Movie Meaning Monday: Is Coraline a Metaphor for Domestic Abuse?

*Spoilers*

If you’ve been keeping up with my previous Movie Meaning Mondays, you may have noticed that the topics I’m writing about are pretty random. There’s a reason for that. For the most part, all of the articles I write that answer some sort of big question are topics I’ve googled in the past, but couldn’t find any answers to. In the past I’ve written about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang being an allusion to Nazi Germany, and why The Sims is such an addicting game. Today, the topic I’d like to see explored is themes in Coraline. I’ve always viewed this movie as being a warning for domestic abuse, or at least an allusion to it. Like I said, I haven’t been able to find any other articles about this opinion, so I’m going to pioneer it right here and now.

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Per usual, I’m going to re-watch the movie, sum up the plot, and then plug in all of my personal opinions and thoughts. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve seen Coraline so many times, I can literally quote it word for word. It’s genuinely an incredible movie, and one that I’m excited to spill the piping tea on. If it was even remotely possible for me to get in touch with Neil Gaiman, or even Henry Selick, I would totally include an interview with them. Alas, they’re probably busy doing famous people things, and the chances of them ever acknowledging my writing are slim to none.

If you haven’t seen Coraline by now, you’re probably either a thirty year-old man, a ten year-old girl, or simply just living under a rock. For my age demographic, we millennials were essentially hit over the head with the release of Coraline. It was beautifully innovative, it was released to theaters in 3D, and in a nutshell, it was nothing that any of us had seen before. Coraline has grossed $192 million dollars worldwide since its release in 2009, and since then, has become a familiar piece of nostalgia for other 18-22 year-olds. Animated horror fantasy films almost always seem to do well (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc), and Coraline is no exception.

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In the first scene of the movie, we see some creepy needle hands taking apart a rag doll with button eyes, remodeling it, and then sending it back out into the world. It seems like a random scene for a while, but around the halfway point of the movie, the story starts to make sense.

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So after that weird interlude, where does this story actually start? At the Pink Palace Apartments, where the Jones family is moving into their new apartment unit. Coraline is a spunky, rain boot-wearing, blue-haired explorer, who ignored and (in Coraline’s opinion) emotionally neglected by her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Jones are overworked writers for a gardening magazine, and as the stereotype goes, are much too involved in their work to pay any attention to Coraline. To cope with her frustration and loneliness, Coraline sets out on an adventure around the apartment complex. While exploring her gloomy, desolate surroundings, she comes across Wybie Lovat and his sassy black cat sidekick, who remains nameless throughout the film.

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Like many other oddball characters throughout the film, Wybie mispronounces Coraline’s name, and then teases her for her strange mannerisms and broad imagination. Needless to say, Coraline and Wybie don’t get off on the right foot, with Coraline left feeling stubbornly offended. In between their back-and-forthing, Wybie reveals his his grandmother is the owner of the Pink Palace apartments, and that she usually doesn’t rent to people with kids. When Coraline asks why, he replies reluctantly that he’s really not supposed to talk about it. Spoooooky. Wybie rides off on his bicycle, leaving Coraline with more questions than answers, and the “dowsing rod” she’s holding in her hands leaves her with a nasty case of poison oak.

The next day, Coraline receives a strange, wrapped-up item from Wybie, with a note that reads, “Hey, Jonesy, look what I found in Grandma’s trunk. Look familiar? Wybie.”

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Ah, yes, remember the doll from the beginning?

Rightfully, Coraline is pretty confused to receive a ragdoll doppelganger, but she surprisingly doesn’t seem too creeped out. Still feeling ignored by her parents, Coraline takes the doll with her on an excursion around the apartment, exploring every nook and cranny. Eventually, Coraline comes across a small, suspicious looking door, covered up by wallpaper. Coraline somehow manages to get her mom’s attention for a few minutes, who uncovers the door and opens it, revealing bricks on the other side. Coraline is disappointed, and unassumingly goes to bed that night, making nothing of the events of the day. UnTIL…

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In the middle of the night, Coraline finds herself awaken by the sound of a mouse. She follows the mouse down the stairs and into the parlor, and watches in amazement as the mouse goes behind the tiny door. When Coraline opens the door herself, there are no longer bricks- it’s a beautiful, ethereal-like tunnel, leading into the darkness.

