By Donovan Schaefer
Laika studio’s phenomenal animated film ParaNorman, like all good kids movies, works on several intellectual levels, delighting our children but also using the fairy tale genre to address thematic complexes with grown-up implications. (What follows is a short critical essay and not a review, and thus contains spoilers.)
ParaNorman’s protagonist, Norman, can see and speak to ghosts. As he walks to school in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, he is greeted by the dead rising up from the sedimented layers of the town’s history. Over the course of the film, Norman learns from the spirit of his late uncle and a series of apocalyptic visions that the town has been cursed, and that he must read a particular book at the gravesite of a witch executed by the townspeople 300 years ago to keep the dead from rising. Norman is prevented from reading the book and the dead—the judge and witnesses of the trial—break out of their graves and storm the town. As Norman learns more about the history of the town—in part by talking to the zombies themselves, who are now being chased and brutalized by Blithe Hollow’s current residents—he discovers that the witch who was executed was a young girl, Agatha Prenderghast, and that it is her spirit’s power that brings them back to life not to terrorize the town, but to punish her killers. The book Norman was to read to her was a bedtime story–a fairy tale–designed to put her soul to sleep for another year. Norman finds Agatha’s spirit at her graveside and pleads with her to forgive her murderers. Persuaded by his appeal for mercy, she relents, and she and the walking dead pass on to another world.
Let’s begin by owning the atrocity at the heart of the narrative. White, American bodies—the inheritors of the much-vaunted “Judeo-Christian tradition”—were responsible for killing women and children—not to mention slaves and local indigenous populations—with unthinkable brutality. It is easy, for white Americans, to bury the violence of whiteness and of Christianity and deny this horrific inheritance.
This sense of an inheritance, of responsibility for shameful acts committed in the past, is at the heart of this particular recreation of the zombie movie genre. In this case, the zombies are retrieved from death in order to be confronted, over and over again, with the horror of their actions. Like Agatha, they are dispatched by the ecstatic savagery of an angry mob. We are led to understand that over time, this cycle of ironic justice has caused them to see their crimes in a new light. The dominant affect with which they are now resigned to the memory of their actions is shame: sorrowful eyes, slumped shoulders. Their own desires—the binding force of their bodies—have become despicable to them. At the climax of the film, when Norman persuades Agatha to release her captives, the judge’s twisted body falls away and we are left to contemplate his face—still, unsmiling, joyless—as his spirit slowly dissolves. This is the face of shame, a body that is so mistrustful of its own avenues of happiness that it refuses to even allow itself momentary joy even as it is released from an excruciating curse.
But this introspective correction is the fairy tale dimension of this story: that bodies who have committed atrocities and are given the benefit of centuries and a theater within which to watch their crimes play out, over and over again, will repent, will attach shame to their past actions. The liberal fantasy at the heart of this film is that someday those unthinkable narratives will resolve themselves into something that looks like justice: a joyless, shamed body and an oblivion for killers and torturers. What happens outside of the fairy tale, when those who commit atrocities never learn to find their actions shameful, who insist on maintaining their righteousness? What happens with the war criminals and the despots, the Saddam Husseins, Donald Rumsfelds, and Bashar al-Assads who cling to dignity, ignoring the fury of the world, blaring their righteousness as they go down, hissing and spitting, until the end?
This is not to speak against fairy tales, only to call attention to the ways that they incite our desires and in the process lace our politics with emotion.