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Friday, October 13, 2023

Fairy Folklore in Coraline

In 2021 I had started a series of posts examining fairy folklore found in popular movies and shows. I've been on a bit of a hiatus from that but wanted to return to it with a look at Neil Gaiman's Coraline (the movie, not the book). Obviously I am not trying to argue here that the author's intention was to frame the story this way, although it may well have been, but what I want to do here is to highlight aspects of the movie which play into or seem to echo older fairylore. 

In truth this topic deserves a full paper and a full indepth analysis, but for our purposes here I am only going to be touching on the wider ideas in more general ways to give readers an idea of the subject. 

Spoilers ahead. 

Coraline is a stop motion film which came out in 2009, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. 
A brief synopsis: The movie opens with a short segment focused on the making of a doll, which then floats, to all appearances, into the sky at which point we segue to a girl who looks exactly like the doll. This is the eponymous main character Coraline, who we learn has just moved and is terribly bored as her parents work from home on a catalog they are writing. Coraline uses a dowsing stick to try to find an old well. She wanders to a circle of mushrooms, covering the old well, and meets her landlady's grandson, Wybie, who she says talks too much and doesn't listen. Wybie gives her the doll version of herself, saying that he had found it in his grandmother's trunk and its very old. Returning home she explores her new house, an old Victorian which has been turned into three apartments. In her home she finds a small hidden door which has been sealed off and locked, but open opening it with a very distinctive key sees only a bricked up wall. Later that night Coraline wakes from her sleep to see a jumping mouse (belonging to one of her neighbors) which leads her down to the secret door, now opening to a strange glowing tunnel. Crawling through this Coraline emerges into another world that mirrors her own, complete with alternate versions of the people she knows including her parents; they identical to the real world versions except they have buttons for eyes. The feral cat that Wybie had befriended is there as well, without button eyes but with the ability to speak. Waking up in the real world the next day she wonders if she was dreaming, so the following night she lures the mouse back and follows it a second time. The alternate world is a place that offers endless entertainment and her 'other mother' is attentive and generous in contrast to Coraline's own, busy mother. On the third day Coraline enters the secret passage while she's awake because she wants to return to the seemingly perfect world, only to find that it isn't as perfect as she'd thought. The Other Mother tells her she can stay forever if she accepts her own set of button eyes and Coraline finds herself in a battle for her own freedom and the freedom of three ghost children who had previously accepted the Other Mother's deal. Escaping home she finds that her parents have mysteriously disappeared and realizes the Other Mother has taken them prisoner to force her return. She does so and finds herself playing a game to win her freedom, the ghost children, and her parents.

Folklore in Coraline:

- doll as changeling. The main folkloric theme that might be found in Coraline is the changeling motif, or variations of it. The doll is reminiscent of the inanimate objects found in some changeling stories which are swapped for a human when they are stolen into Fairyland. The wider plot of Coraline also works with this, showing the attempts by the Other Mother to seduce her into the Other world, and ultimately to force her into it. One of the three ghost children was the sister of Coraline's landlady who disappeared many years ago; the landlady refers to her as 'stolen' which again echoes changeling folklore. The entire concept of something Other Worldly trying to lure a child away to steal them from the human world is, of course, the basic premise of changeling folklore.

-Other Mother as fairy. Another strong theme throughout the movie is that of the Other Mother as a fairy. While in the story she is more explicitly tied to spiders one can read her depiction as reflective of wider fairylore. She is initially identical to Coraline's mother, but with button eyes, but when Coraline begins to defy her she loses that form, transforming into something monstrous and only loosely resembling a human. Both the cat and the ghost children warn Coraline the the Other Mother is powerful but inhuman, having created everything that Coraline sees in the Other World to trap her (and the other children) but who is incapable of love. Her attempts at mothering are monstrous, marked at first by excess and then by cruelty as she alternately seeks to endear Coraline to her then to force her affection. The ghost children also tell Coraline that once they had given in to her the Other Mother consumed their lives, reminiscent of stories of the more predatory fairies. It is also clear as the movie progresses that the Other Mother is un control of her world and her punishments for those in that world who disobey her are harsh. 

