I’ve been rewatching Beetlejuice, a movie I’ve been madly in love with since I was 9 years old, and trying to figure out what makes it work as well it does. I think to understand Beetlejuice, and why it’s a high point of Tim Burton’s career, it helps to understand what it could have been: a much darker, less comedic film that comes off as the insane, creepy evil twin of the 80s classic that many of us grew up with.
In Michael McDowell’s original script, we’re introduced to the Maitlands, our charming young protagonists, only to watch them die a violent, graphic death, trapped in their car and screaming for help as they drown. Later, as ghosts, they exhume Betelgeuse, the psychotic manifestation of a winged demon who spends the rest of the movie trying to straight up murder the house’s new owners and defile their older daughter (the younger daughter is merely mutilated).
Tim Burton read this, apparently, and thought, “YES.” But also, “I’ve got some notes.” Another writer was brought on to help with the story, and eventually the whole script was rewritten by a third writer (Warren Skaaren), who drastically changed the tone of the project at Burton’s behest, making it more witty and comedic, less surreal and sinister. And that’s how pure concentrated nightmare fuel became one of the best death-related comedies ever: an oddly life-affirming, wholesome fairy tale that could be considered an offbeat, cartoonish Harold and Maude for the children of the late 80s.
In the screen version, we meet the Maitlands on the first day of their stay-at-home vacation. They’re up and about at 6:45 AM; she’s wearing an apron, he’s listening to Harry Belafonte and working on his miniature model of their idyllic town. They are young, square, and in love, and the only shadow cast on their happiness is the fact that they haven’t been able to have children. Their death, in contrast to the original script, is quick and relatively painless: swerving to avoid a dog in the road, they crash through a covered bridge and end up in the river. I’ve always wondered whether the last shot, of the shaggy dog sending them crashing down, was an intentional visual pun invoking the concept of a shaggy dog story—their anticlimactic demise coming on like the end of a bad joke. Given the rest of the humor, it certainly wouldn’t be out of place…
Adam and Barbara return home, find The Handbook for the Recently Deceased, and start coming to grips with the realization that they’ve somehow shuffled off this mortal coil, but aren’t able to leave their house. Enter the new tenants, the Deetzes: neurotic, hip, and benignly dysfunctional. Charles is a real estate developer whose nerves are shot; moving to Winter River, Connecticut is his attempt to relax and recover from a recent breakdown. Delia, his wife, is a sculptor who misses the hip, bohemian life in New York; with the help of Otho, the world’s most pretentious interior decorator, she begins remodeling the house. Finally, Lydia Deetz makes her entrance, gothed out to the max, viewing everything through the lens of her camera (the camera is a constant prop until she meets the Maitlands; when her father offers to build her a darkroom, she dramatically replies, “My whole life is a darkroom. One. Big. Dark. Room.”)
Lydia’s character took the place of both an older and a younger (9-year-old) daughter in the original script, which explains why the role demanded someone who could believably balance between vulnerable kid and savvy young adult (she’s described by Barbara as a “little girl” and refers to herself as “a child,” but is also just old enough that Betelegeuse’s attraction to her is merely pervy and distasteful, not totally obscene). Winona Ryder was 16 when the movie was released, and she manages to play Lydia as a smart, dry-witted, precocious young woman who can match her stepmother quip for sophisticated quip, but isn’t jaded enough to ignore the Maitlands’ clumsy attempts at haunting her family.
As she later tells the Maitlands, “Well, I read through that Handbook for the Recently Deceased. It says, ‘Live people ignore the strange and unusual’…I myself am strange and unusual.” The line is more or less played for laughs, as Ryder’s stagey, deadpan delivery of the last line seems intended to indicate that Lydia might be taking herself a little too seriously, but she’s absolutely right: she’s an outsider, and it makes her special, and the fact is that everything that happens in Beetlejuice revolves around her from here on out, even if Barbara and Adam Maitland seem to be the more obvious protagonists.
