"ParaNorman," the stop-motion animated feature by Laika Studios, just came out on Netflix instant download, so we decided to watch it for our family movie night. It's a fun film, perhaps a bit too scary for the little ones, but what really stood out for me was the surprisingly deep morality in this little film. This comes in an unlikely package since the film is about zombies and witches.
Not surprisingly, if you look for Christian reviews of the film, you will see many focus on warnings to stay way from the occult. Sadly, this response misses the profoundly deep moral message behind this film -- one that confronts religious violence, and instead promotes a message of redemption and forgiveness. That's quite a bit of insight for a cartoon!
The premise of "ParaNorman" is that the town of Blithe Hollow is about to be overrun by zombies because of the curse of an evil witch. Only Norman Babcock, an odd boy who can speak to the dead, can save the day. The movie begins by having us get to know Norman, who is emotionally isolated because his family does not understand him, and his peers ostracize and ridicule him as a "freak" at school. The only person who believes Norman is his friend Neil Downe, and overweight boy who is himself bullied.
The town is in peril because three centuries ago an evil witch was executed, and in revenge put a curse on the Puritan judge and her accusers, cursing them to rise from the grave as zombies. So each year the curse of the witch must be appeased by reading from a mysterious book at the grave of the witch in order to prevent a zombie apocalypse. But this year that does not happen, and the zombies overrun the town. The townspeople and local police form the typical Frankenstein mob, complete with pitchforks and shotguns to kill the zombies. As the mob mentality grows, Norman and his motley band are threatened by the mob as well.
This is the first point where we see the film's unmasking of "virtuous" violence: In the logic of many films, so long as someone is a "monster" or an "alien" it is OK to kill them. So we have no problem with watching mass killings of monsters or aliens in movies because, well, they're monsters. So you're supposed to kill them. That's what good guys do in movies, isn't it? This is the unquestioned plot of hundreds of movies. As long as the Storm Troopers in Star Wars are faceless, we don't bat an eye when Luke kills one after the other. They have been dehumanized, and so it's OK to kill them all. The same is true for the orcs in "Lord of the Rings," or the witch and her minions in the "Chronicles of Narnia."
The latter two of these films are often sited as Christian stories with deep moral messages, but if the moral becomes one of the good guys killing the bad guys in epic battle scenes then we really need to ask just how Christian that message is? Is that how justice comes about in the end, by a violent show of force? Yet this plotline is so central to the stories we constantly tell ourselves, rehearsing them over and over again in our movies and TV shows. This is what the late Walter Wink called "the myth of redemptive violence" -- the idea that the way to fight evil is through violence. It's a myth that politicians appeal to when then want to justify wars for oil, or when the NRA wants to prevent gun safety in order to keep sales up by appealing to our fear.
"ParaNorman" rightfully questions this assumption, and in doing so stands out as unique among a countless array of other films which mindlessly feed into the myth of redemptive violence. In a climatic scene, the kids confront the angry mob, and some pretty profound wisdom comes from a surprising source: The dumb jock character unmasks what is really going on in all of those other films with their "epic" battle scenes, "All you want to do is burn and murder stuff, burn and murder stuff!"
As it turns out, the zombies were not trying to hurt the townspeople. Norman explains to the crowd, "They're just people ... at least they used to be ... Just stupid people who should have known better. They did something unforgivable ... because they were scared ... and they were cursed for it. Now it's happening all over again. Don't you get it? They were just like you. But now it has to stop, for good!"
What Norman is referring to is that he has learned that the evil witch who was executed was in fact a little girl named Agatha, the same age as Norman, and her crime was that she spoke to the dead too. The Puritan judge and her accusers were cursed for killing her, but the real curse was that they caused the townspeople to fall into the same murderous trap than they had, continuing to dehumanize others and resorting to violence. "All you want to do is burn and murder stuff."
With the reference to the Salem witch trials, this is a direct confrontation of our country's history of religious violence driven by fear. Rather than keeping this safely at arms distance in the past however, the film shows how we today can echo that same mentality, banding together out of fear of the "other" and calling for violence, often fueled by religious voices. This is not just the past, but today's headlines.
What is complex in the film's portrayal of the witch is that, although she was once a little girl, she has now become a monster in her pursuit of vengeance, and thus poses a real threat to Norman and the rest of the town. Norman must now confront the evil witch in the final showdown of the film. So he goes into the haunted forest to confront her. It's the classic scenario of the hero's adventure to slay the dragon. Luke must destroy the Death Star. But, once again, "ParaNorman" unmasks this hero's myth with a much more complex insight into both the nature of human evil, and the shape of what true justice is about.
Rather than battling the witch -- as the plot of so many other movies -- Norman instead attempts to relate to the witch, telling her he understands what it's like to be an outcast. But the witch is threatened by this and tries to hurt Norman: The witch repeatedly shoots him with lightning bolts, and slams him against a tree until he is nearly unconscious,
Witch: "I'll make you suffer!"
Norman: "Because you want everyone to hurt just as much as you... you're just like them Agatha, you're a bully! ... You've spent so long remembering the bad people that you forgot the good ones. There must have been someone who loved you and cared for you. You don't remember them?"
Witch: "Leave me alone!"
Norman: "But you're not alone! You have to remember!"
At this, Norman takes the witch's hand and there is a sudden burst of white light, followed by a long deafening silence. The scene changes to reveal a beautiful woods, and a sad little girl holding Norman's hand. She tells him this is where her mom used to take her to read her stories with happy endings. Finally able to let go of her anger, she goes to rest under a tree. Her spirit leaves her body, able at long last to join her departed mother. Next we see the monstrous appearance of the zombies crumble away, revealing the ghosts of the deceased puritan towns people beneath. Now forgiven, their humanity is returned to them, and they too depart -- finally able to find their rest too after all these years. The last to go is the judge who condemned the girl to die. With his ghoulish appearance gone, we can see a look of remorse across his face, as he too is set free by to go to his rest.
"ParaNorman's" world of witches and zombies serves as a mirror to the reality of the terrible cost of revenge in our world, unmasking our own ability to become what we hate while calling that "good." As Norman says to Agatha, "Sometimes when people get scared, they say and do terrible things."
Despite all appearances, "ParaNorman" is not a movie about making us scared, but about helping us to confront our fear -- fear which can turn us into real-life monsters, and make us see a "monster" in the other. The film does not shy away from confronting the very real evil that people do. But in the end, what triumphs in "ParaNorman" is the power of forgiveness. This little cartoon about zombies shows us that real justice is not about payback, but about making things right again, about reversing the cycle of hurt. That's how we can undo the curse.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.