I live diagonally across the street from a cemetery. On my more or less daily quarantine walks (note: I started writing this piece in mid-March 2020) I circle the suburb across the street from me, and I consider, often, walking into that sprawling, silent space of the graveyard, navigating the maze of granite and marble while I both recognize the (ephemeral, fleeting) moment and admit, to myself, that a headstone that will stand in for all the components of my life is my irrevocable fate. I’ve dreamt about graveyards multiple times; in my dreams they represent the bleak and macabre, but also the unavoidable. As a child I used to bemoan not just my inevitable death but eternity; the prospect of endlessness was too frightening to fully accept. I believe, now, that time is a construct that makes life more comprehensible to finite beings; to that end, eternity is less the condemnation of disastrous endlessness and more a contrived concept that we use to try to understand the workings of a universal consciousness that is always beyond our complete grasp. Of course, I hadn’t considered all that around age seven or eight, when my mind was reeling with a problem that resisted a solution: an eternity of anything sounded awful, but there was no alternative to eternity. Even if humanity disappeared (a terrifying thought), time would still go on – and there was at least some possibility, I reasoned, that my soul would have to experience eternal time. If not, eternal nothingness sounded even scarier.
I didn’t see the obvious connection between my fear of death (which was also, unsurprisingly, a fascination), and my enthusiastic Beetlejuice binging one long-ago summer with a childhood friend in his parents’ basement. Most summers my parents both worked during the day, so my sister and I would stay with some neighbors a couple houses down and play with their three kids. I remember, with a sense of delight, all the time we spent playing games outside and romping through the bit of forest behind our houses. If you walked far enough through the forest, past the swamps and over all the big stones, you’d get to the local playground, Walczak park, which was an exhilarating discovery. Still, time inside was nice too, and so one summer my babysitter’s son and I sat in the basement for hours and days on end, watching and re-watching Beetlejuice.
I can approximate this all took place between twenty-five and thirty years ago. Still, when I watch Beetlejuice now, I can recall which of the film’s components provoked the most awe for me as a child. And initially, that was going to be the focus of this post. I wanted, at first, to try to see Beetlejuice once again from the eyes of childhood, to view it as the spectacle of fantasy and death that it always was to me. At the same time, it’s fun to consider how much more there is to the film than I perceived at a young age. As such, I slid the Beetlejuice DVD in the DVD player last night, and I found myself thinking a bit. At first, thought yielded nothing, but then I started writing furiously as the film jumped from scene to scene. Re-viewing and re-configuring my understanding of the movie proved a fun activity, and one that I’ll talk about throughout this post. I don’t want to reduce the film to a singular meaning, so I’ll begin by saying only that I, personally, think that the film meditates on things both abstract and concrete, that it is probably richer than our sometimes scrutinizing pop culture eye gives it credit for, and that maybe…just maybe…the titular character, himself, is one of the less interesting aspects of the production.
Before I begin my thoughts about the film, I should add one thing. Michael and I chatted about this piece before I re-watched the film. Since my initial reason for re-viewing the film was its treatment of death as a fate monotonous and mundane (more on that later), this morbid subject matter became the grounds for our discussion. Apropos of what, more specifically, I do not recall, but Michael started discussing the fact that even our early ancestors, the Neanderthals, buried their dead with tools and utensils. For Neanderthals to bury the dead with precious objects (such objects, of course, were not as prevalent then), they would have had to believe in a quite significant sort of great beyond, though we may not know exactly what their conception looked like. And indeed, every human religion must have some answer to that question: What happens when we die? It is not rare, I would argue, to see pop culture grappling with that question in varied manifestations in this increasingly secular society. And Beetlejuice certainly offers an answer to the age-old “death question,” but it also comments, incisively, on so much more: wealth and capitalism, the process of using human beings as spectacle, and the often flimsy, dysfunctional nature of the American family – particularly in the late 1980s, when it was released.
