Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’: Why Do Adults Find it So Creepy?

I first read Neil Gaiman’s book ‘Coraline’ a couple of years ago, when I was sixteen. I don’t remember what made me pick it up, or what was going on in my life at the time I read it, but I do remember that I found it unnervingly creepy. A couple months ago, I started reading Gaiman’s “Good Omens”, in preparation for the upcoming TV show next year.

I couldn’t remember where I had heard the author’s name before, so I looked up Gaiman’s other books and noticed ‘Coraline’ on the list. I had forgotten most of the plot and events of the book itself – I just had emotional memories: this creepy-crawly feeling down my spine whenever I thought of the story. Nevertheless, I remembered that it had been a good book, so I decided to read it again.

(Full admission now: I have not watched the movie. I will be discussing the book only – though from reviews of the movie I gather that it stayed largely the same.)

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The story is about a young girl named Coraline, living an ordinary life with parents who love her, but are often busy, making her feel as if she is being ignored. One day, she discovers a bricked-up wall behind a door that sparks her curiosity, and she returns later that night to find that the brick wall has disappeared.

On the other side of the door she discovers a nearly-identical world to her own, with another flat, an “other mother”, and an “other father” with black buttons for eyes. Cats and mice talk, the toys in her other bedroom are alive, and these alternate parents seem to give her the attention she desires.

However, Coraline soon finds out that her other mother’s goal is to make her stay on the other side of the door forever, and sew black buttons into her eyes. The other mother kidnaps Coraline’s actual parents to convince her to stay. Coraline must escape the other mother, save her parents, and rescue the souls of the other children who had been the other mother’s previous victims.

For the first third of the story or so, everything seems normal.

Nothing weird is going on, no sense of danger or alarm, until Coraline starts to interact with the other mother. Then the intensity of the story starts to build to approximately the same level of scariness as a typical Doctor Who episode. Still doing fine. Then, without warning, it plummets into the world of dark thriller, possibly horror, in the space of a few pages and it is suddenly clear how dark this book has been all along. You’re left on edge and thoroughly rattled for the rest of the story and I know when I turned the last page the first time I read it, my reaction was something like, “What the heck did I just read?”

The weirdest thing about this story, however, is how, almost universally, children and adults view the story differently. Children see the story as a fun adventure, a little suspenseful at times but everything works out in the end. Adults, however, or at least those above a certain age or maturity level, will view the book as the most unnerving children’s story they’ve ever read. I am no exception.

But what creates this difference? What is hiding in the pages of this book that adults can see but children can’t? It seems a little counterintuitive – usually children spot hidden things long before adults do.

Gaiman himself has commented on the difference in this article from CBS:

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However, “adults get scared,” he said. “Adults get disturbed, and I think one reason for that is because it’s a story about a child in danger and I think we’re hardwired to worry about children in danger.”

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That may be part of it, but I think there’s more.

‘Coraline’ incorporates many details that remind readers of other fantasy stories; for example, the doorway through which Coraline crosses over into the other flat reminded me instantly of C.S. Lewis’ “The Magicians Nephew”. Going further into that analogy, the passageway between the houses in that story ultimately led to another world via Uncle Andrew’s study. In ‘Coraline’, the door leads to a fantastical alternate reality – the same level of anticipated danger resides in each.

The addition of these same elements, I believe, are why adults see the horror much clearer. We have read more books (hopefully). We have heard more stories, we know when plot elements mean more than they say. I think one of the things that terrifies me the most in the story is the rats that sing in her dreams: “We were here before you came, we will be here when you fall.”

The element of rats elicits a response by itself – anyone who has read any amount of stories knows that rats are usually depicted as evil, while mice are innocent and harmless. But this combined with the song implies the idea that evil will overtake Coraline, an unstoppable wave that will leave her behind in its wake.

It’s like in M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’ (which I do not recommend but have watched recently and can’t get out of my brain), when the grandmother asks her granddaughter, “Would you mind getting in the oven to clean it?” We know instinctively that this is not only suspicious but downright wrong, and there are literally a dozen versions of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale telling us why that is a bad idea.

But children who have not known these stories as long or may not connect the references will miss all these warning signs that those of us who are older and more well-read will not. I think you’d find, if you did the research, that the age at which a child first realizes the darkness in Coraline will directly correlate with the number of books that child has read.

Is ‘Coraline’ a creepy book? Undoubtedly. Is ‘Coraline’ a good book? Again, the answer is a resounding yes. ‘Coraline’ lends itself to quite a bit of fun psychological analysis and I think it will stay in my list of favorite books for that reason.

Have you read ‘Coraline’? How old were you when you first read it and what was your reaction? Let me know in the comments! Also, to support my geeky writing habits, I have begun designing and selling t-shirts. Feel free to hop over to the shop and check them out!

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