The Dark Mother

January 28, 2016

I love Neil Gaiman’s wonderful short novel “Coraline.” It seems to me that this terrifically frightening book shows how the dark side of the mother archetype is always present in potential. Carl Jung coined the term archetype to describe universal patterns of human experience that are inherent in all of our psyches. He likened the archetype to the crystal structure of molecules. In a solution, the crystalline structure is inherent, and only manifests when the conditions are right for the substance to take form. So these forms exist in potential in us from infancy as part of our human inheritance, and when the right conditions exist, we experience them in inner and outer ways.

Jung also said of archetypes that they always have both a positive and a negative pole, and you can’t have one without the other. The Great Mother archetype encompasses both the loving, nurting Madonna, and the devouring, terrifying witch. If Jung is right, this means we can’t be a mother without experiencing some of each side of the archetype. Likewise, our children will bring with them into the world their own inherent potential for experiencing both good and bad mothering.

In “Coraline,” the young protagonist has an adequate if somewhat disappointing mother. Her plunge in the dark world of the terrifying Other Mother is seemingly precipitated by her own mother’s lack of attunement during a shopping trip to buy new school clothes. Coraline would like the day-glo green gloves, but her mother ignores her, and buys only dreary, practical things. We as readers feel Coraline’s hurt and disappointment. We relate to her feeling of not having been seen or understood on this shopping trip.

Once home from the shops, Coraline’s mother runs out quickly to get something for dinner, and Coraline in her boredom while waiting for her mother to return takes down the key that opens the door in the living room. The door used to lead to another part of the house, but the passageway had long ago been bricked up. This time, however, Coraline mysteriously finds a passage where before there had been just a brick wall. The experience of the Negative Mother has been constellated for Coraline by the disappointment of the shopping trip, and she now has access to the Dark Mother’s world. The passage leads to the fascinating, but ulimately terrifying realm of her Other Mother, a woman with paper white skin, and black button eyes, who wants to devour Coraline.

It’s worth lifting up that we will all, like Coraline’s real mother, sometimes hurt, disappoint, thwart, and frustrate our children, sometimes in ways that are truly damaging. We can’t possibly only embody the bright pole of the archetype. And when we do hurt them, we will likely create the conditions for our child to experience the archetypal Negative Mother. I remember when my daughter was three, and I firmly asked her to clean up after herself. She yelled at me stridently that I was like Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Well, yes dear. I suppose I am. In time, Coraline again finds her “real, wonderful, maddening, infuriating, glorious mother.”

As real, human mothers, we will at times be both wonderful, and maddening.

Originally published on


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