Nearly 15 years later, the imagery of buttons for eyes remains one of the most unsettling of any horror story.
It’s particularly poignant because Coraline, Neil Gaiman’s classic book adapted into film by Henry Selick, is a story for middle grade readers. It is horror written for children, starring a young girl named Coraline, who moves to a new home and finds life impossibly dreary. But there’s one bright spot. She discovers a passage in the house, behind a small locked door, that leads to an alternate universe where there’s an Other Mother and Other Father — who, notably, have buttons for eyes — and who cook her delicious meals, lavishing her with gifts and entertainment. But it’s a trap.
These themes are legible to youngsters, and riff on some of the most enduring tropes of middle grade fantasy: a curious child, negligent or overworked parents, and a portal to another world that is dominated by a great evil. But functionally, Coraline is also “cosmic dread meets body horror” for young readers, and these horror themes translate well into adulthood. Feeling trapped or suffering invasions of the flesh never stops being scary, even if Coraline never depicts these bits on screen but rather implies that they have or that they can happen. The film was recently remastered, with a successful limited theatrical rerelease on Aug. 14 and 15, finishing behind only mega-hits Barbie and Oppenheimer at the box office. Even if you missed these dates, the good news is you can watch the film on Max right now — and you absolutely should.
I recall the distinct glamour of moving from early reader chapter books to middle grade books. It was a chance to develop taste, to languish in narratives long and complex. My library stocked these books on plastic rotating shelves, and I remember giving one a spin, becoming immediately arrested with Coraline’s cover. I was just about 4-foot-5. My eye level rested right at “G” in the filing system. Each shelf presented a perfect legion of spines, with the paperback in the front visible through the shelf section’s plastic. The dark cover showed a sculptural likeness of a girl, her eyes reduced to beady little buttons.
I’d never heard of Neil Gaiman before, and had no idea what the book was about. But that terrifying, singular image bid me to grab the book, and march it right to the checkout counter — old enough now to present my very own library card. It looked scary, and I wanted to read that scary big-kid stuff. I read Coraline in a day, with the frenetic intensity of someone who has never read horror before. An only child, I identified with feeling stifled, felt Coraline’s freedom in her portal to another, better world — and her sickening fear at the realization that she was trapped. Best of all, I learned that stories could hold me in absolute, rapturous suspense.
These feelings of childlike joy, wonder, and metallic-tasting, heavy dread abound in Selick’s film adaptation of Coraline. Laika Studios’ gorgeous stop-motion animation gives a physical weight to its characters, even as they’re clearly cartoonish, making the grotesque more visceral and the showmanship even more bombastic. Her life in her real home is depicted in dreary grays, and her parents wear muted expressions — she is alone and bored out of her mind. She sticks out in her vivid yellow rain jacket. The long portal Coraline walks through to go to her Other Home is both technicolor and yet distinctly esophageal, a thematic teaser of what’s to come. It’s colorful. It is also swallowing her whole.
It is a joy, at first, to see every bit of boring home life translated into something bigger and brighter — Coraline digs into a perilous stack of pancakes, watches a manic circus, visits a beautiful garden. These dream sequences are stunning, but unsettlingly polished and symmetrical. As in so much horror, when the mirage turns, the excess is filled with decay. Coraline can stay in this fun Other Home only if she allows Other Mother to sew buttons over her eyes. This world, it turns out, is rotten — its residents are prisoners of Other Mother, and the souls of children molder there. Other Mother’s praying mantis-like form is revealed.
As a kid, I was spellbound by the book, with no context for horror, just the thought that this stuff was really messed up. When I watched the film as a teen, I didn’t really think of myself as a horror fan. I think that’s largely because I have low tolerance for visual gore, particularly body horror, which has persisted into adulthood. I found Yellowjackets, for example, unwatchable. I’ve only ever consumed David Cronenberg’s filmography through Wikipedia summaries. Coraline was one of the first films I (re)watched as an adult that helped me understand my aversion to visual gore wasn’t the same as an aversion to horror — and that I, in fact, love horror and have read a large amount of it since. The film’s insinuations of gore and dialed-up theatricality allow me to enjoy being frightened without feeling outright traumatized.
This is especially true of the film’s opening scene, when Other Mother repairs a doll. When you understand the themes of the film, it reads as body horror in the extreme, foregrounding the entire story. Other Mother’s spindly fingers rework a hand-sewn doll — she makes messy incisions up its back to take out the stuffing, yanks off the wefting yarn of the doll’s hair, snaps the threads that bind its eyes, and uses a seam ripper to open a mouth that was stitched closed. She then patches up the doll, the flapping fabric looking distinctly skinlike. It is rough but meticulous. The stop-motion animation gives every bit of material, threads especially, a more-real-than-real texture. This would be intolerable to me if any of this was depicted on a real body. A doll as a metaphor for body horror works perfectly.
The themes that captivated me as a child have yielded to different readings as I’ve revisited the book and the film over the years. What struck me in literal terms as a kid — “even if your parents are hard on you, don’t go looking for a way out” — became “the grass is always greener on the other side” when I was a teenager. As a petty adult, I finally noticed just how many of Coraline’s neighbors attempted to warn her about going through the door, and how her annoyance with her parents inspired her to act out despite these warnings. It’s become a parable along the lines of “listen when people try to warn you, you absolute dumbass,” or more gently, “don’t get into trouble that’s actually avoidable.”
But the thread binding it all together is still my love for that tenacious girl Coraline, and those lessons she taught me — about taking people for granted, and about the power of a very good story.