By Brooke Thompson
If you are looking to introduce your children to the horror genre or trying to write a children’s/young adult horror novel, take a look at Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. This novel will send shivers down your spine with its dark take on the concept of a parallel universe and the ancient proverb “the grass is always greener.”
For those who have never read the book, the story features a young girl named Coraline that moves into a new house with her family and finds a mysterious, tiny door. She later learns that the door leads to a parallel universe where the food is actually edible, the adults pay attention to her, and she essentially has everything she could want. However, she later learns that it all comes with a price – she has to sew buttons in her eyes.
Neil Gaiman’s use of imagery, nuanced horror tropes, and a horrifying villain makes the story an effective horror story. Here is why Coraline is a terrifying children’s story.
Table of Contents
How Gaiman Makes Coraline a Terrifying Children’s Story
Setting the Tone
Gaiman sets the tone for Coraline as a grim, bleak setting. The titular character recently moves into an old house with her family which has an attic, a cellar, and an overgrown garden.
As she explores the garden, there’s a depressing quality to it. There’s a rose garden with “stunted, flyblown rosebushes,” an abandoned tennis court with a “rotten” net and holes in the fence, and a “fairy ring” made of smelly, squishy toadstools.
Gaiman continues setting the tone as Coraline explores her house when she finds a locked, tiny door in her family’s drawing room. When her mom unlocks the door, Coraline finds that the other side is bricked up, to her disappointment.
Coraline’s mother doesn’t re-lock the door because it doesn’t go anywhere. The readers later learn how critical of a mistake that was.
This is where Gaiman starts making the story creepy. To give a brief summary of pages 8-10, it’s later that night, and Coraline hears the tiny door creaking back open.
When she goes up to investigate, she notices a “black shape” that was “a little more than a shadow” retreat back into the drawing room. Coraline describes its movements as “scuttling,” like a spider.
The scene in the drawing room is very unsettling. In this scene, Gaiman teases the audience with a possible appearance of the Other Mother. He writes:
“The room was dark. The only light came from the hall, and Coraline, who was standing in the doorway, cast a huge and distorted shadow onto the drawing room carpet – she looked like a thin giant woman.”
Readers later discover that the Other Mother is described as a “thin, tall woman,” so it’s safe to assume that Coraline wasn’t looking at her shadow – but rather the Other Mother’s.
Gaiman continues building up the suspense by having the “black shape” dart over to where the tiny door is. Coraline turns on the light to discover that the door is open, despite watching her mother close it earlier.
When Coraline returns to bed, her nightmare is spine-chilling. She dreams about rats with “little red eyes and sharp yellow teeth” gathering together and repeatedly singing this poem:
“We are small but we are many.
We are many we are small.
We were here when you rose.
We will be here when you fall.”
Coraline mentions how the rats’ voices are “high”, “whispery”, and “slightly [whiney],” which almost connotes a cultish chant. This adds another layer of creepiness to the story as readers later learn where the poem comes from.
Gaiman’s use of foreshadowing and unsettling descriptions is one of the reasons why Coraline is a terrifying children’s story.
Building Up the Suspense
Another factor why Coraline is a terrifying children’s story is how Gaiman constantly builds up the tension and the suspense by comparing Coraline’s reality to a fantasy world.
He sets up the scene by making the “real world” boring, frustrating, and dreary. He displays this by having both Coraline’s parents and her neighbors brush the protagonist off, making the house seem dreary and uninteresting, and having it rain throughout the novel.
With these traits given to the setting coupled with Coraline’s desire to explore, the reader is eventually introduced to the “Other World.” The Other World is essentially a parallel universe of the setting, but appears infinitely better and has colorful depictions and alternatives to the negative qualities of Coraline’s real world.
In fact, the Other World is essentially a paradise. Coraline’s real parents are tired and busy with their own projects to play with her, whereas her Other Parents want to interact with her. While Coraline’s father experiments with recipes and creates gross, inedible food, Coraline’s Other Mother, a more attentive and friendly version of Coraline’s real mother, makes delicious food. When Coraline goes to visit her neighbors, they say her name correctly.
Gaiman does plant seeds in the novel that hint something is off about the Other World.
This is first shown when Coraline enters the scene where she compares the two paintings in the drawing room. The one back in her own home is a bowl of fruit whereas the Other World’s drawing room is a painting of a boy in “old-fashioned clothes.” She mentions that something was off about his eyes, but she couldn’t put her finger on them.
Later, the Other Mother tells her to go play with the rats in her bedroom upstairs. When she encounters them, they eerily resemble the rats in her aforementioned nightmare. They also sing the same song from her nightmare.
It is revealed that these rats belong to her neighbor Mr. Bobo, who in her own world has a mouse circus. In the Other World, they are a rat circus (so to speak). Coraline mentions how hungry Mr. Bobo looks when he asks her if he wants to come upstairs and watch the rats feed.
Afterward, when she exits the house to explore the Other World, she meets a talking cat. At first, she thinks he’s the “Other Cat,” since there’s a cat that skulks around her house in the real world. However, the cat reveals that he isn’t “the other anything” and tells her she needs to be careful.
This all comes to a head when Coraline is invited to stay forever in the Other World by the Other Mother. Coraline contemplates this option until the Other Mother asks her to sew buttons in her eyes. Coraline refuses and returns home to find that her parents are missing.
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Why Is Coraline a Terrifying Children’s Story?
The True Horror of Coraline
This is where the true horror of the story comes into play. The reader is outright shown the dark reality of the Other World as Coraline realizes it. When Coraline returns to the Other World, she is thrown into a dark room for refusing to sew buttons into her eyes. There, she encounters three ghost children who tell her the Other Mother is a beldam (witch) who lures children into her world and eats their souls.
