When one reads folk legends and fairy tales, there is always in the back of the mind a niggling little questioning of whether there just might not located somewhere deep in the past an actual historical basis. Certainly, tales of heroines like Snow White and Cinderella seem possible enough to have an origin at least somewhat distantly related to the final fictional product stemming from them. While one might be very hard pressed to locate an actual authentic starting point for a heroic feline sporting fashionable boots or a woman whose youthful appearance and vitality remains intact following 100 years of slumber, the morality tale that forms the basis of the narrative of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard seems more than capable of having actually taken place.
And, indeed, though the fundamental basis of the story’s plot about the wife's forbidden entry into one particular room by a mysterious husband existed within oral traditions from African, Europe, and Asia long before Perrault set the story to page, his particular version very much inspired by a very specific real life analog. The inspiration for Perrault’s Bluebeard is unquestionably Baron Gilles de Rais, a man who before he became the center of a sinister series of events that led to his eventually being immortalized as the historical Bluebeard achieve a notable level of fame first for actually having fought alongside Joan of Arc after which he actually accumulated more wealth than even the French king.
As often happens with those who become obscenely rich, de Rais boredom with not having to work very hard to get anything he wanted eventually led him to indulge his interests in alchemy and satanic worship. Such is the stuff of which any number of serial killers throughout history got their start and before he was arrested, tortured for a confession, hanged and burned for good measure the Baron became the generally accepted sick and twisted torturer and murderer of an unknown number of children that likely exceeded 50 at the very least.
Bluebeard, of course, is the tale of a husband who forbids his wife from entering a secret room and what the wife finds there when she disobeys. None of which applies very strongly to the story of de Rais with the exception of a secret room where the actual torture of his young victims took place. So how did Charles Perrault manage to work the story of the gruesome Baron into his darkest of fairy tales that really doesn’t have a lot to do with his story? By commingling the dread and terror inspired by de Rais with the legendary story of a 6th century Breton king with almost impossibly wonderful label of Conomor the Accursed, his three dead wives and the story of what happened when his fourth five, Tryphine, entered a secret room she found while the Accursed one was away.
By finally putting the legends of a Bluebeard-type situation that traversed the known world of 1697 to paper, Charles Perrault essentially fashioned far more than a fairy tale. Bluebeard is the archetype for all manner of extended variations upon the story that ranges from the heroine of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca to Jonathan Harker’s fateful visit to the vampire’s castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.