Monday, August 20, 2012


I took my girls to see the movie ParaNorman last weekend. I hated it in just about every way it is possible to hate a movie.


Norman Babcock, the protagonist, lives in a small town with a Puritan ancestory, and a curent population of the most unsympathetic prolish characters imaginable. Incredibly, the town proudly embraces its history of having burned a witch some 300 years earlier, even going so far as to represent it in an annual school play. The witch's specific crime in life turns out to be talking with the dead, but upon her conviction she cursed the town, promising to zombiefy her accusers at some future opportunity. Borrowing from The Sixth Sense, Norman, the protagonist, has atavistically inherited the ability of talking with ghosts, of which there are a fair number. Shunned as a weirdo by everyone, Normal eventually saves the town from the zombies and the witch's shost.

The town isn't actually Salem, MA, so the writers could construct a tendentious history of the witch trials in which the witches were just misunderstood little girls who needed someone to love them. In reality (as I understand it), the Salem witches were accused of specific crimes like making other people sick, or crazy, or having their crops or livestock die. Now, I believe these trials were a travesty -- because I don't believe in witchcraft. But the Puritan judges did believe in witchcraft, which makes them superstitious and ignorant, but not, I think, evil, given that if someone actually did the things the witches were accused of, they would in fact be guilty of a capital crime in the context of a subsistence agricultural society. But in the movie's telling, the town is guilty of an offense against multicultural diversity. The witches were real, but the town was afraid of what it didn't understand.

The town's Puritan heritage is retailed by the school's obnoxious drama director as she hector's her charges to put more oompf in their performances. So Puritanism itself, rather than Salem's dysfunctional political and social life, takes the full blame for the victim's death.

The obvious anti-Puritan propaganda isn't my only objection. The movie was made using CGI, but it's style evokes the Claymation technology of a half century ago, to little artistic merit. The movie also has extraordinarily intense scenes, some more appropriate to an adult horror film than a children's animation. (So far, my daughters have not admitted to any nightmares.)

To give credit where it is due, the pacing was kept taut. I didn't enjoy the film, but I was never bored. Several of the ancillary characters where laugh-out-loud funny; Norman's older sister, in particular, was the perfect sendup of a high school girl, with her petty status games, obnoxious irritation with her little brother, and unsuccessful attempts to flirt with his best friend's muscle-headed older brother. (It was all for naught; he reveals himself to be homosexual at the end of the movie. What a lovely thing to have to explain to your children.)


Anonymous said...

As I recall, the problem with the Salem witch trials, and witch trials in general, is not that the judge and prosecutor believed in witchcraft, but that witnesses presented false testimony.

There is still no safety against that today. Particularly in civil suits where the defendent has deep pockets.

Dr. Φ said...

Prof Hale: Exactly. As the Wikipedia article describes it, Salem Village was beset by feuding families apparently willing to make up this kind of thing. Additionally, as even Cotton Mather said at the time, the standards of evidence were inadequate.

But in the movie's telling, the Puritans merely "hated and feared what they didn't understand." Piffle.

Anonymous said...

because I don't believe in witchcraft.

Wut? You need to get out more.

Dr. Φ said...

Samson: Well, to be specific, I am skeptical in the extreme that "witches", shamans, or whatever, by means of incantations, potions, or states-of-mind, can produce their desired outcomes. Occassional appearances to the contrary are sleight of hand or coincidence. Our minds like being fooled.

Anonymous said...

Some more than others.

Dexter said...

"We don't exist" is just what witches and the Devil want you to think! =)

Anonymous said...

I am skeptical in the extreme that "witches", shamans, or whatever, by means of incantations, potions, or states-of-mind, can produce their desired outcomes.

Have you even met anyone who's really into this stuff? Some of these people are in actual contact with actual demons (which I *hope* you believe in...).

Dr. Φ said...


Look, I'm not here to judge anybody's personal experience. I tend to look benignly on, and try not to quibble with, anybody's testimony about being drawn closer to God and Christ via encounters with supernatural phenomena. I tend not to look benignly on mass hysteria, show trials, and grave miscarriages of justice.

So if you have a story to tell about how a demon scared you into getting right with Jesus, fine. But if your belief in demons causes you to swallow whole a child's story about how a daycare worker turned her into a mouse, well, then we've got a problem.

You asked me if I believe in demons. Since their existence is recorded in the Bible, yes. And I have heard the personal testimonies of missionaries who relate their encounters with demon possessed individuals. And I have walked the streets of Salvador, Bahia and seen what a culture organized around witchcraft looks like.

And my default reaction to any particular claim is still skepticism tinged with instrumentality.