Did the 1980s give us a better movie than Tim Burton’s 1988 masterpiece Beetlejuice? (Well, OK, yes, Amadeus, but there are no ghosts in Amadeus.)
As a kid I identified with Lydia, of course—yanked away from her home and living with a wicked stepmother. Then the poor, terrified Maitlands, who just wanted their own space decorated their own way. Once I moved to New York, Delia seemed much less awful, and much more like an artist trying to make it in a city that will eat you if you’re not careful—who is forced by her husband to start over in a tiny town that she hates. And obviously, more recently, Betelgeuse the freelancer spoke to my soul.
But the older I get, and the more often I watch the movie, the more I admit to myself that there is only one true role model in this film, and that is Otho.
We meet him via my single favorite character introduction ever: Otho Fenlock climbing in through the window and tearing the sash down as he falls. Right away we know he’s not afraid to look foolish in order to honor ancient customs (I mean, it might not be a real custom, but whatever), he wants only good fortune for his friends, and he bounds back up without a word of complaint after he falls on his ass.
In earlier iterations of the script, Otho was a former East Village tarot reader, and a lot meaner than he is in Tim Burton’s film. The final cinematic Otho has been:
- one of New York’s leading paranormal researchers
- a member of The Living Theatre (a company dedicated to “BEAUTIFUL NON-VIOLENT ANARCHIST REVOLUTION” per their website)
- a hair analyst (briefly)
- an interior designer
Now he claims to have been good at each of these things, but who knows? (And how does one even define “success”?) Personally, I’m a fan of his design sensibilities, but YMMV. What I love is that, like every New Yorker I’ve ever known, he’s packed a half dozen careers into a single life, and he’s only in his thirties when we meet him. In the landscape of the ’80s movie, where men are cops, architects, lawyers, doctors who practice having near-death experiences in their off-hours, and women are…also all of these things but with HUGE hair and romantic ennui, Otho alone embodies the fluidity that has come to characterize modern adulthood. He was a millennial before the millennium! Does he have a degree in something or professional training? Who knows!
It doesn’t matter, because what matters is his practical experience and adaptability. He has tried a bunch of different careers, because Otho understands that life is a process, not a series of goalposts to be met. (And hell, after the exorcism, he probably understands that death is a process, too.) Because of the erratic CV, he can’t be defined by what he does for a living. He is simply OTHO, who is currently working as an interior designer.
Who knows what he’ll do next?
Otho’s impeccable aesthetic is marked by black-on-black suits, sharp hair, the occasional splash of red satin or turquoise jewelry. He’s a bit more subdued than Delia, who always seems to be trying too hard, and is actually aligned more with Lydia than anyone else in the film. He’s showing Baby Goths how to create a fashion future for themselves.
Otho is unmarried. He might be dating Grace? He might be queer? Actor Glenn Shadix was openly gay at a time when that was even less easy than it is now, so I tend to read him that way. We never know for sure, because it doesn’t matter. While most of the other adults are part of couples or heteronormative pairings—even Delia’s agent Bernard is only seen with his friend who writes for Art in America—Otho is a free agent. A spirit of chaos.
And sure, maybe he’s underemployed, and mooching off the Deetzes. But what’s definitely true is that, of all of Delia and Charles’ city friends, Otho is the only one who comes up to the country to support them the day they move in. And maybe Otho is making himself a bit of a third wheel, but it’s also clear that Delia is miserable in Connecticut, and only moved for Charles’ health. Otho is the one who has her back and supports her need to LIVE AND BREATHE ART with a delicately-raised eyebrow.
Plus he’s a successful occultist! A huge part of the film’s conflict lies in the fact that the living won’t see the dead, but Otho can usually sense them. He sees movement when the Maitlands are rushing around the living interlopers, and he feels Adam brush past on the stairs when he and Delia head up to explore the attic. He sees the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, yoinks it, and apparently reads it with ease. Most important? His exorcism works. For all that Lydia and Charles both mock him, he successfully brings the Maitlands back until everyone can see them (something the ghosts themselves couldn’t manage, and they were really trying) and almost re-kills them. Only Betelgeuse’s intervention saves them from the Lost Souls Room.
