The Witches tells the story of a young boy (Jasen Fisher) who learns from his cigar-smoking grandmother (Mai Zetterling) that in every town lurks evil witches who love nothing more than killing children. These witches also know how to disguise their hideous appearances. “You can never be sure,” the grandmother says, “if you are gazing at a witch or just a kind lady.” While on vacation in an English resort town, Luke and his grandmother discover their hotel is hosting a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a front for the witches of England. The meeting is presided over by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), “the most evil woman in the world,” who plans to turn the children of England into mice—and she decides to use Luke and another boy, Bruno, as test subjects.
In his landmark book The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes about the importance of fairy tales, frightening fairy tales, in the psychological development of children. For kids, he argues, life can seem as incomprehensible and terrifying as any scary movie. By eradicating monsters from fairy tales, well-meaning parents “missed the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with: the monster he feels or fears himself to be…” Scary fairy tales or scary movies created for children give them a way to process their fears of themselves, and of the world. “If our fear of being devoured takes the tangible form of a witch,” writes Bettelheim, “it can be gotten rid of by burning her in the oven!”
I’m starting to realize that the, “scary movie for kids,” movie may be my favourite movie subgenre. There’s even a parallel association in my own life: since I came into this world the day before Hallowe’en, my childhood birthday celebrations always blurred a bit with that holiday.
Which goes some way to explaining why Paranorman bugged me so much. In addition to being inappropriately crass and vulgar, it rendered itself ineffective because it was trying to deconstruct all this in the service of a lame platitude: that there are no real monsters, only people you don’t understand.
Frankly, I’d rather go witch hunting with grandma.