Was ‘Coraline’ Based on a True Story? Dark Tale Explained

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Looking back through the archive of animated films that have graced our screens over the past twenty years, Coraline claims a spot in most top lists. The eerie, mysterious, psychological tale shone in what soon became a stop-motion classic. Brilliantly directed by Henry Sellick, the peculiar story authored by Neil Gaiman won audiences upon its release in 2009.

Coraline was based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, published back in 2002. The inspiration for the book came from Gaiman’s daughter, Holly, who would dictate stories to him about young girls who would conjure up ways to escape the rooms they were locked in by the evil witches who pretended to be their mothers. Disappointed that he couldn’t find any such stories for his daughter to read about, he decided to write one for her himself. Thus, he created Coraline, which he imbued with elements from his personal life.

Plunging into this fictional tale, we could review numerous theses and write profound analyses of the underlying metaphors, symbolism, and psychological effects of this story. However, first things first, let us intrigue you by exploring its origin!

The context of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Coraline’

Before we deconstruct the setting and explore the context of the piece itself, we will begin by analyzing the elements that are particularly familiar to fantasy and fiction, starting with a childhood classic – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

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This fantastical tale takes four siblings on an unimaginable adventure in a world hidden behind the doors of a wardrobe. The wondrous tale of Narnia, more specifically, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is the first title mentioned by Gaiman as one of the books that changed his life. While his mind was more so entertained by the writing style and the thought that he could feel how an actual person wrote the words on those pages, his Coraline also happened to open a mysterious door inside her new family home and was swept into an uncanny reality.

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Here, we could reflect on three additional things: the use of the uncanny in the context of Freud’s thesis, the particular elements which strongly suggest the influence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the act of contrasting this uncanny with reality in such a way that we observe these two ‘realities’ in a ‘dystopia vs. utopia’ context, which happens to be a frequent theme in pieces of fiction.

Diving into the definition of the uncanny, as stated by Freud, it is depicted as something quite familiar and old-established in the mind that has become alienated from the mind through the process of repression. Having achieved such a genuine sensation of profound eeriness, in addition to a compelling mystery being unveiled in this dark setting, this piece of fiction explores a series of peculiarities.

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The genuineness of the emotions the audiences worldwide felt have been made more profound by him, including elements from his own life in this story and the fact that the tale deals with parenthood (since we know that the author intended to write for his daughter).

In return, the author’s honesty achieved such staging and a sense of alienation, in which the realness of the sentience caused its spectators to be struck by feelings of unease while also bewitched by the tale.

In his portrayals of Coraline’s new home, Gaiman included elements from his own family house, where perhaps the most important thing is the peculiar door that guided Coraline to the Other Mother. Moreover, we could perhaps even argue that the writing draws slight inspiration from the literary technique of defamiliarization. This further emphasizes on the estrangement occurring in the novel, where the characters living in (what feels like) a utopia have buttons for eyes. 

While Coraline recognizes this occurrence as something odd and frightening, she seems to accept it rather well quickly and gets quite comfortable in the presence of her other parents. Due to her quick change of attitude, the viewers are struck with an extremely unsettling environment due to them encountering something seemingly ordinary but possessing an underlying sense of something incredibly strange.

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This is further enhanced by Coraline gradually becoming a greater part of the ‘other world’ with her change of clothes and asserting the attitude of the ‘other’ is more desirable than that which is real. This illusion breaks once she is asked to replace her eyes with buttons as well.

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With their perception challenged and disrupted, a sense of distance is created, which (in addition to the effects of the uncanny) urges them to question and reexamine the things they’re witnessing. Such a notion adds a personal touch to the tale, as we know the intention was for Gaiman’s daughter to read and enjoy the tale. Thus, not only would she enjoy an absolutely marvelous piece of fiction, but she would also ponder over certain things in this tale.

One additional remark worth mentioning here would be the sci-fi genre. While remaining true to fiction, another book that Gaiman mentioned as a title that changed his life was Swamp Thing by Alan Moore. Here, if we were to draw a parallel between Coraline and the theses covered thus far, we dare say that the impact of fiction and sci-fi on Gaiman’s work has blended remarkably with this dark tale.

Given that utopias, dystopias, estrangement, and similar notions are some of the most frequent motifs in works belonging to these two genres, this may just be another segment of Gaiman’s life that was intricately entwined with the story of Coraline and her ‘other home.’

Shifting the focus back to fiction, the oddities in Coraline are perhaps closer to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, from the motif of a young girl being plunged into a mysterious, odd world to a cat appearing as a peculiar guide that speaks in riddles, making it so that the whole ‘truth’ always remains hidden.

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Overall, the dark tale was created thanks to a curious young girl named Holly, whose father was so inspired by her imagination and storytelling that he decided to write up a story to her liking. This quest began as a matter of personal nature, so the author poured more elements from his life into it while utilizing the knowledge he obtained from the works that affected him and his work over the years. Ultimately, he never finished Coraline for Holly to read, but we wholeheartedly hope her younger sister thoroughly enjoyed the tale.

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