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Why is Stop Motion So Scary?

What is so scary about stop motion? You may have noticed that stop motion is arguably the most popular form of animation in horror/suspense. Many of our more recent popular Halloween films are stop-motion animation: Coraline, ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, and of course The Nightmare Before Christmas (almost all involving either Tim Burton or Henry Selick or both). But why is it that stop motion has been singled out as the best conveyer of fright? Could it be the even sense of movement, or the clear hard effort; or could it be just a style of character and set design that works best in a stop motion setting?
Well I wondered about that too. There are some good Halloween movies done in other forms of animation (Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Hotel Transylvania, Scooby Doo on Zombie Island, and of course Over the Garden Wall which I’ve already discussed at length) but the only ones that really get commercial and critical praise are the stop-motion ones. I looked at some of the most popular stop-motion animated films (half of which are Halloween oriented) in the hopes of figuring out why it’s this type of animation that works so well at being scary and compelling.
Coraline was the first feature film from the animation studio Laika and was based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. It followed a girl called Coraline whose family just moved from Michigan to a gloomy apartment home in Oregon; additionally she’s grown bored and annoyed by her parents’ mundane, work-filled lives. She finds a small door through which is a portal to a parallel and seemingly idyllic world, in which the sole difference seems to be how happy everyone is, and the fact they all have buttons for eyes. But as she explores and finds joy in this new world she learns it may be a lot less perfect than she thought.
There’s a lot of great creative and stylistic choices made in this film. Both in its story and stop-motion style it reminds me a lot of Roald Dahl, who I’m guessing was an inspiration for Gaiman. But it’s a very dark Dahl and it shows. This film has some of the most terrifying and unsettling imagery I’ve ever seen in animation. Its style exists somewhere between The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach giving the characters, settings, and movements all an eerie feel. There’s a dismal gloominess in the atmosphere of Coraline’s home life which seems at times depressingly close to reality making the contrast with the other world all the more stark. The moment she enters that world you feel uncomfortable, there’s clearly something not right, even as she warms up to her surroundings. The bright colour scheme is wonderfully deceptive and this animation works best in a slow build adding to the tension. And when the film gets creepy, it gets really creepy! Everything takes on a thin, wiry nature with a graphic edginess and smarter use of shadowing. This kind of effectiveness wouldn’t work in other forms of animation that would be concerned with perfecting a look. But this is a film that thrives on the imperfections of its stop-motion animation and that in addition to an amazing atmosphere, good themes, and some great voiceover work by Teri Hatcher and Keith David, makes it an instant Halloween classic!
Laika’s follow-up to Coraline was a little film called ParaNorman. It was about a boy called Norman who can talk to the dead. Logically, no one believes him. However because of his gift, he’s soon tasked with protecting the town by reading from a book to stop a witch’s curse. That curse being the raising of the dead on the three hundredth anniversary of her death during the witch trials of the 18th century. But as he’s trying to figure out where and how to do this he begins to realize there may be more to the zombies and the witch than he initially thought.
ParaNorman is a great film borrowing from many types of horror including monster movies, zombie movies, and even The Crucible. It’s also very original, with likable and compelling characters, and a wonderful moral. Its animation is a lot more stylized than Coraline with a rougher look to the characters and environment. While the former film’s animation excelled in its eerie and creepy sharpness, this film looks more flattened and boxy, which lends itself much better to the lumbering monster aspects. I particularly like the look of Norman with the big ears and eyebrows, and lines under the eyes really standing out as well as complimenting his awkward introverted personality which actually manages to be relatable and sympathetic. This animation suits a gloomy and macabre mood which works really well. I don’t think it succeeds on a horror level quite as much as Coraline though it does have a better story and some smarter ideas behind it. This stop-motion animation does its part though, being scary in its bluntness and creatively stiffened detail. Again it wouldn’t have worked to the same effect in other types of animation. And as a bonus, the film also gave us what may be the first openly LGBT character in an animated movie.
                And then we come to Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s remake of his own 1984 short that got him kicked out of Disney (ironically, Disney’s apparently come around and is producing this film). It follows Victor Frankenstein a boy growing up in what appears to be 1960s America, who has a very close relationship with his dog Sparky. After Sparky gets hit by a car, Victor uses all his smarts and resources to reanimate the corpse of his beloved dog. But he can’t keep Sparky a secret forever and his peers soon seek to replicate his experiment.
                A sight better than Burton’s last stop-motion film Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie still has a few shortcomings. It doesn’t have any three dimensional characters and gives us a slow second act, but makes up for it in a great first act and climax. While Burton’s animation style is unique and completely his own, it doesn’t allow for a lot of expressiveness in his “normal” human characters which does harm the effect of the animation. Of these three films, it’s probably the weakest, but it does still use its stop motion techniques to good use. Also the lack of colour while a nice homage, isn’t all that effective. Even in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the whites and blacks were offset by orange pumpkins and Christmas colours. That being said the shadowing really adds to the horror tone and like many Burton productions there is a fair amount of creativity in the paranormal designs. We see some great monsters near the end that look strange enough to be unsettling. And one girl voiced by Catherine O’Hara is really creepy! She has stringy hair, talks in a hushed voice, and has wide eyes with tiny pupils. These aspects of the film as well as showing a clear dedication to imitating a classic genre, makes it stand out and delivers a deserved few spooky moments.
So why is stop-motion such a scary form of animation? I think it partly has to do with the practical nature of the hand-made worlds and characters, and that when it’s so expressive and exaggerated it looks so much more full of effort. Maybe because of this, stop-motion films have much more ease conveying frightening imagery, motion, and ideas. And these qualities can be made present in other forms of animation but it wouldn’t look right. The movements and textures would just be odd in CGI or traditionally animated films which are expected to be more energized. Films like Coraline, ParaNorman, and Frankenweenie are energized but in way that’s more readily impressive because of the nature of the animation. Most of them seem to be following in the groundwork laid out by films like The Nightmare Before Christmas which I didn’t talk about because there’s just way too much to say and I do think of it as slightly more a Christmas movie than Halloween (but in truth it works for both holidays). But I think the scariness of the form has as much to do with the specific movies. Though the animation plays a big part, what also makes the films I’ve discussed work is the story, style, and characters as well as the tension and horror. Really, stop-motion animation may not be any scarier than any other form, it just happens to be popular for horror because it’s turned out such good ones. And while certainly these films wouldn’t have had the same effect were they not stop-motion, I can’t say it’s the make-or-break of their success in the genre. Movies like Coraline and ParaNorman are scarier and better made films than many a live action horror and I’ll be re-watching them maybe annually. I’d never discourage other types of animation to step out of their comfort zone and tackle this genre, but because stop-motion films have the monopoly on fright done right in animation, I’m looking forward with more investment to what this art form gives us next.

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