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Coraline crawls through the tunnel, and pushes through another tiny door, and finds herself in an exact replica of the room she was just in- the only difference is, it’s a lot nicer. The paint is fresh and new, the house is now decorated, and a delicious smell is wafting from the kitchen. As Coraline quietly ambles into the kitchen, she is met by another surprise- her “Other Mother.”

Nightmare Fuel: 2.0.

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Essentially, The Other Mother is an exact copy of Coraline’s mother back home, except nicer, prettier, and equipped with button eyes. Coraline’s Other Father is also just as charming and personable, and throughout the night, the Other parents entertain Coraline and shower her with attention. After feeding Coraline a delicious meal and giving her some magic mud to make her poison oak clear up, the Other parents send Coraline off to bed in her Other bedroom, which is also beautifully decorated.

Coraline falls asleep, but wakes up to find herself back in her regular room. She might have just brushed it off as a dream, but notices that her poison oak is indeed completely gone. Escastically, she gushes about her experience to her parents, who more or less pass it off as a dream. Determined to find someone who will listen, Coraline sets off on an excursion to meet the other tenants of the Pink Palace. She first comes across Sergei Alexander Bobinsky, weird-ass blue guy who claims to have a jumping mice circus living in his house. Upon further research (Wikipedia), Mr. B was apparently a “former Chernobyl liquidator.” Maybe that’s why he’s blue? And also batshit crazy?

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Anywho, after that odd encounter, Coraline meanders onward to chat with her other neighbors, two retired burlesque actresses named Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The nature of these two old gals’ relationship isn’t really mentioned, but I like to believe they’re two aging lesbians, spending the rest of their life together. Once again, Coraline is warned of foreshadowing danger, which she more or less snubs off.

And, as if we couldn’t hit Coraline in the head enough with the notion that the Other apartment is dangerous, Wybie comes into play. He may not be aware of the door’s existence, but he explains to Coraline that his grandmother’s sister was “stolen.” And no, it’s not spoiling the plot for me to tell you grandma’s missing sister has something to do with the Other apartment. If you hadn’t inferred that by now, well, I’m not sure where you thought this movie was going.

Despite these overwhelming warnings, Coraline indeed embarks to the Other apartment the next night. This time, she’s introduced to Other Wybie, equipped with button-eyes and also a lack of speech, much to Coraline’s delight. Coraline’s adventures continue in the Other apartment, where she explores the beautiful garden with her Other father, and witnesses Other Mr. B’s jumping mice circus with Other Wybie. It’s fantastic and thrilling, but much to Coraline’s dismay, she once again wakes up in her regular room the next morning.

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Now back in the real world, Coraline spends some “quality time” shopping for school clothes with her mother. Her parents are still constantly busy, but it’s at this point in the movie you realize their business doesn’t come from ignorance. They just moved into a new apartment, Coraline’s mother is dealing with the stress of a neck injury, and their biggest concern at the moment is just to work hard and give Coraline a better life. And, admittedly, Coraline is kind of an obnoxious kid. Coraline’s mother obviously feels guilty about overlooking her daughter, but Coraline continues to be ungratefully pissed. After Coraline’s mother leaves to go grocery shopping, Coraline once again visits the Other world. And today, Coraline’s adventure in the Other world includes…scary animated boobs!

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Seriously?! Isn’t this supposed to be a kid’s movie?

Context: Coraline gets to see a burlesque performance of Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who then, uh…strip out of their skin?

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It’s a very, very weird movie. But I love every minute of it. It kind of feels like a weird, nightmarish dream you’d have when you’re seven years old, but never forget about.