- 'other' world. The existence of the other world is also strongly reminiscent of fairy folklore, which suggests the existence of both the human world that we are familiar with and another world which is adjacent to but separate from the human world, which is more magical and follows different rules. The other world of Coraline is a place of wonders and impossible things, but it is a world that follows rules. As with the folkloric Otherworld it can only be reached in very specific ways (unless you are a cat) and is best reached with a guide. The other world as its created by the Other Mother caters to Coraline's desires, including a Wybie who can't speak and must listen. 

- fairy ring. The movie begins and ends with Coraline stepping into a fairy ring; initially right before she receives the doll/changeling and then ultimately as she banishes the remnants of the Other Mother and the only key to the secret door. In folklore fairy rings - rings of mushrooms - are seen as a sign of fairy presence and is believed that stepping into one can be dangerous and in some folklore that it can open a person to being stolen by the fairies. 

- mice as guides. The mice are fascinating characters in the story, owned by Coraline's neighbor who has a 'mouse circus' but acting seemingly at the behest of the Other Mother and possibly created by her or influenced by her. They act as Coraline's initial guides into the other world, but later in the story an 'other' mouse nearly betrays her, showing that they are not truly on her side. 

-cat as guide. The cat also acts as a guide, but one who is more clearly aligned with Coraline than the mice. His reasoning for helping her is unclear although he tells her very early on that the Other Mother hates cats and that the two have an antagonistic relationship. The cat offers Coraline advice and directly assists her in her 'game' against the Other Mother; he helps her in both her world and the other world.

- offer of food. The first thing that happens when Coraline meets her Other Mother is that she is offered food. In folklore eating this food would trap a person in the land of Fairy which doesn't happen in Coraline, but it still seemed noteworthy that this was her first significant interaction with the Other Mother and to me hints at the dangers of the place she is in and the subsequent attempts by the Other Mother to steal her or trap her in the other world.

- green. The colour green, strongly associated with fairies in folklore, appears in a few significant places in the movie. Coraline's downstairs neighbors advise her not to wear green, they later give her a green holed stone/planchette, and when Coraline is trying to beat the Other Mother by finding the missing souls the full moon of the other world slowly turns green (and button like). 

- eyes. There is a lot of complicated folklore around eyes even through a fairylore lens. The button eyes in Coraline seem to represent belonging to the Other Mother but may also relate to losing humanity to stay in fairy. It is interesting to note that in the ballad of Tam Lin the fairy queen tells Tam that had she known he would betray her she would have replaced his eyes with knots from trees, implying that he would have stayed loyal had she taken his eyes. In the movie this may also play into the eyes as window of the soul and the idea that taking the eyes and replacing them symbolized taking the soul. Any of these theories would play into various fairylore about stolen humans being turned into fairies or otherwise trapped in the world of Fairy. 

- passage of time. Although not a major aspect of the movie time seems to flow differently for Coraline when she is with the Other Mother. Her visits often involve more time passing in the other world than appears to pass in the real world, except when she goes through on her own and escapes, after which it seems like she has been gone for a longer period of time in the real world than had passed in the other (based on the rotting groceries on the table). When her parents are stolen and won back they are unaware of how much time has passed while they were gone. 

- holey stone. Although it may just as arguably be a planchette (a tool used with ouija boards to help communicate with the dead) the triangular green object given to Coraline by her neighbors has always reminded me of a holed stone. In folklore a holed stone is protective and also can be used to dispel fairy illusion if one pears through the stone. Coraline uses it for both purposes and her neighbors, arguing over its purpose, suggest it is good for finding lost things and also for keeping away bad things. 

- dreams as gateways. A final and subtle nod to some fairy folklore is the way that Coraline passes into the other world in her dreams the first two times she visits. While we have abundant stories of people traveling to Fairyland in physical form (as Coraline does later on) we also have stories of people going via trance or dreams. 

This has been a short list of the most prominent fairy folklore within Coraline. I hope that readers have found this interesting and that this may offer a different perspective next time you watch the movie. While not positioned as such I think there's an interesting argument to be made for Coraline as a modern changeling story. Perhaps I'll write a full paper on it one day.