By Nick Hoobin
Watching the movie ParaNorman, by Laika, seems to be a straightforward ordeal. A clever straightforward ordeal, but one that still hands out its message on a silver platter and expects the viewer to walk away satisfied. If they interpret the film at face value, they would believe that the movie is about Norman the ghost-seeing-boy and his duty to save the town from the witch’s curse. They would see that the witch was a sweet little girl, prosecuted three hundred years ago by religious zealots—zealots who turned out to be just scared people who made mistakes. The viewer would see that the real monsters were the current-day townspeople who were channeling the same fear that started the curse in the first place. The movie ends wrapped up in a nice bow when Norman convinces the witch that she should move on with her life and has punished the town long enough. Norman would make amends with his family and friends, and the town would return to normal. The viewer would walk away feeling like they saw a (barely) PG rated feel-good movie. I won’t ruin that sentiment. ParaNorman is about moving on with your life, and is about saving a town from the sins of its past. However, I invite the viewer to dig deeper, to find a more nuanced version of the script.
I subscribe to a different interpretation of the movie, one that is even darker than the surface level script. Agatha—a witch sentenced to death three hundred years prior—is not a distant relative of Norman, she is Norman’s twin sister. Well, she was Norman’s twin sister: she died when they were both 11, the age Norman is stated to be during the film. I believe that before the events of the movie Aggie was kidnapped and later murdered. Her body was found, but the killer was not. She was never able to be brought justice, and sadly never will, but this movie is not about justice: it’s about moving on with your life.
While he may appear as an 11 year old boy in the movie, Norman is an adult living in a mental health institution. Not only is he unable to process the death of his sister, he is unable to cope with the events after her passing. Norman witnessed the kidnapping of Aggie, and he knows, or at least he thinks he knows, the identity of the assailant. He immediately told his family, the authorities, and the prying townspeople what he knew, but there was one problem: no one believed him. Agatha and Norman were always viewed by those around them as disturbed, spooky troublemakers. The twins were treated as outcasts, and the townspeople and other children would bully them and spread rumors about “those creepy twins.” Even their own family were afraid of them. How others viewed the twins is very apparent during the beginning of the film—people are afraid of Norman’s ability to speak to ghosts, he has strained relationships with his father and sister, and he experiences bullying at school. When Aggie was reported missing, the logical conclusion in everyone’s minds was that, because she was a disturbed child she simply ran away from home. It was only when her body was found that people started taking Norman’s claims that he saw her being kidnapped seriously. But by then the criminal had already known he was a suspect, and he was able to spend extra time making sure there was no evidence leading back to him. If everyone—his family, authorities, the community—hadn’t been so judgmental towards Norman and Aggie, she would have been found before she was murdered. Instead the townspeople were too scared of Aggie to admit that maybe Norman was right.
The world the viewer sees in the film is a reality that Norman created in his mind as a coping mechanism. It is a mental exercise designed to punish those he blames for his sister’s death—quite frankly everyone. The story of the witch’s curse is the best vehicle for that punishment. In the movie, Aggie’s curse is designed to reveal the prejudice that the townspeople hold against people they view as different than themselves. In his reality, Norman views this as karmic retribution against those who doubted him, who treated him and his sister like they were something to be feared. The viewer sees that the zombies are the ones responsible for the witch’s death sentence and their zombiehood is their punishment. In Norman’s reality the zombies are the ones who could have best rescued Aggie or brought her justice. Most prominent is the judge, who Norman blames for letting the killer go when there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. The less than stellar portrayal of police in the movie is Norman viewing them as incompetent at their jobs. Norman does have a few friends, but he doesn’t let them off easily—they’re given stereotypically negative portrayals during the course of the movie, and they don’t always have Norman’s best interest in mind. He even punishes his family by showing his father and sister as uncaring and constantly siding against Norman, and his mom as dismissive. Norman’s reality is designed to satirize and then punish those who he felt didn’t put in enough effort to prevent the loss of his sister.
In order to maintain the integrity of the imagined world that adult Norman has created, there must be a device that anchors himself to that reality. By device I don’t mean a gadget, but instead a symbolic object or person that reminds Norman to keep himself focused on his goal. An example of one of these devices in other mediums is explored in the episode “The Constant” of the TV show LOST. In the episode Penny, the lover of Desmond, acts as his constant and allows him to make his way back into the present after time traveling to the past. What serves as the anchor in ParaNorman? Trash. Blithe Hollow, the town the movie takes place in, is covered in trash. There’s trash lining the fences, the streets, and the house of Mr. Prenderghast. When the script delves into the paranormal, Norman needs to place more trash in the scene to keep up the illusion that this is reality. If the viewer were to rewatch the movie they’d notice that every scene that involves Norman talking to ghosts has trash placed in the shot, oftentimes in the corners. When Norman has to imagine a large swath of land—such as the town—he covers it in trash. When the town descends into a zombie apocalypse—something only possible in his imagination—the town becomes even more trash filled. When interacting with Mr. Prenderghast, who’s not actually Norman’s uncle, Norman paints the man as a filthy person whose house is covered with trash. To over-simplify the movie would be to say that it is actually a movie about trash.
The use of trash as Norman’s constant raises the question of why. Why is trash used to anchor Norman to his imagined world? It has been discussed previously that Agatha was not only kidnapped, but murdered. On its own, Norman witnessing his sister being kidnapped when they were children was traumatic enough. The refusal by the town to believe that she was in danger at all made him even more devastated. But, the event that sent that trauma off the charts was when Aggie’s body was found. Norman’s world was thrown upside down, his claims that she was kidnapped were right all along, he knew who did it—but it was too late. It makes sense that trash is used as an anchor for the imagined Blithe Hollow because Aggie’s body was discovered in a landfill. Trash reminds Norman of his goal: to punish the townsfolk for not listening to him and writing off his sister’s situation as a troubled child running away from home. It’s no coincidence that the opening scene of the movie—after the zombie b-movie within a movie—ends with Norman taking out the trash. He walks out of his house, trash bag in hand, and enters the imagined world of the filthy Blithe Hollow.
