Challenging normative masculinity and femininity in children’s horror – Heinecken

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According to Dawn Heinecken:

Horror fiction for children, including stories of the gothic, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the occult, is a dominant genre within present-day children’s literature. To date, the developing scholarship around this phenomenon has focused on the works of contemporary writers (Brennan et al., 2001; Jackson et al., 2008; Gooding, 2009). Absent from existing scholarly discussion is a consideration of [-p.119] earlier novels by writers whose works of horror fiction clearly precipitated this trend. [/] Most notable among these early practitioners is John Bellairs.” (pp.118-119)

“Featuring disturbing and uncanny imagery and plots revolving around ghosts, witches, possession, and the resurrection of the dead, his novels emerged as a significant contrast to the serene tone of children’s literature in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (MacCleod, 1985). Popularly as well as critically acclaimed, fan websites such as Compleat Bellairs and Bellairsia.com attest to his continued significance as a major writer of children’s horror (Stasio, 1991; Sutherland, 1980).
Yet despite Bellairs’ importance in the development of children’s horror fiction, there has been no serious examination of his work to date. While popular accounts of Bellairs’ success often point to the ways that the chills of his novels are mediated by humorous elements and a reassuring message of adult love and protection (Stasio, 1991), such framings overlook the ways that his books may nonetheless be experienced by readers as terrifying, if only temporarily. Indeed, more significant than the reassuring resolution of his novels is their particular construction of the monstrous and the horrifying.

As critics of adult film and literature have noted, horror is a constantly evolving genre, whose shifting forms and content express the uncertainties haunting a society at any given time; it has been particularly expressive of fears related to gender and sexuality (Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 4; Williams, 1995, p. 7). Horror may function in a ‘‘reactionary’’ manner, punishing transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes, or it may function to subvert existing structures of power located around race, class, gender, and sexuality (Badley, 1995, p. 102). This essay provides a close reading of Bellairs’ foundational trilogy, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), The Figure in the Shadows (1975), and The Letter, the Witch and the Ring (1976), to argue that, like works of adult horror, the trilogy is usefully understood as an exploration of the period’s fears and
anxieties related to gender and sexuality.
Published in the early and mid-seventies, Bellair’s trilogy may be situated against the mainstreaming of horror for adult audiences during the Post-Vietnam period (Schweitzer, 1999, p. 1; Carroll, 1990, p. 2; Colovita, 2008, p. 7), a mainstreaming which has been tied to the upheaval of traditional gender and sexual relations brought about by the feminist, anti-war, civil rights and gay rights movements (Clemens, 1999, p. 185; Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 2). These movements radically transformed discourses surrounding masculinity, destabilizing Cold War notions of a (white) masculinity built around an ideology of toughness and the image of the breadwinner and suggested the need for ‘‘a range of alternative masculinities’’ to replace this ideal (Winter, 2003, p. 118).” (p.119)

Clover […] observes that the reframing of masculinity in horror films is often dependent upon particular constructions of femininity and the female body that displace women to even more marginal realms of feminine excess (p. 105).
The three occult novels forming the original trilogy of Bellair’s series reveal a similar pattern of masculine revision and feminine displacement at work in children’s literature. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the larger culture of the late sixties and seventies, the trilogy rejects hegemonic notions of masculinity and proposes a new form of manhood for young readers built around a reevaluation of the relationship between masculinity and femininity. However, the series continues to reinscribe heterosexist norms at the same time femininity remains tied to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.120)

“As Barbara Creed notes, horror is often dominated by images of the ‘‘monstrous feminine,’’ those qualities of Woman that are ‘‘shocking, terrifying, horrifying and abject’’ (p. 67).” (p.121)

“Often citing the biographical features of his novels, John Bellairs worked to challenge existing gender norms through the construction of shy, clumsy loners as his protagonists. Like other forms of children’s literature emerging in the seventies, his works of children’s horror are particularly reflective of the period’s changing discourses around masculinity (Herzog, 2009, p. 72). However successful his novels are in deconstructing hegemonic masculinity, they are less so in challenging dominant notions of femininity and sexuality. Despite the apparent gender nonconformism of his characters, women and the feminine are closely related to the monstrous in Bellairs’ trilogy, and ultimately female identity remains linked to loss and uncertainty.
After the completion of the original trilogy in 1976, Bellairs worked primarily on two other horror series featuring the adventures of Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon. He died in 1991 before the completion of a proposed fourth novel in the series, The Ghost in the Mirror, which was substantially fleshed out and published posthumously by Brad Strickland in 1993. Using the drafts and notes left by Bellairs, Strickland authored three subsequent novels in the Lewis Barnevelt series.” (p.129)

