Sometimes I’m late to the game. Life does what life does, and those back burners get filled quickly as professional, family and spiritual fires burn away time. Or maybe I’m like Gandalf with my writing—in that I’m never late, nor early, arriving precisely when I am meant to.
So here I am in all my Ophite wizardry, posting about one of my favorite movies with an obvious Gnostic narrative.
That is Coraline, based on the writing of Neil Gaiman.
Storyline of Coraline
If you haven’t watched Coraline (2009), you’re missing a visually rich, stop-gap movie that on the surface seems like a perennial “be careful what you wish for” narrative, blended with an Alice in Wonderland vibe. But the theme is actually very Gnostic. Coraline is based on Gaiman’s 2002 eponymous children’s dark fantasy novella—and won a Nebula award in 2003.
IMBD provides a good summary:
While exploring her new home, a girl named Coraline (Dakota Fanning) discovers a secret door, behind which lies an alternate world that closely mirrors her own but, in many ways, is better. She rejoices in her discovery, until Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) and the rest of her parallel family try to keep her there forever. Coraline must use all her resources and bravery to make it back to her own family and life.
Take a look at this trailer for more context:
With the plot in mind, let us to the Gnostic themes of Coraline. This is nothing shocking: Gaiman is no stranger to Gnosticism when you consider the Jungian ethos of Mirrormask or many of the plotlines in The Sandman comic book series.
The Other Mother
The villain of the film is an entity known as the Other Mother or Beldam. She exists mostly in a parallel dimension, or the Other World, where throughout history she lures dissatisfied children to her realm with the promise of a better reality. Her promises are all a ploy to steal and trap their soul essence, which in turns feeds her power. Her latest prey happens to be Coraline, lonely after moving to a new home across the country and with distracted parents on a new work assignment. Through a series of eldritch occurrences, the young teen finds herself in the Other World, slowly seduced by the Other Mother and her creations that are seemingly more pleasing and idealized to her adolescent sensibilities. At first Coraline thinks she’s in a dream, but soon realizes she’s in a nightmarish copy.
In essence, the Other Mother is very much the arch villain of Gnostic texts, the Demiurge. Also known as Yaldabaoth and often identified with the god of the Old Testament, this being thirsts for the Divine Spark of his mother Sophia and her other children (humanity) in order to sustain the material world he created.
The Gnostic Gospel, The Secret Book of John, explains the false world the Demiurge has created:
Yaldabaoth is the chief ruler. He took great power from his mother, left her and moved away from his birthplace. He assumed command, created realms for himself which a brilliant flame that continues to exist even now.
Scholars have noted that the “brilliant flame” is a protean copy of the immutable light of the Eternal Realm of Sophia, perhaps a parody on the Stoic notion of the fire that gives creation its vitality.
In The Secret Book of John, a Gnostic Gospel, Stevan Davies explains that Yaldabaoth is “a bad craftsman basing his world on misunderstood, dimly seen models in the higher realm.”
This is very much the same with the Other Mother. In fact, as she awakens, Coraline begins to see the Other World as it truly is: A limited domain of illusion crumbling into dust and death, only sustained by the soul essence of imprisoned children.
In various Gnostic myth, the Demiurge not only creates the material world, but he also traps Adam and Eve in a fool’s paradise to horde their Divine Spark, much in the same way and same purpose Coraline and previous children become trapped in Other Mother’s simulacrum. Turning again to the Secret Book of John, we find this passage in the section Adam in Yaldabaoth’s Paradise:
The rulers took the man and put him into paradise. They told him to eat freely.
Their food is bitter; their beauty is corrupt. Their food is deceit; their trees are ungodliness.
Their fruit is poison. Their promise is death.
They placed the Tree of Their Life into the middle of paradise.
Like Coraline, Adam and Eve realize they are trapped in an illusionary world—a poor and brittle copy of the Eternal Realm— and must find ways to escape even as the Demiurge continues his seduction and siphoning of their Divine Spark. The solution beyond awakening (or Gnosis), in both Coraline and Gnostic texts, is to return home: Coraline to the original version of her house, Adam and Eve (representing humanity) to the Eternal Realm.
In the end, Coraline returns to her real mother, but as far as we know most consciousnesses in our world have not returned to our mother Sophia in the Eternal Realm. Of course, in Gnosticisms, those who have awakened to their entrapment must assist others in waking up, just as Coraline assists the other children trapped in the Other World.
Just this element makes the film very Gnostic. But hang on to your Divine Sparks, because there is much more…
Coraline as a Gnostic Heroine
In Coraline, the protagonist’s full name is Coraline Jones. The name could be a backward abbreviation for “JC,” making her a Jesus Christ figure. After all, the story may also be seen as a Christian allegory where Coraline descends into the underworld (the Other World) and returns transformed into a new being.
