Posted on January 1, 2016

Beetlejuice and the Invisibility of Childless Couples


I’m going to be honest with you; I really just wanted to watch Beetlejuice (1988). What emerged was completely unintended. As horror reviewers and academics we tend to read into things for postmodern interpretations of the world around us. As horror fans, sometimes we just want to sit back and indulge in some of our favorite films. Unfortunately our brain doesn’t always get the message to just sit down and shut up. That is exactly what happened on the way to Winter River, Connecticut, when I tried to join the Maitlands for a lazy Sunday afternoon. For those of you nay-sayers, yes I know that Beetlejuice is characterized as Comedy Fantasy—but, it’s my party and I’ll review it if I want to.

While my brain was supposed to be turned off, I realized something about this movie: it is all about Lydia. The film reads like a foreign adoption story about a childless couple wandering the earth until they are made into a real family via the addition of a child. What I found most interesting about Beetlejuice was the way that Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) Maitland are devalued and almost irrelevant to the outside world until they find Lydia. This is by no means a commentary on their relationship as Tim Burton masterfully paints them as an ideal couple before and after their introduction to Lydia. It instead reflects on the way that the world around them emphasizes and validates couples with children.

Beetlejuice positions the Maitlands as incomplete due to their childlessness. The film begins with the nosey neighborhood interloper, Jane Butterfield (Annie McEnroe) who tries to persuade the Maitlands to sell their home. She sets the tone of the film by saying that the home “really ought to be for a couple with a family.” This statement undervalues the Maitlands as a family by insinuating that having a child is the sole qualification for entrance into the category of “family.” Furthermore, we gain the sense that the Maitlands are not only childless by choice, but by default. Their unsuccessful attempts at procreation are pointed out as Barbara talks to Adam about “trying again” on their upcoming two week stay-cation.

Having a child is presented as the most important qualifying criterion for being a family. We see that possessing love, respect, and accountability for one another are less important family values than having a child. This is revealed by the juxtaposition of the Deetzes and the Maitlands. Whereas the bond between Adam and Barbara is notably visible, they are still considered “less than” the Deetzes in absence of a child. Once the Maitlands pass away, Jane Butterfield finally gets a “real family” into the home, the Deetzes, who have a daughter. While Jane might qualify the Deetzes as a family, they certainly do not share the love nor the bond that the Maitlands have.

Their childlessness renders the Maitlands invisible. In life, they are barely relevant and in death they are overtly unseen. Even while alive, their love for one another seems equally paralleled by their mundane and empty lives. This is most notable in the lack of social interactions or even people in the Maitlands’ lives. Not only do they appear to have no meaningful bonds, but no one will miss them on their two-week vacation, or when they plummet off a bridge. In fact, when Adam stopped by his store (prior to the crash) his neighbor from the barber shop never even looks at him. Adam is virtually a replaceable stand-in for the barber to talk at. The barber doesn’t even notice when Adam walks into the store or leaves the vicinity. Their invisibility continues in death. The invisibility of the Maitlands is immediately evident when they read from the Handbook for the Recently Deceased: “Rule 2: The living usually won’t see the dead” (or as I suggest here, the childless). Several fruitless efforts and a few ruined designer sheets make it clear to the Maitlands that they need something new in their arsenal if they are going to be seen by the living.

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Lydia is the first living person to see the Maitlands. Unhappy in her current living situation, her world is one big, dark room until she is born unto her new family. For those of you who love Freudian analysis, you will love this one…Lydia is almost literally born to her new family via the narrow birth canal of the smoky tunnel-like stairwell leading to the attic. The imagery is clear; Lydia holds the key to the opening and is birthed into the symbolic world of the Maitlands. The happiness and amazement registers on the Maitlands’ faces when Lydia comes face to face with them. Previously unseen, and now visible to Lydia who says, “Are you gross under there? Are you Night of the Living Dead under there?” The bond between this newly formed family is unmistakable. Lydia immediately aligns herself with the Maitlands by stating that she can see them because most people ignore the strange and unusual, and “I, myself AM strange and unusual” (as if to say, she is like them or one of them).

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The maternal instinct kicks in almost instantaneously, thus cementing the familial bonds. This solidification of their new and whole family increases the visibility of the Maitlands (even despite being dead). After meeting Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) for the first time, Barbara decides that she will forgo his assistance in order to protect Lydia. In fact, Barbara jeopardizes her goals and dreams in order to “not expose that little girl to that pervert [Betelgeuse].” Lydia returns the favor by trying to protect the Maitlands from the Deetzes and their equally pretentious friends. Now a full family, the Maitlands show their increased visibility by successfully haunting the dinner party in the famous “Day-O” scene.

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Lydia’s equal desire to be a part of the Maitlands’ family completes their transition. Lydia writes a suicide note talking about plummeting off the same bridge that the Maitlands died on. Before making her fateful decision, Lydia seeks council with Barbara. In Barbara’s absence, Lydia crosses paths with Betelgeuse and tells him she would do anything to permanently be in the world of the dead (the world of the Maitlands). Simultaneously, Barbara second-guesses her decision to scare the Deetzes away, “Adam, I can’t go through with it, I like that little girl…I want to be with Lydia.” Through their shared desire with Lydia, the Maitlands become fully visible to the living. Otho summons the Maitlands via their wedding attire. Contrary to initial impulse, it is not one another that they wed in this scene; it actually becomes the foundation for the symbolic marriage of the Maitlands and Lydia. The family members, each in their respective wedding garb, (as Lydia was about to marry Betelgeuse) now choose one another and consent to their union before the demonic authority. Visible, whole, and sharing bonds such as studying for a math test together, the Maitlands and Lydia are one. As a complete family, the Maitlands and Lydia are the “real family” that Jane Butterfield dreamed would one day inhabit this home.

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So while my brain was unable to turn off while watching one of my favorite films, I still enjoyed it. Sometimes seeing the films we love in a different light is just as enjoyable. It comes as no shock that a film from the 1980s would espouse the family values touted by the Tipper Gores and Reaganites of the period. I don’t suggest that these are the values or beliefs of Tim Burton but more so evidence of Stephen King’s claim that horror is innately conservative. That being said, my cohorts Elizabeth and Dawn will finally be happy that I reviewed a film with zombies that I actually like…but can you ever really go wrong with Beetlejuice?!

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