Later, the Other mother tells Coraline that she can stay in the Other world forever if she wants, eternally showered with entertainment and lavish gifts. There’s only one tiny condition- Coraline has to have buttons sewn into her eyes, to which Coraline essentially replies HELL NO.

Finally! Coraline makes a morally agreeable decision in this movie.

Officially creeped out of her mind, Coraline decides it’s time to hit the road and peace out, but the Other mother has trapped her. The tiny door is blocked, and Coraline, who now realizes that the Other mother is evil, gets thrown into a dark, dingy cell, behind a mirror. It’s here she meets the souls of three dead children, who reveal themselves to be the past victims of the Other mother -or the “Beldam”, as they call her. In a nutshell, they all suffered similar situations to Coraline- the Beldam spied on their lives through the doll, lured them into the Other world, and then…ate their souls?

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That’s f*cking dark for a kid’s movie, man.

To save Coraline from meeting a similar fate, the dead children urge Coraline to win her escape and free their souls while she’s at it. That’s not a lot to ask, right?

As Coraline agrees, probably scared out of her shit, the Other Wybie rescues her from the other side of the mirror, and helps her to escape back through the door and into her regular apartment. But don’t worry, the story is nowhere near over.

Basically, Coraline figures the Beldam kidnapped Coraline’s parents in order to lure her back into the Other world. It’s not ever really revealed how she kidnapped them; my assumption is that her parents didn’t go through the tiny door, but that leaves a whole lot of nothing for alternate explanations. Did the Beldam just magically teleport them into the Other world?

Furthermore, Coraline comes to this conclusion when she and the sassy black cat discover another one of the creepy dolls, except this one is for her mother and father. She tries to explain the situation to Wybie, who calls her crazy (understandably). I mean, he hasn’t first-hand witnessed any of this. Why would Coraline expect him to believe her?

Ultimately, Coraline decides she must go back to the Other world to save her parents, on top of unearth the souls of the dead children. The cat also comes along, for no apparent reason other than moral support. Which I can understand, because can you imagine the PTSD Coraline must have been developing?

Before she embarks back to the Other apartment, Miss Spink gives Coraline a small stone with a hole in the middle of it, with the reasoning that it’s good for “bad” things, or something along those lines. I know that seems like a tiny detail, but bear with me, because it’s important to the story.

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Coraline crosses back to the Other apartment, and bravely strikes a deal with the evil Beldam. The game goes as so: if Coraline is able to locate her parents and the souls of the ghost children, the Beldam will let her go. But if she fails, Coraline will have to stay in the Other world forever, and have buttons sewn into her eyes. It seems like an unfair deal to me, considering the Beldam is definitely not going to let Coraline go even if she wins, but we’ll get to that eventually. Coraline plays the game cunningly, using her hollowed-out stone as a tool to help her find the eyes of the ghost children. While having a heated argument with the Beldam, who’s now pissed at Coraline for finding the eyes of the ghost children, Coraline discreetly notices that her parents are hidden inside a snow globe. She throws off the Beldam by throwing the cat at her, then grabs the snow globe, and narrowly escapes from the Other apartment. And don’t worry, the cat escapes too, albeit really pissed that he was used as a diversion.

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Coraline safely makes it back to her apartment, where her parents are safe and apparently don’t remember anything that just happened. You might think that the movie ends here…but once again, you’re wrong.

So, while Coraline was escaping from the Beldam, she somehow managed to sever off her weird needle hand in the process. The lone hand is now after the key to unlock the door, which Coraline is now conveniently wearing around her neck.  

While Coraline is asleep that night, she comes into contact with the ghost children in her dream. They thank Coraline for freeing their souls, but warn her that the Beldam is still out there, on a hunt to get that darned key.

