Beetlejuice is an offbeat film about the afterlife, produced in 1988 by Warner Brothers. The creation of director Tim Burton, known for his dark humor and slightly skewed imagination, Beetlejuice presents a twisted look at SUICIDE, ghostly attachments, yuppie affectations, and adolescent alienation. Starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, and a young Winona Ryder, the movie characterizes the afterlife as a boring bureaucracy bounded by an arid and fearful no-man’sland. Although not a fiery hell, paradise it’s not.

Baldwin and Davis play Adam and Barbara Maitland, proud owners of an old New England house that needs a lot of maintenance. One day, on a trip to the hardware store, the Maitlands die in an automobile accident and discover they are Ghosts trapped in the home’s attic. Outside is a scary desert populated with “sandworms” that move beneath the dry earth and attack the unwary. Instead of meeting Saint Peter (or maybe even Satan), the Maitlands encounter ghostly civil servants: suicides-turnedbureaucrats who desultorily confirm the couple’s demise and give them a copy of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Apparently even dead people have rules.

Not too long after their deaths, an obnoxiously shallow yuppie family, the Deetzes (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara), buy the Maitlands’ house. Adam and Barbara are incensed that their prized home is stripped of its charm and filled with Delia Deetz’s artworks. The couple tries to scare the Deetzes into leaving, but they are too nice and haven’t been dead long enough to exert much influence. Only Charles Deetz’s Goth daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), sees Adam and Barbara, and she has as little control over Charles and Delia as they do.

However, there is another occupant of the attic: a tiny but powerful, long-dead ghost named Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), who lives in a model village left behind by a former owner of the house. He wears a clownlike striped suit and tie, has a face painted white, and a shock of unruly hair. Beetlejuice offers his services to the Maitlands as a “bio-exorcist”: An eliminator of unwanted people in a spirit-occupied place. He claims to know how to handle the sandworms as well (they live in “Saturn,” according to Beetlejuice), along with a shopping list of other scams and swindles. He used to assist Juno, the suicide victim who is now the Maitlands’ caseworker, but was banished to the village for his escapades. All one has to do is call his name three times and he appears, restored to size and capability. Interestingly, he is not permitted to say his own name.

Growing stronger the longer they are deceased, Adam and Barbara try again to dislodge the Deetzes. One evening Delia hosts dinner and a Séance, during which the Maitlands possess her and Charles, making them dance and sing like Harry Belafonte. They even levitate Lydia, but the Deetzes are more intrigued—even delighted with their new notoriety—than frightened. Out of ideas, the Maitlands ask Lydia’s help to contact Beetlejuice, and she agrees.

But once liberated, Beetlejuice spins out of control, rapidly morphing from tiny rodents to striped serpents. He is very powerful and very dangerous, as he has been dead a long time. Beetlejuice’s tricks become more frightening, and the Maitlands not only regret calling him but fear for the Deetzes’ lives. The final straw is when Lydia— who hates her teenage life and is drawn to the supernatural— is about to marry Beetlejuice. Then she realizes life with her dad and stepmom may not be so terrible, and she calls out “Beetlejuice” three times, and he is gone.

Unhappy that director Tim Burton had gone over budget with Little Shop of Horrors, Warner Brothers gave him only $15 million to make Beetlejuice. Consequently, some of the special effects lacked the computer-generated pizzazz moviegoers have come to expect, yet the more inventive (and cheaper) solutions actually enhance the film’s quirkiness. Box office receipts in the United States for the opening weekend totaled over $8 million, and Beetlejuice more than covered its expenses.

Beetlejuice won an Oscar for best makeup and received eight more nominations and six industry awards, including Best Horror Film from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Tim Burton received the group’s nomination for best director.

A cartoon version based on the movie ran from September 1989 to December 1991. But the tone was much lighter; Lydia and Beetlejuice were friends and had amusing adventures with an assortment of eccentric neighbors, including a French fitness buff who was a skeleton, a clown, a Texas redneck, and a tap-dancing spider.

Further Reading:

  • “Beetlejuice (1988).” Internet Movie Database. Available online. URL: Downloaded July 5, 2006.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007