A little bit of background about the movie’s foundational events seems like an apt starting point. Barbara Maitland and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) are a typical – and perhaps an intentionally and painfully typical – couple who live in the proverbial house on a hill in an unnamed small town. We glimpse the couple when they’re giddy with excitement to start their two-week vacation, which they’ve chosen to spend at home. But first, they decide to drive into town to get some things from their hardware store, “Maitland Hardware”. On their return trip in their little yellow station wagon, they cross the covered bridge that separates their house from the rest of the town, and Adam swerves suddenly, at Barbara’s command, when Barbara sees a dog in the middle of the road. The couple’s car punctures the side of the bridge and ultimately dives, front first, into the lake below, with the couple inside; indeed, the car flips all the way around before it hits the water, so the viewer is meant to suspect that the Maitland’s didn’t survive. But the film takes us, next, to their house, and we see that aside from being a little wet, the couple is walking about and looks normal. In fact, except for a few small changes, everything seems so normal that it takes Adam and Barbara Maitland a little bit of time to realize that they didn’t survive the crash – that they are, in fact, the walking dead.
Shocked by the realization, they comb through the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased” for some tips – a handbook that they find on their end table and that Barbara laments “reads like stereo instructions.” For soon after they return home, their beloved – rather sequestered – small-town home is purchased by a family from New York City, the Deetz’s. Charles Deetz, the father and the family’s fairly goofy, milquetoast head of household, is hell bent on “relaxing” in a place off the beaten path, so the rest of the family (his wife, Delia, and his daughter, Lydia, along with their friend Otho) move into the house with him. To Adam and Barbara’s chagrin, they don’t like the family, except for Lydia, the teenage daughter (played by Wynona Ryder) who can see and talk to Adam and Barbara immediately when nobody else in the family can or will entertain the thought of a ghostly presence in the house. As the Deetz family guts Barbara and Adam’s house and completely re-conceptualizes the décor, Barbara and Adam seek advice from their dead, assigned caseworker, Juno, about how to get the Deetz’s to leave. None of Juno’s scant advice is particularly helpful, however, and like every other dead person in the film, she refers them to the odious and inaccessible handbook.
Having seen an advertisement for Beetlejuice, who calls himself a “bio-exorcist,” Barbara and Adam ask Juno about him. Juno immediately cuts them off, warns them against saying Beetlejuice’s name, and emphasizes how much trouble he’s caused in the past (without being specific). Despite Juno’s warning, the desperate Maitland’s decide to summon Beetlejuice, the mysterious con man of the dead, in hopes that he can get the Deetz’s out of their house. The rest of the film features both the dysfunction of the Deetz family, and their ultimate interactions with Barbara, Adam, and Beetlejuice.
To start dissecting this movie in more detail, I’ll begin by talking a little bit about Adam and Barbara Maitland, who are, for much of the film, relegated to lurking in the attic as ghosts of the house they used to live in when they were alive. In many ways, they’re meant to be stereotypical – a hyperbolic manifestation of a normal couple. Their dress, which remains constant throughout most of the film – a black and white plaid shirt with khakis for Adam and a long, modest, pastel floral dress for Barbara – make them, from a fashion standpoint, apt denizens of the small, ordinary town they inhabit. We come to find out, in the film, that the town they live in (which is actually the town of East Corinth in Vermont) is supposed to be a Connecticut town; its name is never emphasized, and its components, which we only receive fleeting glimpses of, suggest that it’s a solid middle-class town. De-emphasizing a sense of specific “place” for the town, eliding anything that might make it particularly original, allows the filmmakers to make it more symbolic; Adam and Barbara live in a quintessential small-town USA, an “every-town,” and the town’s generic nature heightens its function as a symbolic signifier. The existence of the symbolic small town in the story allows the writers to foreground the geographic and class-related clash between small town and big city America, as that tension is represented through Adam and Barbara, the small-town folk, and the Deetz’s, who hail from New York City. I will argue that understanding this “clash,” and its socioeconomic significance, is one important part of appreciating the film. But before delving into all that, it will help to understand Barbara and Adam a bit more.
While Adam and Barbara to some extent represent small town, middle class America, there are nuances to them, as characters, that are important to note as well. We learn a couple things about them at the beginning of the film, specifically, that are crucial. First, they want to be parents, and the attempts they’ve made at producing offspring have so far proven unsuccessful. When their (admittedly obnoxious) neighbor Jane knocks on the door at the beginning of the film, she tries to convince Barbara to sell the house to a “family in New York City” (presumably, the Deetz’s, who do get the house after Barbara and Adam die). Because Jane’s enamored by the money she assumes she’ll make from the big sell, she tells Barbara that it’s a house best suited for a “family,” at which point Barbara looks down at the ground sadly, a gesture which causes Jane to apologize. A few minutes later, as the couple drives to town, they talk and giggle about their vacation, and while I don’t think they ever say the world “child” in a sentence, they allude to their planned sexual intercourse and say that they’re going to “try again.” It’s evident that they’re talking about trying to conceive, and it’s something that, for me at least, was easy to overlook, even when re-watching the film as an adult. But these details are significant; the Maitland’s, though imperfect, are good people, and their desire to parent – especially, Barbara’s desire to be a mother – serves as an important backdrop to help the reader appreciate the relationship they, and especially Barbara, form with the Deetz’s teenage daughter, Lydia.