“While children’s horror of the seventies suggested the need for a refreshed, renewed masculinity, it was left up to later works of horror to formulate power as a necessary ingredient of femininity.” (p.130)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Dawn Heinecken (2011) Haunting Masculinity and Frightening Femininity: The Novels of John Bellairs. Children’s Literature in Education (42):118–131

Abstract: “While developing scholarship around children’s horror fiction has focused on the works of contemporary writers, this essay provides a close reading of the novels of John Bellairs, a leading and early practitioner of the genre. It argues that the first three novels in his Lewis Barnevelt series may be understood as addressing some of the same anxieties related to gender and sexuality as those found in adult works of horror. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the late sixties and seventies, Bellair’s novels propose a new form of manhood for young readers at the same time they continue to tie femininity to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.118)

The two Coralines: different versions of childhood – Myers

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Touching on a topic that rather interests me, Lindsay Myers considers the way that fear is addressed in Henry Selick’s stop-motion film Coraline (2009). She writes:

CoralineFears about the welfare and safety of children have long dominated adult conceptions of childhood. Binary oppositions between innocence and experience, autonomy and dependency lie at the heart of modern definitions of childhood and adulthood, and attempts to break free from these essentialist dichotomies have always been fraught with difficulty. The last fifty years have witnessed major advances in the recognition of children’s rights throughout the Western world, and it is now widely acknowledged that depriving the young of their civil liberties renders them more susceptible to violence, exploitation, and abuse. Adult fears for child safety and child risk have not, however, dissipated over the course of the last few decades but rather have mutated and developed in accordance with modern advances and scientific progress (Buckingham; Beck; Best; James and Prout; Jenkins; Palmer) and concerns about the perceived menace of pedophilia, child abuse, child pornography, and childhood criminality have led to a veritable escalation in moral panic and anxiety. Progressive policies to empower the young have almost always been accompanied by discourses of protectionism that seek to control and regulate children’s lives in the service of what is perceived to be their “best interests,” and for many the process of managing and limiting child risk has become a valuable commodity (Buckingham).
CoralineThe extent to which these two parallel trends (increased autonomy on the one hand and increased regulation on the other) have impacted upon cultural representations of childhood has yet to be fully exploredAnalysis of the modern “family film” can, however, afford particularly revealing insights into this process as it necessarily unites both adult and child audiences, mediating between adult perceptions of childhood and [-p.246] a child’s understanding of adults. In contrast to children’s literature, which is predominantly author-driven, the family film is entirely market-led, a phenomenon that makes it a far more transparent portrayer of the dominant social and cultural climate than is its literary counterpart.” (pp.245-246)

“What […] are we to make [-p.247] of Selick’s creation? Is A. O. Scott of the New York Times correct when he asserts that Selick, like Gaiman, is interested in childhood, “not as a condition of sentimentalized, passive innocence but rather as an active, seething state of receptivity in which consciousness itself is a site of wondrous, at times unbearable drama”?” (pp.246-247)

Coraline - the graphic novelHaving acknowledged Gaiman’s warm reception of the film adaptation, Myers’s own reading of the two versions leads her to write: “Close comparison of the film and the book reveals that while the film initially appears to convey the “feel” of the original, underneath it is a radically conservative appropriation of the original source. Far from challenging dominant stereotypes and conventions, as does Gaiman’s literary masterpiece, Selick’s Coraline presents a fundamentally unprogressive vision of childhood, trading off the novel’s underlying theme of child empowerment for adult fears about child welfare. It constructs the child not as an autonomous protagonist but as a passive cipher, and it plays more to adult anxieties about child abuse than it does to the genuine fears and concerns of the child.
Gaiman’s Coraline is, at its heart, “a spooky, cautionary tale that works by playing on very real childhood fears” (Coats 86). It is a profoundly moving account of how one girl faces up to her deepest fears and desires, and it is, as David Rudd has observed, “centrally concerned with how one negotiates ones place in the world” (160).” (p.247) [this notion of ‘very real’ childhood fears is an interesting one, BTW]

Coraline - illustrated by Chris RiddellBy creating a long-standing kidnapping framework in which to position Coraline’s abduction, Selick not only removes the focus from Coraline but he also effectively [-p.249] renders his heroine powerless, pitting her from the outset against a devious serial killer. His recasting of Gaiman’s novel as an abduction story essentially transforms the heroine’s journey of empowerment into a panic-ridden battle against the evil “out there,” playing far more strongly to contemporary adult fears about child safety and “stranger danger” than it does to the fears and desires of the young.” (pp.248-249)

