Scream Series: Coraline and Children's Horror
Released in 2009, Coraline isn’t often considered a horror movie because of its PG rating and because horror movies aren’t usually made for children. It’s a shame that there aren’t many horror movies made for kids when one considers how easy it is to terrify them; at least half of the original Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales read more like nightmares than whimsical bedtime stories.
However, perhaps the reluctance to make overt horror movies for children has been a boon for the few ones that are made. Horror cinema is notorious for putting more effort into the marketing of the film than into the actual film itself, which is usually filled with tired old tropes that aren’t actually scary or meaningful.
Because the audience of children’s films are so young, the filmmakers can’t rely on gore and jump scares. Filmmakers have to use more subtle and complex techniques than the usual surprises and sexual imagery of B-movie schlock. Films like Coraline are incentivized to be better at horror than their more “adult” cousins. None of this is to say that Coraline isn’t terrifying; a spider-god who rips out the eyes of children before eating them and trapping their souls for eternity isn’t usually considered light fun.
Instead of relying upon the usual premise of an outside evil stalking its protagonist, Coraline reverses this idea and has its protagonist enter into a new world that is seemingly wonderful. Where the real world is filled with grey, weathering, and flat backgrounds; the other world is vibrant, new, and filled with flushed out and thorough landscapes. The threat of this narrative comes not from violence, but from temptation as it lays out everything that the protagonist could ever want. By putting the danger not as an external force but as an internal compulsion, one with which the audience could easily identify.
Even the stop motion medium of the film itself plays into these ideas; in a world of fabrics and strings, the stitching and sewing of the Other Mother reveals her ability to manipulate both reality and the minds of others. Rather than using an explicit form of bodily harm as the danger of the film, Coraline locates the danger as an internal weakness in the self, something to be overcome and confronted instead of just something from which to run.
Besides its masterful use of cinematic style and techniques, Coraline resists several of the gendered expectations that pervade both the coming of age and horror genres. The horror genre and its problems with the feminine are well known; women are routinely killed during sex by phallic objects, and usually only the virgin gets to live. The coming of age narrative, while not as equally overt, tends to skew towards reinforcing masculine ideals. Neither of these tropes are present in the film; the protagonist herself is a young girl who plays with dolls and her hero’s journey never requires her to “man up” and put aside her feminine traits, while the antagonist is seemingly a woman who uses needlework to accomplish her goals. Coraline neither deifies nor demonizes femininity, and resists the usual patronizing tone in which young girls are frequently talked down to in such narratives.
It’s fitting that a horror film made for children, an audience usually considered too dumb and simple minded to comprehend complexity and nuance, should avoid so many of the pitfalls of it genres. It’s almost as if good horror is more than just the blending of gore, sex, and violence.