There is probably no fear that has plagued me as intensely or for as long as my fear of the “other mother” in “Coraline.”
This stop-motion animated character from the 2009 children’s film has hands resembling metal spiders with knitting-needle fingers and a face that is, at first, loving (except for its button eyes), but transforms into something altogether inhuman. She was the monster I feared was sitting behind me or just around the corner from ages 10 to 12. If I wanted to test my emotional stability, I would type the movie’s title into my iPod Touch. Just seeing Coraline herself, who is not remotely scary, sent a jolt of fear through my body by association.
The “other mother” — also called the beldam — begins as a fulfillment of Coraline’s fantasy: a doting parent in an alternate reality who gives her all the attention and gifts and, it seems, love that she desires while her real parents are distracted by work and moving into their new house. But the fantasy sours as the mother reveals herself as a monster bent on permanently trapping Coraline and stealing her soul. Not only was her love a facade, but her humanness was as well.
This evil mother figure did something monsters from stories rarely do: She crawled out of the movie and became a monster in my own life. I had once felt safe walking home from my neighbor’s house at night when my parents and sister were with me. “Coraline” erased this sense of security. I stood next to my mom and couldn’t shake the image of spindly arms erupting from her body as her skin slipped off and she became a beldam. I pictured this happening with everyone around me. I thought I was with other people, but what if I was actually alone?
There are some things that are (at least supposed to be) universally “safe.” Mothers are one. Blankets are another. They are not just safe by default but are often the safety we turn to when scared. When a story questions the safety of these things, it strips away a viewer or reader’s sense of security in a way monsters with only dark associations cannot. A few years after watching “Coraline,” when my fear had finally faded, my dad read me a story by M. R. James in which the protagonist’s sheets and blankets become a monster that attacks him in the night. I couldn’t even look at my bed for the next hour, my rumpled comforter (ironic name for it in this context) sending bolts of fear down my spine. I paced up and down my hall, unsure where to go to feel safe from the story.
My fear of my blanket didn’t last, though. I fell asleep that night without issue. Something else had kept my fear of the beldam alive and well years after the details of her face and the plot of the movie had begun to atrophy in my memory. The fear persisted. The thought of someone I relied on — of everyone around me — turning into a non-human and leaving me alone was insurmountable. I had no plan of action in this scenario — not like I did in other imagined face-offs with monsters and dire circumstances. If the people around me were not human, there was nothing I could do to face them.
We question other people’s humanness often. I’ve had many “I have no way of knowing that everyone around me isn’t a simulation and I’m the only real person” conversations with friends and family members growing up, as I’m sure most of us have. It was always a frustrating conversation as we tried to assure each other that we were real, but it wasn’t scary. We were safe from the consequences of being the only real human because we had no way of knowing. As long as it seemed like we were surrounded by other people, we might as well have been.
The beldam breaks this protective wall of ignorance. Far from a robot programmed to add simulated intrigue and friendship to a single human’s life, she has only ill intentions for Coraline, who finds herself lost in a manufactured world that once seemed full of life.
My fear as I walked up my driveway in the dark, every minute re-confirming that my parents’ hands didn’t feel unusually cold and bony in mine, was not that the people around me and their care for me weren’t real. This would be fine if it was never confirmed. I was afraid of finding out. And determining people around me weren’t human was even scarier because questioning everyone else’s collective humanity made me question my own.
If I was alone in the world, my humanity would be irrelevant. I don’t like feeling disconnected from people; it makes me uneasy around myself. Last February, I visited my friend in Gävle, Sweden, and experienced the greatest depressive episode I’d had since early high school. The city was beautiful but isolated. When I walked down the street, I saw few people and when we did cross paths, we scarcely exchanged smiles. My friend told me that talking to a stranger there may have been considered rude. She told me stories she’d heard about people dying in their houses and not being found for years because their friends wanted to respect their personal space. (I cannot confirm if this is true. I haven’t forgotten it, regardless.)
I’ve noticed in recent years that I am happiest in cities with many people. I enjoy being alone at times, but if I get a sense of isolation, of there being nothing or no one “out there” in the world around me, my whole reality feels shaky. My sense of life and purpose, while self-created and not totally determined by the people I’m around, are born from feeling like part of some big “humanity.” When I was in Gävle, I couldn’t draw life from people around me, like I was used to doing, and I didn’t know how to manufacture a sense of it myself.
The monstrosity of the beldam in “Coraline” is that there is, in fact, nothing there. The person — the mother — Coraline thought was behind those button eyes was a creature who knows nothing of the connection, love or sentiment she seemed to provide. These emotional offerings evaporate in the void of the beldam’s humanity.
“Coraline” is a great movie. I have watched it twice since that first viewing, both years after my fear had dissipated, and the story remains compelling, even if the film’s effect on me is no longer long-lasting terror. The fear behind the fear, though — of involuntary isolation, of feeling blocked from connection to anyone around me and thereby losing all sense of purpose myself — remains. What I’m sure of is that I’m not the only person who faces that, just as I wasn’t the only one to be temporarily scarred by this animated children’s movie and probably not the only one to feel marked by uncertainty around their parents for a while after watching. But I also don’t know how to eliminate it.
Maybe I shouldn’t try. This fear in the back of my head has provoked me to dig my way through the weeds of under-confidence and anxiety and talk to people, exist near them, share our life stories as a way of confirming — at least satisfactorily — our humanity. Coraline chases an empty fantasy because her parents aren’t perfect in her eyes. They aren’t everything she wants. But they aren’t monsters. The monster is that nothingness. That aloneness. The inability to get back to the world with those people, while imperfect, who can still care and relate.
Senior Arts Editor Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.