When I was a kid, my mom once pulled out a psychological weapon so scarring that it sticks out in my memory today louder than any vague reminiscence of times where I was grounded, yelled, or swatted. On a day when my brother and I were a particular handful for her, she informed us that she was no longer our mother, but her twin sister, Delores, who had come to live with us instead because we’d upset our mom so much that she had moved away. I still remember how physically upset I was about it. It’s the kind of twisted prank you can only pull in that impressionable age, the age when belief in illogical things like secret evil twins is possible. The level of deep dread that such a belief can create in you is so visceral, so haunting.
It was that exact fear that I recognized within myself, like a voice calling back from my childhood, the very first time that I was exposed to Coraline’s Other Mother as I sat in a theater seat for the movie, and later reading about her in Neil Gaiman’s original novella. The Other Mother, inspired by a folklore monster also known as the Beldam, is a fae creature who creates a seemingly idyllic world for Coraline Jones to inhabit, presenting herself as an almost identical, slightly romanticized replica of her own mother. Over the course of the story, the Other Mother's glamour recedes, revealing the monster she truly is.
As far as insidiousness levels between the novel and the film, I have to give the edge to the film adaptation. While both versions feature the Other Mother, and her minions like the Other Father and “Other” residents of the old townhouse that Coraline’s parents have moved her to, the movie version initially treats them as nearly identical physically, where the book makes them taller and thinner, like distorted funhouse mirrors. While that’s certainly creepy, and gets more so as the Other Mother grows more powerful along the course of the story, there’s something extra unsettling about seeing the nearly identical character models with those black soulless buttons staring emotionlessly back at you. It’s the only initial sign that something is wrong with this mirror world, the only sensation of danger we initially see. It’s something that feels equally whimsical and mortifying at the same time. It places us with one toe in the uncanny valley, keeping us on edge even as everything else is begging for just to jump in and play.
The initial experience that Coraline goes through when arriving on the other side of the tiny door in her parents’ house is almost as important as the buttons. Set against her somewhat cold and inattentive real-world parents, the Other Mother and Father initially seem warm, and jovial. The world they offer her is bright and exciting and seems full of love. It begs her to belong to it. The Beldam creates exactly what it thinks Coraline wants and then lashes out in anger at her when she begins to pull away out of fear.
The chilliness of the Other Mother speaks to the heart of what Gaiman was going for when he first started writing the story, which he initially intended as a tale to tell his five-year-old daughter. In trying to create a “refreshingly creepy” story for her, he managed to tap into something that feels authentically in the voice and mindset of a child, how a kid sees the world, what a kid is afraid of versus what an adult might fear. While other children’s movies or books can create interesting and complicated villains, Coraline is that rare type of story that taps into something scary that a child can also innately believe is possible, while also echoing distant terrors that adults have often buried.
Monsters are real to kids, sure. There are classic fears of what’s in the dark or what is under the bed. But none of that compares to the lingering psychological trauma that can occur from the very real feeling that you’re not safe around the very people who are supposed to care for you. In the real world, this can manifest itself in far darker ways than my mom’s fake evil twin, but the same psychology is there. In fiction, as dark as it can get, it can serve as a powerful way to vicariously face that fear.
Perhaps that’s why younger fans of Coraline often see it as an adventure, where adults see it as scary. For kids, it’s facing off against a real and present threat and coming off a victor. For adults, it’s a reminder of a fear we had almost thought forgotten.