When the Other Mother eventually frees Coraline from the room, she challenges her to a game where, if she can find the three ghost children’s souls and her parents, who have mysteriously disappeared, the Other Mother has to let her go. If she loses, she will stay with the Other Mother and have buttons sewn into her eyes.
The book now morphs into a full-blown horror story. To find the three Ghost Children’s souls, Coraline encounters a monster (which turns out to be the remains of the Other Father) in the cellar, digs through the mummified shell of the Other Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, and learns that the Other Mr. Bobo is actually made of rats.
Coraline eventually escapes the Other Mother by tricking her into opening the door and escaping with her parents and the ghost children’s souls. However, right before she shuts the door, the Other Mother’s hand gets severed. Unbeknownst to Coraline, it follows her out into the real world. The novel ends with Coraline tricking the hand into falling into an abandoned well with the key.
Here, we can see that Gaiman is using the slow-burn horror technique. A slow-burn horror story consists of building up the tension and suspense between the characters and the atmosphere. Slow-burn horror typically does not rely on jump scares or excessive gore to unsettle audiences.
The fact that Gaiman does not include any gore or jump scares in these scenes makes this story stand out. Instead, he relies on scene descriptions to build the tension, so when something scary does happen, it will send shivers up the reader’s spine.
Gaiman’s use of the slow burn technique is another reason why Coraline is a terrifying children’s story.
Rewriting Horror Clichés
While nobody enjoys reading cliché tropes and contrived plots, Gaiman isn’t afraid to include clichès in this children’s story. These comprise of uncaring adults, moving into a mysterious house with a dark history, and ominous warnings.
Suffice to say though, Gaiman does improve on these clichés by including wacky characters and aspects of mystery. For instance, the story is about a family moving into a new house. We see that trope all the time in horror movies. What Gaiman does differently with this cliché is including a parallel universe, an evil witch, friendly ghosts, and a talking cat.
While crazy neighbors can be considered a cliché, Gaiman gives the neighbors interesting quirks. The ladies that live underneath Coraline are two, elderly bickering actresses named Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. Mr. Bobo, an old man who lives above Coraline, runs a mouse circus.
Another cliché is uncaring adults. In a lot of horror movies, parents and other authority figures tend to either ignore the protagonist or not believe them. As mentioned prior, the adults in Coraline seem to always brush the protagonist off.
Whenever she visits her neighbors, they call her “Caroline” and don’t listen to what she says. Later, in the novel, when she calls the police about her parents’ disappearance, they essentially laugh it off. While this cliché might have readers roll their eyes, Gaiman makes it very relatable. We all have had a time when we asked for help and were brushed off, or when we felt ignored by everyone.
Gaiman does try to make the adult characters competent whereas in most horror movies they are outlandishly stupid or cartoonish. The adult characters are not entirely neglectful. They do seem to care about Coraline in some way.
For example, despite her neighbors messing up her name and talking nonsense, they do try to help her. Miss Spink gives her a magic stone that later helps her find the ghost children’s souls while Mr. Bobo gives Coraline a warning to not go through the door.
Her parents, despite brushing Coraline off, do try their best. For example, at the beginning of the novel, when Coraline enters her father’s study to see if he would play with her, he gives her a task to search for the hot water heater and count all the windows and any objects that are blue. Her mother indulges her by opening up the tiny door, despite knowing it wasn’t going anywhere.
Finally, the last cliché is all the ominous warnings given by the old people. How many times have we seen in horror literature or movies where the protagonist is told by their elders to turn around or that they are in danger?
While this clichè is found throughout Coraline, Gaiman does try to make this trope interesting. For example, when Miss Spink makes Coraline drink tea, she tells her that she’ll read her fortune from the leftover tea leaves. However, both Miss Spink and Miss Forcible have a difficult time “reading” and are vague when they tell Coraline that she is in danger. Moments later, when she walks out, she encounters Mr. Bobo who tells her that his mice want to tell her not to go through the door.
Creates a Terrifying Villain
While the concept of an evil mom is not a new concept in literature, Gaiman improves on this trope. The Other Mother, or “the Beldam,” is truly a terrifying villain. Beldams are witches or malicious spirits, that, based on folklore and mythologies from all over the world, have been known to shapeshift or impersonate people.
The Other Mother is no different. She changes her form to impersonate a child’s mother and even has a similar voice to them. The fact that she uses this power to lure helpless children into her world by giving them attention and creating essentially a fantasy world for them is also terrifying.
The poor kids never realize it’s a trap until they have buttons sewn into their eyes, have their lives eaten away, and are discarded shortly after.
What is interesting about Coraline is that she is able to spot the differences between her real mother and the Other Mother, describing her as having “skin as white as paper,” being “taller and thinner” than her real mother, having long fingers ”that never stopped moving,” and fingernails that were curved, dark red, and sharp.
Additionally, what makes the Other Mother especially scary is how her limbs become sentient once they are detached from her. When Coraline accidentally severs the Other Mother’s hand by closing the door on it, it comes to life and tries to snatch the key to the door. Coraline tricks the severed hand into falling into a well with the key.
Final Thoughts on Coraline as a Terrifying Children’s Story
Gaiman proves that you do not need gore or jump scares to create an amazing horror story (how about horror comics for the subtle art of scary stories?). As we can see through the Coraline example, he slowly builds up the tension until it comes to a head when Coraline’s parents are kidnapped.
While Gaiman does utilize some cliches in crafting his story, he adds nuance to them that enhances the story. Finally, he created a terrifying yet memorable story that has stakes, a likable protagonist, and an overall, horrifying read.
Therefore, if you are looking for a terrifying children’s story to read or need inspiration on how to craft a horror story, check out Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.