While the statue in ParaNorman of the feared witch closely resembles Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz, what if she really was a 12-year-old girl wrongly executed 300 years earlier who now would simply rather rest in peace than be haunted by memories that the local populace chooses to reinvent?
To be quite frank, I know that many of you are prevented from getting to the theater because of having children at home. I’ve never lost sight of that fact, as I was there right with you in the distant past. Having said that, I had a distinct advantage that is denied to most of you.
In that regard, I was divorced in 1973, my last year of law school. My ex-wife, who quickly fled to Arizona, did not fight me for custody of our 4-year-oldson.
On the other hand, without saying more, I was left trying to raise a child while I was also trying to raise myself. Fortunately, there were many drive-in movie theaters playing in the city, and I could regularly take him every weekend along with me. The first film was usually a children’s movie, and he would then fall asleep in the back seat of the car so that I could watch at least two “adult only” films. Make fun of drive-in theaters all you want, but they have a soft spot in my heart.
Which is a lead-in as to why all of you should make sure to see ParaNorman. Like last year’s Oscar winning Rango, it is an adult animated film masquerading as children’s entertainment. Sure, Norman has the apparent misfortunate of seeing “dead people”, but his visions touch a reality that will also touch your agonized soul.
As most of you know by this date, the plot masquerades as a threat to a small town on the East coast as a group of zombies and a terrifying witch are about to reappear from the grave and create havoc. What you don’t know is that the zombies were the judges at the Salem witch trials that took place in 1692, and the witch was a young girl who was wrongly executed because everyone in the process was scared to death.
Norman, voiced by the talented young actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, is a kid with a very big problem, namely the fact that he truly does see ghosts. This includes a deceased grandmother who knits in the family’s living room, an allegation that infuriates his father, voiced by Jeff Garlin. What’s a kid to do?
Norman also has a problem at school, where he is considered to be a freak. He’s constantly the subject of ridicule, which isn’t much different than the treatment received from his older sister, Courtney, voiced by the acerbically funny Anna Kendrick.
I took both of my grandchildren, Conner and Calin, to see ParaNorman, and they both truly loved it. However, don’t be misled, as floating underneath all of its childish joy is a dark story that Norman is left to unravel.
As Norman tries to help his delirious townfolk deal with the seven zombies who have appeared, he gradually discovers that it is they who are truly haunted. They are still wrestling with centuries of regret over having convicted innocent people of witchcraft, and they are running from the onslaught of the “Wicked Witch” herself.
But as the town is reduced to hysteria, Norman refuses to back down. Ashe hunts down the dreaded witch, he discovers that she is a 12-year-old girl who feels no sympathy for mankind. As Norman reaches out to her, he discovers that she is only a confused, angry specter seeking to find a way to rest in peace and rediscover a mother she lost over 300 years ago.
As a reminder of this ugly moment in our country’s history, let me refer you to this reference in the Pulitzer Prize winning biographical work by Kenneth Silverman, “The Life and Times of Cotton Mather” (1985). While Mather embarrassingly defended the decisions at Salem, the following is an exchange at trial with a young pregnant woman named Sarah Good, who was subsequently convicted and put to death.
Q.Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?
Q.Have you made no contract with the devil?
Q.Why do you hurt these children?
A.I do not hurt them. I scorn it.
Q.Who do you employ then to do it?
A.I employ nobody.
Q.What creature do you employ then?
A.No creature. But I am falsely accused.
Q.Why did you go away muttering from Mr. Parris’s house?
A.I did not mutter, but I thanked him for what he gave my child.
Q.Have you made no contact with the devil?
A.No. (Page 96)
After several crazed children identified her as a person who tormented them, the following exchange occurred:
Q.Sarah Good, do you not see now what you have done? Why do you not tell us the truth? Why do you thus torment these poor Children?
A.I do not torment them.
Q.Who do you employ then?
A.I employ nobody. I scorn it. (Page 96)
The magic of ParaNorman is that when the lad perceives that he is seeing ghosts, he is simply able to relearn our past, something that is largely forgotten by the adults surrounding him. As we condemn the violence that is going on in the Middle East today, isn’t it wise for us to recall what we have done in our own national history?
ParaNorman is a movie that you simply have to take children who are 8 years or older to see. While it may not mean much to them, children their own age were once put to death in this country for being witches, and that occurred less than 80 years before we wrote our Declaration of Independence. Five innocent people were hung on August 5th, and 8 more died at the gallows on September 22, 1692.
Maybe we would all be a little better off if our children, like Norman,could also see ghosts.