Release Date: January 10
Paranorman is one of those films that contains a lesson I’d like my kids to learn, but delivers it in a package that’s unlikely to help them in the long run.
This stop-motion comedy-horror is built around the experiences of Norman Babcock, a young boy who is blessed with the unfortunate gift of being able to see dead people. Unlike his cinematic brother in Sixth Sense, though, this is not so much a terrifying as a humorous experience. However it still sets him apart from the boys around him, making him the butt of jokes and the target of bullies. But one day Norman learns that his gift comes with a responsibility: he must carry out a ritual every year or risk the town being taken over by zombies. It appears that three hundred years ago the village elders put to death a witch that threatened the region. If Norman doesn’t read from a sacred book, her spirit will return to ruin the town.
Doesn’t sound much like a kids’ film, does it? But Paranorman is the latest in an increasing canon of children’s films that turn to horror and the occult for a storyline. Most recently Hotel Transylvania told the story of a teenage vampire girl and Frankenweenie, the tale of a boy who brings his dog back to life. And behind these are other dark childish tales like Coraline, The Corpse Bride and A Nightmare Before Christmas. But Paranorman goes further than most in mirroring a very adult industry aimed at producing thrills and chills:
• Norman’s friend Neil shows up wearing a Jason-style hockey mask in a scene almost lifted from Friday The 13th: A New Beginning
• Neil’s dog Bub is named after the ‘trained’ zombie from the George Romero film Day of the Dead
• The ringtone for Norman’s phone is the theme music from Halloween
• And of course, it’s probably no accident that Norman bears the same name as the chief character in Psycho
These are just a few of many horror movie connections and they’re not likely to be picked up on by the average primary school child – I hope – but they legitimize a form of entertainment that has problems for Christians. Horror films tend to rely on gore to frighten their audiences, and the deeper they dig the more they desensitize them to practices and injuries we should stay sensitive too. They balance good with evil, or tip the scales in the dark side’s favour, in order to achieve the conflict plots thrive on, when in reality God has never been threatened in the slightest by the devil’s machinations. Finally, they tend to lump both sides in the category of entertaining fiction – something Paranorman doesn’t manage to resist. “Not believing in an afterlife is like not believing in astrology,” exclaims Norman’s mother.
It’s a pity really because Paranorman has a very relevant theme that would benefit Christians and non-Christians alike. Norman discovers that the ‘witch’ burned by the town elders was not evil, just a misunderstood girl who was gifted like he was. Their fear drove them to condemn out of hand a person they didn’t understand. Likewise, the witch’s ghost Aggie has allowed her anger at being rejected to turn to hatred:
Norman: I don’t think you’re a witch. Not really.
Aggie: You don’t?
Norman: I think you’re just a little kid with a really special gift who only ever wanted people to understand her. So we’re not all that different at all.
Aggie: But what about the people who hurt you? Don’t you ever want to make them suffer?
Norman: Well, yeah, but what good would that do? You think just because there’s bad people that there’s no good ones either?
Sure, it amounts to a familiar sermon on the virtues of tolerance. But it also reminded me that though it’s terrible when non-Christians bully Christians for being different, there’s an equal and opposite sin. People fear the judgment we warn them about and often respond with hatred, but opposing their bigotry with our own is not the response Jesus is looking for. Sometimes as believers we can become so opposed to the ‘world’ that we forget it’s made up of people who are very much like us. Rather than be content with their suffering because they made us suffer, we’re supposed to look for ways to bless our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
So will I be taking anyone to see Paranorman? No. I’ve no desire to reinforce too much that’s unworthy. But it still bears thinking about.