Her fall into a nether realm actually puts Coraline closer to ancient goddesses like Inanna or Persephone. However, Coraline relates more to the Sophia in Gnosticism. After all, in Gnostic texts, Sophia’s rebellion against the Alien God is what causes her to venture into shadowy domains, just as Coraline’s rebellion against her parents propels her to the Other World. For a concise and brief understanding of Sophia, I quote Andrew Phillip Smith’s A Dictionary of Gnosticism:
A pivotal figure in the Gnostic myth, representing the imprisonment of the soul in the world of matter and its liberation into the world of the spirit. The story of the fall of Sophia has many variations in Gnostic texts, but the most common elements are the following: Sophia is the lowest of the aeons and experiences a fall that brings the material universe and the demiurge into being. She is then restored, at least partially, to her former position by an aeon who may be known as the Savior. The same process then occurs for humans, each of whom may be liberated from the material world.
Just like Sophia, Coraline is partially responsible for her descent and ensuing plight. Moreover, both Sophia and Coraline become active in the destruction of false worlds and their rulers.
In Gnosticism, a Gnostic revealer appears to instruct or awaken an individual or community (the Savior/aeon from Smith’s definition). This figure takes on many forms in the Gnostic/Hermetic texts: Jesus Christ, Hermes Trismegistus, Seth, Mary Magdalene, etc. In modern Gnostic narratives, we could think of Morpheus from The Matrix.
In Coraline, the Gnostic Revealer is the Cat. The animal mentors Coraline at the reality of the Other Mother’s realm, basically providing that jagged little Red Pill called Gnosis. “You probably think this is a dream come true,” the Cat tells Coraline in one scene while they travel the Other World, “but you’re wrong.” Like the Gnostic Revealers of the Nag Hammadi library and other texts such as the Pistis Sophia, the Cat can travel between worlds as a guide and directly thwarts the Demiurge character (the Other Mother).
In one scene, the Cat reveals the nature of the Other Mother as he accompanies Coraline in the Other World. The dialogue ties directly to the section above on the nature of the Demiurge:
Coraline: Why does she want me?
Cat: She wants something to love, I think. Something that isn’t her. Or, maybe she’d just love something to eat.
Coraline: Eat? That’s ridiculous, mothers don’t eat… daughters.
Cat: I don’t know. How do you taste? [chuckles]
Oddly, the Cat’s voice is narrated by Keith Davis, notable for appearing in another great Gnostic Gospel, They Live (although as more of a sycophant of the Roddy Piper character).
Why a feline as Gnostic Revealer? Good question. Perhaps the answer lies in broader Occult themes of Coraline (such as ancient Egyptian motifs). Readers are welcome to let me know.
A central theme in the movie is the buttons all denizens of the Other World possess instead of eyes, including the Other Mother. The obvious motif is the notion of the eyes being the windows of the soul; the Other Mother and her creations have no true soul essence. Also, the buttons represent blindness. In Gnostic texts, the Demiurge either refuses or is incapable of seeing the Eternal Realm, very much like the Other Mother, who only cares about sustaining her own fool’s paradise. The Gnostic text the Reality of the Archons says about this about the Demiurge: “His thoughts became blind.”
It also should be noted that in some Gnostic writings the Demiurge is referred to as Samael, Aramaic for “blind god.”
In fact, for Coraline to ultimately remain in the Other World and become a slave of the Other Mother, she must replace her eyes with buttons, becoming fully blind to the world she originally came from. Like Adam and Even in the garden of the Demiurge and his poisonous fruit, Coraline will forever wallow in ignorance, which the Valentinian Gospel of Phillip calls “the greatest of sins.”
In the end, the central idea of Gnosticism correlates with the central theme of Coraline: We are cast in a counterfeit world that—even if enticing in a sensory manner—will never be anything other than a cage with golden bars. In the movie, the Other Mother cannot sustain her dimension; it soon begins turning to dust, just as our universe will turn to star dust. I recommend my article Were the Gnostic World Haters? for more on this two-world paradigm.
Sure, as some writers have said, the Other World is simply Coraline’s psyche. But that plays into the Gnostic narrative, for the worlds we build in our heads are idealized at first but eventually disintegrate against the Demiurges of our brittle and blind egos. Sophia and Coraline assumed they could create better than their parents, but in the end realized their perfection was their love for their parents.
Coraline came out during the same period my mother died. It was and still is a blurry time, and the reason it would be years later (recently) that I would finally see it. My mother became star dust, as I shall, and I remained in a world without even an Other Mother. But in the end, it is my love for her that is the Eternal Realm, where we are always together.
But in this Other World, my task is to replace buttons with eyes to see. Will you help me?
[Thanks to Travis Bazinger for providing a bulk of the insights for this article. Support my button-removing by subscribing or purchasing through the images below.]