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'Coraline' and the Importance of Gateway Horror

Horror is my favourite genre of fiction. That’s a statement I’ve made in the past, but it’s just as important this week. Maybe more important, actually. As I sit here typing away, I find myself thinking about what a favourite genre means to a person. I’m sure every other horror fan out there has a list of books they consider a fundamental part of their love for this genre – the best example, the scariest example, the example they can talk about for the longest. But there might be something else that gets neglected in the conversation.

See, I can so confidently proclaim horror to be my favourite genre now, because I’m pretty certain it always has been my favourite genre. From an early age, I found myself gravitating to the works of fiction that contained something darker, and scarier. And on a more surface level, I found myself gravitating towards fiction with supernatural elements, and monsters, and an admission that kids have nightmares and we should talk about that.

But what I didn’t really have is any stories that were explicitly horror.

There were dark fantasy movies, and cartoons with horror special episodes, and even just that little bit scarier type of monster that appeared in kids’ media from time to time, that maybe pushed the idea of being safe for someone my age just a bit too far.

But none of these were expressly horror, and I couldn’t tell you what books were doing the same thing. There was, and still is today, this unspoken belief that kids just don’t want horror.

And I’m here to tell you now that that is completely and totally untrue.

See, while I was frightened by these singular moments of my media consumption at the time, it also gave me an understanding that there was something more out there, something darker and more frightening (read: more affecting) to be found from fiction, something that I wanted to find more of. And I think even as kids we’re aware that something is being kept from us.

So, what exactly am I getting at here?

Well, a little earlier in the year, while thinking about how much the ‘Coraline’ movie scared me as a child, I decided to finally read the book it was based on, by Neil Gaiman.

The book was around when I was a child, but for some reason I never found out about it – probably something, something, school bad. Which is itself relevant to that ‘kids don’t want horror’ myth. The point is, that while I expected this story would no longer scare me, and I hadn’t anticipated it being anything more than an enjoyable few hours reading, what I found was the unveiling of a ‘missing link’ in the horror fan’s pantheon of books.

Remember when I spoke about those essential entries in horror fan lists? Well, the one that gets neglected is the entries that first get you into the genre, whether that’s at an early age, or later on in your life.

The reason it gets neglected is because there are no (or at least, very few) expressly horror stories being written expressly for a younger audience. So you’re left to either discover this wonderful genre much later on in your life, or be exposed to something Not For You much too early. Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll grow up with a piece of non-horror writing whose creators managed to sneak in a single scene of horror. In either case, there’s no clear path for kids who are interested in darker, scarier fiction to find what they’re looking for.

And this absence is why ‘Coraline’ is so important.

It fills in that missing link not only as an expressly horror novel for a younger audience, but as something more than that – a gateway horror novel.

What this means is that, on top of being an unashamedly horror novel aimed at a younger audience, it doesn’t do the usual children’s fiction choice of speaking down to the audience, or diluting things for them. This is a great horror novel first and foremost. But because the author has considered his younger target audience, it’s a horror novel with none of the content that often puts people off the genre.

In short, a gateway horror novel is a horror novel which functions as an entry point to the genre, providing a compelling example of said genre, which also happens to be accessible to those who are unsure about their place within it.

See, it’s not only children and young people who have difficulties with this. There are also plenty of adults interested in exploring this fascinating but taboo ‘genre of fear’ but who are put off taking that first step because they don’t like gore or violence, they don’t want to see extreme and dark themes explicitly depicted, and they don’t want, they emphasise, to be subjected to such intensities of threat that they suffer a heart attack.

So isn’t it a good thing that there are horror stories that do none of these things?

Let’s get into ‘Coraline’ itself now.

Horror has to be on some level about the things that people are really scared of. This is why violence is so common within the genre. Basically, violence is scary. But explicit violence is not the only way to depict threat, and physical threat is not the only thing a person can fear.

There are other kinds of threats – psychological threats, the kinds that often preface the ‘real’ physical threat to come later. And importantly, the kinds of threats that real young people have to contend with.

Additionally, what adults fear is not necessarily the same as what children fear. Children might be scared of sounds or figures that adults don’t perceive as threats. But equally, there are superficially innocuous things adults recognise to be threats that children do not.

This can potentially make it difficult to write a story that scares children and adults alike. Luckily then, there are some fears we share.

The titular character of this book, Coraline is scared that her family don’t love her. She’s scared of being left behind, and left alone. She’s scared of the dark, and of being trapped in small, unfamiliar spaces. And there’s something else too, something deeper, darker, and creepier that ties this story and its fears together in a monstrous form that can unsettle any reader of any age – we’ll get into that one later.

What’s important is that these base fears are made explicitly clear in the story alongside the darkly fantastical horrors that prey on them, which means that all of those universal fears that both Coraline-aged readers and older readers can relate to, are the same things that attempt to hurt Coraline throughout the story. And by introducing them in this two-toned manner, these fears are on our minds before, during, and after being confronted with them, and the story can tackle visceral, surface level fears at the same time as it tackles deeper, psychological ones.

Where do these fears lurk? Well, imagine the house that you’ve moved into with your family beside your neighbours, has a door to another house. No, sorry, an Other House. Now imagine that residing in this Other House is an Other Family, with Other Neighbours.

At first, these all seem to be a kind of childlike wish fulfilment. Coraline was unhappy in her new house, unhappy with her parents’ lack of interest in her, unhappy with her neighbours.

Now she finds a key to a door her mother was so sure was fake, opens it to find it’s a real door, and on the other side are much more fun, much more eccentric, and much better versions of everything and everyone around her. It seems too good to be true.

