11-year old Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) watches a cheap '70s Zombie film in his family room while his Grandmother (Elaine Stritch) half-watches him. She worries that the movie is too violent for Norman, but doesn't stop him. Norman's Dad, Perry Babcock (Jeff Garlin) pushes the family room door open and tells Norman to take out the trash. Norman gets up, walks past his grandma, enters the kitchen, grabs the overflowing garbage bag and walks it outside while his ditzy older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) blabs on her cellphone with some classmate about "girl stuff." Norman returns to the kitchen, ready to finish watching the crappy Zombie movie when his parents stop to talk to him. His mother Sandra (Leslie Mann) asks what Norman is up to and he says "Just watching a Zombie movie with Grandma." The kitchen goes silent. Norman's grandmother has been dead for years, and Norman's ability to still speak with her unnerves everyone in the house. Perry demands that Norman stop with his "talking to the dead" thing and to be normal. Courtney calls Norman's ability a joke and tells Norman to prove his power. He responds that Grandma knows that Courtney keeps pictures of a shirtless high school quarterback tucked in her sock drawer, and she told him about them. Courtney angrily storms out of the room. Perry and Sandra argue over whose fault the "talking to the dead thing" is. Sandra says it must've been Norman's crazy Uncle Prenderghast who taught him, even though they haven't seen him in years.
The next morning Norman readies for school with his various Zombie-themed appliances: a zombie toothbrush, alarm clock, backpack, clothing, etc. As he leaves the house he peeks into the family room, where he sees the glowing green visage of his grandmother sitting on the couch. They say their goodbyes, while Courtney peaks her head into the room to see if she's there. Courtney can't see her. Norman lives in the centuries-old New England town of "Blithe Hollow," whose entire tourism industry is built upon the witch burnings it was known for in the 1700s. On the walk to school, Norman exchanges "Good Mornings" and "How do you dos" with various dead spirits in the neighborhood, but he nervously avoids contact with the living. Upon arriving to school, it's apparent that Norman is an outcast. Other students make every effort to avoid him, and the illiterate school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has taken to scribbling insults on Norman's locker: this morning's insult is "FREAK." Norman opens his locker and withdraws a bottle of windex and a rag, and he cleans the "FREAK" from his locker. Across the hall, a chubby red-headed kid, Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi), is erasing the word "FATTY" from his locker. The two briefly meet eyes, before Norman closes his locker and walks to class.
In drama class Norman has been cast as a pilgrim in the school play, which tells the story of the Blithe Hollow Witch who killed seven puritan settlers before being hanged from a tree. A female classmate, dressed in a stereotypical witch's costume (black hat, green warted nose, broom) complains that their play is completely historically inaccurate. Their teacher, Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein), argues that the goal of the play is not historical accuracy but rather tourism dollars for the town. During the rehearsal, Norman's mind drifts and in his mind he watches as the class-stage begins burning away and ghostly faces appear all around him. Mrs. Henscher yells at him and snaps him out of the vision. The rehearsal does not go well. Neil, who plays a tree, accidentally falls over onto half of the cast, including Norman and Alvin. With school ending, Norman goes to his locker, which was recently vandalized by Alvin: "C U TOMOROW FREAK!" He heads home, taking the route through the town square. At its center, he sees a bronze statue of the Blithe Hollow Witch--the same Witch from the play. Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) appears and circles the nervous Norman. He reminds Norman that he too can see the dead, and that the pair are very alike -- a thought that frightens Norman. He tells Norman about his experiences in the town graveyard. Neil arrives and scares off Mr. Prenderghast, much to Norman's relief. Neil, like everybody else in the town, knows about Norman's strange visions. He asks Norman how it works and which dead people he can see. Norman says that not everybody who dies becomes a ghost. Those that do either died suddenly or have unfinished business on earth. Neil tells Norman about his recently deceased dog, who was run over by an animal control vehicle. He asks if Norman can come to his house to see if it still haunts the yard. Norman accepts the offer and the pair head over to Neil's. Neil's older, athletic brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is in the driveway, changing the oil in his van. Mitch notices Norman and asks if Neil knows that he brought the town's "weird kid" with him. Neil defends Norman and the pair head into the backyard. Sure enough, Neil's recently run-over and bifurcated dog is running through the backyard, in spirit form, and Norman describes to Neil everything that the dog is doing. Neil thinks that Norman's ability is amazing.
It's the night of the school play and everything is going well in Mrs. Henscher's eyes. Norman is suddenly swept up in a vision, and sees himself falling through space before being caught by a malevolent tree who tells him that everybody is going to die. Norman is shaken out of his vision by Neil, and Norman interrupts the play and shouts "Everybody is going to die." Many in the audience are frightened by his announcement, while others laugh. Norman is promptly taken home by his parents, and his dad grounds him. Norman tells his mom that the vision wasn't a joke and that he wishes his dad would understand him. Inside, Norman asks his Grandma why she became a ghost and didn't move on to "Paradise" to be with Grandpa. She says that her mission is to stick around and mentor Norman.
