Revisiting “Coraline”: Duality in stories for kids

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

No, it’s not a Tim Burton movie. “Coraline” is a 2009 stop-motion film directed by Henry Selick, based on Neil Gaiman’s novella of the same name. You might remember the Other Mother with buttons in her eyes, luring the young Coraline into staying with her forever — or perhaps you’ve blocked it out of your memory once you saw her transform into a spindly, web-clinging spider-monster. 

Whenever I bring up the movie to my friends, I’m always met with their horrified reactions with lines such as “Oh, that movie gave me nightmares” or “It still scares me!” Why, then, was this movie allowed to roam in children’s minds at night? Is “Coraline” a movie meant for children at all? We can first dive into this question by looking into the medium in which the movie was made: stop-motion animation. Many people often associate animated films with being juvenile, most notably thanks to Disney for making whimsical, fairytale worlds. However, they forget that animation is not a genre of creating movies, just like how live-action isn’t a genre. In addition, Disney themselves have also made some darker-themed movies as well, despite orienting themselves towards being family-friendly. 

Personally, I think the main reason why the mode of animation is mainly considered “for children” is because it isn’t grounded in real things. In animation, animals can talk, pumpkins can turn into carriages and children can cross portals into other worlds. There’s freedom in the narrative that makes it suitable for kids who haven’t learned the restrictions of the “real world” yet. Okay, so we’ve established that animation itself is not the problem in how scary “Coraline” might be. Is it the intended audience, then? There’s a famous story revolving around the book’s publishing that ironically summarizes the plot of “Coraline.” The daughter of the publisher read the not-yet-completed book, told the publisher it was good and the publisher got it out and in stores — only for the daughter to admit, years later, that the novella scared her but she just had to know what happened next. 

Desire to know is an important thread that pulls the whole story together. Coraline wanted to know what was behind the strange little door, so she went through. The publisher’s daughter wanted to know what happened to Coraline once she got to the other world. Maybe their intense desire to find out what exactly is in the unknown is something that many children can relate to. When you’re young, there’s still so much that you don’t know. Is it possible that the Other Mother that convinces you to sew buttons in your eyes is genuinely looking out for your wellbeing? Probably not. The point is that Coraline finds this out on her own. Although the image of sewing mouths and eyes shut isn’t too comforting, children find themselves in the curious and stubborn mind of our main character. 

Perhaps we should look at older examples of children’s stories for comparison, notably, the fairytales mentioned earlier. Many of Disney movies were based off the Grimm Brothers stories, which are creepy, to say the least. 

Would it have been as equally traumatizing if little kids saw Cinderella’s stepsisters’ eyes get pecked out by birds? Actually, probably even more traumatizing. One thing about “Coraline” is that there’s not much gore in it, despite its chilling premise. It lends the more violent parts to the imagination; maybe that’s why so many kids got nightmares from the movie. However, an important purpose of these fairytales is to build a cautionary lesson. By the end of the movie, we definitely get some growth from our main character. She learns to appreciate her own world instead of being lured in by superficial delicacies. 

Despite the belief that children should be coddled and only be shown positive things, adults fail to realize that a little bit of scaring might be beneficial in the long run. Exposure to certain darker themes can help them see the multiple sides there are to life. 

Is “Coraline” suitable for children? Is it a horror movie that should be given full credit? My answer is that yes, children should be able to see the movie, but some parents might disagree. Who knows what their children might watch behind their back?