The Tooth Fairy is Terrifying.

When you think back on the mythical figures of your childhood, like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the guy with a hook for a hand who murders amorous teenagers, the most mysterious among them might be the Tooth Fairy.

Personally, I find her entire deal disturbing. (To the point that I wrote a horror story about it.) But as a culture we have decided this is a good idea. Culture, why are we doing this to ourselves?

The mouth of a child who is almost old enough for the Tooth Fairy

The Tooth Fairy’s M.O.

In case it’s been a long time since you lost your baby teeth, here’s a review: The night after your tooth falls out, you put it beneath your pillow. And then, while you breathe through your mouth and drool blood into your pillow, the Tooth Fairy sneaks into your room. She silently reaches beneath your head and takes what hours before was part of your body. In exchange, she leaves a small amount of currency. 

In the US, some families have their own traditions: some kids tuck their teeth into designated pillows with pockets sewn on them. Sometimes the Tooth Fairy leaves a note. In my own family, the later a child was born, the more likely the Tooth Fairy was to forget him.

Two smug older children pose with a sweet little brother.

I see no problem with this.

The Tooth Fairy shows up throughout the Western world, but not always in fairy form. In many Spanish speaking countries, tooth-losing children are visited by the specifically-named Perez the Mouse. In some parts of Italy it is Saint Apollonia, the martyr who was tortured by having all her teeth smashed, and Jesus Christ religion is horrifying. 

Whatever her appearance, the Tooth Fairy does pretty much the same thing in every culture in which she appears, whether you want her to or not. 

The Tooth Fairy is Ruthless

Mythical childhood figures appear across cultures. Often they fill a moralistic role, like reminding you not to wander into the forest (Baba Yaga), teaching you to obey your parents (El Cuco), or preventing you from getting to second base (guy with a hook for a hand). But the Tooth Fairy does not care about your behavior. 

A full set of human teeth is attached to a card.

If you lose a tooth, she’s going to show up whether you’ve been studying your spelling words or melting Barbies in the sun all day. Santa only visits when you’re good, but the Tooth Fairy is coming no matter what. She can’t be reasoned with. She doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And she absolutely will not stop, ever. Until you’re out of baby teeth.

So if she is neither a reward nor a threat, and she teaches us nothing, why did we invent her in the first place?  There must be a cultural reason for her existence.

Well, there IS. And it’s not what you’d expect for a myth about someone hovering over your sleeping body. 

The Tooth Fairy’s Real Job

In a 1984 study conducted by Rosemary Wells (not, unfortunately, the one whose work focuses on herbivorous sibling pairs), she determined that the Tooth Fairy was invented to comfort. Because what is more comforting than lies?

A close-up of a terrifying set of dentures.

Wells suggests that the Tooth Fairy was invented to console children about the disconcerting loss of, you know, part of their bodies. But the passage of time is also hard for grownups to deal with (Even for the perpetually youthful, like this blogger! Ha, ha! *silent sob*). The Tooth Fairy ritual comforts moms and dads, too. It can be sad watching your kids leave babyhood behind. With the Tooth Fairy ritual, parents can reassure themselves that at least their little one is still young enough to believe bullshit stories. 

The same study asked respondents what the Tooth Fairy looks like. Turns out that unlike countries that have a mouse or a mutilated saint stealing their teeth, Americans are less clear in their vision. The closest we come to a consensus is that 74% of Americans believe the Tooth Fairy is female. 

But I would like to suggest a different idea. Think about it: Kids are often light sleepers. Wouldn’t you have felt it if a full-size hand reached under the pillow beneath your head? Doesn’t it make more sense that someone simply dragged out the tooth with the two-dimensional piece of metal attached to his arm? Probably he crouched beside the bed and watched your face as he slid his hook beneath your pillow… very slowly … to make sure you didn’t wake up.

I mean, he can’t spend every night on Lovers’ Lane. 

In a drawing by Steve Ryder, a grinning mouth is missing a tooth
Art by Steve Ryder

All Art by Steve Ryder

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