The other thing that seems significant about this couple – at the beginning of the narrative mostly, but even as the story progresses – is the fact that the Maitland’s are practically isolationists. First, consider their name: “Maitland,” which sounds an awful lot like “Mate – land” – a name connoting a space that consists of a person and their mate, only. Adam and Barbara’s last name seems to indicate how much their space overlaps – how central they are to each other’s worlds and how much distaste they have for many elements of the outside world that try to enter this space. Again, the couple is super excited to stay home for two weeks on their imminent vacation, an emotion that might be viewed as typical for middle class Americans. But this eagerness to stay home alone together is a harbinger of their fate in the afterlife and a subtle insinuation that they might benefit from letting more people into their world. Furthermore, before they die, they reject outsiders twice; when Jane knocks on the door, they argue about whose turn it is to answer (Barbara’s), and Barbara ultimately shoos Jane away without opening the door and pulls down the blind that covers the door’s window. Later, when the couple drives into town, Adam parks the car and runs into his hardware store. An old man sitting outside a very stereotypical small-town barbershop (next door to the hardware store) tries talking to Adam, who cuts him off with a quick “hello” and runs into the store, leaving the old man outside to talk to himself (which he does). Taken together, these two instances of stand-offish behavior within the emphatically short section of the movie portraying the Maitland’s lives while they’re alive suggests, to the viewer, that they might not be the friendliest folk, that they have a tendency to shut themselves off from others. It’s a small wonder, then, that when Barbara and Adam die, their fate is to inhabit their old house, together, without the ability to simply walk outside and exist around a wider variety of people.
In fact, Barbara and Adam’s isolation is reified by the snake-filled desert that surrounds their house once they die and prevents them from going anywhere else. When the couple returns home (dead) from their car accident, they have no recollection of how they got back to their house. Barbara opens the front door and steps outside, but she finds herself in a vast, empty tract of sand standing face to face with a rather ugly, large, black and white striped snake called a “sand worm.” Notably, a few seconds later, when she re-enters the home, Adam tells her she’s been gone for hours, signaling that not just space, as the living know it, but also time, as the living know it (at least, Western conceptions of time), are disrupted during death. At one point in the film Barbara and Adam are forced to draw a door on a brick wall; when they knock three times, the door opens to a place that is never labeled but that appears to be a sort of realm for the dead. They meet a sassy secretary of the dead (death looks a lot like bureaucracy in Beetlejuice), and Barbara asks, “is this what happens when you die?” The secretary responds by pointing at different dead people, who are sitting in a waiting room, and she says, “this is what happens when you die, that is what happens when he dies, and that is what happens when she dies…it’s all very personal.”
This line, spoken by a secretary forced to work as a civil servant of the dead because she committed suicide (she holds up her slit wrists), is our subtle indicator that what the dead are subjected to is not random. We may be able to assume, then, that Barbara and Adam are stuck in their house together in death (for 125 years, according to the secretary) because that’s how they insisted on living in life. Barbara asks, early in the film, “where are all the other dead people?” – a question that draws our attention to Adam and Barbara’s unusual situation. Perhaps – and only perhaps – to that end, death isn’t really a “punishment” for Barbara and Adam; death in Beetlejuice, at least in many ways, defies our notion of disciplining and punishing just as it defies our notion of space and time. For Barbara and Adam, death is a simulacrum of life, much like (in fact, startlingly like) the simulacrum of the town, the “mini-town” that Adam built in the attic when he was alive. It’s no wonder, to that end, that only by saying “Beetlejuice” three times and entering the small, model town can Barbara and Adam gain access to Beetlejuice; the model town and Barbara and Adam’s death are parallel, in that they’re both imitations of life.
