"Nobody's stronger than forgiveness": breaking the cycle of fear and violence in ParaNorman

Occasionally I will re-post here on the new blog some of my favorite pieces from the old one. The following was originally published on August 22, 2012.

Did This Ever Happen to You

A marble-colored cloud
engulfed the sun and stalled,

a skinny squirrel limped toward me
as I crossed the empty park

and froze, the last
or next to last

fall leaf fell but before it touched
the earth, with shocking clarity

I heard my mother’s voice
pronounce my name. And in an instant I passed

beyond sorrow and terror, and was carried up
into the imageless

bright darkness
I came from

and am. Nobody’s
stronger than forgiveness.

—Franz Wright, God's Silence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 22

- - - - - - -


Let me begin with a thesis: The recent stop-motion film ParaNorman is a sophisticated parable about communities' exclusion of those labeled different than the norm, the underlying fears that motivate such exclusionary acts, and the common resources capable of halting and redeeming the resultant cycles of fear and violence. These resources turn out to be the skills of telling and listening to truthful stories about ourselves and others, the power and necessity of forgiveness (even on the part of those once abused or oppressed, now abusing and oppressing others), and the courage to take up these daunting tasks peaceably -- that is, to take a stand in the face of violence, having renounced violence oneself.

(Spoilers to follow.)

Written by Chris Butler and co-directed by Butler with Sam Fell, ParaNorman seems at the outset to be a rather straightforward "kids' movie" within a certain recognizable genre. It quickly becomes evident, however, that the story being told is not as ordinary as one might expect.

Norman Babcock is an outcast at home and at school, and for a simple reason: he sees the ghosts of dead people, regularly talks to them, and doesn't hide the fact. His dad thinks he's a weirdo, his mom isn't sure how to relate to him, and his sister can't stand him. At school people part the way for him and whisper as he trudges along; he keeps a wet rag in his locker to wipe off the word "FREAK" scrawled anew each day on his locker door. A bully, Alvin -- a cinematic Moe from Calvin and Hobbes if there ever was one -- makes his life miserable. The one gleam of light in this daily darkness is the friendly overtures of Neil, a similarly bullied "fat kid" who doesn't let it get him down. When Norman says he prefers to be alone, Neil agrees: He just wants to be "alone together."

Norman lives in Blithe Hollow, a town founded by Puritans and known for its trial and execution of a purported witch nearly 300 years ago -- in fact, tonight is the eve of that anniversary. The legend is that at her sentencing, the witch (imagined as an ugly old green-nosed hag) cursed her accusers, and that all seven of them (the judge and the jury) went to their graves bearing this curse.

A kooky uncle who can also see and speak to ghosts finds Norman and (just before dying himself) tells Norman it's up to him to keep the curse at bay, that very evening before midnight. Unfortunately, before he can figure out quite how to follow his uncle's instructions, the seven Puritan accusers rise from the dead as zombies and start pursuing Norman (albeit very slowly) and whoever is with him. As Norman tries to escape and figure out how to kill or at least send them back to the grave, he picks up a ragtag crew: Alvin, Neil, his looks-obsessed sister Courtney, and Neil's beefy but dim-witted brother Mitch. Unsurprisingly, once the town discovers the dead walk the streets, they form a mob (armed with pitchforks, shotguns, and bowling balls) and chase both Norman's crew and the zombies to city hall, where in a frenzy they seek to kill not only the zombies but Norman himself, too, for bringing this terror upon them.

An unexpected series of events, however, reveals the true nature of what is going on. The undead Puritans don't want to kill Norman or anyone else: they want their curse undone. They want peace in death, not more death for others. Norman sees the reality of what happened three centuries before: the person sentenced by the court to death for witchcraft wasn't a green-nosed hag, but a child like him -- a little girl who happened to be playing with fire (both literally and figuratively), and found out by the wrong people. Caught and punished unjustly by these townspeople so blindly fearful of her, she in her anger and fear of them in turn cursed them to their graves, so that they would never know the peace she herself was robbed of.

Now Norman sees, as do his sister and and oddball friends: The curse isn't limited to the Puritans, nor are its consequences merely to be trapped in a living death. No, the curse is on the entire town, for the very cycle of fear of the unknown and the turn to violence has engulfed the mob standing outside city hall, trying to burn the place down. And it won't end with the death of either the zombies or Norman himself. Something else, something new, has to happen.

So Norman leads his crew and the zombies outside to meet the mob where they stand. After stilling their frenzy, he tells them the story he just learned. Following Norman's lead, his unlikely fellows -- a resentful sister, an overweight outcast, a former bully, and a (later revealed as gay!) beefcake -- bear witness to the crowd that what Norman has told them is true, and further appeal to them to let go of their fear. For in fact, they have nothing to fear; the zombies don't want to hurt them, they only want to find the means to pass on peacefully.

As the truth dawns on the mob, the camera pans across their feet, as each and all drop their weapons: a club, a pitchfork, a shotgun, a bowling ball. "At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first . . ." The town lays down their instruments of violence, with eyes opened by the truth, freed from their bondage to fear of the other as threat.

But this isn't the end. The ghost of the witch, now enraged, begins to wreak havoc on the town. So Norman's parents take him, his sister, and the zombie Puritan judge to the witch's unmarked grave. There Norman engages in a climactic encounter with the witch's ghost, not with force or deception, but just as before with the crowd: with a true story. In fact, the way in which previous "ghost-seers" like him had kept the witch at bay was by reading a fairy tale to her, that is, they read her a nice bedtime story to palliate her righteous anger and get her to "sleep" for a little while longer.

But Norman knows better. That only puts a bandage on the wound, it won't heal the town's history or the witch's hurt. So he tells her a different story: her own. Though she tries to stop him in every way she can (with fantastic and terrifying powers), he re-narrates her life, without blushing or overlooking the hurt and the wrong and the injustice of it. But finally -- with what feels like his last ounce of energy -- finally he helps her to see. And she sees not only her tragic situation, but also the tragic nature of her accusers: they weren't pure evil or all powerful; they were afraid of her, hard as it is to believe. And though what they did was unspeakably wrong, to inflect on them and thus on the town what they inflicted on her is only to become a monster like them, when she could choose otherwise and free the town of its curse.

Reverting for a moment to her living form, Aggie -- for that was her name -- tells Norman of her sadness, how she misses her mom, how she was only playing with fire. Norman comforts her, but urges her to let go and be at peace, and to do so she has to forgive. Aggie asks Norman: What is the ending to the story he's telling? Norman replies that that's up to her.

After considering, the witch opts for peace; Aggie forgives those who knew not what they did, and so gives up her spirit, passing on peacefully to be with her beloved mother. The zombies, too, pass on, but not before changing from undead to dead, that is, from zombies to ghosts: they go on as themselves, the curse undone, rather than into one more mode of accursed existence.

Norman walks through the rubble of the town, listening to his neighbors' conversations. A former outcast, he surveys those once divided from him and from one another now chatting and listening and laughing with one another. Returning home, he plops in front of the TV for his usual routine of horror flicks. Typically alone with his movies and the ghost of his grandmother, his family joins him, Norman's dad even going out of his way to acknowledge the previously doubted presence of his deceased mother.

Whether in his town, with his new friends, or here at home with his family, Norman isn't alone anymore. The dividing walls have come down; the cycles of fear and violence have been broken; the weirdos and the bullies have embraced; the town knows its history, broken and redeemed. No, neither Norman nor his town nor his family is alone; no longer are they isolated from one another.

In Neil's words, they're alone together.

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