It is not only the characters and the settings that have been altered significantly in the transposition from book to film. Gaiman’s Coraline and Selick’s Coraline are also on entirely different missions. Gaiman’s Coraline is searching for self-knowledge, self-control, and agency. At the beginning of her adventures she only knows what she is not (she is not Caroline) but by the end of the novel she has learned a great deal about herself and the world. She has faced her deepest fears and desires and she has learned that you shouldn’t always get everything you ever wanted, just like that, without it meaning anything. Selick’s Coraline, on the other hand, is not particularly interested in finding her identity. It is quite clear from the highly individual nature of her attire at the beginning of the film (blue hair, blue nails, and a funky yellow Macintosh) that she has already, at least to some degree, discovered her “alterity,” and that she has no qualms in expressing this alternative “self” publicly. All Selick’s Coraline wants to do is to get away from the predatory Other Mother, and the film is far more about depriving the Other Mother of her power than it is about empowering its young heroine.” (p.250)

CoralineGaiman’s Coraline develops her increased sense of awareness by employing a combination of strategies: reflecting on past experiences, assimilating and employing previously acquired knowledge, and articulating her feelings to others (namely to the cat). Each of these techniques is foregrounded by Gaiman in order to ensure that his reader is fully aware of the complex processes behind his heroine’s development. Coraline’s decision to go back to the alternate realm to rescue her parents is born not from a sense of duty or selfishness but from a memory that she has of when her father heroically saved her from a swarm of bees, her understanding of the nature of identity derives from her challenging conversations with the cat, and the clever trick that she uses to lure the Other Mother to the abandoned well is a reenactment of the strategy of “protective coloration” a form of camouflage employed by animals to ward off predators in the wild of which the young girl became aware while watching nature programs on television. Selick’s Coraline, by contrast, does not learn from her adventures. She has very little opportunity to reflect on the consequences of her actions, since nearly all of her most significant actions having been excised from the plot.” (p.250)

CoralineSelick’s film appears to suggest that childhood “innocence” and security can only be restored if the corrupt and fallen adult world is miraculously redeemed by the child (a trope that has recently become a common staple of many recent film adaptations of children’s classics). The figure of the child in this film comes to symbolize, as in so many nineteenth-century novels, both adult hope and adult guilt. Coraline’s task is not to find her place in the world but to save the adult world from inevitable degeneration, and it is her selfless generosity and goodness that are foregrounded rather than her self-reliance, agency, and autonomy (the qualities emphasized in the book).” (p.251)

“Although the book can be read either as an exciting adventure or as the story of a child in
trouble, the film undeniably prioritizes the latter. It does little to empower its child viewer, eliminating the child’s perspective almost entirely, perpetuating victim stereotypes and fetishizing childhood innocence.” (p.254)

“In contrast to Gaiman’s text, which teaches its heroine (and by extension its reader) that “perfect” parents are neither possible nor desirable, Selick’s film is highly critical of Coraline’s Real Parents. It goes so far as to suggest that Coraline’s vulnerability was the direct result [-p.255] of parental shortcomings, and it is especially critical of modern mothers who do not have time to tend to their children’s needs due to work commitments (Parsons, Sawers, and McInally).” (pp.254-255)

CoralineI found Myers’s analysis of the two Coralines interesting (and well-argued), but I do wonder at her definition of genres in this analysis, as in her definition of the family film in contrast with children’s literature (above, p.246), or when she writes:

“The reasons why Selick adapted Gaiman’s source text in such a radical manner surely lie in the very different cultural contexts in which the works [-p.252] are respectively positioned. Whereas Gaiman’s novel is a sophisticated literary work that consciously engages with a rich, textual heritage, Selick’s Coraline is a modern, audio-visual construct, a consumer-driven product whose success depends entirely upon its ability to tap into popular trends and desires.
coraline dollGaiman’s novel deploys, as many scholars have demonstrated, two main frames of reference—the literary fairy tale and the fantasy—both of which can be said to hold a particular affinity for the young. The split mother, the locked room, the deceptive lure, the magical talisman, and the fear of being eaten are all common fairy-tale tropes, while the eccentric cat and the magical wardrobe are indirect allusions to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, two iconic children’s fantasies, which Gaiman, himself, has admitted exerted a considerable influence over him as a child (Austin). The main influence on Selick’s Coraline, however, is the Hollywood horror film, a genre, which until recently, was the exclusive domain of adults.” (pp.251-252)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Lindsay Myers (2012) Whose Fear Is It Anyway?: Moral Panics and “Stranger Danger” in Henry Selick’s Coraline. The Lion and the Unicorn 36, 245–257