Updated: Sep 24
There are countless unknowns to contend with in horror story culture. To name a few: heroes can be up against ghouls, serial killers, haunted houses, spirits from beyond the grave, and more often than not, even themselves. All of these elements are present in Tim Burton’s 1988 comedy-horror Beetlejuice, as recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland train to scare away their home’s new living inhabitants, the Deetz family, while also fending off “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse. After the Maitlands discover they didn’t survive what they thought was a non-fatal car crash, they are stranded in an afterlife with nothing to guide them but a book: The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. This handbook, while reading like stereo instructions, is more helpful than they care to recognize, as all of the characters in Beetlejuice struggle with control over their environments. It isn’t until the end of the film that any of the characters achieve a peaceful co-existence with each other and the hand that fate has dealt them. While various characters encounter invasions, possessions, hauntings, and other-worldly experiences, the real big bad in Beetlejuice is the desire to control one’s environs to the point of despair when faced with a lack of control.
The film opens with an introduction to the town of Winter River, Connecticut, but only through Adam’s own construction of a miniature town model, one that he can completely control. At the conclusion of the aerial view of the town, the Maitland’s own miniature house is being overtaken by a seemingly giant spider, one which Adam promptly removes and releases outside. This invasion on the idyllic version of Winter River foreshadows the level of chaos that will soon take place on the Maitland’s true home. The Maitland’s opening conversation is then interrupted by their realtor, who is insistent that she knows what’s best for them and the house, imploring them to reconsider selling the house to a family who would better fit the space than the childless couple. It can be noted that this advice hits a nerve for Barbara. Moments later, as the couple drive into town on a quick errand, they discuss “trying again” during their two-week staycation, more than implying that they have intended to make at least one addition to their family and have not yet succeeded. Whether the Maitland’s have had trouble conceiving, or have lost a child during a pregnancy, this loss and lack of control significantly plays a part in Adam’s own desire to have some agency in his life, even if it is only through a homemade replica of his ideal Winter River.
After the Maitlands awaken from the car accident that costs them their lives, they find themselves trapped in their home with the new inhabitants, the New York City Deetz’s. The Deetz family members also each have different ideas of what they want the house to provide for them. Patriarch Charles Deetz wishes the house to be a retreat from New York City life after suffering stresses from the city and his workplace environment. Second wife Delia Deetz, although unenthusiastic about the idea of country living, decides to make the house an extensive art project for herself and friend Otho, who believes he has the knowledge to lead in any situation, whether that be decorating, hairstyling, and even leading séances. Lastly, daughter Lydia Deetz, copes with moving into a new home by projecting her desire for the strange and unusual to manifest in any form, so long as there is someone or something with which to finally connect. Each family member’s desire is thwarted when put up against the desires of each other’s. After three months’ time waiting and meeting with their caseworker, Juno, in a bureaucratic office for the dead, the Maitlands return to their home to find Delia has completely renovated their charming country home into a house devoid of warmth and soft corners. Luckily the attic is untouched, and Adam and Barbara use this room as their war room, devising plans to spook the Deetzes out of Winter River, no matter the means.
Upon yet another failed attempt to scare the Deetz adults, Adam and Barbara are discovered by Lydia, whose desire to exist on a different plane of existence allows her to see the Maitlands in their seemingly human form. Afterwards, Lydia becomes the envoy between the two families, couriering messages for both parties. The Maitlands and Lydia bond very quickly, but Lydia isn’t enough to change their minds about the Deetz parents. Charles and Delia do not believe that despite Lydia’s proof, their home is being haunted until they host a dinner party the Maitlands decide to crash. All in attendance experience possessions and sing Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” singing “daylight come and me wan’ go home.” The song, which chronicles a long day at work from which one wants to retire, does not inspire the Deetzes to return home. Instead it prompts a proposal for a paranormal theme park. Defeated, the Maitlands decide they need professional scaring help, even if it means hiring the titular, depraved Betelgeuse.
Betelgeuse is the personification (ghoulification?) of greed, only helping others if it better benefits his own situation. At one point Betelgeuse was Juno’s assistant before deciding to go rogue. Not only was he helping the dead achieve happier afterlives, but he took pleasure in the terrorizing of living beings, the more traumatized, the better. He became a liability in his profession and was banished. Now, more desperate than ever to escape, he tempts the Maitlands into hiring him full time to get rid of the Deetz family. Although initially intrigued, within seconds of meeting the “bio-exorcist,” the Maitlands decide his methods are too gruesome for their plan. Betelgeuse is relentless, and even entices Lydia to free him. Upon discovering their interaction, the Maitlands quickly intervene and assure Lydia that Betelgeuse is not one with which to do business. Lydia, dying to escape the confines of her life and parents, wants to join Adam and Barbara in their afterlife, and is saddened to find they don’t want her in that way. Trapped between living parents that don’t hear her, and dead pseudo-parents who won’t allow their union in mutual death to come to fruition, Lydia is at her loneliest. Realizing that forcing the Deetz family out of their house would mean losing Lydia inspires the Maitlands to have a change of heart. Deciding to protect and keep Lydia is a decision that, in turn, begins to settle the Maitlands fear of the unknown of an afterlife. She may not have been the child they planned for, but she becomes the child they accept.
In the penultimate scene, the feuding families join forces to banish greed from their lives. In an attempt for Charles to sell an employer on the idea of a paranormal resort, Otho performs a séance to summon the attic shut-in Maitlands. The séance is a success, but Adam and Barbara begin to decay. Panicked, Lydia summons Betelgeuse to save the Maitlands, a feat he agrees to, but with a catch: Lydia must marry him. Selflessly, Lydia agrees. As the wedding takes place, the Deetz parents are rendered powerless by Delia’s sculptures brought to life, while the Maitlands are restored and begin attempts to send Betelgeuse to whence he came. Prevented at every turn, Barbara is sent to “Saturn,” a realm in which the dead roam if out of their restricted bounds. She returns triumphantly on a sand snake, swallowing Betelgeuse whole and sending him back to the waiting room for the dead. Once gone, the families’ growing greed is abolished, and they reach compromise in their shared home.
Beetlejuice is a film in which selflessness is valued and rewarded with serenity and prosperity. Delia allows the house to be restored to its original state, and is rewarded with critical acclaim for her formerly unnoticed sculptures. Charles consents to the Maitlands’ request for a private life in their own home and is granted with his initially sought serene lifestyle as well, not to mention a stronger bond with his daughter. Lydia finally finds acceptance at school and thrives, while the Maitlands get to assist in raising a child. In the final scene, Lydia comes home from school and is rewarded for her good grades. Her request is a fun, light, body suspension to sing Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line.” The song speaks to letting your body move to the music as opposed to dancing a routine. Sure, dancing any style of dance can be done, but Harry’s muse inspires him to advise: “you jump in the saddle, hold on to de bridle.” Seeking serenity is a constant treasure hunt, but learning to accept peace comes with the price of autocracy.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.