“Being dead really doesn’t make things any easier,” the undead Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) warns the morbid young Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) in Beetlejuice, having recently found the afterlife to be every bit as swamped with petty conflict and mind-numbing bureaucracy as the world of the living. Indeed, while life after death offers little respite from the tedium of life before death in Tim Burton’s devilish 1988 comedy, the more significant divisions in Beetlejuice are those between three contrasting ways of living — all of which leave their partakers in various states of alienation.
First up, there’s the life of cloistered, small-town nostalgia embodied by the dismally square Maitland couple Barbara and Adam (Alec Baldwin). Skirmishing with this conservative worldview are the modern pretensions and materialism of Lydia’s status-conscious yuppie stepmother Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara), supported by the avid commercialism of her meek-mannered husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones).
Meanwhile, as these two opposing sides possessively duke it out for dominion over some real estate, outside of the comforts and constrictions of civilized society is a world of chaos, eccentricity and id-driven depravity epitomized by the demonic sleazeball himself, Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton).
When the barriers between these three systems collapse, mayhem predictably ensues. But in a film that’s as compassionate as it is anarchic, Burton finds the value of compromise within the chaos, suggesting that a fulfilling existence lies not in the old world of the Maitlands, the new world of the Deetzes nor the lawless world of Betelgeuse but somewhere in between.
All three of these parties have a physical location that reflects their limited sensibilities. For the wholesome Maitlands, that location is a literal small world. Even prior to their untimely deaths, Barbara and Adam seem to spend most of their time up in the attic of their idyllic country home where Adam works meticulously on perfecting his miniature model of the town while Harry Belafonte’s calypso music from the 50s and early 60s plays pleasantly in the background. The house itself is treated as another model to work on by the two hobbyists, who even choose to spend their vacation redecorating. When the couple die in a car accident, trapping their spirits within the parameters of their cozy residence, Barbara’s biggest complaint is that she’s unable to access the vacuum cleaner in their garage.
Their blissful isolation is soon interrupted by the arrival of the Deetzes, bringing the new world crashing through their door as the affluent city folk immediately set about tearing down everything that the Maitlands hold dear. For the Deetzes, the move to the peaceful community of Winter River is intended as a fresh start after Charles — once a prosperous real estate developer — suffers a nervous breakdown. But just as death for the Maitlands is a mere continuation of their secluded lives, Delia Deetz does all in her power to make their new home as similar as possible to their old home. Mercilessly disposing of any reminders of the property’s former small town charm, Delia converts the Maitland residence into a gaudy temple of hideous 80s postmodernism where her dreadful homemade sculptures are put on prominent display.
Nonetheless, Delia’s resentment towards her laboriously trendy lifestyle emerges during the remodeling when a crane drops one of the larger sculptures on her, pinning her to the house. “This is my art and it is dangerous,” she cries. “You think I wanna die like this?” It is her almost pathological need to be liked and respected that keeps her figuratively trapped under her possessions and constantly on the verge of her own nervous breakdown. “The only thing that scares me is being embarrassed in front of the few hip people I can get to set foot in this part of Connecticut,” she later declares.
The Maitlands certainly do their best to find something else to scare the Deetzes. In a subversion of the traditional ghost story dynamic, Delia’s aggressive remodeling job forces Barbara and Adam to take refuge in the attic, where the miniature model of their once cozy town still resides. Their initial attempts to scare away the Deetzes prove woefully ineffective, due to the tendency of the living to ignore the dead. Only Goth daughter Lydia is able to see and hear the Maitlands, and even she’s thoroughly unimpressed by their hackneyed attempt at haunting by dressing up in bed sheets. “You know, if I had seen a ghost at your age I would’ve been scared out of my wits,” Barbara insists, like a weary mother lamenting the changing times.
Things only get worse after the Maitlands make their presence known to Delia and Charles. When a dinner party is interrupted by a scene of demonic possession, the response of Delia, Charles and their yuppie friends is not terror but the excitement of experiencing something new, strange and, above all, marketable. Even Charles seems back to his old self as he fervently pitches ideas to turn the entire town into a paranormal amusement park. That the possessed party guests were forced to dance to Harry Belafonte’s rendition of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” — an old folk tune sung by Jamaican dock workers — adds unsettling historical weight to these harebrained plans to bastardize and commodify the past.
