As a child, I thought this movie was the most terrifying thing in the world. Now, after rewatching it as an adult, I can say with 100% certainty that I was right.
In 2009, Henry Selick sold the world a nightmare — and this nightmare went by the name of Coraline. For the better part of second grade, going to sleep required the ritual execution of an internal pep talk in which I would steel myself up against the potential horror of waking up in the Other Mother’s grasp. When a mouse was spotted in my house at one point, the terror increased tenfold. After seeing this film at a school-hosted day camp, I vowed to myself that I would never lay eyes upon it again. But lately, I’ve started to realize that I am now an adult, and after over a decade, I’ve recently begun to reconsider the risk of re-meeting the button-eyed gaze of the Beldam. I love scary movies; I enjoy Coraline’s author, Neil Gaiman — there was no longer any good reason for me to continually refuse to watch this movie. I figured that it may finally be time to face the fact that eight-year-old me’s reaction may not have been entirely trustworthy.
I was wrong.
Eight-year-old me was absolutely spot the f**k on in her assessment.
Coraline is an enchantingly chilling and eerily beautiful masterpiece of horror that is, if anything, more terrifying than I remember. Here is why.
Nowhere is Safe
The characters of Coraline inhabit a world that is situated firmly at the base of the uncanny valley. While the first reality that we are presented with is familiar enough for the viewer to recognize it as the “real world” within the context of the film, it is still eerily…off in a way that contributes greatly to the overall sense of horror at play. Well, before we are introduced to the Other Mother and the Other World, the world that Coraline and her family enter as they settle into their new home feels definitively unsafe. Not only do the opening credits – which are filled with imagery of a strangely violent stitching process – leave a lingering sense of unease, but the cool-toned and weather-beaten reality that is established shortly after compounds it. Beyond that, the “off” character of this world is furthered by the quality of movement with it. The entire film was shot using stop-motion animation, and this is evident in the way that characters move and interact with their environment. The entire set and all of the characters were made of clay, and every action was the result of an extremely delicate process of creating subtle changes in placement. This analog animation style means that the characters do not move like real people — they move in a doll-like fashion that seems both elegant and engineered. This is very on-theme considering the movie’s very present doll motif but also contributes to the sense that neither world is quite our own. While distancing the reality of the film from the reality of the viewer serves its alignment with the fantasy genre and could, in theory, make the story less scary — in this case, the distance is subtle enough that it instead contributes to an inescapable and terrifying sense that nothing should be trusted. The real world is familiar enough — through its inclusion of familiar car brands and present-day technology — that it feels as though it should be safe, and the fact that it does not quite feel that way adds to its overt spookiness.
No One is Safe
Not only is there no physical place in this world that feels truly safe, but there are no characters that seem entirely reliable either. The cold and detached relationship that Coraline has with her parents is shown to be the element that propels her towards the Other World in the first place — where she finds refuge in the performative warmth and affection of her Other Family. Coraline’s relationship with her mother is particularly strained, and they repeatedly fail to connect throughout most of the film. Though she eventually finds a sense of community as she gets to know Wybie and her new neighbors, none of them are initially presented as entirely trustworthy figures, with instances such as Wybie withholding information about his knowledge of the house and two of her neighbors harboring a collection of identical dead dogs prodding at our suspicions. While Coraline bounces between the dual worlds of the film, it is incredibly challenging to establish any sense of security in either. As her will to escape the chilling isolation and neglect of her true reality sends her running into the arms of a violently abusive one, it feels as though our protagonist is painfully and perpetually alone… with the exception of her talking cat.
No Rules are Safe
Speaking of the talking cat, the rules of this universe are everywhere. They’re consistent, and they’re whimsical, but as we learn them as we go and never seem to receive a full explanation, they contribute immensely to this world’s petrifying status. Why does the cat only talk in the Other World? Why does it have free reign between the two worlds? Since it clearly has the same consciousness in both worlds, is it miserable in the real world where it cannot talk? Where does Other Mother come from? What is she? Are there others like her? Where are she and her other world since they have physical consequences but don’t seem to occupy physical space? If they’re in another dimension, why is this house the access point? Are there other access points? Why does the portal only show up at night? Why is Other Mother’s only consistent feature the button eyes? Why button eyes? Other Wybie and Other Father seem independently conscious, but the entire world is Other Mother’s creation… how does that work? Where did they come from? Are they trapped there? What happens to them all when the constructed web world disappears? Do they all just loiter in the void? I have questions. Fortunately, as I’ve learned while writing this, these questions are the topic of many YouTube videos and fan posts out there. But my point is leaving these questions open adds a sense of mystery and allows the imagination to run wild, making things more interesting yet significantly more sinister.
Finally, what is perhaps most terrifying about Coraline is its ending. On the surface, it is an entirely happy one. Coraline destroys Other Mother’s web, saves the souls of the ghost children by collecting their eyes, frees her parents, and successfully disposes of the key to the portal door — presumably thwarting Other Mother once and for all. The film closes on the first sunny day that we’ve seen as Coraline, appearing to have changed her perspective on life, helps her parents and neighbors set up for a picnic. She appears to have learned to see the world differently, finally appreciating what she has and forming a real community with those around her. What keeps the hair-raising horror alive, however, is her continued isolation. Though Wybie believes her story, and she is shown flagging down his grandmother to discuss it with her at the end, her parents seem to have had the memories of their peril erased. Upon seeing them safely returned, Coraline is overjoyed while her parents meet her with dismissive confusion. While Coraline’s perspective and experience are shown to have undoubtedly improved over the course of the film, it seems that the mother-daughter relationship that stands at the heart of the narrative is left largely unresolved. Rather than Coraline and her mother sharing in their experience and arriving at mutual understanding – the newfound insight all seems to be one-sided, and Coraline’s reinvigorated appreciation is unrequited.
Overall, this is a beautifully animated film, and I’m glad that I watched it again. That said, I think that it is important that we fully acknowledge that this is not a normal movie. It is f**king terrifying. If you’re not scared, f**k you.