So, perhaps Adam and Barbara are in some strange 125-year-long, purgatory-like situation before they ascend to the next type, form, or experience of death; we can’t be sure, and we never find out. What we can be sure of is that the whole film makes a relatively post-modern mockery of concepts like divinity, truth, and salvation – at least, if we’re to take its unceremonious portrayal of death seriously. The aforementioned “handbook for the recently deceased” is the first indicator that death isn’t a dream world for Barbara and Adam; the book that “reads like stereo instructions” is a monotonous, pragmatic, utterly ironic response to the dead person expecting heaven, deities, angels, and a joyous afterlife, a fact that Barbara and Adam need to emphasize to Lydia during one scene, when Lydia mentions the prospect of suicide because it would allow her to be with the couple and would, as she sees it, relieve her problems. “Being dead doesn’t make things any easier,” Adam emphasizes when Lydia tells him her plan. And when Adam and Barbara meet Juno for the first time, Barbara says, “we’re very unhappy,” to which Juno responds, “What did you expect? You’re dead?” Death, in this film, is not a state to be desired, not the doorway to a joyous afterlife that Western metaphysics would have us imagine.
To that end, death, at least as Barbara and Adam see it at first, is a state that demands action, even when it seems there’s no reasonable action to take. The existence and constant reference to the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased” in the narrative is a comical leitmotif that arises not so surreptitiously whenever Barbara and Adam seek help for their troubles. If large chunks of Western culture (and, perhaps, cultures around the world) envision an afterlife full of carefree bliss for people who were generally “good” in life, Barbara and Adam’s disappointing state of death boasts many of the shortcomings of a contemporary capitalist society. Not only are Barbara and Adam, the newly deceased, expected to “pull themselves up” by “their bootstraps” (re: devise a creative and effective way to get an obnoxious, living family out of their house by reading a manual), but the bureaucracy that they’re mired in makes them seem like marginalized people receiving less than stellar services. They have only three “vouchers” to meet with their caseworker throughout the 125 years they’ll spend trapped in their home, surrounded by desert and the sandworm. When they do meet with her, she’s a cranky, chain-smoking woman who has little advice or help to give. The sort of “land of death” that they enter contains a waiting room where you must take a number to receive services, and beyond that waiting room is a pit full of workers sitting behind typewriters, kind of like an old fashioned newsroom pit. A couple of “the dead” (a man who hanged himself and a man who ran out in front of a car, based on their visual representations) hang from the pit’s ceiling and swing back and forth across the room – devoid of agency, devoid of any ability to move or decide – directing people and transporting file folders. In some ways, the land of the dead in this film is incredibly macabre; in other ways, it’s incredibly mundane. The office in the film is not unlike a drivers’ license center full of ghouls; it could also be a social services office, ineffectively advocating for the dead who, now that they have less choice about where they move, now that they’re in, essentially, a different dimension – need a source of advocacy. Again, though, the irony of this “land of the dead” is that it proves mostly useless and purposeless as the film ensues –like bureaucracy is often viewed in contemporary capitalist society.
Death, then, at least for Barbara and Adam, appears at first to mark the ultimate space of disempowerment. Their defenselessness, in death, against what at times appears to be the Deetz family’s virtual colonization of their home through a capitalist system, reflects the potential defenselessness of small-town America against a behemoth, hegemonic capitalism, though it’s important to note that throughout the film, Barbara and Adam are disempowered because they’re dead, not because they have less wealth or status. And if the couple’s presumable social class and subject positions within American culture are worth considering, even dissecting a bit, the Deetz’s subject positions are even more critical to understand. Charles, Delia, and their daughter Lydia, along with their friend Otho, who moves into the Maitland house with them, individually occupy differing but significant spaces in Beetlejuice’s narrative.
