Stop-Motion Macabre

Why do we love creepy movies about animated puppets?

SDG Original source: Catholic Digest

The Boxtrolls is the latest macabre stop-motion animated tale from Laika, the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman.

Stop-motion animation — which, unlike computer animation and traditional hand-drawn cel animation, utilizes real objects shot frame by frame, with tiny adjustments made between shots — is a defiantly old-fashioned, niche medium, often used to creepy effect: Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline; Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie; Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Stop-motion doesn’t have to be creepy; take Aardman’s charming “Shaun the Sheep,” or the brilliant BBC Jesus film The Miracle Maker. Conversely, Columbia’s Monster House demonstrates that computer-animated movies can be creepy, though the smoothness and perfection of computer animation are best suited to other moods and subjects. (The Halloween release The Book of Life, which is computer-animated but has a distinctly stop-motion look, may be another example.)

What is it about stop-motion? The illusion of life never entirely suppresses the awareness that we are watching objects moving by themselves: puppets, dolls, toys. Any genre filmmaker knows the potential of innocent childhood things for creepiness. Dolls and toys evoke the precritical world of childhood, reaching past our rational defenses. There’s something dreamlike about the slightly herky-jerky effect of dolls moving and walking, an effect as old as the earliest silent films, and like silent film seeming to belong to another world.

Why do we enjoy creepiness? Why do we watch scary movies or enjoy dressing up as ghosts or monsters on Halloween? Why did medieval Christians adorn their cathedrals with gargoyles and grotesques — and why did they illustrate and dramatize danses macabres, with Death leading a grim procession of human beings to the grave?

On some level, whatever frightens or repels us also draws us — and this is not simply perversity. The denizens of Halloweentown in The Nightmare Before Christmas are not wrong when they sing in their opening song, “Life’s no fun without a good scare.”

Even babies like a mild startle or scare; their widening eyes as they laugh hysterically at a game of peek-a-boo attest the rush of adrenaline. Goblins, witches and monsters haunt the fairy tales of childhood, and older audiences brave vampires, zombies and stories of possession and exorcism.

The frightful or creepy galvanizes us. It speaks to us of mortality, of the moral and existential implications of the kind of beings that we are: creatures of frail flesh and eternal spirit, alienated from our world and from ourselves, haunted by dreams we can’t attain and dread we can’t escape.

Not that The Nightmare Before Christmas or Frankenweenie are particularly frightful, except perhaps to the very young. But their celebration of the spooky thrills of (respectively) Halloween and old monster movies, their love of grotesquerie and gleeful subversiveness that is not really so subversive at all, tells the same tale as our love of stories that actually scare us.

Nightmare is a riff on the cheery old stop-motion TV holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — but it subverts them only to affirm them. Beneath the macabre humor is real affection, and in the end a mutual acceptance of the light of Christmas and the dark of Halloween, with Jack Skellington bidding Santa Claus “Merry Christmas” and Santa wishing Jack “Happy Halloween.”

Corpse Bride is a more morbid, mature tale, based on a Jewish-Russian folk tale about a young groom-to-be who playfully rehearses his marriage vows on the road, placing the ring on a branchlike skeletal finger protruding from the earth. To his horror the hand rises from the earth followed by a cadaverous bride murdered en route to her own wedding, proclaiming him her husband.

In Burton’s telling, the story becomes a touching, bittersweet meditation on anxiety about commitment and the momentousness of the nuptial bond “till death do us part.” It’s an imperfect but soulful film that is in its own way about real life and death (by contrast, The Nightmare Before Christmas is basically about having fun in happy and creepy ways).

Coraline, based on a tale by Neil Gaiman, is a dark fantasy about a bored young girl who crawls through a magic passage into a strange, colorful parallel world where everything revolves around her.

Perhaps the most magical and unsettling of all these films, Coraline has a surreal or dreamlike quality; and dreams — even nightmares — are really stories we tell ourselves as we try to figure things out and cope with the waking world.

Notes on age-appropriateness: The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline and Frankenweenie are all fine for tweens and up; Corpse Bride, teens and up. I don’t particularly recommend ParaNorman or The Boxtrolls. Animation, Catholic Digest, Family, Horror, Stop-Motion Animation, Stop-Motion Macabre