Take the following excerpt from an IndieBound interview with Neil Gaiman about his YA book, Coraline:
We’re getting two completely different reactions from two completely different reading audiences, and it’s kind of weird.
Reading audience number one is adults. Adults completely love it and they tell me it gave them nightmares. They found it really scary and disturbing, and they’re not sure it’s a good book for kids, but they loved it. Reading audience number two are kids who read it as an adventure and they love it. They don’t get nightmares, and they don’t find it scary. I think part of that is that kids don’t realize how much trouble Coraline is in — she is in big trouble — and adults read it and think, “I know how much trouble you’re in.”
What terrifies adults and children is not the same. A child may be driven mad with fright over a shape in the bedroom in the dark, which in their fertile imagination has become a ravening monster. A flick of the light switch by an adult hand and the monster is revealed to be nothing more than a blanket thrown over the back of a chair, oddly shaped and become monstrous in the darkness. On the flip side, an adult may become afraid or upset at the sight of a dead body; often young children are fascinated, in part because they may not know what’s happening and/or fully understand death. (When I taught preschool, we had to have the conversation about dead pets sometimes, which led inevitably to “yes they are under the ground now, no we cannot go see.”) The things that terrify children may seem inconsequential to adults; the things that terrify adults may seem perfectly natural to children.
Take fairy tales in particular. The violence and horror in, say, the Grimm tales mostly revolves around almost cartoonish punishments of evildoers and oddly implicit sexual violence. There is a wicked stepmother put into a barrel with spikes on the inside. The stepmother in “The Juniper Tree” eats her stepson after beheading him with the lid to a chest. Snow White’s wicked stepmother gets to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. And it’s not much better for fathers: a father is tricked into chopping off his daughter’s hands by the devil, many others want to marry their daughters because the girls look so like their dead mothers. The Grimms carefully edited the tales and gave the most odious actions not to mothers, but to stepmothers. There’s the occasional stepfather, but it’s mostly stepmothers that get the brunt of the wickedness.
Aside from the implied misogyny, the wicked stepmother theme exposes a story that I think sometimes children tell themselves: They’re not my real parents. Somewhere far away, I have perfect parents who are always kind. Somewhere far away, I am a princess. I have a throne to claim, a sword to pull from a stone. This all falls down at some point in adolescence, of course, when we realize that adults are even more flawed than we thought, and that our parents–flaws and all–are actually our parents. (Although this narrative reads differently for the adopted. Here’s one story.) At some point, we discard the childish fantasies of who we thought our parents were and try to sink into reality.
So, long past adolescence and into adulthood, what horrors do fairy tales hold for us? In a reverse scenario of the child afraid of the dark, the light has come on for us adults and we can see the violence, the rape, and the gore in fairy tales for the horrors they are. And the characters who are closest to us in age are not longer the princesses, the goose girls, the plucky youngest sons, not Hansel nor Gretel nor Jack. No, the character who most resemble adults are the mothers, father, and step-parents, along with the occasional sexless mentor figure. A healthy parent who is doing a good job parenting in a rare beast in the Grimm tales. Suddenly, all the relate-able characters are villains who meet with horrible ends. And how does the aging woman deal withe her beautiful daughter becoming a sexual being? How does the widower deal with seeing his dead wife’s eyes in his daughter? How do you cope if you cannot afford to feed your children? There is no good example. Adults, in the tales, are there to be villains for children.
And that, I think, is the most terrifying thought of all. Take me: I am twenty-nine years old, and considering whether or not I ever want to have children. I fear, one way or another, becoming a de facto villain for any child I might have. My parents were in no way fairy tale parents, i.e. they did a pretty good job with us kids and didn’t pass on their more destructive neuroses or, like, leave us in the forest for witches to eat. Nevertheless, like probably every other 29-year-old, I fear turning into my parents. And the thought that I might not notice the day I Become My Mother fills me with as much dread as the scary robot I was convinced lived in our electrical system once did. Both are a fear of something you may or may not be powerless before, a fear that lives in your brain and wriggles out in awkward moments.
In Coraline, the title character is a little girl who discovers a passage in her house that leads to a different version of the world. The other world contains her Other Mother and her Other Father. Her Other Parents seem at first identical except nicer, and with black buttons sewn in place of their eyes. Coraline realized soon enough that her Other Parents are manipulative and want to trap her and sew buttons on her eyes, too. And at its most irrational, my adult brain fears the day when I find black buttons sewn on my eyes, and do not remember how they got there.
PS: For more of Goddard grad and all-round radsauce Liz Latty’s writing, check out her blog.