The Films of Tim Burton All Occur in the Same Fictional Universe

This is an update to a piece that originally ran on January 8, 2015.

Tim Burton—a director often noted for his visual vernacular, his love of the macabre, and his dedication to heroic outcasts. A director who creates worlds where the mundane and the fantastically strange collide messily, often resulting in magic or terror. There is a certain flair, a flavor to Burton films that easily set them apart from the work of other directors and the majority of mainstream cinema.

But could it be more than that? Could these films actually exist in the same world—could all of them apply? And would that finally explain why every character looks like Johnny Depp?

(A word on criteria: none of his short films or television episodes were used. None of the films he produced were considered aside from Nightmare Before Christmas, which was added to the list since the tale was entirely Burton’s creation, even if he didn’t direct it. All real-life people—such as Ed Wood and Margaret Keane—are treated as fictional characters in this context.)

First things first. Back in the 18th century there was a family in Liverpool, England: the Collins. They came to America in 1760 and set up a fishing port in Maine, but one of their daughters decided to leave the family home after marrying a judge by the name of Crane. Magic had always been a part of the Collins family, though they didn’t know it—the daughter was a witch in her own right, condemned to death after being found out by her husband (even though they had a young boy named Ichabod). The son Barnabas was cursed to become a vampire by a family maid who also had the gift for magic, and he was not seen again for 200 years.

Barnabas Collins, Ichabod Crane's mother

That Collins family maid was so adept at magic that her great-great granddaughter ended up a with extreme paranormal abilities, and opened up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in a 1943 time loop.

Meanwhile, Barnabas’ nephew Ichabod became an inspector in New York City, a man obsessed with science and the law. He traveled to Sleepy Hollow in 1790 and fell in love with a witch, saving the town from a dreaded headless horseman. The horseman was the undead spirit of a Hessian soldier from Germany, and his last name was Shreck. (FYI, schreck means “fright” or “scare” in German.) Later on, one of his kin would come to create one of the greatest corporations in Gotham City.

Headless Horseman, hessian, Sleepy Hollow, Max Shreck, Batman Returns

Not all of the Collins family traveled to the United States, of course. They split off, married into different families (some of them well, some of them terribly). Several generations on, one of their poorer descendants became a barber in Fleet Street, London—a romantic young man by the name of Benjamin Barker. He was sent to prison in Australia on a fake charge by the judge who wanted his wife. When he returned years later and found his wife was dead and his daughter was being raised by the very judge who imprisoned him, he went on a murder spree with his former neighbor Mrs. Lovett. He had adopted a new name too: Sweeney Todd.

Todd was such a legend for his crimes that his face was drawn in penny dreadfuls for years to come. Young Alice Kingsleigh was quite partial to them, which may have caused her to impose his visage on a friend she made in her travels through Wonderland—the Mad Hatter. (And to impose the face of Mrs. Lovett on the big-headed Red Queen.)

Alice Kingsleigh, Sweeney Todd, Mad Hatter

Todd’s daughter Joanna escaped the clutches of the judge and married a sailor named Anthony. Years down the line, one of their descendants married into the Wonka family. Willy Wonka became a famous candyman, responsible for the most incredible sweets in the world. Eventually, he left his factory to Charlie Bucket and decided to retire to America in a large gothic mansion on a hill. There, he made delicious cookies, but one day—while staring at some heart-shaped shortbread—he had the idea to make a man instead. He made that man in the image of his younger self, and named him Edward. But he died before he could complete Edward, which left the poor boy with scissors for hands.

Willy Wonka, the Inventor, Edward Scissorhands

Edward was eventually discovered by a woman from the town below, Pam Boggs. After being introduced to her whole family, he quickly fell in love with her daughter, Kim. Though the two were not destined to be together, Kim always remembered Edward and told their story to her granddaughter—Lydia Deetz.

Kim Boggs, Lydia Deetz

Lydia’s father—Charles Deetz—had once been a psychic showman who performed under the stage name The Amazing Criswell. He was never the most successful act around, but he did once give some great advice to director Ed Wood about selling himself as a creative. (And without that advice, Plan 9 From Outer Space would have never been made.) Charles eventually decided he wanted out of showbiz and settled into an incredibly boring life, but his attraction to artistic types led to his unlikely match with Delia Deetz.

The Amazing Criswell, Charles Deetz

Lydia ended up making friends with the ghostly couple in their new country home, which led the whole family into an encounter with a pretty nasty spirit named Betelgeuse…

But Betelgeuse was not the man’s name in life. His spirit had been twisted and warped due the violent nature of his death on the streets of Gotham… when his name was Thomas Wayne.

