I was thinking about television shows and music I used to listen to as a kid the other day, when I suddenly remembered a record that my brother, Thor, and I used to listen to all the time when we were little. It was a story called "Karius og Baktus," and it was all about the importance of brushing your teeth. On the other side of the record (yes, it was a real vinyl record) was another story called "Litla Ljót," which translates to "Little Ugly" and was kind of an "ugly duckling" story about a girl who is ugly and then becomes beautiful. That story was just fine, but I'm here to talk about Karius and Baktus. Allow me to put faces to the names. Here they are:
They look innocent enough, don't they? Well, don't be fooled. Within that fun and playful record jacket, carved into the black vinyl grooves, is some of the scariest, most messed up sh*t you will ever hear. Ok, let me back up.
So the story begins by introducing Karius and Baktus as two characters who are brothers. They like to sing and laugh and have fun all day. Where do they live? This is where the horror begins. They live... IN YOUR TEETH. Yes, that's right. And they build their houses in your teeth by chipping away at them with tiny axes and hammers and stuff. Their voices are especially creepy, they have these shrill little laughs and they make you eat sweet things so your teeth will rot. Imagine being a young child and thinking that at this very moment you, too, might have two little men chipping away at your teeth with pick axes. Thor and I certainly did.
So you're hearing everything from Karius and Baktus's point of view, and occasionally you hear the muffled, distant voice of their host, the little boy in whose mouth they live, and I think his mother as well. One day you hear The Voice moan and say that he has a toothache. So his mom tells him he has to go to the dentist.
This is where it starts to get really messed up. In fact, I think they scream at the kid not to go, and when the dentist tells him, "Opnaðu munnin," which means, "Open your mouth," I think they told him not to do it. They were really scared of the dentist. The boy opens his mouth, and I think he gets his cavity drilled. I'm a little foggy on the details, but the end result is this: Karius and Baktus are murdered. They die horrible, grizzly deaths, and you hear every last terrifying detail. They see a light when the boy opens his mouth, and then the dentist's tools come closer and closer, and the two brothers commence with wailing, screaming for help. One by one their houses are demolished by the various dental implements. But it doesn't stop there. They drown in the water the boy uses to rinse his mouth, and you hear them choking, sputtering, trying to swim to each other and save each other, until finally their screams fade into the distance and they are washed down the drain.
Imagine that you are six years old and your little brother is two, and you're both listening to this on the record player in the living room, eyes wide with horror, chubby little cheeks quivering with fear. I distinctly remember straining to listen for the voices of Karius and Baktus when I brushed my teeth as a little kid. Sometimes when I didn't want to brush my teeth, my mother would say, "Look, I can see where Karius and Baktus are building a house in your teeth, you'd better brush them!" which would fill me with terror of course, not just because little tiny trolls were digging cave-homes in my teeth, but also because now I would be forced to murder them with my own toothbrush.
Many children's stories are messed up in ways that we only truly grasp later on as adults. Have you ever gone to Disney World or Disneyland as a "grown-up"? It's weird. But as children with an Icelandic mother, we had extra things to be frightened of. Not only was there Karius and Baktus, even our version of Santa Claus was scary. The traditional story is that 13 "Yuletide Lads" as their name translates in English, come down out of the mountains to sneak into people's homes at night and play pranks on them. But their mother was even scarier. Her name is Grýla and she lives in the mountains and, as it was explained to me, either eats or enslaves naughty children. She and her (third) husband, Leppalúður, also have a huge black cat who eats children who don't wear new clothes on Christmas.
The worst thing about these stories, unlike many children's stories, is that they're totally plausible. There could be 13 weird guys who sneak around people's homes and peek in the windows, slam doors, steal food, etc. And there could be a mean lady who steals and mistreats children. According to the Wikipedia article on Grýla, in Iceland "a public decree was issued in 1746 prohibiting the use of Grýla and the Yule Lads to terrify children." Apparently, my mom did not get this memo. Even though I lived in America, I was regularly threatened with, "Á ég að kalla á Grýlu?" ("Should I call Grýla?) whenever I was bad. It never occurred to me that Grýla might not have a passport, or a plane ticket to America, or a phone, for that matter. I was scared of Grýla, and totally believed that my mom had her phone number and could have her here in the States to eat and/or enslave me at a moment's notice.
There were American tales that scared me too. The only one that really got me was the wicked witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Remember her?
Let's just say my childhood nightmares were well-stocked with frightening characters from various cultures. It's all right. Now it's something we can all laugh about (nervously). And I'm sure one day if I have kids who are driving me crazy, I'll pick up the phone and pretend to call Grýla too. And I'll definitely know how to get them to brush their teeth....