The Deetz family is interesting to consider as a group, since they’re all represented as wealthy New Yorkers, but individually, each member is significant in the story for a different set of reasons. The adults of this group, Charles and Delia Deetz, (Lydia’s dad and stepmom,) along with Otho, their friend, are, in many ways, more monstrous than Beetlejuice himself – the title character who’s supposed to represent madness and threatening monstrosity in this horror-laden dark comedy. While Charles looks and acts like a milquetoast, even a bit of a buffoon, he’s also the quintessential capitalist, who seems to wield vast amounts of money and power by doing absolutely nothing. He is always thinking, however unsuccessfully, of a way to make money, and he enjoys pitching these ideas to his boss in New York, Maxi Dean. Not only Charles’s wealth, but his sense of superiority as a rich city man in small town America, is underscored by his suggestion to Maxi Dean, on the phone one night, that he could “buy the whole town.” But we never see any of his big ideas come to fruition, and he never creates anything. While Barbara and Adam owned a small-town hardware store in life, an occupation closely tied to doing, making, producing, or creating, and while Adam built a simulacrum of their small town in his basement for no payoff – except, presumably, for the joy of building – the wealthy Charles Deetz makes and builds not one thing. His complete absence of talent and productivity is exemplified in his inability to relax effectively, though he doesn’t seem to “do” much even when he’s working. Charles finds the Maitlands’ old office, locks himself inside, and constantly proclaims that he’s “relaxing” – a reason he uses, at one point in the narrative, to ignore Lydia and gently nudge her out of the room when she tries to have a conversation with him. While he seems obsessed with relaxation as a concept, it’s never clear what relaxation means to him, and scenes of him trying to relax in his newfound home office by sitting idly at his desk and proclaiming that he’s relaxing serve to parody vague, capitalist notions of leisure, especially as those notions relate to the rich. Still, it was at Charles’s behest that the family abandoned their home in New York City and moved to the countryside, so he occupies a position of at least borderline power in his family, despite his buffoonery.
If Charles’s brand of evil seems fairly banal, Delia Deetz is more formidable as the archetypally uncaring evil stepmother. While Charles disregards and ignores his daughter, Delia not only does the same; she’s openly negative and antagonistic toward Lydia, who does nothing to provoke such treatment. Delia’s personality is appropriately “witchy” for the black clothes she wears, and although she’s been forced, by her husband, to move to a small town, her negative depiction is often constructed through her tendency to boss her husband around—and her obsession regarding what others think about her. To that end, she sometimes (but perhaps not always) exemplifies the “bossy” woman, or the woman of agency, like the Wicked Queen in Snow White, who according to Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert, is ultimately punished in literature for the life of actions she chooses by being portrayed as a monster-woman. Indeed, while her husband is obsessed with the concept of “relaxation” and never does much of anything aside from fumbling around his office, Delia is constantly doing throughout the film. Her character is defined, in part, by action.
As soon as Charles, Delia, Otho, and Lydia move into the Maitland’s old house, Delia and Otho scrutinize its lackluster décor and bombard the premise with their plans for renovation. Their immediate treatment of the house is both condescending and violent. Like the colonizer who criticizes the cultures that they inhabit, overtake, and try to re-configure, Delia and Otho mock the house as they hurtle themselves from room to room. Delia even has a spray paint can – an object that can be associated with art but that has also, in a socio-historical context, been associated with vandalism and damaging property – and as she evaluates the wallpaper and the interior design of the rooms around her, she unabashedly marks her need to change the walls by spray painting them with large, obnoxious symbols. The trio’s sense of superiority is evident; the clash between the city people and the country folk is highlighted by Delia and Otho’s condescending mockery of the house and its decorations.
Delia and Otho are obsessed with style, another trait which marks them as upper-class, cosmopolitan city dwellers, and which is appropriate, even symbolic, since Delia is also obsessed with impressions and other peoples’ opinions. But the irony of Delia and Otho’s fixation on style is that they haven’t got a lot of it. When Barbara and Adam exit one room in the realm of the dead and end up in their (re-modeled) living room, the décor is so bizarre, so ghastly, that they assume they’re still in the realm of the dead, and it takes them a few minutes to acclimate themselves to their surroundings and realize that they’re home. The ghastliest part of the ghastly décor is probably Delia’s collection of sculptures. While Charles is a lazy capitalist who’s obsessed with the concept of leisure but who doesn’t do much whether he’s relaxing or not –as if, ironically, even “relaxing” is too much of an action for his level of indolence – Delia does build and create, although what she creates is ugly and relatively useless. When Barbara and Adam return from the land of the dead, the reason they think they’re still in the land of the dead is probably because they enter a room in their (former) house that’s absolutely covered in Delia’s statues – statues that look sort of like death embodied. After all, Delia, who’s a fairly cruel person without much depth or conscience, who has an obsession with exteriors and appearances, is arguably dead inside, and her death in life is symbolized in the ugly sculptures she creates – unattractive pieces of stone that vary in size and shape but that might remind the viewer of the unpleasant, the macabre, the deceased. If we want to acquiesce, at all, to the possibility of a Western metaphysical version of the “soul,” then Delia’s sculptures are, in a sense, art without a soul, which is not surprising; Delia, it seems, does not have much of a soul, either.
