I hope that when BeliefNet and other such outlets are judging “best spiritual films” for 2009, they will include Coraline, Henry Selick’s 3-D stop-motion animation adaption of Neil Gaiman’s novel. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s Sandman comic for years, and Coraline has the same creepy-fantastic-dreamworld feeling that pervades Gaiman’s stories of the King of Dreams. And, like Sandman or Pan’s Labyrinth, you go into it thinking you’re getting fantasy and are shocked to find that it’s really horror, a genre you wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot-pole had you not been tricked into it. Then you have to deal with the surprising self-knowledge that you kind of like horror, if it’s done right.
Many parents will see trailers and think this is another Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride – that is, faux horror, a cute take on horror, not real horror. But when the MPAA ratings say “PG for thematic elements,” they mean that the movie is designed to creep you out. Critics seemed to differ on whether this is a good thing or not – some found it to be a defect in what they continued to mistake for a children’s film, while others recognized it as the film’s conscious achievement.
So, if Coraline is so horrific, why then am I proposing it as a “spiritual” film? Partially, it’s to cure the prevailing notion that “spiritual” is synonymous with sunshiny, feel-good moral uplift. There can be a lot of spiritual value in being disturbed, and sometimes the best way to discover the light is to face the darkness. But besides that, Coraline is packed with so much Jungean archetypal imagery and spiritual themes that some pop-culture grad student is certainly writing their Master’s thesis on it right now.
If you haven’t seen it yet, I would catch the DVD and then see if you caught the same details I did (caution: spoilers follow):
The opening credits show spidery, metallic hands of some unknown entity unmaking and then re-making a doll. Early childhood teachers at our Waldorf school have cautioned parents against making dolls in front of very young children, and now I know why – the cutting and stitching of a human simulacrum is undeniably creepy and yet fascinating. At some level, I think it calls our attention to the mind-body dualism that underlies all existential angst – we know we have a soul or consciousness, and yet we are confronted with the fact that we are simultaneously just a bunch of material stuff, lifeless rags stitched together.
When Coraline discovers the other world inside her house, it’s fitting that it is seductive. It seems so much nicer, richer, more pleasant than her own world and her own parents. And even though Coraline seeks it out, she also senses pretty quickly that something isn’t right about it. It’s too good. Her intuition is born out, as the cat explains to her that this world is an illusion. The Matrix-like nature of the other world reflects the Eastern traditions’ notion that the world is maya, an illusion created by desire.
When the Other Mother seduced children into her world, what they must give up is their eyes, replacing them with black buttons. The eyes represent consciousness – the ability to experience. It is significant that if someone wants to surrender themselves to an illusory world in the pursuit of desire, they have to willingly give up their consciousness . . . and that reclaiming that consciousness is the undoing of the illusory world.
The ghosts of the captured children confirm the Buddha’s warnings – they thought Other Mother could fulfill all their desires, but instead they found themselves being consumed by Desire. Illusion requires consciousness to exist.
The other inhabitants of the other world – Other Father, Other Wybie, etc. – are supposedly there to aid in the seduction and capture of Coraline, but in several scenes they actually help her, by “accidently” revealing information or aiding her escape. Illusion always betrays itself; even Other Mother can’t completely suppress the Truth.
Even after illusion is conquered and Coraline and her parents return to the real world, illusion reasserts itself and Other Mother’s hand escapes. In spiritual life, there is no final triumph over un-truth; one must continually guard against it.
The main character in the story, besides Coraline, is the house itself. As the story unfolds, we become very familiar with the layout of the house and its inhabitants. In classical Jungean dream imagery, a house or building usually represents the Self, with different rooms, entrances, and windows representative of different aspects of the psyche. That psychic mapping can be seen in Coraline’s house. Two former burlesque performers, representing the “lower” passions, live in the basement. A former circus performer, the “Amazing Bobinsky,” lives in the attic, representing the Ego’s aspirations.