Tim Burton is always at his best when he’s telling a story that centers on some version of a childlike adult: Pee-Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Jack Skellington—his early career is built on a veritable parade of odd, enthusiastic, well-meaning manchildren (I don’t want to get into Willy Wonka or Alice—the pattern is there but Burton’s remakes didn’t work nearly as well for me.) Lydia Deetz fills almost the same role in Beetlejuice, but she gets to be the precocious oddball who is also the voice of reason, the wise child in a world full of petty, distracted, or misguided adults. In a sense, the whole movie plays out like a wish fulfillment fantasy for bored, attention-starved children of the 80s: once Betelgeuse seizes on Lydia as both a sexual object and a way back into the world of the living, her flakey, self-centered parents are finally forced to focus on the fact that she’s in trouble, while Adam and Barbara spring into action to save her.
In the end, defeating Betelgeuse brings everyone together happily under one roof—unlike the first version of the script, which had the Maitlands shrinking and moving into the miniature model version of their own house, or another which had the Deetzes moving back to New York, leaving Lydia to be raised by the Maitlands. The movie closes with all four parental figures delighted by the fact that Lydia passed her math test. Charles is more relaxed, Delia is happier and more successful as an artist (her cover of Art in America hangs in the study), and Barbara and Adam finally have a child that they can dote on in a corny, adorable, stern-but-loving way that includes plenty of Harry Belafonte. In short, Lydia is surrounded by a non-traditional but completely nuclear family that centers upon her and her wellbeing.
Interestingly, she herself hasn’t changed her personality, but she certainly seems happier, more outgoing, and in place of her formerly all black, goth-y style, she now sports a white shirt and even some plaid as part of her school uniform (though there’s still plenty of black in the mix—the change is just enough to show that she’s incorporated a bit of the Maitland’s wholesome style into her own). Speaking of which, the Maitlands aren’t just ghosts in the sense that they’re no longer living; in a way, Adam and Barbara can be seen as being tied to the past in many ways. As Otho quips, they’re Ozzie and Harriet; she wears aprons around the house, he’s obsessed with Harry Belafonte hits from the late 50s; it’s not just that they’re straight-laced and traditional—they seem like they’re from a completely different decade when compared with quintessential 80s yuppies like the Deetzes.
In fact, Burton seems to be playing around quite a bit with various wacky generational elements in this movie. Besides the Maitlands being quirky throwbacks to the Eisenhower administration, there’s the casting: even if we completely put aside the fact that Burton had to be talked out of going after Sammy Davis, Jr. for the role of Betelgeuse (which is still something I’m struggling to picture, to be honest), there’s Robert Goulet as real estate tycoon Maxie Dean, as well as Dick Cavett, who shows up as Delia’s agent. Between Belafonte, Goulet, and Cavett, Beetlejuice seems hell-bent on populating its late 80s setting with icons of suave (yet wholesome, non-threatening) early 60s cool….
Clearly, many directors’ personal nostalgia directly informs their work, but there are some, like Tim Burton and John Waters, who really seem to revel in it, in different ways. Waters (born in 1946), maniacally skewers the conventions of polite suburban society and presents a reality in which everything is so much better when the weirdos, misfits, outcasts and nonconformists take over; proving that it’s possible to be both affectionate, mocking, and relentlessly subversive toward cultural norms all at the same time. Burton (born in 1961) has no interest in the revenge of the outcast; his solution to conflict between the past and present, say, or straitlaced squares versus artsy yuppies is always to combine the two opposing sides into a more interesting, weirder definition of “normal”: and when it doesn’t entirely work out (as in Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood), well, it’s clear we’re all a little worse off and poorer for not embracing the possibilities.
In this case, however, it all plays out perfectly: Lydia gets her hip New Yorker parents doing their thing on one floor, her devoted, 50s-style Ozzie and Harriet parents on the next, and a new look that might be described as “sunny suburban goth.” And you know what? It’s great.