And it is, indeed, a façade.

It would be all well and good for ‘Coraline’ to draw from these basic, universal fears we all have and deliver a compelling, but ultimately one-dimensional narrative about a young girl who overcomes them. That would be the kind of basic, boring, story we’ve seen from children’s fiction time and time again. Frankly, children deserve better from their stories.

And the author agrees.

Therefore, he delivers something… more. And he does it by utilising this Other House.

I mentioned earlier that there’s something deeper, darker, and creepier at play within this book. A different kind of fear, using psychological elements rather than visceral ones, but used in a way that depicts and explores a similar dread and terror to conventional, adult horror books.

It’s a fear where something looks like it normally does at first glance, but there’s something just slightly off about it, that on a subconscious level you notice instantly, and becomes increasingly apparent the longer you look. Then, with every second more you observe this slightly-off thing, it becomes more and more unsettling.

It is, ultimately, a fear of familiar things turned wrong, being twisted just slightly enough that it becomes unfamiliar, but not pushed so far that it becomes alien or unknown.

‘Coraline’ has something going on in its pages that is akin to the uncanny valley which, I think, affects everyone during childhood. For those unfamiliar, the uncanny valley is the idea that humans react positively to non-human entities being given human traits, up to a certain point. Going too far abruptly turns this into an extreme negative reaction – usually an intense dislike, or terror. And since humans usually react to other humans positively, it’s been hypothesised that there is a valley in between anthropomorphic entities, and real humans. An uncanny valley, where faces and movements and voices that creep us out to an extreme degree can be found.

Much more frightening than a fear of the unknown, is a fear of the familiar being distorted.

And ‘Coraline’ embodies this type of fear perfectly.

In particular, with its main antagonist, the Other Mother. She is described as looking like Coraline’s real mother, but with paper white skin, and too long fingernails, and teeth that are just slightly too big. She is also much too tall. And of course, most significantly, she has shiny black buttons in place of her eyes.

Individually, these things are very minor differences. However, they have a severe effect on the reader’s discomfort because of that familiar-distorted uncanny valley effect, especially when paired with the Other Mother’s behaviour and wishes – the fact that she wants Coraline to stay there forever, and wants to replace her real mother, and wants Coraline to receive her own button eyes.

What’s really important here is that this specific fear can be developed while still acting as a gateway story, not to mention maintaining its suitability for its target audience of younger readers. This is because the visceral monstrousness has been replaced with this nightmarish surrealism, its physical threat manifested primarily through psychological threat using those base fears. And on top of that, it simultaneously attacks both of those age group specific fears I brought up earlier. As a result, this book, and its main antagonist, can unsettle both children and adults, and it does so without gatekeeping anyone with more extreme, disturbing elements.

What’s clever is the way Coraline’s wish fulfilment slowly malforms into a nightmare as the Other Mother undergoes her own disfigurement. Coraline’s Other Mother closely resembles her real mother at first, but gradually this becomes less and less true, her otherworldly differences becoming more and more pronounced until Coraline no longer sees why she ever thought her Other Mother looked even remotely similar at all.

Like all great horror, this is not entirely surface level terror, because the Other Mother is simultaneously a visual, nightmarish monster, while also representing real threats and fears in an allegorical sense. Lies, manipulation, and distortions of parental love. In other words, the Other Mother is all the things that actually threaten children. Things that really scare adults, when they happen to children.

The Other Mother can’t create, she can only change. In this way it was never a true wish fulfilment, because Coraline never truly wished to lose her parents. She was scared of losing them or, in other words, she was scared they would change into something else, and in turn, change everything in Coraline’s life. The Other Mother can’t create, she can only change. Because she isn’t a real mother, and she doesn’t really love Coraline. She’s a nightmare. She’s a monster. She’s a childhood fear, and a primal part of the human psyche. And she is the perfect villain for a gateway horror novel.

‘Coraline’ is an important book. I believe that, even though I didn’t read it as a child. Because I can see it getting others into the genre that I love so much. And I think that’s brilliant. On top of that, it shows why gateway horror as a concept is so important. Not just for young readers, but for all soon-to-be horror fans.

  1. 'Coraline' draws from base fears to present a relatable form of horror, using psychological fears that people really contend with in their day to day lives. This means it can aid readers in exploring their anxieties, which is one of the biggest factors that makes the horror genre so special.

  2. It avoids all the reasons someone new to the horror genre might be put off by it, without foregoing the important components of a horror story, avoiding extreme content like violence and gore, and deciding against extreme levels of intensity, to instead use subtle, unsettling kinds of horror to elicit that fear response.

  3. The book uses its underrepresented choice of audience to tackle unique kinds of fear and develop its story in unique ways, tackling the element of fear so intrinsic to the horror genre in a way that only a story like this could do, and crafting something special and original within the space.

Horror is my favourite genre of fiction. I want to reiterate that once again at the end of the essay here, because even that reason, emotional and perhaps superficial as it is, should be enough of a reason to open up the genre to a wider audience, and expand perceptions of both it and its versatility. I’ve pointed out how gateway horror is important for adults too, but I want to return to the label of ‘children’s horror fiction’ because I think it’s crucial to offer young readers examples of this genre. Reading is extremely important for children, for a whole number of reasons. But one of the biggest is to point out as early as possible, reading’s ability to introduce a person to a broad number of ideas and thoughts.

How can it possibly do that when the fiction targeted at these young readers so often neglects by far one of the most important categories of fiction, and one of the most important themes? That being, the horror genre, and its exploration of fear.

‘Coraline,’ at least, is one book that fulfils this often neglected role. And not only that, but it does so excellently well.

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