catastrophe when viewed through the lens of one dealing with the fear of something too big to deal with. For example, someone in an abusive marriage who has no means of escaping their home situation, may become terrified of the car breaking down. The added expense of repairs would upset the tenuous balance at home and would make life more difficult than it already is. The person would then become hyper-sensitive to any tiny thing. Every check engine light would keep them up all night, even if they knew that it was probably just a spark plug that needs to be fixed. Every oil change would cause extreme dread that the mechanic will tell them that they need to shell out thousands of dollars to replace their engine.

Telling someone in this situation not to stress about the car exploding at any minute is unproductive. It’s not really the car they’re terrified of. Just like Snow White isn’t actually afraid of trees coming to life. She’s afraid of the trees in that moment because her mind can’t deal with the real truth that her home situation is life-threatening.

Snow’s traumatic experience is therefore a lesson to many of us. It’s okay to be afraid, even if your fear is misdirected. It’s also important to be aware of what people are going through. Often times, you’re offering more help to someone just by being accessible. Telling someone, “Oh, you don’t have to worry” is never helpful. Instead, tell them that you’re there if they ever need to talk. Remember, Snow doesn’t tell the seven dwarfs about her experience until later, and it’s probably a very shortened version. When Snow is in trouble at the end, they know it’s the queen, but that’s all we learn. We never see Snow opening up to them about her experience. We do see them offering to support and protect her.

Those who see the trees come to life know, at some level, that it’s not really the trees they’re afraid of. It may take time to fully unpack exactly what one fears, but it’s okay to fear the trees. If that’s how one’s mind protects itself, that’s valid. One can be afraid of the trees because trees are rooted and can’t chase their victims. Facing such fears can also help one come to realize that, while there are valid things to fear, this particular fear is unproductive. Over time, one can get to the point where they can focus their efforts on changing their situation and destroying the source of their fears or putting themselves in a position where the thing they fear has no power over them any more. Some people reach this point quickly, others more slowly. It’s different for every situation. Once one finds a more stable, safer way of life, they’ll eventually come to realize that the trees were never scary to begin with.

Now, whether or not the story really needs to end with a prince is another matter entirely.

*Note: I should state that I am not a mental health professional in any way. I am just someone who has faced the trees in the past and who is learning to see them for what they really are.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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      Laura Poisel 

      6 months ago

      This scenario reminds me of what I faced and lived through when, at age 65, I was hurled into the world of the homeless.

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