Wish fulfillment isn’t a bad thing—with a movie as clever, well written, and brilliantly cast as Beetlejuice, that happy ending is more than earned, and that last scene is a thing of beauty that, for me, just never gets old. It does, however, strike me as very much a product of its time. I mentioned Harold and Maude, earlier, because the older I get, the more I tend to think of these movies as variations on a theme, almost two decades apart. Both are dark comedies, and both feature extremely likeable young protagonists with distant parents and a fascination with death (or more precisely in Lydia’s case, the afterlife). Released in 1971, Harold and Maude was director Hal Ashby’s affectionate wake-up call to the disaffected youth of the day, assuring them that alienation and ennui are nothing compared with the struggles of past generations (in Maude’s case, the Holocaust…beat that, baby boomers!)
Harold and Maude is a romance, albeit an unconventional one, and its ending is about growing up and embracing adulthood. Beetlejuice, on the other hand, is about protecting and prolonging innocence, saving Lydia from the creepy, unwanted advances of an undead maniac but also from growing up too fast and becoming too jaded and cynical. If the message of Harold and Maude (in a nutshell) was “You’re not the center of the universe, kid. Grow up and fully embrace life because it’s awesome,” then the message of Beetlejuice could be interpreted as something like, “You are totally the center of the universe, kid. You should embrace life because dying won’t make you less neurotic, and all of your problems have been solved thanks to your fairy godparents—I mean, your new old-fashioned ghost parents.” To be fair, like any good fairy tale, Lydia gets her happy ending by being brave and unselfish, but she’s also rewarded for being strange and unusual and different from everyone else—Beetlejuice is like Tim Burton’s feature-length “It Gets Better” video for artsy goth kids stuck in suburbia, and I have absolutely no problem with that. There are worse role models than Lydia Deetz (especially if you lived through the 1980s), and worse messages than “enjoy your childhood,” especially in a movie which actually seems to respect its young protagonist as an intelligent, capable human being.
I think this might be Burton’s best movie for many reasons, not least of which is the amazing cast, all of whom would have gotten a glorious twenty-minute standing ovation at the 1989 Oscars if it had been up to me. I’ve barely mentioned Betelgeuse, because in many ways his major function in the plot is as the catalyst that brings the cutting-edge yuppies and the traditional homebodies together, uniting them as allies so that everything can be resolved happily—but that just makes Michael Keaton’s star performance even more incredible. He’s cartoonish, buffoonish, creepy, and unstable without ever going all the way to scary, changing from minute to minute in a way that would have been exhausting and/or annoying in the hands of a lesser actor. Keaton embodies and brings to life all the subversive, selfish, exploitative elements that have to be expelled before everyone can unite for their rockin’ Belafonte paranormal dance party, and he looks good doing it. That’s no small feat.
But in the end, I think the movie succeeds as wonderfully as it does because Burton managed to find a perfect vehicle for all of his pet quirks and artistic preoccupations in this bizarro fantasy about a bunch of people—all losers, outsiders, damaged goods or outcasts in their way—who discover that embracing weirdness might just be the key to true happiness. And he did it by hiding a delightful fairy tale inside a modern ghost story (one in which the ghosts wear designer sheets and compel the living to dance to calypso), transforming a warped horror script into a witty offbeat comedy, and generally making strange with all sorts of cinematic and casting conventions.
Looking back, Beetlejuice is clearly classic Burton, but in a way that feels unstudied and spontaneous, like he was just throwing all the elements that he loved together to see if it all coalesced into something amazing…and he succeeded. He’s made plenty of other movies that I enjoy almost as much as Beetlejuice, but I don’t think any of them have quite the same sense of experimentation and manic, unrestrained joy as this cinematic love letter to youth, exuberance, and all that is strange and unusual.
This article was originally published in October 2012 as part of Tor.com’s Ghost Week, and appeared again in October 2015.
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She was also one of New York City’s leading paranormal researchers, until the bottom dropped out in ’72.