The Other Mother: An Exercise in The Uncanny

In 2002, Neil Gaiman published Coraline, giving us the villainous Other Mother as she tried to steal Coraline away from her family and home—for the purpose of slowly sucking away her life. The book was adapted into a graphic novel in 2008, and in 2009, a stop-motion animation was released by Laika Entertainment.

(L to R) Coraline novel; Coraline graphic novel; Coraline film
(L to R) Coraline novel; Coraline graphic novel; Coraline film

And The Other Mother might just be the most frightening of female monsters that I’ve read in a book from the past 50 years or so. She’s awful. She’s sticky sweet at first, all fawning politeness and excessively accommodating, her polite veneer covering something sinister. And when that veneer is stripped away, she’s a parasitic creature who wraps reality to lure and trap unsuspecting children. She does want something to love—but she also wants something she can eat once she’s bored.

The Other Mother is called a Beldam several times in the novel and film–an archaic term for “old woman” or “grandmother.” The word is also fairly close to “belle dame,” French for “beautiful woman” and is very close to “belle-mere,” meaning literally “beautiful mother” but also idiomatically “step-mother.” We know, from the ghosts of the three children she’s already captured, both that she is very old (it’s been a while since “thee” and “thou” have been used in regular speech) and that she is interested in more than only human offspring (one of the captured girls has fairy wings).

othermothermeme

But we don’t know much more about her. We don’t know where the Beldam comes from or the extent of her powers. She clearly has a limited ability to create; she can warp and mimic, at least, creating new versions of Coraline’s father and neighbors as well as crafting an almost-mirror image of Coraline’s home.

And she is able to change her own appearance. The Other Mother looks much like Coraline’s mother, but with small improvements. She wears red lipstick and red nail polish. Her clothes are a bit more stylish. One supposes that, for the other children, she appeared as slightly-improved versions of their mothers as well.

There’s one thing she’s missing, though. Eyes. I don’t mean that she can’t see, but The Other Mother has no eyes. Where they should be, there are button eyes. And it is so uncanny, so unnerving, to see a pair of buttons right in the middle of an otherwise completely human face–to see someone cooking (but never eating) elaborate meals and to look into large black buttons, void of emotion, when chatting over dinner.

Two illustrations of The Other Mother from Dave McKean's illustrations to the first edition
Two illustrations of The Other Mother from Dave McKean’s illustrations to the first edition

The Other Father has those button eyes, too, and button eyes are what will mark Coraline if she decides to stay with the Other Mother forever. In order to liberate them, Coraline must find the children’s eyes, which have been replaced by buttons. In many ways, it seems that perception and vision are integral to what the Other Mother is able to accomplish. She becomes a “better” version of Coraline’s mother to lure her. She creates “better” versions of Coraline’s father and neighbors—Coraline’s father is more handsome and more open in the Other World; her neighbors Miss Spink and Miss Forcible are younger and more entertaining; and her neighbor Mr. Bobo is also a more successful entertainer.

But it is all artifice.

The Other Mother’s created world is very small. It’s little more than a trap; she cannot imagine enough of a future for Coraline to give her a larger world. Though she loves Coraline, in a fashion, it is in a possessive, objective way. Coraline is a thing, a quest. Once won, she’ll be a briefly cherished prize before being discarded and her youth used to keep the Other Mother alive. What she chooses to emphasize–the clothes and toys she buys Coraline and the elaborate meals she provides—is the novelty while it lasts.

P. Craig Russell's illustration of The Other Mother from the graphic novel
P. Craig Russell’s illustration of The Other Mother from the graphic novel

In both film and novel, the Other Mother’s appearance begins to change as the novelty wears off, as Coraline begins to solve the riddles that will allow her to go back to her own home. In the novel and graphic novel versions, the Other Mother grows taller and thinner, her fingers growing longer and nails getting more pointed. In the film version, however, a truly terrifying vision emerges.

The Other Mother in Laika’s film goes through two transformations, each quite dramatic. The first change involves a thinning of the waist, limbs, and face as well as lengthening of appendages. By the time she has changed again, The Other Mother resembles a wasp/spider hybrid–she has multiple legs, her face is covered in what look like cracks, and she’s thinned out all over so much that her bones are highly visible through her clothes, and her hands seem almost like they’re made of thin metal. She spins a large web, attempting to trap Coraline.

OtherMothers
(L to R) Other Mother Form 1; Form 2; Form 3

In the end, the Other Mother is outdone by Coraline, a cat, and a very deep well.

Still, she gives me the shivers.

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16 Comments

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  1. I adore this film, though I haven’t read the book I definitely want to. I love that the film is creepy on so many different levels and that it’s completely enjoyable for both children and adults alike. It’s one of my four year old’s favorites, which surprised me as I thought she may find it too scary, but she loves it!

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    1. That is surprising! I haven’t yet introduced my 6 year old to it, but he’s more into super-heroes and Star Wars right now anyway. Glad your 4 year old has good taste. 😉

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    1. I haven’t yet introduced Little Jedi to Neil Gaiman, but I think he’ll enjoy it when I do. You’re right, though—sometimes they’re a bit more adult than marketers would have you believe.

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    1. haha….I’ve got a huge to-watch list as well as a huge to-read list, too. This is a fairly short film—run time is an hour and a half or so. 🙂

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  2. I haven’t read the book and although I bought the DVD, I attempted to watch it one but couldn’t get past the first 20 or so minutes. It now sounds interesting enough for me to dig out the DVD and hook up my player to watch it.

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    1. The film is a bit slow at first, I think, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the story. It really is worth the watch, though, I think.

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  3. I remember seeing Coraline at the movies when it came out — I’d not read the story and didn’t really know anything about Neil Gaiman, so didn’t really know what to expect. I remember walking out of that cinema after the movie thinking that this would have seriously scared the pants off me had I seen it as a child! It’s a very well-made movie, from the perspective of one who hasn’t read the book 🙂 and it was deeply emotionally affecting. I’m with you, that Other Mother is very disturbing. The buttons. The falseness. I guess the lesson here is, always look for the buttons — for the one thing that isn’t quite right, the one thing that shows you it’s not real.

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    1. I think I saw the film before I read the book as well, though I was fairly familiar with Neil Gaiman by then. I would definitely have been afraid of the movie as a kid—but then again, I was a bit of a fraidy cat when I was younger. At some point, though, I started to like being afraid and enjoyed creepy things.

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