Wayne family, Betelgeuse

Thomas Wayne’s son had great difficulty dealing with the death of his parents, and it prompted him to become a superhero vigilante named Batman. Batman grappled with many villains in his battle to keep Gotham safe, the first being the Joker—the man responsible for Thomas and Martha Wayne’s deaths. Then he went up against the Penguin, a gentleman born with the name Oswald Cobblepot. Oswald was abandoned by his parents as an infant when they dropped him into a freezing river, disgusted with his perceived deformities.

The Cobblepots were new money in Gotham, self-made millionaires who came from simple and carefree backgrounds. They changed much about their lives and appearances to fit in with the Gotham elite—even their names. Long ago, Mr. Cobblepot was a bicycle-loving man-child by the name of Pee-Wee Herman, who went on a journey and met a waitress named Simone. Following some of Pee-Wee’s more outrageous adventures, he decided he wanted to settle down, but Simone wouldn’t have it unless a lot of things changed. And Oswald wasn’t the only child they abandoned….

Pee-Wee Herman and Simone, the Cobblepots

The Cobblepots had another son who they were terrified to find had the ability to turn into a wolf. They gave the boy to a circus that came into the city, likely the very same one that had the Flying Graysons on their bill. He eventually became the circus’ ringmaster under the name Amos Calloway, where he employed a young man named Edward Bloom, and helped him find the love of his life.

Unfortunately, while the circus was traveling through Maine, Amos found himself ensnared by the very same witch who cursed Barnabas Collins, and was forced to bite a member of the Collins family—turning young Carolyn into a werewolf herself.

Penguin, Amos Calloway, Angela Bouchard, Carolyn Stoddard

One Christmas, an imposter takes the place of Santa Claus, giving gifts that terrorize and maim. The imposter has a deathly pale appearance, and a chilling laugh. In no time, the U.S. military has been mobilized to stop the man. It may seem like an overreaction, but the country had good reason; they assumed that households across the world were actually being attacked by the Joker (whose body disappeared from the morgue following his apparent demise after battling the Bat).

Jack Skellington santa

One boy who remembers that Christmas is a lad named Victor Frankenstein. He’s an aspiring filmmaker and scientist who lives not far from the town below Edward Scissorhands’ home. His next-door neighbor is a woman named Margaret Keane—she remembers the whole business with Edward from when she was a little girl. His odd garden sculptures, imaginative haircuts, and wide-eyed innocence prompted her to create her own artwork featuring children with abnormally large eyes. A long time ago, she divorced her husband after he stole and sold her work under his name.

Little Victor has a dog named Sparky who dies after getting hit by a car. This prompts the boy to resurrect his dog using special information he learned in his science class. Years later, Victor does indeed become a filmmaker—his first feature stars a young man who looks much like himself, also named Victor, entrapped by a dead woman who wants his hand in marriage. Corpse Bride is a runaway success, and it’s hardly a wonder that Victor Frankenstein’s first film features death so heavily… after all, he is well acquainted with it, having owned an undead dog for so many years.

Victor Frankenstein and Sparky, Victor and Victoria

As for the Joker—he wasn’t that strange imposter Santa, but he did survive his encounter with Batman. Working a much longer game, he decides to get some surgery, wear makeup at all times, and eventually worms his way into public service. He does well, making it far enough to become President of the United States, James Dale. Right before he’s about to reveal his identity and take over the country, the world makes first contact with aliens who turn out to be less than friendly. The invaders are stopped before they can wipe out the population—one of the first victims of their cruelty is chat show host Nathalie Lake, the daughter of Ed Wood’s old flame Dolores Fuller—but James Dale meets his end at their hands. The U.S. never realizes that they had a super villain as a president.

Joker, President Dale

But this encounter with aliens does prompt humanity to put much more effort into their space program, and by 2029 there is a space station named Oberon carrying both humans and a host of simian occupants. Captain Leo Davidson goes after his friend Pericles when the chimpanzee is lost while exploring an electromagnetic storm. He comes out in the year 5021 to find a planet occupied… by humanoid apes.

Planet of the Apes

And there you have it.

Do I still get to claim sanity after this?

Emily Asher-Perrin had this weird moment at Christmas after watching Batman Returns and suddenly all these dominos fell in her brain and she hasn’t been right since. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr. Read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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