Buttons For Eyes: A (Psycho)Analysis of How Coraline Haunted a Generation

by Stephanie Tom

art by Havi Rojer

Despite first taking AP Psychology in high school just about five years ago now, I will never forget the ‘Four Fs’ of evolutionary psychology. The theory goes that the ‘Four Fs’ are the four most basic and primal motivations that animals (and humans) have, follow and achieve: feeding, fighting, flighting, and fornicating. It’s interesting to note that dolls—in all conceptions and possibilities—can easily elicit all four reactions. I’m sure we’ve all seen videos of zookeepers feeding baby animals that were born in captivity with puppets that are lookalikes of other adults of their species. The famed Bobo Doll psychological experiment demonstrated that children mimicked adult behavior, and that if they witnessed adults beating up a raggedy doll on television, children would do the same to the ‘Bobo doll’ that they had been placed in a room with. Though typically underground and seen as a strange kink, sex dolls exist, and as horror movie lore has made popular, dolls like Chuckie and Anabelle have entered the upper echelons of nightmarish legend. However, interestingly enough, one of the most iconic dolls in modern film manages to elicit emotions that are just as intense without explicitly falling into any of the categories outlined above. 

The doll in Coraline is just one figure from the film among a whole host of unnerving, creepy, and even supernatural entities and occurrences. For those that haven’t seen it, Coraline (2009) follows the story of a young girl—Coraline Jones—who, upon moving to a new town, discovers a parallel world that makes her real life pale in comparison before she realizes the terrifying consequences of crossing over the threshold. Aside from certain cinematography choices that dramatized the effects of the film’s individual storyline and artistic elements—such as the fact that the story’s climactic turning point is timestamped exactly halfway through the film—the aesthetics of the film itself could be identified as “uncanny valley.” The term refers to the aesthetic of objects that straddle the line of what makes something human versus non-human. On the scale of humanness, objects that fall into the vague gray zone of both being human and not make us uncomfortable with their ambiguity, which gives way to senses of uneasiness, eeriness, and what Stephen King identifies as the highest level of scary stuff: terror in the wake of confronting ‘creepiness.’ What differentiates creepiness from being ‘gross’ scary stuff and ‘horror’ is that it is just one step further into unknown territory, and that it is the fear of the unknown that instinctively triggers our primal instincts to be on high alert and cautious. Being creeped out is an adaptive human response to the potentiality of threats from others. When our brains don’t know how to interpret a stimulus or situation, we feel terror as a substitute for fear, and thus are creeped out in the face of potential danger even without a recognizable threat.

Given this context, Coraline can be recognized as a poster child for the visualization of uncanny valley vibes. From the very opening scene, we see the reworking of a ragdoll into a perfect replica of our protagonist, before we even meet the girl herself. The songs from the soundtrack that have ‘lyrics’ are sung in complete gibberish—though we can identify language patterns that indicate words, the meaning is completely indecipherable. The key marker of the parallel figures from the Other World—the Other Mother, the Other Father, the Other Wybie—look exactly like the real people that they resemble in Coraline’s reality, except for the striking fact that they have buttons for eyes, making them look like living dolls. The way the Other characters slowly distort after Coraline refuses to have buttons sewn into her eyes, angering the Other Mother—the ripped seam smile that Other Wybie sports, the elastic stretching of the Other Father’s face when he tugs his mouth open to signify how Other Wybie “pulled a loooooong face”—remind us, as well as our protagonist, that they were never really human to begin with, no matter how much they seemed to be. Furthermore, the fact that the entire movie combines the classic technique of shooting in stop-motion with claymation figures creates an overarching sense of careful curation—a reminder that even when we think of our protagonist as a “real” person, she exists as a constructed doll that is recognized as ‘human’ enough only because the script tells us that she is.  

Asides from the animated details themselves, the contexts in which we are introduced to the cast of characters and their interactions with Coraline hint at greater forces at work. The story is told from a close third-person point of view. What that means is that, with the camera acting as our eyes, we are able to view all of the characters from an outsider’s point of view, but are only privy to one character’s thoughts and knowledge—in this film, Coraline Jones.

The primary characters that Coraline is introduced to but has no specific relational attachment towards are her neighbors, Mr. Bobinsky, Ms. Spink, and Ms. Forcible. Mr. Bobinsky, a blue man with a Russian accent who is attempting to train a jumping mouse circus, lives above Coraline. Meanwhile, Ms. Spink & Forcible, two washed-up burlesque actresses that have a penchant for reading tea leaves and raising Scottish Terriers, live in the flat below her. Each neighbor is characterized in their introduction to Coraline by some various unnatural qualities that unnerve her from the very beginning.