Aggie was kidnapped, and Norman witnessed the event and the perpetrator. He told the authorities and the townsfolk, but no one believed him. Then her body was found in a landfill, and Norman was finally taken seriously. Who, then, was the alleged killer? That would be Mr. Prenderghast. Mr. Prenderghast is not Norman’s uncle, it’s just the role he plays in Norman’s fabricated reality. The viewer sees, during the movie, that Norman treats his uncle like a complete stranger. Norman is even scared and angry with him, which is significant considering Norman’s not even afraid of zombies or a rampaging witch. I believe that Norman’s hostility towards his “uncle” is informing the viewer that Mr. Prenderghast is the man that took his sister away from him. He was a garbage man that would frequently stop and chat with the twins, until he grew obsessed with Aggie. One day he decided that she needed “rescuing” from mistreatment so he kidnapped and later murdered her to “protect” her. It should be stated then, that Norman delivers his punishment to Mr. Prenderghast quite early in the movie by killing him off. This swift “death” is absolute, as even his ghost is quickly banished.
Norman “kills” the person who he saw kidnap his sister, yet he’s still punishing the entire town with witches and zombies. Why is he going through all this trouble when his fantasy should have ended with the death of Mr. Prenderghast? As discussed earlier, the townsfolk didn’t believe Norman that Aggie was kidnapped, and they thought that she was instead acting out by running away from home. When her body was found, people finally took Norman’s allegations against Mr. Prenderghast seriously, and he was arrested and his case went to trial. But by then Mr. Prenderghast knew that he was the prime suspect so he made sure to cover up his tracks. He was acquitted because of a lack of evidence. Norman sees the inaction of the townsfolk, their disbelief, fear of Aggie, their false sympathy, as indirectly leading to Aggie’s death. If they would have acted sooner, and if they would have believed him, then maybe he would still have his twin sister. The witch’s curse is Norman, through the guise of Agatha’s ghost, taking revenge against the townsfolk. Aggie’s rage is his own.
Compare this elongated punishment to the swift death that Mr. Prenderghast was given; Norman’s sense of morality is in full view here. The man responsible for his sister’s death receives and absolute end, while others are given a long punishment, but ultimately receive a happy ending. Norman eventually becomes friends with the zombies, and the townspeople make it out of the night alive. Norman’s original goal of eternal punishment doesn’t go as planned. Instead he makes peace with those in his life. This is foreshadowed early on in the movie—during the rehearsal of the play—when Norman’s drama teacher throws away the script. The script itself becomes trash, signaling to the audience that the reality’s intent has changed, that Norman will have to make a decision, and that the film will eventually transition from punishment to acceptance.
After making peace with the zombies Norman next makes peace with his friends. This is shown in the movie with the scene outside the courthouse. The mob is about to hurt the zombies and Norman, but his friends intervene and stand together with him. They convince the mob that the zombies are just scared people, just like the townsfolk. When Aggie was kidnapped, his friends were at first sympathetic to his allegations, but they—like the townsfolk—soon started to believe that Aggie was just troubled and ran away. In the film Norman is shown having a falling out with his friends, which mimics the real life falling out he had with them. As an adult he finally realizes that his friends were just as upset about Aggie’s murder as he was. They were trying to help him in their own way, and it was not their fault that they couldn’t do anything.
Next Norman makes peace with his family. Earlier in the film his mom was shown as dismissive, his father was cast as very disappointed with Norman, and his older sister… well was a typical teenage girl. Norman uses these negative portrayals because, like his friends, he doesn’t think that his family did all they could to stop the murder from happening. His family in real life, like in the imagined world, were scared of Norman and Aggie. Norman believes they treated the twins like they weren’t true members of the family. It wasn’t until adulthood, and the end of the movie, that Norman realized that his family did love him and Aggie, and that they too, were upset about her disappearance and her fate.
Creating a reality to punish others he views as responsible for Aggie’s murder was not Norman’s only goal. The person he blamed the most was himself. Norman felt like it was his fault that Aggie was kidnapped. The twins had a fight the day Aggie decided to leave with Mr. Prenderghast. In the movie Norman gives a speech—during the confrontation with the witch’s ghost—about how an innocent child built up rage and sought revenge against those who they felt were responsible for their predicament. A child who held onto their rage for years. That person needed to instead let their anger go and move on with their life—that they needed to let this punishment end as there was nothing more that could be done. Norman was not giving this speech to Aggie’s ghost. Instead it was a speech directed to himself. Child Norman is telling adult Norman that it’s time to get his life back, that it’s time to move on from Aggie’s passing. He doesn’t have to forgive anyone, but everything that could have been done, was. In the movie this speech then causes the scenery to shatter (Norman’s imagined world shattering) and he convinces Aggie’s ghost to move on (convincing himself to move on). He set out to punish those around him, but realized that he was punishing and blaming himself, and that it was time to stop this childish anger.
I presume that after the curse is lifted Norman wakes up from his fabricated reality and is able to check himself out of the mental institution. Everyone (save Mr. Prenderghast) is given a happy ending as Norman has decided that they’ve been punished enough. The town returns back to normal after the zombie apocalypse. Norman reconciles his relationship with his family, his friends, and most of all himself.
However, the movie doesn’t end with Norman waking up. It ends with a shot of Blithe Hollow, covered in even more trash…