So Many Moms Die in Disney Movies Because of Walt Disney’s Own Mother
No, it's not just to torture you.
It’s a well-known fact that mothers frequently die in classic Disney films. And while it may be tempting to believe that the reason for this is simply to illicit tears, in truth, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The reason why moms tend to die in Disney movies is twofold, based on both the fairytales that Walt Disney used as source material and a tragedy in his own life.
You see, The Little Mermaid is based on a motherless tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault is responsible for Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, whom also don’t have moms. Some believe having these characters suffer the loss of a parent was an effort to help children grapple with this tragic reality. And given that most Disney films also try to give children the tools they’ll need to handle life’s curve balls, it makes sense that the stories they feature would build character through this kind of plot device.
In her book Death and the Mother From Dickens to Freud, professor Carolyn Dever notes that “in the space of the missing mother” storytellers “are free to reinscribe the form and function of maternity according to highly idiosyncratic agendas, and thus to reformulate both conventional roles for women and conventional modes of narration.”
Or, as longtime Disney producer Don Hahn told Glamour in a 2014 interview more simply: “Disney films are about growing up … They’re about that day in your life when you have to accept responsibility. In shorthand, it’s much quicker to have characters grow up when you bump off their parents. Bambi’s mother gets killed, so he has to grow up. Belle only has a father, but he gets lost, so she has to step into that position. It’s a story shorthand.”
But there may be another, more straightforward reason as to why Walt Disney seemed to gravitate towards stories that featured mothers who passed away in such a deeply gut-wrenching way—and it goes back to his real life.
After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, Disney proudly bought his parents, Flora and Elias Disney, a home near the Disney studio in Burbank, California as a gift for their 50th wedding anniversary. Less than a month after moving in, Flora began complaining about an odd smell coming from the furnace. Disney sent studio repairmen to take a look, but they didn’t catch a bad leak in the furnace. The next day, a housekeeper found Flora and Elias unconscious and pulled them out onto the front lawn. While Disney’s father survived, his mother, tragically, did not. She died of asphyxiation from the fumes on November 26, 1938 at the age of 70.
“He never spoke about that time because he personally felt responsible because he had become so successful that he said, ‘Let me buy you a house,'” Hahn told Glamour. “It’s every kid’s dream to buy their parents a house and just through a strange freak of nature—through no fault of his own—the studio workers didn’t know what they were doing.”
Given that he never spoke about his mother’s death, it’s difficult to be certain of how Disney was feeling. But it’s reasonable to assume that he would have been haunted by the unintentional role that he played in his mother’s death. It’s hard to ignore that Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942)—both of which feature some of the most heart-wrenching mother scenes in the entire Disney collection—were released just a few years after Flora’s death.
“That idea that he really contributed to his mom’s death was really tragic,” Hahn explained to Glamour. “It’s not a secret within their family, but it’s just a tragedy that is so difficult to even talk about … To me, it humanizes Walt. He was devastated by that, as anyone would be.”
And for more little-known facts about your favorite Disney films, check out The One Thing You Never Noticed About These 1960s Disney Movies.
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