Throughout this escalating turf war, the stuffy regulations and cheerless bureaucrats of the afterlife offer little to alleviate the situation. The Handbook for the Recently Deceased — with a retro cover design that reflects its outdated relevance — is a dense, nearly incomprehensible set of rules that Adam compares to stereo instructions. The underworld is shown to be a grim waiting room where grotesque and ghoulish figures wait for their ticket to be called like it’s the DMV.
But not all of the afterlife is so tediously ordered. Whenever the Maitlands wander beyond home’s “geographical and temporal perimeters” (to quote the handbook), they suddenly find themselves transported to a barren wasteland on Saturn where time progresses differently and giant, stop-motion sandworms tunnel through the ground.
If this treacherous, anarchic landscape were a person, it would be Betelgeuse. An outlier even in the underworld, this crooked freelance “bio-exorcist” is maligned (and probably for good reason) by the afterlife authorities, yet he just might be the unruly presence needed to shake up the neurotic the lives of the Maitlands and the Deetzes.
Understandably, Barbara and Adam aren’t too charmed by this ill-mannered creep when they first approach him to get rid of the Deetzes. Their apprehensive reaction to this unrefined figure — who spends much of the film stomping through the Maitland’s model city like an unwelcome guest — is akin to Charles’ disgust when he sees a bird pecking at entrails from his study window. Strip away the homely comforts and social conventions of civilized society and the results aren’t always pretty, even if they are worth acknowledging.
Betelgeuse plays both antihero and villain in the film’s manic, boundary-collapsing climax. In a gruesome continuation of Charles and Delia’s reckless attempts to control and commercialize the dead, the latter’s pompous, blundering interior designer Otho performs a séance to summon the spirits of Barbara and Adam. Like Charles’ paranormal amusement park proposition, this ill-prepared display of mastery over the past threatens to destroy the thing it’s trying to preserve as Otho’s incantation turns out to be an unintended exorcism that will send the Maitlands into an eternal abyss.
The last-minute intervention of Betelgeuse, who stops the exorcism before disposing of the Deetzes’ obnoxious associates, is the necessary injection of animalistic chaos needed to save the Maitlands. But no sooner does Betelgeuse save the day than he precedes to go too far, forcing the young Lydia to marry him in exchange for his good deed.
While the Deetz parents are being literally constrained by Delia’s sculptures — demonically possessed possessions that have been transformed into the monstrous creations they always truly were — the Maitlands take action in a way that brings the film’s disparate worlds together. After Betelgeuse shrinks Adam into his cherished model town, Adam drives his tiny car off the board of miniatures and into Betelgeuse’s foot. This, in turn, distracts Betelgeuse long enough for Barbara to ride one of the Saturn sandworms into the room — bursting a hole through the house that she once so fondly maintained — before the creature swallows Betelgeuse whole.
It’s ironic that after successfully stopping Betelgeuse’s perverse wedding to Lydia, the Maitlands and the Deetzes form their own unconventional, albeit far more palatable, family with Barbara and Adam as a second set of parents to Lydia. Indeed, in a film that so gleefully satirizes and undermines any attempts to impose order on existence, Betelgeuse can be regarded as a subversive savior for the families of Ronald Reagan’s America as much as a harbinger of destruction.
As ostensibly macabre as his films can get, Tim Burton has always been a sentimentalist at heart, and in Beetlejuice, the misfit-loving filmmaker celebrates the act of tearing down the barriers between systems and learning to get along with the people you’re with, be it the ghosts in your attic or your high-strung stepmother. But with this acceptance of others comes a necessary acceptance of the worlds and value systems beyond one’s personal bubble. Not only does this include the realms of the still-present past and the ever-encroaching future but also the strange, cruel and chaotic facets of nature that society, even post-death, tries its hardest to deny.