Witchy Women: The Other Mother

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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.

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 Witchyhuman offspring (one of the captured girls has fairy wings).

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
The Other Mother: Two Dave McKean 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 do. 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 illustration of The Other Mother from 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.

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

Still, she gives me the shivers.

Editor’s Note: This is a re-published version of a Monster Monday post, a weekly series that focuses on female monsters. I have steered away from witches we’ve discussed in those posts except for The Other Mother, who is one of my favorites—and in any case, I wanted to introduce you A to Z Challenge folks to Monster Mondays, which will return after the A to Z Challenge.
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26 Comments

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    1. ha! I think my kid was still be scared by this, but maybe not. He was easily scared as a very small child, but at 7 he’s beginning to grow out of that.

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  1. Ahhh! I didn’t know there was a novel. We own the movie. My husband bought it thinking it would be a fun kid’s movie and it obviously is not. Very creepy! It gives me chills and nightmares!

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    1. I haven’t introduced my kiddo to it yet, and it would’ve scared me as a kid, but I think there are some kids who would love it. But yep—novel and graphic novel versions. Both are as creepy as the film.

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  2. She really is an excellent creation. And I so enjoyed Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” as well, that I recently read one of his adult fiction novels. Some how it was fairly disappointing after these stellar Middle Grade reads. Thanks for the revisit to Other Mother.

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    1. So funny that you mentioned The Graveyard Book. I’ve read the prose version, but I’m working my way through the graphic novels right now.

      I do love Gaiman’s other works quite a lot, but I have a special fondness for his children’s books and his short fiction.

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  3. This is one of my favorites. When I read Coraline to my children, their perspectives of the story were different from mine. My youngest found it an intriguing adventure. She missed the insidious nature of “The Other Mother.” My older daughter, however, did not. To this day, she can’t look at a LalaLoopsy doll. haha! I am very much enjoying your Witchy Women posts. Thank you!

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  4. The Other Mother is truly terrifying. My daughter (who is now 12) started watching Coraline after it came out, she was 5 and LOVED it. She watched it all the time (when her brother wasn’t there, too young).
    To this day I am uneasy around Lalaloopsy dolls, because they have buttons for eyes… (I’m also uneasy around stone angels 😉 )
    Conditioning…

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    1. I *totally* agree about La La Loopsy! I’m so glad I’m not the only person traumatized by the button eyes!!

      I can’t imagine if I watched this at 5! I probably would’ve freaked. But I was a very skittish kiddo.

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        1. Yeah, the kiddo is less interested in some things than I would like and more interested in others than I would like, but…They do have their own personalities, after all! lol

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  5. I’ve seen the film but haven’t read the book, and yes the other mother is truly terrifying! I honestly didn’t know there was a book behind the movie, so I think I’m going to go get it and read it now that I know! 😁

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  6. The Other Mother really is a creepy, terrifying thing – a cautionary tale for children and for mothers alike. How terrible to think of someone replacing you and luring your beloved children away to an awful ending!

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