Mr. Prenderghast returns to his dilapidated home, enters his bedroom, and grabs a strange leather-bound book from his desk. As he turns to leave he suddenly keels over, with the book firmly in his hands. His spirit leaves his body, and the frustrated and now dead Mr. Prenderghast realizes that he is a ghost, and has a mission to accomplish before he can move on to Paradise.
At school, Norman runs into the bathroom and shuts himself in a stall, unaware that Alvin is occupying the stall next to his. Norman has a vision of the stall coming to life: the toilet overflows, the tiled walls ripple in waves, the walls close in on him. Alvin intently listens to Norman's frightened yelps. Norman crawls up onto the tank and is surprised as the toilet seat flips open, revealing the ghost of Mr. Prenderghast within. His ghost leaps from the bowl and floats before Norman. He catches Norman up-to-speed. He tells him that every year for the last three centuries someone in Blithe Hollow has had the ability to communicate with the dead, and that on the same night every year that person has been tasked with going to the grave of the Blithe Hollow Witch and reading a book aloud. Mr. Prenderghast has been doing it for years, and was going to do it tonight, but died before he could do it. Since Norman is the only other "dead-speaker" in town, the task has fallen to him. The book is at Mr. Prederghast's house, in his dead body's hands. Norman must go and retrieve the book and read it at the Witch's grave or all hell will break loose. Alvin, in the next stall, only hears half of the conversation, but is eager to hear more. He puts his ear to Norman's door. Mr. Prenderghast, having delivered the mission to Norman, grows bright yellow. Realizing that his mission is complete, Mr. Prenderghast's ghost explodes brightly, sending the stall door, and Alvin, across the room. Norman nervously smiles at Alvin, and runs. Alving chases Norman through the school but loses him at the school entrance. He shouts that when he next sees Norman he will be "D-E-D dead!"
At home Norman's parents are going out for a date. They put Courtney in charge of Norman, since he is still technically grounded. Shortly after his parents leave, Norman sneaks out and rides his bike toward Mr. Prenderghast's house. Along the way, he nearly runs over Alvin, who is attempting to impress a pair of girls with his break-dancing skills. Embarrassed, Alvin chases after Norman. Norman arrives at Mr. Prenderghast's house and carefully makes his way inside. Mr. Prenderghast's home is infested with all types of vermin, and is overflowing with garbage and cobwebs. Norman, using his cellphone light as a guide, makes it to Mr. Prenderghast's study, where he finds his corpse gripping the book he's meant to take to the burial site. With rigor mortis setting in Norman has to wrestle with Mr. Prenderghast's body to free the book. When the book is finally free, he sneaks from the house into the woods down behind it. After a lengthy trek, he comes to the burial site where he sees 7 gravestones arranged in a circle. With the sun quickly setting Norman opens the book and begins to read aloud. To his surprise the book is nothing more than a fairy tale -- Sleeping Beauty. He reads a few sentences, but experiences nothing out of the ordinary. Alvin arrives and steals the book away from Norman. He taunts Norman and tells him that he'll tell the school that he found Norman reading children's books at a cemetery. Norman tries to take the book back, to complete the mission, but the sun fully sets and the ground begins to quake. Dark clouds, with green lightning, erupt over the cemetery. One-by-one the tombstones crack and their occupants, 7 of them, awaken. The zombies circle the pair of them and Norman, able to speak with the dead, overhears the most prominent of the seven say "STOP!" Alvin freaks out and the two flee the cemetery.
Courtney, who has discovered that Norman snuck out, goes searching for him at this only friend's house: Neil's. She knocks on the door and Mitch answers. She immediately falls in love with Mitch, and clumsily asks if his brother knows where Norman is. Neil remembers what Mr. Prenderghast had said to Norman in the town square and assumes that he went to the graveyard. The trio piles into Mitch's van and Courtney continues to flirt with the very aloof Mitch. As they speed along the rural road en route to the cemetery they nearly hit Norman and Alvin who emerge from the woods with the Zombies hot on their tail, and Mitch, distracted by Norman and Alvin, suddenly flattens a man standing in the road. Mitch exits the van and inspects the body. He quickly discovers that it's the Zombie leader and punts his head into the woods. The van is surrounded by Zombies and Mitch steps on it, unaware that the leader has latched himself to the back of the speeding van. The group frantically speeds through town, nearly running over a motorcycle cop, Sheriff Hooper (Tempestt Bledsoe), who turns around and pursues the van. The high-speed chase comes to a stop when the van veers off the main road, rolls down an embankment, and miraculously lands in a parking space without killing anybody. The Zombie leader, in pieces, follows after them. Norman, who had phoned the nerdy history girl in his class, has theorized that the ritual didn't work because he was at the wrong burial site. The graveyard he was at had 7 headstones: one for each of the seven puritan pilgrims killed by the Witch 300 years earlier. The town would have buried the victims in marked graves, but they wouldn't have buried the Witch in the same spot, and records of her burial site should be at the Town Hall. The group sneaks into the Town Hall which is filled with hundreds of thousands of records. Norman starts looking through the paperwork, one-by-one.