OK, so now that we’ve talked about why Otho is awesome, I need to go a little deeper for a sec. And for that I need to ask you a question.
Is this funny?
And if you think it’s funny, why?
In the film, aggressively heterosexual Betelgeuse assaults Barbara, ogles Delia, and tries to force the extremely under-age Lydia into a “marriage of inconvenience.” He tells Charles, “We’ve come for your daughter, Chuck,” and drops him from nigh-ceiling-height onto a tile floor. He also knocks Otho down an entire flight of stairs once, but after that his attacks turn to the psychological. He calls him “round boy” and, finally, strips him of his black-on-red séance attire, putting him in a blue leisure suit. He makes a point of humiliating Otho, the only male in the film who isn’t obviously heteronormative, by mocking his love of fashion (unseemly, un-masculine, y’know, queer af) and puts him in clothing that was considered the height of smarmy masculinity a decade earlier. The kind of thing that would have been worn, for instance, by the guys that bullied him for liking art and clothes when he was Lydia’s age.
Otho’s response is to scream and run offscreen.
We never learn what happens to him.
This whole scene is played as comedic, with Otho’s defrocking and scream as a punchline. We’re supposed to laugh at this, Betelgeuse delivering a comeuppance.
But here’s the thing: Otho never does anything wrong.
He’s hired by Delia to remodel her new house. He does this, we see the evidence, and she clearly likes his work. He listens to the family’s tales of hauntings, and offers his expertise as an occultist to help them. As soon as he realizes that the ghosts are real, he immediately spins it as a way for Charles to impress his old boss, Maxie Dean. He holds a séance to impress the Deans, and, as I mentioned above, when he realizes he’s hurting the Maitlands he apologizes and looks genuinely stricken—unlike the Deans themselves, who just rush off to Betelgeuse’s “show” with no concern for the decaying ghosts on the table.
True, he doesn’t know how to reverse the exorcism—but why should he? He had no idea that he was going to be asked to do that, and given the words of the Janitor on the Netherworld, it’s entirely possible that a mortal can’t reverse the process. I suppose you could argue that it’s crappy of him to try to sneak out the door to escape Betelgeuse, but what the heck would you do, faced with the undead creature that already almost killed you by throwing you down a flight of stairs?
Throughout the film Otho is coded as a friend who essentially moves in to keep Delia entertained while Charles tries to recover from his nervous breakdown. We know he loves the arts, and he keeps a meticulous eye on his own appearance. There are words for this kind of person.
The “dandy,” the “extra man”—these were socially acceptable and relatively safe ways for men to be queer in society. You could attach yourself to a rich couple, and have the patronage and protection of a charming, bored woman, and her rich, busy husband, and the husband knew there wouldn’t be a scandal, and the wife knew she’d have a fun date for society events. Most Oscar Wilde plays have at least a couple of these guys (sometimes they turn out to be the villains), they pop up in Evelyn Waugh’s work, Byron’s poetry, and even in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Dipping briefly into real life, Truman Capote played this role to his high society “swans,” for instance by moving in with the high-society Paleys for a while, traveling with them to Europe, keeping weekly lunch dates with Babe Paley in Manhattan, offering her emotional support through her husband William’s many affairs.
The thing about this role, though, is that it was incredibly tenuous.
You had to keep the bored rich wife happy with your wit and charm. (Otho does this with aplomb); you had to make sure the husband liked you even though you were a sissy (Otho secures Maxie Dean for Charles); you had to keep your own personal life off the table (Otho brings Grace as his dinner party date, rather than a guy); you had to do all of this with style, because they were paying your bills.
Otho didn’t just do his job as a designer, he performed a very difficult role in the Deetz family and society as a whole, and for this he was rewarded by a walking sexual harassment suit from beyond the grave chasing him out of his friends’ lives. Did he run to the nearest Metro North station and hightail it back to the safety of Manhattan?
But my personal headcanon is that following this trauma, he changed his name, moved to Ohio, and became the preacher in Heathers.