Columnist Wil McCarthy explains why Coraline and Hellraiser are really the same

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Science fiction movies are full of holograms and other 3-D images, which is ironic, because they all look flat to us up there on the movie screen. Well, Laika Pictures' new movie, Coraline, the brainchild of writer/director Henry Selick and novelist/comicist Neil Gaiman, was released last month through Universal, with a reality-bending twist known as RealD that cures this problem handily.

Believe it or not, 3-D movies go all the way back to the 1890s, when an inventor named William Greene started messing around with a moving-picture stereopticon, like a cross between the flipbook animation and Viewmaster 3-D slideshow toys still used by children today. Scenes were photographed with two cameras, set slightly apart like human eyeballs, and the viewing apparatus allowed the viewer's right and left eyes to focus on images from slightly different viewpoints, just as they do in real life.

The result: a realistic 3-D effect, though of course in black and white since practical color photography had not been invented yet. Unfortunately, while this technology worked well enough for penny-operated arcade machines, it was a bit unwieldy for the theater. The "anaglyph" method, involving glasses with red and green (later red and blue) lenses, was first tried in 1915, had its commercial debut in 1922, and is still in use today for 3-D theatrical movies re-released on TV and DVD.

3-D films using polarized light were debuted in 1939 by Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid. What is polarized light? In the simplest terms, it's light that's wiggling either left-right or up-down, instead of all around like the ordinary light emitted by lamps, candles and the sun. Many animals have polarizing structures on their eyes—a useful trick since light emitted by the blue sky, or reflected at shallow angles from water and ice, is highly polarized. Human beings also use polarized sunglasses to reduce the glare from sunlit automobiles, and to see through the dazzle of a lake surface while fishing.

Anyway, Land's process involved one eye seeing left-right polarized light, and the other eye seeing up-down polarized light. For black-and-white images, this technology had no distinct advantage over the anaglyph, and it was more cumbersome, since it required two separate film projectors in the theater. However, with the rise of color movies in the 1950s, polarizers were the only way to show a 3-D image without disrupting the color balance of the film. Unfortunately, a little bit of light leaked through the polarizers, so each eye could see a faint ghost of the image intended for the other eye. The results were entertaining, but viewers often complained of headaches and motion sickness, and as the '50s drew to a close there were fewer and fewer 3-D films released.

Skipping ahead to 2005, we arrive at the debut of the RealD process, which uses a single projector and a different sort of polarized light: circularly polarized. This is a little confusing, but instead of wiggling up-down or left-right, circularly polarized light twirls either clockwise or counterclockwise, and by alternating film frames with one polarization and then the other, RealD produces a much more realistic 3-D image that does not allow the left eye to see the right image, and vice versa. I personally found the image extremely convincing, but a friend of mine complained—as some others have—about a discernible flicker in the image when things were moving too fast. He believes sitting farther back would help.

Of course, even flat movies have an extra dimension—a time dimension—extending forward and backward, which is what separates them from mere photographs. They're all 3-D, and what Real3D brings to the table is really a fourth dimension that allows us—finally!—to crane our necks and see around things in the movie world.

But the really interesting thing about this movie—and the Hugo/Nebula/Stoker-winning Neil Gaiman novel on which it's based—is the psychology of its characters. It's interesting in its own right, but even more so when contrasted against the works of last decade's dark-fantasy wunderkind, Clive Barker. In most of Barker's works, from the movies Hellraiser (1987) and Nightbreed (1990) to the novels Weaveworld (1987) and Imajica (1991), the main characters face a similar dilemma: Having discovered a portal to some other world, they have to decide whether to dive through it and commit themselves to a new reality, with no going back. The difference is that in Barker's case, the other world is known to be full of violence and pain, and the characters are so disaffected with their earthly lives that they willingly—indeed, eagerly—throw themselves into the meat grinder and accept an eternity of torment at the hands of bizarre, unsympathetic monsters.

