It's not every animated film that features zombies, witches, and corpses falling on top of troubled children. But, just in time for Halloween, LAIKA pictures gives us ParaNorman, about a troubled little boy who saves his small-town from zombies. As I watched this movie, I couldn't help but wonder if this movie was less about zombie wars and more about culture wars.
The film introduces us to a marginalized and bullied middle-school boy, Norman, who sees dead people. In fact, he speaks and converses with the ghosts of the dead, but seems socially paralyzed around the living. He hears his parents arguing about him in the next room, mostly because his father is embarrassed of him. "He's afraid," Norman's mother reassures him. "Not afraid of you; he's afraid for you."
As the movie goes on, Norman's town is threatened by a curse that a hanged witch (the town of Blythe Hollow is obviously based on Salem, Massachusetts; kitschy tourist industry and all) pronounced on the village some three-hundred years earlier. The zombies aren't just any old disembodied corpses, searching for brains. They are the re-animated remains of the Puritan judge and jurors who sent this "witch" to her death. In the end, we learn that the alleged sorceress was, in fact, a child who, like Norman, just seemed "different."
On the one hand, I had to smile a bit at the casting of the zombies as Puritans. After all, Massachusetts Puritans didn't just persecute witches but also my Baptist ancestors. On the other hand, though, I wondered whether the Puritans here weren't a stand-in for all of us who claim a Christian witness in contemporary America.
At the very end of the film, one of the leading male characters mentions his "boyfriend." And Norman's embarrassed Dad and worried Mom are similar to the kinds of themes that often show up in "coming out" stories these days. And, of course, there's the theme of "fear" of the "other," which many of our neighbors believe motivates a Christian sexual ethic. Perhaps all that's coincidental, but I doubt it.
That doesn't, mind you, make me think of this movie as subversive or dangerous. Quite the opposite. I think it might be one more window on how the people we are called to love view us. The movie itself veers at times toward empathy. If there's any group easier to be demonized by Hollywood, one would think it would be undead Religious Right activists. But the Puritan zombies in this film are seen, ultimately, as motivated not by hate but by confusion and fear. They are cursed and damned not because they're evil but because they are wracked with guilt.
I think some empathy in the other direction is called for as well. Is it true that some past generations of Christians have used Caesar's sword for ends Jesus expressly forbade, that is the advancement of his kingdom and the purity of his church? Yes. Is it true that some Christians have sometimes spoken to the outside world more in fear than, as Jesus did, with tears and pleadings for repentance? No doubt. Does that mean the caricatures of persecuting Puritans apply to those who maintain that human flourishing depends on certain limits to sexual and economic and other forms of rapaciousness? No.
Still, it's good at times to eavesdrop on our neighbors' conversations, at least those they make into movies and invite us to watch and consider. Such depictions might encourage us to think about our tone. After all, the church of Jesus Christ isn't made up of judges and juries, at least not of those outside the church (1 Cor. 5:12). We are, though, made up of those who were once zombies. We were walking in a kind of living death, driven by our insatiable appetites (Eph. 2:1-3). We were haunted by our demons, and by our future damnation. The only thing we have to say for our guilty consciences is the lived life and shed blood of Another.
A movie like this one is easy to lampoon. It's filled with some cliches of the righteous outsider, the marginalized hero, the crusading moralists. But perhaps underneath all of that is a muffled cry for some conversation, from one guilty conscience to another, seeking for some way to break an old, old curse.
Dr. Russell D. Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.