Near the beginning of high school, my friends and I got really into zombies. We created a small club, ZDT: Zombie Defense Taskforce (“task force” made into one word because if an acronym has 4 letters and no vowel, it’s really not worth acronymizing at all) that sought to prepare us and those we loved for the impending rise of the undead. While others were panicking and being eaten in the streets, we would be executing one of our numerous escape plans, many of which saw us crawling through the storm drains that ran under our neighborhoods. We circulated The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks incessantly between one another, and did “research” by frequently watching zombie movies.
Zombies have been used to represent a lot of things in media. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (and Snyder’s remake) famously uses the undead hordes to make a statement about American consumerism. The Walking Dead continues to innovate the symbolism that zombies can offer, depicting them either as the dark side of what humans have been or can become, or even as pictures of an unsettling peace or tranquility in the midst of human plotting and violence.
But one of my favorite depictions of zombies, though unexpected, is in the movie ParaNorman. Of all the interpretations I’ve seen, for all the nuance and big budgets that have been spent on zombie stories, this children’s movie may have one of the best messages conveyed by the shuffling deceased that I’ve ever seen.
A lot of people are scared by zombies. And that’s what this movie is all about. Fear. Fear, and community.
What’s Going On (Plot Stuff):
Norman is a kid who’s grown up in the town of Blithe Hollow, MA with the ability to see and talk to ghosts, much to the chagrin of his family, none of the members of which believe that he has this ability. And it’s not just his family. No one in town believes that Norman can actually see and talk to ghosts, making him the target of bullying at school and uncomfortable glances around town. Blithe Hollow itself, however, is a town founded on tourism for it being the site of puritans’ witch hunts years ago. Because of these hunts, the town is actually the setting for a witch’s curse which would raise the dead bodies of the judges who condemned her- a curse that only Norman, with his abilities to talk to the dead, can undo. And so, given instructions by his reclusive uncle, Norman sets out with a ragtag group of his peers to undo the curse of the witch and restore peace to his town.
Why It’s So Dang Good:
From the beginning, ParaNorman gives a startlingly and, frankly, uncomfortably accurate picture of what being a young person today entails. Specifically as it pertains to the expectations put on them. Norman’s parents insist that they’re understanding and supportive, yet are adamant against believing that Norman is interacting with his deceased grandmother regularly. Not only adamant, but even personally offended at the notion. There’s a stark disconnect between what is expected of Norman (in his mannerisms, grieving process, etc.) and what he actually puts forth. He’s not a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination, but his not fitting a particular mold is irksome to everyone around him. Particularly his family. Listening to Norman’s family talk is like reading an annoyed 40-something’s facebook post lamenting the state of the milennial generation.
A common theme throughout the movie is solitude. Norman is constantly asserting that he prefers being alone to being around others. In the opening sequence, Norman’s walking to school, and we see him sheepishly avoid other people on the sidewalk, but when the camera reveals the numerous ghosts around him, we see him interacting naturally and excitedly with them. That’s where his true self is.
This is where it becomes important to start talking about zombies in this movie. Because Norman loves zombies. His whole room is decked out in posters and pictures of slack-jawed ghouls chasing after people’s brains or reaching gnarled hands out of burial plots. This fascination is a direct reflection of Norman’s character. He is living in both the land of the living and the land of the dead. In one he’s alive, in the other, he just sort of slinks through, and living in that tension has left him less than comfortable in his own skin.
Eventually, Norman meets Niel, a chubby kid who’s bullied for his weight, but is relentless in wanting to hang out with Norman. “I like to be alone,” Norman tells him. And in probably the most important line of dialogue in the whole film, Niel replies, “So do I! Let’s do it together!”
And that becomes the crux of the movie, really. Norman’s character arc, as he journeys across the town with Niel, Mitch (Niel’s brother), his sister, and Alvin, the kid who bullies him, is one of moving from isolation into community. It’s not perfect, an in many ways not even appealing, but it works.
And this makes me consider the zombie again. They’re these mindless, flesh-eating, falling-apart-at-the-seams creatures that sort of embody being ultimately solitary. They don’t really think, they don’t consider, they don’t have needs. They’re self-sufficient in that they have no real goal. They just are. And yet, they move in groups. They’re known for hordes, and as any zombie fan can tell you, that’s where the danger is. But even so, being in a group doesn’t change it. A horde of zombies is just a larger gathering of individuals.
The trick, I think, is letting the group change you. Allowing yourself to be open to others and not just trip and shuffle through like a zombie.
But beyond the dynamics of individuals and community, ParaNorman talks a lot about fear. Norman has an uncle who he’s forbidden from seeing because he can also see and talk to ghosts. The uncle reveals to Norman the need for him to find the place where the witch is buried and read from a book so that the witch’s curse will be undone. There’s this passing on of responsibility that makes Norman afraid. What if he didn’t do it right? What if he messed up?
This reminded me of the moment in which Jesus tells his followers that it’s better for him to go so that the Holy Spirit can come and do its thing. Because, honestly? That proposition sounds absurd. Here we’ve had Jesus hanging out, showing us what it’s like to be near God and bring God’s kingdom, and now he’s saying that he’s peacing out so that a spirit can come and work through normal people? Doesn’t that seem like there’s margin for error there?
It’s always fascinated me, the relationship of the Holy Spirit being both a gift and a responsibility. There’s comfort in its presence, but being faithful in being a vessel by which it might work? That’s the hard part. That’s the part we spend our whole live’s figuring out.
And that’s the sort of anxiety that Norman feels upon receiving this duty. It’s the same sort of pressure we might feel when we begin to consider how to use our abilities, talents, and interests to do something positive, something with meaning. He’d always been more comfortable with the dead than the living, but now that there’s something at stake, he second guesses himself. He’d always loved zombies, but now that he has to actually deal with the zombies of those who accused the witch? Maybe not.
No one in the movie is without fear. But ParaNorman challenges us to break the cycle of letting fear dictate how we interact with our communities. How?
At the climax of the movie, Norman confronts the witch whose spirit is the mastermind behind all of the chaos that falls upon Blithe Hollow. He can’t fight her, and the book that was supposed to solve all the problems didn’t. So how does Norman handle it?
He tells her a story. He tells her her story.
And in this telling, he’s not eloquent or verbose, there’s no word choice that makes you sit and reconsider everything you’ve ever learned. It’s honestly a little messy, a little sloppy and hesitant. But it’s sincere, and rooted in a place of compassion and sympathy. Because he sees himself in her story. And suddenly it’s not his story or hers. It’s theirs.
When fear creates a cycle of violence and isolation, finding each other in our own fears and insecurities, and deciding to tell a story together… That builds community. That makes something good come about.
The Short and Skinny:
Community is better than isolation.
Don’t let fear keep you from doing good, and don’t let it drive you to do evil.
Community is best created by earnestly searching others’ stories. Oftentimes, you’ll find part of your own in there, too.
Zombies are creatures that are all on their own, even when they’re in a group. You are not a zombie.