Editor’s Note: Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.
Over four days last summer, actor Alexa Demie at different points wore elongated elf ears and scales along her spine; spent time dipped in black goo in a purple bedroom with posters taped to the wall; and hovered fully suspended in the air, bound by intricate rope ties.
But the production wasn’t for some new high-fantasy role for the “Euphoria” star. Instead, it was for a collaboration with the photographer Petra Collins – a body of work that reimagines the female creatures who inhabit folk- and fairy-tales, who are often cast as one-dimensional monsters or temptresses. Their recent photo book “Fairy Tales” features Demie as nine different personas, including a faerie, siren, banshee and water sprite, as well as Hungarian legends like Tűz Anya (meaning “fire mother”) that Collins grew up with. It explores the femininity and sexuality of mythological beings, but in the context of very human spaces, such as teenage bedrooms, medical facilities, parking lots and exotic dancing clubs.
The protagonists each deal with feelings of loss and exclusion: the grieving banshee whose life intertwines with two human sisters, or the fallen angel who gives up her lofty paradise to experience the realities of Earth, all detailed in hand-written narratives accompanying the images. Collins’ images often feature Demie’s characters practicing the erotic art form shibari – or Japanese rope bondage – symbolizing losing and regaining a sense of control.
Throughout the series, the personas each contend with a conflicted sense of self, recalling the film portraits that made Collins a defining voice of girlhood in the 2010s, as well as her recent music videos for pop star Olivia Rodrigo.
For both Collins and Demie, fairy-tales offered a place of refuge when they were younger. “We started talking about fairy-tales and folktales, and what it meant for us,” Collins said in a phone interview. “Because both of us came from very chaotic households…So any type of imaginary realm that I could get into I would, and that’s sort of where I lived.”
Though folktales from different parts of the world often feature similar characters across geographical boundaries, they also reflect specific cultural histories. Collins’ mother emigrated from Hungary to Canada before Collins was born, and the photographer believes the tales she grew up with are grounded in the European country’s past.
“I think a lot of those folktales or the storytelling comes from all of the pain of what our country went through, especially under the Soviet regime,” she said. “They’re super psychedelic…and sort of like, violent,” she added, recalling an illustrated tale where a girl sells her body for goats. “I definitely felt like the darkness in these stories.”
But “Fairy Tales” is also Collins’ interpretation of how our virtual lives have rapidly evolved during the pandemic, she explained, calling the digital space a “mythical reality” where many have become fixated on how they present themselves and facial-altering image filters have flourished.
“We’re living in such an absurd time,” she said. “We’re all using these filters. We’re all editing our photos in these crazy ways. So it made the most sense in the way that we would tell what was happening in our time…(We’re) presenting these false…fairy-tale versions of ourselves.”
Below, Collins gives five recommendations for coming-of-age and romantic tales tinged with fantastical elements.
“Fairy Tales,” published by Rizzoli, is available now.
Add to Queue: Unreal, but human
Read: “The Pisces” by Melissa Broder (2018)
Collins calls this novel about a woman who rebounds from a relationship with a merman one of her “favorite books ever.” She explained: “It is a beautiful depiction of addiction, mental health, love and loss – all told through the lens of a woman in love with a merman.”
Watch: “Magyar népmesék (Hungarian Folks Tales)” (1980-2012)
This long-running animated series is available in Hungarian and English on YouTube. “Wild and psychedelic, these are the stories I grew up with,” Collins said. “I would watch them when I was sick so they definitely made their way into my subconscious. It’s interesting to see how what was going on politically affected the way these stories were visually told.”
Read: “The Seas” by Samantha Hunt (2018)
Collins found resonance with this novel about an outcast girl who believes she’s a mermaid after she finished reading “The Pisces.” “It ruined me. It was a scary accurate depiction of coming of age,” she said. “The main character flutters between what is real and what isn’t – and it’s what I did with ‘Fairy Tales.’”
Watch: “The Lure” (2015)
This horror musical directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczyńska “is so fun, sexy, dark and perverse,” Collins said. “This is one of my favorite (films), about two siren sisters who get pulled into the dark world of humans.”
Watch: “Daisies (Sedmikrásky)” (1966)
In this surrealist Czech film, two girls named Marie rebel against a “spoiled” society through a series of mischievous and pleasure-seeking antics. “This was an early inspiration of mine. I watched this for the first time when I was 14 and it felt like the closest depiction of reality to me,” Collins said. “The colors, sets, costumes. Everything in this is perfect.”