The whole film has an uncanny feel from the evocative opening scene, so expressly phantasmagorical in its lilting music, where under the silver moonlight a pair of skeletal, robotic hands stitch the Coraline doll and send it floating out of the open window. This already sets up the uncanny in its themes of superstitious beliefs seeming to be confirmed, in the animism, the non-human hands acting in a human way. This is the film’s creation myth, the genesis that sets its cogs moving, and it can also be speculatively read as that other facet Freud identifies as a generating locus of uncanny impression: the return of repressed infantile complexes. As the approximation of Coraline floats out of the window, tiny and simplified, we can read it as her primitive repressed returning, triggered by her uprooting from home and friends. From this symbolic trauma, the uncanny rises.
Buttons and eyes provide a strong bridge between the film and Freud’s essay. Buttons are the most enduring leitmotif of the film; they appear constantly as a signifier of the uncanny. We can tell those figures that populate the dream world (Coraline’s unconscious) from their living counterparts by the buttons that have replaced their eyes; Coraline’s doppelganger mother also wishes to take her eyes and sew buttons into them. This becomes a symbol for Coraline being trapped in the netherworld, and in the regressive uncanny cycle. In Freud’s essay he commits a large section to the relation between the uncanny and fears of losing one’s eyes, conflating the two as a repressed recurrence of the childhood castration complex; that earliest of fears that our development may be so brutally arrested. The uncanny becomes so singular in its effect because it is these most atavistic and repressed of dreads that is recurring, stirring in the unconscious to be glimpsed in the mind’s peripheries. His story of The Sand Man is particularly relevant when read alongside Coraline.
Dolls and automata also play a part in the uncanny as a generating locus, and this is written perfectly into Coraline, as it is the doll of herself that drives the narrative forward. This doll is uncanny: a doppelganger, an inanimate thing that appears to move, and through its button eyes, the spy for the Beldam. We see a constant interaction with characters who are indeterminate in their humanity; it is the omnipotence of the Beldam that controls all of these automata, who appear to live but merely live to appear. Like the piano that plays the ‘Other Father’, we can never be sure which characters exist and which are puppets; a postmodern reference, perhaps, to the medium chosen to ‘animate’.
Doubles are perhaps the most frequently used facet of the uncanny within art. Freud’s analysis of Otto Rank’s essay on doubling and the doppelganger is particularly enlightening in its attribution of these phenomena to the childhood complexes previously mentioned. He posits the double as created in the narcissistic early stages of infancy as insurance against the ego, before becoming a repository for complexes which turns the double from friend to figure of dread, symbol of the repressed, returning. Coraline is littered with doubling, from the mirrored family and friends to the doll, all existing in the eternal night of Coraline’s unconscious. Encroaching upon reality once triggered, and wishing to take her eyes, they must be symbolically surmounted to keep her development from being arrested.
Coraline’s use of the uncanny is adept and complex, brilliantly woven as it is a concept not necessarily understood in theory, but felt by all. I have only skimmed the surface of a few points of contact between these texts.
Further reading: Freud’s essay on The Uncanny. It’s short, and rewarding.
Film Critic Marcus Nicholls is a member of The Missing Slate’s Film Team.