She first visits Mr. Bobinsky—referred to only by his last name—to return some mail that reached her door. Bobinsky’s blue skin and his Russian accent immediately evoke foreign eccentricity before we even get to know him. He’s also a naturally acrobatic and flexible character, and his proportions make him move with an unnatural gait, loping across railings and jumping stories to the ground with his extremely long and thin legs. Furthermore, he claims to be able to speak to his mice, and relays to Coraline a warning—“do not go through little door, Coraline,” he whispers conspiratorially, before laughing at the fact that he heard the mice say ‘Coraline,’ since Bobinsky himself is convinced that her name is Caroline. This introductory scene established the precedent that the mice would play a larger role later in the film, that there are some uncanny happenings going on in a world where the mice seem to know more than the man training them.

The concept of uncanny adults knowing more than they seem to continues when Coraline meets Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible the next day after returning to the Other World once more. Spink and Forcible are representative of ‘old crone’ figures that are common in fairy tales and other fantastical stories—whether these ‘old crones’ are witches or fairies, good or evil, they are all understood to have a clairvoyant nature about them, and to be in touch with greater forces of nature beyond mortal understanding. Spink and Forcible are also fond of stuffing their dead Scottish Terriers, which definitely added a shock factor akin to ‘uncanny valley’ vibes, what with the presence of creatures that were no longer alive yet appeared to be. When they read Coraline’s tea leaves, they see patterns foreseeing “terrible danger” and a “very peculiar hand”—foreshadowing that the audience later realizes to hint at the evolution of the Other Mother into her true and terrifying form as the Beldam. Though neither Coraline nor the audience will realize how correct both predictions made by Bobinsky and Spink and Forcible turn out to be, the fulfillment of these warnings add an element of retrospective shock and unease when we reflect on how these characters could have possibly known what would transpire in the Other World, despite never showing signs that they were aware of its existence.

Of course, moving past the seeming supernaturalness of the characters in Coraline’s ‘real’ world, there is the inherent creepiness of the Other World. Besides the fact that every ‘living’ figure—humanoid or animal—has button eyes to denote their artificiality, the primary occupant and conductor of the Other World—the Other Mother, later referred to as the Beldam—is symbolically and visually associated with spiders, which themselves can be very scary figures. Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is an immediate and common association; to automatically link herself to the manifestation of many people’s fears is telling of the Beldam and the underlying malevolence of her intentions towards Coraline. Spiders are also associated with creativity as they are web-weavers, but more so with trickery, as the primary function of their webs are to trap other bugs to eat. By infusing the Other World with bug imagery, it can be implied that the Beldam views Coraline herself as a bug, a pawn to play and then consume, and herself as the spider weaving the Other World as a trap, then growing over time to resemble that insect.

Asides from the Beldam, other notable elements of the Other World that are not under her control also hint at more malevolent forces beyond anyone’s control. The passage to the Other World itself—a tunnel that starts out fabric blue, soft and luminescent, and turns sickly green, cobwebbed and stuck with broken toys—is constantly transforming, deteriorating as the Beldam’s control over the Other World begins to fail as well. The tunnel slowly gets longer, more eerie—full of “old things, lost things, locked things,” as Spink and Forcible remark earlier in the film when they gift Coraline with a stone triangle with the ability to identify what is “real” in the Other World—and seems to grow with a life force of its own. 

Similarly, the Cat is the only other figure that is never seen to be under the Beldam’s control. He doesn’t have buttons for eyes, and traverses the boundaries between the ‘real’ world and the Other World easily. However, despite the fact that he is largely on Coraline’s side throughout her journey back to the Other World to free the ghost children and save her parents from the Beldam’s clutches, his motives are at times unreadable. Most strikingly, he watches with a cryptic smile when Coraline tosses the key to the Other World down the well to get rid of it before appearing to walk through a portal at the very end of the film right before the credits roll. It’s as if he’s not on either side of the fight, but rather loyal only to the existence of the Other World.

It’s been over a decade since Coraline was released, and it’s still distinct enough to be remembered years later in life. Many of my friends recall stark memories of watching it in theaters at the ripe age of nine years old and screaming in terror when the Other Mother first started elongating in sharp angles into the mechanical Beldam, noting her metal hands and cracked porcelain face. I remember watching it for the first time one summer evening under the covers, rain pattering outside my window, the soft glow of my iPad illuminating my room. Though I was not as terrified as I may have been had I watched it when I was younger, I was readily creeped out enough. When you’re older, you don’t only find things to be scary in the obvious gore-and-guts way. The older you get, the wiser you feel, and the more you tend to pride yourself on your knowledge. Being primed in a culture that rewards the pursuit of knowledge, one of the most terrifying things is the absence of that, the absence of tangible thought and conclusions. That’s why I still found Coraline to be terrifying. To be left alone with my thoughts and jackrabbit heartbeat once the credits started rolling, as my mind raced retrospectively over the reels of surreal horror and uncanny events, conjured infinitely scarier possibilities than the original film or story could provide. I suppose that’s where the true terror of the “uncanny valley” lies—despite how far you can see from the peaks, you’ll never fully be aware of what threats lie in the shadows of the valley, and it is in this state of being unaware that we fear what exists outside of our consciousness and control.

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