By Charlotte Stevenson
As Halloween falls across the land, now more than ever monsters leap to life from the pages of books around the world. In the first post of our Creature Feature series, Charlotte Stevenson discusses the concept of monstrous humans with a focus on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
‘you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.’
These are the words that the cat says to Coraline as she is drawn into a world other than her own that seems perfect in every way, practically designed for her consumption. The fact that a cat whispers this is is the first sign that this is no ordinary world and the concept that names enable you to ‘know who you are’ or what you are dealing with is a concise way of summing up much of what I want to talk about regarding the various monsters of Coraline.
If there is one thing I learned from many rewatches of Labyrinth it is that words have power. In providing something with a name, we simultaneously gain an ability to have control over how we respond to this. When we are afraid, these are the words that come into our imagination and get placed on other things so that we can put them into mentally formed cages where we don’t have to worry about them. But in Coraline, it is not so simple as assigning labels that will create a sense of binary power over the thing that is monstrous for it is far too familiar: It is her own mother.
Or rather, this creature looks like her mother and talks like her mother, the only difference being a large pair of button eyes. In every regard this ‘other mother’ is the same if not a million times better because she listens, hears and responds perfectly – too perfectly. But of course, this cannot last. The reality is that this uncanny being with the ability to to spin a web of dreams is actually a Beldam; a spiderlike creature who lures in children and feeds on their lives by taking their eyes, replacing them with buttons.
In this regard, the Beldam quite literally metamorphosises from a human cocoon into a half woman half spider creature. But it is not so much this ghastly physical transformation that makes her most monstrous but instead the fact that before this she has been mothering and gentle, a shining example of nurturing female domesticity. It is precisely this contrast which is identified as monstrous and the message it provides is a striking one in that the Beldam or ‘other mother’ is frightening exactly because of her being a violent female.
Women who use their femininity to ensnare victims and act out violence are a common feature of many stories. Sirens are an example of this and in a more human connection, Lady Macbeth is an especially prominent femme fatale. These Belle Dames present themselves initially as beautiful only to become increasingly violent and controlling; the opposite of the ideal construct of traditionally gentle, mothering femininity. Monstrous mothers call into question that construct and to an extent, stop being women as a result. It is represented as seemingly impossible for them to be both mothering and feminine whilst possessing such monstrous capabilities. Outside of that construct, they exist as in the instance of the Beldam quite literally as animals.
To link this back to the cat, who becomes to an extent Coraline’s guiding familiar throughout the novel, in existing outside of labels and constructs there is a freedom gained. Existing liminally within an already liminal space, the cat has power unlike any of the human or human-like beings around him. He serves to act as Aesop, stressing the moral faults of not only the magical world but also the one to which Coraline returns to in her triumph over the Beldam. It is the cat who is able to recognise that to find a way to ‘challenge’ not only the other mother but also anyone and anything is the only way to surpass any challenge and villain, no matter the degree of humanity. To him, assigning any form of label whether good or bad is a monstrous act.
In summary, Coraline is both a particularly intriguing novel and a bewitching movie in which we too undergo the process of dawning realisation and repulsion, we too question the monstrous human and enter into a realm of blurred boundaries. Hero and antagonist, human and monster, woman and animal become inextricably intertwined. Consequently my work on this creature feature has drawn me to the singular conclusion that whilst monsters do to a degree exist, our use of labels and binary opposition results in a denial of the monstrous capability that we all possess in an attempt to escape the fact that nothing is ever as straightforward or perfect. In other words, be careful what you wish for; nothing is as simple as it first might seem.
‘The names are the first things to go, after the breath has gone, and the beating of the heart. We keep our memories longer than our names.’