Fear of Staying a Child in Coraline

One of the most interesting things that I’ve noticed about Coraline is that I get such consistent reactions to it. There are two different ones: “I loved it, but it was absolutely terrifying, one of the scariest books I’ve ever read!” and “I loved it! It was awesome! Scary? Not really, awesomely creepy, but not actually scary.” Now the funny thing is that I have yet to find someone who read it as a kid who didn’t have the second reaction, but I’ve only found a few people who read the book as adults who didn’t have the first reaction. So I wondered, why is this book so scary to adults but seems to not really scare kids (and yet both age groups can appreciate how good it is)?

I recently reread it and kept this question in mind. Some new things stood out to me that I hadn’t realized when I read the book in college. The bedlam is frightening, but the fear of being consumed isn’t one that adults would really freak out about most of the time, in my experience anyway. Some of the people who professed that this was one of the scariest things they’d ever encountered find movies with monsters going to eat the protagonist pretty funny and not so scary, so that seems like an unlikely culprit. And being trapped in another world didn’t seem likely either, since there are numerous stories about characters being trapped that aren’t considered nearly as frightening. So what was it? Why was the bedlam and Coraline’s adventure with her so very scary?

It actually didn’t occur to me until the doll tea party at the end of the book, but I think that it has to do with fear of staying a child forever. Being trapped with the bedlam means being frozen in time. We see the three ghosts and they are still children, even centuries later. Yes, perhaps the “other mother” could make a paradise for you, but it’s a paradise frozen in time and space. And worse, it’s a paradise that forces you to be absolutely a child, for we see that even Coraline has grown beyond what the bedlam wants her to be. She’s too old for dolls and for the games suggested by the other mother, but she would be stuck forever playacting that childish role if she stayed with the bedlam.

Now, why would this be more frightening to adults than to children? I thought back to when I was a child and I remembered that there were always people who assumed I was younger than I was, it was a normal part of life. And there were always adults who wanted me to be younger, even when they knew how old I was (giving gifts that were more appropriate for a younger child, suggesting activities that I had grown out of, etc.). So perhaps this isn’t as scary for children because they experience it all the time. Yes, you want to grow up and be an adult when you’re a kid, but you’re also used to being treated like a kid. It’s just part of life.

Adults don’t really remember that part of childhood so easily, though. The adults who tend to do those things (treat kids like they are younger than they are) also tend to protest and get offended if you suggest that they are doing it. Many adults “remember” childhood as a timed of charmed innocence, when everything was play and sweetness and light, but that’s not what it’s like. Bill Watterson once said “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.” It’s not that they weren’t children, but that they have completely forgotten what it was like to be one. Being a child is hard and frustrating and work every minute, even when it’s fun (and it’s not always fun, by any means). And adults only make it harder, even if they are a necessary part of life. But even if they remember childhood as a perfect paradise, adults almost never want to be children again. Maybe they want to be younger, but they don’t want to be children.

So if you don’t want to be a child again, you certainly wouldn’t want to be one again forever. And even if you had to be one again, you’d want to be one in the perfect paradise world, not a scary bedlam-made world. So the very idea of being trapped a child forever is terrifying to an adult who knows the freedom of picking their own clothing at a store, deciding what they want for dinner, choosing what to watch on television, etc. But a child knows that adults that try to stop you from growing up have no such power. They see it every day. They see it when their aunt comes over with a babydoll for their thirteenth birthday gift. They see it when a babysitter suggests that they play “Ring Around the Rosy” and they are all of seven years old. They know that even if it takes forever and a day to get to adulthood (and it does feel that way when you’re a kid), no matter how much that aunt may want them to always be five, she has no power to keep them there. They know the bedlam similarly has no such power, if for no other reason than because Coraline is already beyond the point that the bedlam thinks she is. Adults underestimate you when they think you’re younger than you are, and that may be Coraline’s best weapon. And children know that, but adults have forgotten it. They’ve forgotten the power of an adult’s self-delusion.

I’m certain that there is more to the age divide in reactions to Coraline than this, and there is certainly far more than this making the book creepy or scary. Still, I think that there’s something to this theory. It would take a lot more knowledge of psychology and a lot more desire to dig into this than I have, but it was interesting to think about. I’d love to hear other thoughts on this subject, though. What was your reaction to this book? Did it scare you? Do you know why, if it did? Does anyone else have any other interesting theories? Let me know!

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