If Delia’s sculptures represent her inner state of death and decay, it’s worth noting that her very alive daughter, Lydia, is dressed for a funeral throughout most of the movie. She frequently wears black, and in one scene, she dons a black hat covered in black lace that shades her face – a fashion choice which highlights the dreary, funeral-appropriate nature of her clothes. We should note that there are very few scenes in which Lydia is shown with her parents; the camera virtually always focuses on a parent physically moving Lydia away or telling her that she’s a nuisance. It seems, then, that Lydia’s funeral attire indicates that she’s in a constant state of mourning – a state of mourning provoked, in part, by the absence and neglect that come from her father and stepmother. This is not a film that has a lot of faith in the American family – if, of course, the Deetz’s are taken to embody your average American family. Conversely, Lydia gets along immediately with the caring Barbara and Adam, who are fairly parental figures even toward the beginning of the film, when she’s just getting to know them. Indeed, the deceased Barbara and Adam find the daughter they never had in Lydia, the child they were trying to conceive when they died unexpectedly.
The significance of Lydia’s relationship with Barbara and Adam cannot be overlooked – or overemphasized. Since, as mentioned earlier, Barbara and Adam seem sometimes hesitant to allow people into their life (or into their death), their readiness and willingness to open their hearts to Lydia may bespeak of how much more human, how much more lovable she is than the rest of her practically soulless, appearance-obsessed family; their willingness to get to know her, then, underscores the Deetz’s culpability in the (at first unspoken) feud between the dead Maitland’s and the living Deetz’s. Beyond the fact that Lydia’s quick, loving relationship with Barbara and Adam emphasizes the problematic nature of Lydia’s parents, Lydia also becomes the daughter that Barbara never had. In creating this quazi-family for the film – the dead Barbara and Adam and the living Lydia – the film is making a pretty sweeping, unavoidable claim: Barbara and Adam are dead, and they are still better parents than the living Deetz’s. In other words, the dead middle-class people (who, as noted before, are kind of isolationists) are better parents than the living, upper-class Deetz’s. Through Lydia’s relationships with Barbara and Adam, then, the film creates a scathing indictment about the allegedly cosmopolitan American upper class: children would be better off with ghosts as parents. And since ghosts often signify both absence and injustice, it is important to note that the ghost parents, Barbara and Adam, underscore the unjust American class system and highlight the absence of Lydia’s (upper-class) parents.
If you’re tempted to doubt that Delia and Charles are as “bad” as I say, consider the fact that they only become innocuous in relation to Lydia in the film’s resolution, after Barbara and Adam have tried to scare the Deetz’s with Beetlejuice and the Deetz’s and Maitland’s have finally decided to live together in peace. They drove their daughter to suicidal despair once, and by the end of the film, the only thing that has changed is the fact that the living and the dead have accepted each others’ presences and can stay under the same roof. If a happy ending is one in which Lydia’s parents see the error of their ways and become parents again, then a happy ending is not what we get in this film. By the film’s conclusion, Barbara and Adam become Lydia’s unofficial, dead parents. When Lydia comes home from private school – no longer dressed in funeral attire for mourning, but instead donning a plaid skirt and a blazer – Barbara and Adam ask Lydia about the results of different tests she took in different subjects (typical parent questions), while Charles continues to “relax” in his study and Delia sculpts. There are no clues to indicate that Charles and Delia aren’t still horrible parents, but now that Lydia has Barbara and Adam, she looks happy and healthy. Again, Charles and Delia are so bad that it’s better to have dead people for parents than it is to have living, rich New Yorkers. Indeed, the two dead middle-class town folk prove themselves infinitely better than the living rich parents.
To that end, Lydia’s dance at the end of the film becomes a celebratory jig. When Lydia tells Barbara and Adam that she’s made good grades at school, they award her by using their dead-people powers (which are used at other points in the film, too), to levitate Lydia. As Lydia ascends into the air, she dances to Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” while Barbara and Adam dance together on the group below. I am tempted, toward the film’s conclusion, to see Lydia’s levitation as a sort of transcendence. After all, by now Lydia has seen the monster, Beetlejuice (indeed, he tried to marry her), she’s dealt with problems related to life and problems related to death, and as life and death gather in one room (the dead Barbara and Adam are with the living Lydia, renovating the house back to their tastes, and when Lydia dances a team of dead football players featured earlier in the film show up behind her), Lydia dances a celebratory dance to commemorate the fact that she’s risen above it all.