Psychologically speaking, there are a number of different things going on here. The first and most obvious is masochism, a semi-sexual desire to experience pain, confinement, humiliation and subjugation. There is also a touch of sadism, as Barker's hellish worlds offer numerous opportunities to observe and even participate in the suffering of others. This pairing is not surprising, as the intertwining of sadism and masochism was observed from the very beginning, in 1886, when both terms were coined by a German psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing.

Sadism was named for the 18th-century Frenchman Donatien-Alphonse-François De Sade, aka the Marquis de Sade, while masochism drew its name from an Austrian aristocrat, Chevalier Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a contemporary of Krafft-Ebing's. Anyway, modern psychological theory agrees with Ebbing that the two disorders, while separate and distinct in their symptoms, are typically found to varying degrees in the same individuals. Roughly one person in 20 has them in some significant form.

But sadomasochism alone does not explain why someone—why anyone!—would willingly consign himself to a literal hell. This is the most extreme form of suicide I can imagine, and suicide is generally undertaken only by severely depressed people, exhausted by the freedoms and burdens of daily life. The global suicide rate is about 1 million per year, meaning approximately one person out of every 100,000 will eventually die by his or her own hand. Sadly, suicide rates are much higher in developed countries than in the Third World—11 per hundred thousand in the United States, or more than 10 times the global average. Currently, the highest rates (three times the U.S. and 30 times the global rate) are in Eastern Europe, where rising standards of living produce ever sharper differences between winners and losers. Once the basic needs of survival stop being a daily struggle, it seems there is more room for the angst, disaffection, envy, alienation and disappointment that drive people to despise their own existence. Antidepressant medications have helped (arguably, what most of Barker's characters need is a giant bottle of Prozac), but depression is really a form of rage directed inward at the self, and the roots of rage are not necessarily chemical. It's worth noting that suicide rates go down during wartime, when there's a tangible enemy to fight and a noble cause to risk one's life for. Still, other psychological maladies associated with suicide include schizophrenia, bipolarism, explosive personality disorder and addictions. In Western society, suicide is pretty rare among people with no history of psychological illness.

Anyway, your typical Clive Barker character is a depressed, world-weary sadomasochist who represents—at the very most—about 0.1 percent of the population, and who has willfully abandoned control of his or her own destiny to forces beyond human comprehension. We're supposed to empathize with that?

Conversely, Neil Gaiman's title character, Coraline, is a likable 10-year-old girl whose only serious problem is boredom. Having moved away from the city in the middle of winter, she finds herself in a dingy apartment in a creaky old boarding house in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by people far loonier than she is. And, having discovered an alternate universe seemingly brighter and warmer and more inviting than her own, Coraline has the good sense to be suspicious. For all their faults, she really does love her parents and is appropriately horrified at the idea of leaving them forever.

Unfortunately, their doppelgangers in the puppet world are not about to let her leave, and under pressure from Coraline they quickly reveal their true natures. Yes, they're the same sort of bad guys we've seen before in the works of Clive Barker. They want her love, body and soul, but they can't distinguish between affection and pain, freedom and coercion. They can put on a good show for a day or two, but like bad parents everywhere, all they really know how to do is punish and criticize, hurt and take and terrorize until there's nothing left.

But rather than giving up or (worse) throwing herself on the mercy of these monsters, Coraline switches on her brain and starts scheming her way back home. Gaiman does not bludgeon us with the morality of her story, but it rings through just the same: virtue and cleverness as the path to happiness. Greed and surrender as the path to despair. So really, there's a fifth dimension to this movie, a moral dimension that allows us to look back at our own lives and see how they measure up. And while that's hardly a new technology, it's one that seems to be coming back into style. I, for one, am glad it's back.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia ( "Sadomasochism", "Suicide", "3-D movie"
Britannica 2009 Ultimate Reference Suite: "Psychosexual disorder", "Suicide", "Depression"
Gelline, Denise: "Suicide rate in U.S. is up", Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2008
The Internet Movie Database: "Coraline", "Spy Kids 3", "Hellraiser", "Nightbreed"
Aggrawal, Anil: Forensic and Medico-Legal Aspects of Sexual Crime and Unusual Sexual Practices, CRC Press, 2009

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter,is now available as a free download.