The seven Zombies have regrouped and head in the direction of town hall. They run across various townspeople and are frightened by their 21st century ways. The townspeople terrorize the Zombies (turning the stereotype on its head) and seek to tear them apart limb from limb.
Inside the town hall, Norman and the others are having no luck finding the Witch's burial information. With the townspeople setting up a blockade at the entrance to the Town Hall, the others flee, leaving Norman to find the information himself. The Zombies outsmart the townspeople and make their way into the Town Hall and find Norman flipping through books. Afraid, Norman runs upstairs and onto the building's roof and starts climbing the rickety ladder leading to the Town Hall's tower. On the ground, Norman's parents arrive and discover that Norman is responsible for the riot taking place in the Town Square. Various townspeople are now throwing flaming objects into the building, hoping to smoke the Zombies out. The dark, swirling, evil clouds appear over the town square, and an evil Witch-like face materializes within them. Green lightning bolts rain down on Norman, and one nearly misses Norman, hitting the leather-bound book instead, frying it. Norman, gripping the book, falls from the tower. He is taken up in a vision from the past. 300 years earlier the seven puritan pilgrims, in their corporeal non-zombified states, act as judges over a Witch who, it turns out, is just a young girl, younger than Norman. She begs for clemency, saying that her ability to talk to the dead is outside of her control and does not make her a Witch. The lead judge hands down his harshest punishment, and condemns the young girl to death. Norman watches as she is lead away to die.
Norman awakens back inside the Town Hall's library and is surrounded by the seven Zombies, and is disgusted because he knows what they did. They sentenced a young girl to die for something outside of her control that he is also guilty of. He speaks with the lead Zombie who shows great remorse for his judgement and says that they killed her because she was different. The Zombie tells him that the Witch enacted revenge on them for their cruelty, and that they must prevent her from bringing her wrath upon the innocent people of Blithe Hollow one night every year. To calm the Witch, who is perpetually a child, one who can talk to the dead must visit her grave and read her a story to calm her and keep her trapped for another year. Norman asks where the Witch was buried, and the lead Zombie agrees to take him there.
The townspeople, who have congregated in the town center are prepared to storm the Town Hall to kill the Zombies, but their plans are foiled as the children slowly exit the building, guarding the Zombies behind them. Norman tells them that the Zombies mean them no harm and that they are afraid of them. The ghostly clouds swirl above them and send down lightning which shatters the bronze Witch statue at the center of the square. The ominous clouds cackle with hatred. The townspeople see the error of their ways and allow the lead Zombie to take Norman to the Witch's grave. Norman's parents drive Norman, Courtney, and the lead Zombie to the edge of the forest and carefully make their way into the woods. The trees crack and explode ahead of them, barring all but Norman from entering the forest. At its center Norman sees the young girl from his vision, Aggie (Jodelle Ferland), only glowing bright yellow with violent electricity coursing through her. She is next to the tree from which she was hanged. Norman attempts to approach her, but she blocks his every attempt. First she sends sharp roots up out of the ground at Norman and then she tears the ground apart, sending large chunks of it hundreds of feet in the air, with Norman upon them. Norman leaps toward her and extends his hand to meet hers.
Norman and Aggie, now appearing as she did in his vision, stand in the sun-lit happy forest of her dreams. Norman explains to her that he understands her anger, because he too is the town pariah, and while he occasionally wishes that others would suffer as he does, he reminds himself that he isn't an evil person. She tells him that this was her favorite spot because her mother would bring her here and read her fairy tales, which would help her sleep. Norman realizes that the act of reading the Witch a story was to help her sleep for another year. He tells her a story about herself in a "once upon a time" fashion, but explains that he doesn't know the ending to her fairy tale because she has to write it -- she can either go on terrorizing the town as a Witch or accept that the seven judges who killed her feel remorse for their actions and move on to Paradise. Aggie, content with the second ending, agrees to move on. She glows bright, and her facade peels away, revealing a spirit beneath it which floats away.
In the town square, the Zombie pilgrims dissipate in similar ways, revealing ghostly green spirits beneath, which float away. Norman's parents find him asleep against a tree in the forest. They wake him and treat him like a hero. Back in the town square the once violet mob has calmed and joke about how crazy they were acting. Courtney sums up the courage to invite the unusually cool Mitch on a date with her to see a movie, to which he responds "Sure, My boyfriend loves Chick Flicks!" Courtney rolls her eyes and leaves. At home Norman watches the continuation of his Zombie film from before, while his ghostly grandma sits on the couch behind him. His father tiptoes into the room, having finally accepted Norman's ability as a gift. He asks where his Grandma is sitting. Norman gestures to the couch and he sits directly beside her. He exchanges a few words with her, unable to hear her response, but the pair recite the same words in unison about Norman's crappy Zombie movie. Courtney enters along with Sandra, and the whole family watches the movie come to an end.
In a post-credit sequence, a Laika stop-motion animator displays the process of creating and animating Norman as a stop-motion puppet.
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