Neil Gaiman isn’t known for writing shallow, two-dimensional fiction, even when it’s aimed at children. Despite a story’s richness, though, adaptations often dilute the end product for the screen. Although many Gaiman fans feel Coraline is scarier as a book, the 2009 stop-motion animated adaptation hardly handles the material with kid gloves. Sure, plenty of fans and movie-goers have taken to the internet to talk about the movie, but there’s a lot more to it than the usual fan theories.
Coraline has been academically studied by psychologists and film theorists, and some of these theories are even peer-reviewed. Coraline isn’t your average kids' movie, and there’s a lot to unpack in the 100-minute run time.
The Movie Is Filled With Esoteric And Occult Symbolism
The spooky symbols and objects in Coraline aren’t just for set dressing or mood-setting; much of what's on screen is relevant to the story. Within the opening doll sequence, this symbolism begins with the eyes and mouth - features commonly associated with human identity that are repeated throughout the film. Across many different cultures, eyes symbolize the soul and protection. The blind souls of the children the Beldam has discarded plead with Coraline to find their eyes so that their souls may be set free.
Even the tool Forcible and Spink give to Coraline is called a "seeing stone" - it allows her to see what's invisible to her eyes alone. Outside of the story, these objects are commonly known as hagstones or fairy stones, but they’re used for the same purpose shown in the film: to see what can’t be seen. They’re also used for protection.
Forcible and Spink possess what's commonly known as “the sight” or "second sight" (typically some kind of precognitive or clairvoyant ability), as shown when they read Coraline's tea leaves and see that she's in “terrible danger.” They also see a “tall, handsome beast,” and while this reading was a bit off the mark, the Other Mother certainly transforms into a tall, spindly beast by the end of the film.
The doll itself, of course, is a totem, like the poppets used in magical practices for over 4,000 years (often for less-nefarious purposes than the Beldam’s dolls were). They’re created to help fill a need of the practitioner, just as the Other Mother needs to fill her void with a new child.
Obvious symbols like the black cat, the water witching, and the tea-leaf readings are present, but even the buttons, the mice, and the bleeding hearts in the garden are packed with relevant meaning: Bleeding heart flowers are meant to symbolize the bridge between life and death, and similar themes are certainly present in the Other World.
The Well Acts As A Traditional Fairy Ring
One prominent symbol that serves as foreshadowing in the film is the fairy ring that Coraline stumbles into. A "fairy ring" is a naturally occurring growth of mushrooms that forms a circle, typically in grass. The first time Coraline goes out to explore her new Oregon home, she's trying to find an old well by water witching. The mouth of the well is buried beneath the earth, hidden and surrounded in a fairy ring.
Fairy rings can often demarcate old wells due to the moisture, but folklore and legends surrounding them mirror the story of the Beldam's Other World. In the same way that Coraline enters the Beldam's world, partakes in its delights, and can't leave, entering a fairy ring harbors dark consequences. "According to many English and Celtic tales, any human who enters a fairy ring will be forced to dance with the creatures, unable to stop until they go mad or perish of exhaustion," explains Ariel Kusby in Garden Collage magazine.
The altered passage of time in the Other World is also reminsicent of fairy ring lore:
...According to the legend of Llewellyn and Rhys, the pace of the fairy world differs from that of the human one; a person could dance for minutes in a fairy ring only to discover that it has been days or weeks in the human one. And if one manages to make it back into the human realm, the shock could easily kill them.
The well is also where Coraline and Wybie finally dispose of the Beldam's hand, thereby banishing her into its dark depths.
The Other World’s Eternal Night Signifies Stagnancy - Or Even Death
The Other World encapsulates a sense of eternal youth, and eternal youth means a lack of growth. In the Other World, everything is "outside of time and social structure." Every detail is manufactured perfection and spectacle by the Beldam - Spink and Forcible are their younger selves, the garden is alive and rich, and the house itself is beautiful and well-kept. Perpetual night is also a trait of the Other World and preserves the illusion of a mysterious, sensory wonderland.
Juxtaposition between night and day has been the subject of much study and hypothesis. According to research psychiatrist Thomas Wehr, chief of psychobiology at the National Institute of Mental Health:
It's almost as if our planet has two worlds. Depending on whether we're inside at night or outside during the day, we have to change our natures and become different kinds of animals. The daytime creatures who must venture out into the field are colder and brighter, aggressive and seeking. At night, when we conserve our energy, we stay in our burrowlike homes, warm and insulated from outside stimuli.
Through the Pink Palace's little wooden door is a different world - a world seemingly warmer, safer, and more insulated from outside reality. Only when Coraline begins questioning reality for herself do the Beldam's creations begin to fall apart.
Carl Jung interpreted night and day differently in relation to human cycles, but his analysis leads to the same outcome regarding Coraline's story:
[The morning sun] rises from the nocturnal sea of consciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament... At the stroke of noon, the descent begins. And the descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning... Light and warmth decline and are at last extinguished.
Through this interpretation, Coraline is walking into impending death by entering the Other World's eternal night. Not only is her life at risk there, but she, the cat, and the Beldam are the only things truly alive in that space, since everything else is merely an illusion.
The Broken Snow Globe Represents Coraline’s Loss Of Innocence
Often a symbol of nostalgia, childhood, and happy memories, snow globes can act as powerful visual signifiers. In much the same way that the snow globe in Citizen Kane represents Kane’s connection to his childhood, the snow globe in Coraline encases a place from Coraline's old home that symbolizes her innocence and youth.
The snow globe is where the Beldam has trapped Coraline’s parents in the Other World. After Coraline defeats the Beldam and escapes the Other World with the trinket, the snow globe is back on the mantle in the real world, but it's shattered. Coraline watches what remains of the sparkling, glittery liquid drain from the Detroit Zoo replica. At that moment, Mel and Charlie enter the house covered in snow from the Other World’s snow globe. Though Coraline is ecstatic to see her parents safe, Mel practically dismisses her and chastises her for breaking her “favorite snow globe” and cutting her knee.
After being dismissed once again, Coraline looks back at the broken snow globe. Her glance could be one of resolve, as she realizes that her parents can never be everything she needs, and in that sense, her childhood is over.