Psychoanalysis of ‘Coraline’ – The ‘Uncanny’ and the Familiar


By Sarah Yoon

Film: ‘Coraline’ (2009)

Rating: 4.5/5

Flickering moonlight, a creaky step in the shadows, and an appearance of scrawny black cat. These are the staples of Tim Burton and Henry Selick, the co-creators of ‘The Nightmare Before the Christmas’ who are the masters of creating weird, disturbing fairytales which are a bit “off”.

Selick produced a film, Coraline in 2009 which I rather accidentally stumbled upon while I was looking for something more worthwhile to watch on BBC iPlayer during the summer. This immediately sparked my interest in a postmodern gothic genre, and I began my research on the aspects which makes this film so ‘uncanny’.

The ‘uncanny’:  In terms of Freudian terminology, the name of the concept is derived from a German word, ‘unheimlich’, literally meaning, ‘unhomely’. I think the best way to describe this is saying, ‘strangely familiar’. Thus, to clarify, when you recognise the setting but you feel that there is something unusual and unfamiliar about it, then you are experiencing ‘uncanny’. Déjà-vu is a more well-known example of this experience.

The concept of the uncanny has been researched by many recognised names, notably Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud. They both based their research upon a novelette, ‘The Sandman’ written by E.T.A Hoffmann.

Here is a little clip of an adaptation of ‘The Sandman’ to whet your appetite:

The clip touches on the basic concepts of the ‘uncanny’.

In the original story, a robot named, Olympia appears and Jentsch suggests that the appearance of a humanoid in the story is what makes the story ‘uncanny’; it causes confusion and a sense of alarm for the readers which makes them feel frightened and uncomfortable.

However, Freud places his focus on the eyes. He claims that the loss of the eyes are the biggest contributing factor in making the story appear ‘uncanny’ as the eyes represent one’s identity. The idea of being robbed of one’s eyes in dreams, myths, and neurotic fantasies means the fear of castration. This leads to another Freudian theory, castration complex, that acts as part of our infantile yet primeval sexuality which makes the story seem instinctively uncanny; it is a concept that is rooted, but long-forgotten in our minds as part of our natural instincts, yet re-invoked by the fear of losing eyes as represented the story.

Freud takes a step further and introduces the idea of doppelgänger, having a double of oneself. This originates from childhood narcissism where a child creates their platonic conception in which they are virtually invincible. However, when he encounters his double, as an adult, this double creates an uncanny sensation. It is a twisted return journey back to your old self.

However, the sensation of the ‘uncanny’ evoked by doppelgänger can also be due to having an immense amount of self-esteem, a ‘super-ego’. A ‘super-ego’ embodies one’s most idealistic, visionary and utopian dreams and wildest of fantasies, and because of this, the idea of having one’s double becomes unacceptable since it wounds the ego.

Thus, the ‘uncanny’ is anything and everything that one experiences as an adult that remotely reminds one of one’s earlier psychic stages, in terms of castration and doubles.

The movie, Coraline embraces all of these ideas. With the concept of losing one’s eyes and having doppelgängers, the notion of the ‘uncanny’ is a thread interwoven in the film.

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3 Responses to Psychoanalysis of ‘Coraline’ – The ‘Uncanny’ and the Familiar

  1. Mrs K Martin says:

    How timely! I was only citing Coroline yesterday to my LC3 class when introducing them to the Gothic in Jekyll and Hyde. I shall now make sure that they have seen your review too.

  2. Mrs K Martin says:


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