So Coraline wakes up, and in the middle of the night, decides she needs to go drop the key in an old well a ways away from the house. The severed needle hand catches up to her and almost gets the key, which is a terrifying sequence, but out of nowhere, Wybie comes flying in on his bike to save the day. He smashes the Beldam’s hand with a rock, and they throw the whole mess, key and all, down the well. The well, I think, intentionally mirrors the tunnel to the Other world, which is an interesting touch in the movie.

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Finally, the movie ends on a happy note. The next day, Coraline and her parents throw a garden party, where all the neighbors meet to plant the garden. Wybie also shows up with his grandmother, to whom Coraline plans to tell her experiences. The movie ends with the black cat sneakily walking past the Pink Palace apartments sign, and then disappearing into nothingness. The end.

Hopefully, you saw the movie before you read this review. If not, I’m sure that sounded like a whole bunch of unsettling madness.

Coraline is described on Wikipedia as a “3D stop-motion animated dark fantasy horror film.” It’s a fitting enough description; I wouldn’t say Coraline is an primarily “kid’s movie,” but the fantastic animation and spine-chilling creativity makes it fascinating for youngins. And, although many of us millennials did see the movie when we were in elementary/middle school, Coraline has managed to age with us. I love this movie just as much as I did when I was ten, if not more. The story is told in a mystical fantasy realm, but the themes of the movie are powerful and hard-hitting.

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A notable chunk of Coraline is the symbolism of bugs and insects. As the Other mother progresses and becomes more and more distorted, she takes on a bug-like, creepy-crawly form. In literature, spiders often represent power, mystery, and sometimes, manipulation. The spider lurks on her victims and traps them in her web, just as the Beldam attempts to feed on Coraline. Noteworthy, Coraline wears a firefly clip in her hair, perhaps representing the vulnerable pray. Although the spider represents powerful female energy, she is merciless and hungry for game.

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There are quite a few deeper interpretations of Coraline, but one that I’ve formulated myself is the metaphor for domestic abuse. Similarly to how the Beldam showers Coraline with “love” and attention, an abusive partner/friend will manipulate their victim with similar tactics. In order to gain the trust of their target, abusers will often overshadow their intentions with gifts, compliments, and entertainment. The ghost children, unfortunately, have taken on the role of victims in this movie. They agree to let the Beldam sew on button eyes, so that they can continue to receive “love” and attention. It’s an extremely dark subject, especially since those being preyed upon are children.

That being said, I don’t think this movie is fundamentally supposed to be a warning against domestic abuse to children. That’s certainly a valid takeaway, but the general theme of the movie is much more broad than that. In a nutshell, the movie is reminding us not to trust everything that seems good and positive. It’s difficult to know somebody’s intentions, especially when you’re young, and it’s easy to be manipulated by someone who presents themselves as being wonderful. Eventually, however, the true colors and intentions of the abuser will shine through, past all the glitz and gaudiness.

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I recently re-watched the movie with a friend of mine, who suggested that the movie could also be a metaphor for drug use. I think this metaphor applies in a shortened sense, particularly for the kaleidoscopic garden scene, but is maybe not applicable for the entire movie. That being said, Coraline’s “escape from reality” is definitely comparable to the thrill one experiences when using drugs, probably psychedelics. As someone who’s never used drugs, I’m not the best person to ask about this, but maybe someone reading this can clarify those experiences for me. Do you see a metaphor for drug use in the movie Coraline?

As I said before, Coraline is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, and I always enjoy taking the time to analyze it and break it apart. I feel like every time I watch it, I notice something new, make a new connection to real-life situations, or simply just understand the film on a deeper level. Now I’m interested to hear your interpretations of the movie, and how it has impacted your life. Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

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Coraline movie trivia: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0327597/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2

Some more interesting Coraline interpretations: https://vampiresquid.co.uk/heres-undeniable-proof-that-the-other-mother-from-coraline-is-actually-satan/

https://www.shmoop.com/coraline-book/literary-devices.html

https://janimationsblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/coraline-movie-analysis/

Coming up next: Self-Care Collab with Brad Krause

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