In case you’ve not yet realized it, I’d like to point out that Beetlejuice’s character is a woefully ancillary addition to the movie. It’s true that his existence does propel the action forward (a little) during part of the film, but the more I ponder the role he plays, the more I’m convinced that most of the movie happens without him, or at least that it could happen without him and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The Deetz’s like to throw typically fancy, high-class dinner parties featuring people richer and more important than they are (again, both parents, but Delia in particular, harbor an obsession with external appearances or outright facades). During one such party, Otho conjures up Barbara and Adam, who begin to decay in front of the guests’ eyes. Though Barbara and Adam have already sworn off any relationship to the morally depraved Beetlejuice, who has proven himself a rather insidious foe, in desperation, Lydia turns to him because she needs help saving the Maitland’s. But like most things in life, his help comes with a price; he insists on marrying Lydia, which is ostensibly (and weirdly) his only escape route, the only available path he can take to enter and reside in the land of the living. Though we are never told so directly, we might conjecture that he found that rule in the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased,” the text that the characters in the film complain about. In any case, the necessity of marrying a living person to exit one’s fate once deceased is another bizarre, seemingly arbitrary rule concocted by those who make the rules that govern life and death (and of course, we never see those people in the film).
Seeing Delia, Charles, Otho, and their dinner party guests conjure up the Maitland’s brings two things to mind: First, in the Victorian era, seances were all the rage. Trying to conjure up spirits was a form of entertainment, although we might assume that the conjuring was unsuccessful. More importantly, using the dead Barbara and Adam, who appear on the table in front of the guests, as a sort of shock or spectacle harkens back to earlier tendencies in patriarchal society (think, again, the late 19th or early 20th century) when difference was put on display and labeled “freakish.” The wealthy capitalists in this movie, who sit around a table at a fancy dinner party, are, like their earlier predecessors, obsessed with gawking at difference – only, this time, those who are different are dead. Which is to say that, as has been insinuated earlier, being dead, in this movie, is similar, in many ways, to being in a subject position that is oppressed in a patriarchal, capitalist society.
It may or may not be true that “all’s well that ends well,” but, although Lydia is rescued from being a child bride to Beetlejuice, we might question whether things really end well in this film. Its vision of death and its portrayal of a wealthy family are vivid and intriguing. And while the concluding scene appears happy – Barbara and Adam are dancing on the ground, and Lydia is literally dancing on air – a girl whose parents are ghosts could face a lot of future difficulties. It is not, to that end, a happy movie, although in many scenes it’s certainly fun, and entertaining. While Beetlejuice is technically the film’s monster, Charles and Delia are similarly monstrous, and they’re still alive and kicking by the film’s conclusion. A sequel to the movie may well indicate what becomes of Lydia, but, alas, the sequel was not very popular, and I’ve never seen it. So, I’ll have to use my powers of inference, and inference would suggest that Lydia faces a long road ahead of her.
3 thoughts on “What is Beetlejuice without Beetlejuice?: Thoughts on Death, Patriarchy, and Capitalism.”
Your movie dissections always offer insight that I hadn’t considered. That being said, I HATED this movie. Beetlejuice creeped me out, not in a scary way, but in an obnoxious slapstick humor way, and I couldn’t stand him. I first saw it as a teen, and have refused to watch it since, so I wonder how much of my initial opinion would stand if I re-watched it now.
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Okay, so this is a SUPER delayed reply, but I can completely see where you’re coming from. I like the movie, but I can’t stand Beetlejuice. I didn’t include in this piece the fact that he’s completely gross and touches Barbara inappropriately on multiple occasions; it’s pretty blatant sexual harassment. I think I like it because I watched it so much as a kid; it provokes a sort of nostalgia now.
Above all, at least for me, this movie does a superb job satirizing (and criticizing) white-suburbs-values of the 1980s. In addition, being a Gen Xer, I find the film to be a cunning encapsulation of everything that was absurd about growing up in the ’80s (Regan-era ethos dominate the movie). Anyhow, I really enjoyed reading your excellent essay!