Anyone who has seen Coraline can attest to the film’s spine-chilling nature. I was about nine years old when I first watched it, and I mark that day as the beginning of my anti-horror stance. While technically a children’s movie, Coraline contains various elements of traditional horror that contribute to the film’s eeriness. The button-eyed doppelgängers and uncanny child-ghosts resided in my nightmares for weeks on end, and it took years for my scaredy-cat self to even attempt to revisit it. Films like Coraline and Monster House utilize children’s animation and dialogue as an exciting playground to address our darkest, more existential fears. Family stability, home security and overarching worries about the future are all fair game, regardless of what age group these films are intended towards. Though undeniably terrifying, this era of kid-friendly horror is also powerfully nostalgic, and it has a huge role in establishing the two branching paths—full-blown horror nut or hopeless scaredy-cat—that make scary movies so worth watching.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s dark children’s novella of the same name, Henry Selick’s animated adaptation follows Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), who discovers a secret portal to an alternate, idyllic version of her world. There, she meets a parallel family led by Other Mother (Teri Hatcher), who showers her with the affection and attention absent from her regular life. When Other Mother encourages Coraline to trade her human eyes for buttons so that she can stay there forever, she realizes that she would rather return home, angering Other Mother. This leads her to transform into an evil arachnid and imprisons Coraline, who must work to free herself and her kidnapped parents from the Other world’s hellscape.
Oddly enough, I found traces of my fears from Coraline present in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. When 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents stumble into an abandoned amusement park, she finds herself trapped in a secret world of supernatural beings. In order to avoid being turned into an animal, she gets a job at the bathhouse, working to save her family from being stuck there forever. Far from being deemed a horror movie, it still taps into the intensely visceral childhood fear of being left alone in an unfamiliar space. My adolescent self identified heavily with Chihiro—stubborn, whiney and scared of every little noise. I was distraught watching her parents be turned into giant pigs, horrified that, somehow, this would happen to my own family. That’s not to mention the Spirit World’s overwhelming, at times nightmarish, mayhem, which is enough to send any child into a panicked spiral.
Coraline takes the nightmare a step further in not only having our child protagonist isolated from adult support, but adds fuel to the fire by reappropriating familiar spaces and figures of comfort as menacing. When Coraline first enters the Other world, she’s enamored with the lively, Wonderland-esque quality of her surroundings as it is essentially a brighter, better version of her regular life. Other Mother and Father are expressive and attentive, yet their button eyes immediately provide an unsettling, uncanny feeling, and it’s a visual reminder that something is off. Though initially exciting, the Other world doesn’t become threatening until Coraline starts rejecting it. After she exclaims “You aren’t my real mother,” Other Mother completely switches from being a nurturing maternal figure into a monstrous creature. Little by little, all of the alternate world’s attractive qualities fall away, and what used to be safe is now her greatest source of danger.
There’s a level of advanced horror that takes root in animated films like Coraline as it engages with elements that not only make these movies specifically scary for kids, but also persist to rattle us in adulthood. The film’s exploration of toxic parenthood and growing up creates a fear factor that’s mirrored in popular horror works targeted for adults. In Coraline, Other Mother designs a miniature doll for the young girl (which she refers to as “little me”) as a way of luring her into the Other world forever. The doll is a physical representation of a perpetual state of childhood, a position Other Mother is attempting to force upon her, but one which Coraline is desperately trying to break free from. In Mike Flanagan’s limited series The Haunting of Hill House, matriarch Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) believes that killing her children is the only way to protect them from the horrors of the outside world, as it would keep them ensconced in their forever home. Hill House is cursed with a stagnation in time; the ghosts are all frozen and trapped in a single point in their lives, unable to progress and experience all that life has to offer.
Both toy with this idea of your home not being the safe space it was meant to be, and that in itself can feel like a much larger threat. A similar effect is produced in Gil Kenan’s Monster House, which transforms the physical, domestic space of the home into an angry, sentient monster. DJ (Mitchel Musso), along with his pals Chowder (Sam Lerner) and Jenny (Spencer Locke) suspect that the spooky house across the street, owned by a cranky Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), is haunted. The reality turns out to be far more sinister, as the property quite literally comes alive and devours anything that trespasses. Unlike the typical haunted house narrative where ghosts and ghouls reside in the premises, the film’s horror comes from the literal possession of the building itself. Monster House transforms the physical entity of the home from a traditional symbol of domesticity and comfort into a source of terror.
Coraline, Monster House and even Spirited Away incite fear by targeting the things we hold closest to our heart. Our initial reactions towards these animated works become indicative of how we view the horror genre as we grow older. Upon revisitation, it becomes clear that the themes and concepts from our favorite scary movies from childhood remain present in the horror media that stimulate us in adulthood. Whether we grow up to become thrill-seeking horror buffs or easily frightened wimps, kid-friendly horror threatens our deepest anxieties about the unknown in a complex manner that is far more daunting, perhaps even more exciting, than simply haunted houses and scary monsters.
Dianna Shen is an entertainment writer based in New York. When she’s not crying over a rom-com, she can be found on Twitter @ddiannashen.