“You probably think this world is a dream come true, but you’re wrong.”
CHARLIE ROBINSON considers Coraline as a classic morality story about the horrors of online grooming
Coraline: Spoiler-free plot summary When Coraline moves to an old house, she feels bored and neglected by her parents. She finds a hidden door with a bricked-up passage. During the night, she crosses the passage and finds a parallel world that seems to be an alternate version of her life, with only one slight difference - everything is better. And everyone has buttons for eyes. Coraline's "other mother" (Beldam) invites her to stay forever if she lets her sew on her button eyes, and Coraline begins to realize that this alternate reality is a trick to lure her in to enable her “other mother” to eat up her soul. She has to rescue her parents from the Beldam and make it home safely relying on her tricks, and the help of a sassy talking cat.
*This post contains detailed discussion around grooming and childhood neglect.
I expect most people around university age remember Coraline. Even if you’ve never seen it, you probably had a friend that it terrified!
The 2009 film by Laika is a fantastic rendition of Neil Gaiman’s original book from 2002, which, yes, means it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The colourful stop-motion design was perfect for both its beautiful and unsettling moments. The more twisted scenes even prompted parents to complain, although it quickly became a cult classic with those who watched it as a child.
But what I rarely hear anyone talk about is the moral of the story, because what is it?
The moral of Coraline?
Book analysis websites seem to believe it’s, “be careful what you wish for” which in my opinion is completely wrong. Coraline is eleven - she’s allowed to want excitement and adventure. She’s a lonely girl moving halfway across the country without friends and seemingly no one to talk to, as her workaholic parents will pawn her off on each other, while the ‘Beldam’ (doppelganger mother) steals her away.
I propose that the moral was never aimed at the children watching the film (or reading the book). It was for the parents who had to watch it with them. Coraline is tricked with her own desires and groomed into a nightmare, but it shouldn’t have happened to begin with. There should have been an adult to look after her. The moral of Coraline is simply:
Pay attention to your goddamn kids!
Coraline warns perfectly against dangers of online grooming for an overlooked child.
But why online grooming specifically and not all types of grooming?
Of major significance is how hidden it is from the parents. Of course, Coraline talks about the parallel ‘other world’ all the time and her parents never listen, but her parents can’t even see this alternative universe. The door literally refuses to open for them. Coraline’s parents find this world impossible to enter, just as parents often find the internet spaces their children use inaccessible. Now this one only applies to the film but even the door is too small for them - the entrance is literally child sized.
Coraline’s parents could never be able to enter this space willingly, but Coraline would have never fallen into it if she had just been given the parenting she needed.
Overlooked and ignored: the horrors of online grooming
According to the NSPCC, around 5,441 Sexual Communication with a Child offences were recorded between April 2020 and March 2021 - an all-time high. But the true scale of online grooming, because of unrecorded cases, is likely to be much higher. Such a prolific problem likely stems from children who have unrestricted internet access and are overlooked and ignored by their parents.
In Coraline, the ‘real world’ mum never has time for her, and her dad will give her pointless busy work to keep her away. They don’t even notice, for instance, that she has a poison oak rash and barely bat an eye when she says she almost fell down a well. Instead of staying with parents who clearly don’t want her around unless she is still, silent, and perfectly behaved, she turns to spend her time in a world that loves her and pays attention to her. This is the same rabbit hole many real children fall into when they’re ignored and turn to frequent internet usage for attention and approval.
The ‘Other Mother’- the Lovebomber
The ‘Beldam’, or ‘Other Mother’, showers Coraline with attention, gifts, and praise. This is an effective display of Lovebombing, a tactic groomers will often use to squeeze trust and favours from children. Groomers will often overwhelm a child with presents, like Coraline’s new outfit after her real mother wouldn’t give her new gloves. It convinces the child that the groomer will do anything to make them happy and they ‘love’ them more than the people around them, manipulating a child into isolating themselves from their own family and loved ones. The ‘Other Mother’s’ entire world involves the process of lovebombing Coraline. As the other world doppelganger of her bizarre Russian neighbour, Mr Bobinsky, points out - if she goes home she’ll
“be bored and neglected… we will listen to you and laugh with you”.
The world where Coraline gets everything she could ever want is the way groomers will manipulate children into thinking they are safe and loved. But when Coraline is at her happiest, here she must learn that their love is contractual. Coraline can stay in the world and keep getting praise and attention forever but only if she is willing to sew buttons in her eyes.
Groomers will often use this same kind of false consent when tricking children into performing sexual favours for them. She is given an ultimatum - to stay and be hurt or to leave and never receive this attention again. Coraline must ‘let’ the Beldam sew the buttons. That way, Coraline will believe that whatever happened, it was never intentionally meant to hurt her, or it was just her fault anyway.
In the book, after her parents go missing, Coraline calls the police, but in the film she just goes to bed (in honestly one of the most heartbreaking animated scenes, it leaves me in pieces). Whether this was just to save time or not it presents an interesting point - that Coraline feels so guilty about the situation that she can’t call the police out of fear. She’s worried they’ll blame her for everything, and in the book, they don’t even believe her anyway. Coraline is eleven, she should never have had to feel this way.
“One of the key results of grooming is that the survivor is left carrying the shame of the events, often represented in a sense of complicity – that you let it happen”. (Survivors UK)
She is eleven!
The ending of the book is much different from the film. Sure, they both end with a sort of happy ending, but in the film, Coraline’s parents actually seem to change. They have learnt their moral lesson, indicated by spending time with her, even though they don’t remember anything. Sadly, Coraline in the book doesn’t get this - she comes home after her ordeal and just goes back to school, a grim reality for so many victims of online abuse.
Coraline does teach children that love should never be contractual, and the smiling face that tells you it loves you shouldn’t be able to push your boundaries. However, it’s real warning goes out to the parents.
Give your children the attention they deserve, or they will go out into darkness to find it.
Written by Charlie Robinson