Young people willing to point out the wrongs of the world have long been demonised by society. As thinly veiled threats of violence against ‘witches’ suddenly resurface, targeted at those unwilling to keep quiet while society breaks down, ParaNorman is a film well worth revisiting this October.
I have long argued Laika Studios is one of the most underrated production companies in cinema. It puts out visually and thematically innovative stories for viewers of all ages – in a way that has brought great acclaim to the likes of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, but does not seem to bring the same level of plaudits Laika’s way.
Perhaps it is due to the painstaking nature of stop-motion animation, which probably limits just how many films the studio is able to put out. That also means that each film is a much bigger risk than the average studio job, though. And so, each time Laika rolls out a new release, I badger everyone I can to go and see it – because art like this can’t survive big financial losses.
There is a different reason why I am flagging up one of their productions now, though. ParaNorman might not be new – and it was a modest success, taking $107.1 million at the global box office from a budget of $60 million – but it really warrants a fresh viewing, especially as it re-enters theatres, 10 Halloweens on from its original release. On top of a beautifully told narrative that will have you laughing, frightened and in tears throughout its impeccably paced 92-minutes, it manages to make timely points to about the demonisation of young people who refer to society’s shortcomings.
The story follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he struggles to fit into an insular Massachusetts community called Blithe Hollow. As you no doubt gathered from the title, Norman is not just any 11-year-old boy – he sees dead people. In fact, he often speaks to them. Almost no one believes him, however, isolating him from his family, who write it off as a neurosis brought on by the death of his grandmother; who still speaks to him while watching TV in the living room.
Norman’s sight doesn’t only give him the ability to see the dead, though. A ghost, as is established in many other stories, is a soul who met an untimely death, and is doomed to roam the Earth in increasing anguish, until the scales of justice are rebalanced. So, Norman’s vision also grants him insight into a festering wound at the heart of the community.
Like other areas of Massachusetts, Blithe Hollow hosted a historic atrocity; the murder of someone judged to be a ‘witch’ because they possessed knowledge that inconvenienced the received ‘wisdom’ of the day. And also like many other towns where ‘witches’ were murdered, Blithe Hollow is utterly unrepentant in that knowledge. In fact, the town has spent centuries building up a mythology to excuse its horrific past – and actively commodifies it.
The stereotypical green-faced-hook-nosed imagery adorns everything in the town, from its ‘Welcome’ billboard, to its garish casino. Oddly enough, the ghost of the condemned individual does not take the discovery of this commodification of her torture in good spirits. Breaking free from her tomb, the tormented soul of Aggie Prenderghast causes havoc throughout Blithe Hollow, though never enough to bring her peace. And amid the chaos, a mob suddenly turns on the town’s only hope to end the chaos.
Because like Aggie before him, Norman’s ability to talk to the dead – and address the wrongs of the past – is seen by the town as inherently evil. To try and solve this by admitting the town got anything wrong is to challenge their perceived reality and threaten the economic and social structures they have built on that great wrong. In this moment, Norman, like Aggie, is a reflection of a growing number of young people in the real world – condemned as traitorous and evil by simply pointing out that the ghosts of past misdeeds are still with us, and our society is doomed if we cannot address them.
Greta Thunberg and countless other young people willing to speak their minds on the state of things are regularly attacked on this basis. They have come of age in a world that is eating itself alive, but saying anything to that end inconveniences the ideological myths everyone has bought into as ‘the world’. So, calls for change from the status quo take on more of an apocalyptic feel to true believers of late capitalism than the Arctic being on fire, or nuclear Armageddon returning to the agenda. As such, naysayers must be dealt with by any means necessary…
My relating that state of affairs to ParaNorman might have still been metaphoric a week ago. But that was before the story from Grant Middle School in Grant, Michigan, broke. The school has hosted ugly scenes in recent weeks, when some residents took issue with a painted mural on its grounds. Created by a local student who won a competition with a design encouraging kids to “stay healthy” and love each other, it soon brought an assortment of mouth-foaming psychopaths out from the woodwork to accuse the artist of creating ‘LGBTQ propaganda’, while claiming it featured a depiction of Satan, and a message promoting… witchcraft.
The teenage artist was summoned to a school board meeting, where she faced questions from an assortment of furious adults (it is not remotely clear how many were even parents). Seeking to allay concerns, she stated that she had “put my artwork up there to make people feel welcomed,” while adding that ‘evil’ was “not what I’m a part of. That’s not what I’m trying to put out there.” God forbid you should try bringing people together in America, though…
As the adults’ accusations continued, she explained one icon in her painting which had been labelled a “Satan mask” was actually an unrelated character from a video game, while a hand-print in the image accused of promoting witchcraft was actually a hamsa hand – considered a symbol for the protective hand of God in many cultures.
The young artist reportedly left the meeting in tears, after which, one brave, and not at all idiotic adult stood up to say, “I feel that she did a really good job finding excuses to defend the things she put on. None of us are that stupid.”
As of 2021, just over one-fifth of US residents professed a belief in witchcraft. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center suggested only 0.4% of people in America identified as Wicca or Pagan. Either that means a meteoric rise for paganism in the US in the seven intervening years – or more likely, a very large majority of that 21% are like the ‘concerned citizens’ banding together to menace teenage artists in Michigan.
It is a worrying sign of where we are that, in the absence of meaningful change to prevent the literal end of the world, that refusal to address the shortcomings of our historical and ideological shortcomings is manifesting in increasingly ominous, unhinged ways.
This Halloween, I couldn’t think of a better creepy film to revisit than ParaNorman on that basis. It finds a way to address those conflicts and still deliver a happy – if bitter-sweet – ending. Ultimately it reminds us that we can right the course we are on, if the misfits, the weirdoes and the naysayers can stand together against the reactionary demands of the establishment mob.
If you would like to see more of Jack’s opinions on witches and ideology, check out his short documentary ‘Witches and Bitches‘ on YouTube.