Last year I found out that Michael McDowell, author of horror classics like The Elementals and the Blackwater series, wrote the screenplay for Beetlejuice. (He also did work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and Thinner.) And by “screenplay,” I mean, the first few drafts of the screenplay. I found it online in its glorious Courier font and kept it in a browser tab on my phone like an amulet. I would look at it every once and awhile, trying to glean writing nectar from it.
See, Beetlejuice lives rent-free in my head, like an adamantium spiderweb. Everything that’s in my head meat must pass time with memories of this movie. I watched it way too early in my development. Probably six years old. My mother was notoriously permissive about film watching. So everything stuck. The Maitlands’ death in the car tipping into the river. Geena Davis, as Barbara Maitland, stepping onto Saturn and dodging a sandworm. The strange necro-Art-Deco vibe of the Deetzes when they move into the house. The abstruse origins of who or what Beetlejuice is. And Danny Elfman’s goofy/haunting score kitted out with graveyard fiddle and goth polka.
You can’t watch an iconic film like this and not have it teach you stuff. Here’s what’s stuck in that psychotic webbing:
First: what I love about the film is its Zero Commitment to explaining anything beyond the basic. Horror is rooted in the unknown. When we start to trace back the roots to the trunk, we lose the horror of it. I had a short Twitter thread about this. I called this idea “horror’s kernel problem.” I said: Horror, as I see it, need not be pulse-pounding and adrenaline-flushing. It can be slow as hell and have some creeped out moments. But that writers need not explain themselves. Horror is a genre that needs no “kernel” or “core” or “origin story.” But what has always held my attention, especially in a film like Beetlejuice, is the not knowing where the story originated. Connected to origin is climax. Where does a horror story climax? In a blood bath? A demon reveal? A baddie blown up? In a very Freudian way, the catharsis (emotional release) is what storytellers think is the mission. When it needs to be cathexis (a continued and unremitting pressure and tension). To the detriment of everything else, even catharsis and expulsion. That’s why so many really great horror films end on a return to tension, e.g. A Nightmare on Elm Street.
e this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.
McDowell and then Warren Skaaren (hired to take over from McDowell) tried to give a backstop to Betelgeuse (the way the character’s name is actually spelled). But, c’mon! I never think about his origin. I’ve seen the film umpteen times and I still had to google where he came from and remembered he was Juno’s assistant in the afterlife who went rogue. That explanation still doesn’t tell us much; nor does it satisfy. It’s enough to have a character as a mood. The striped suit, the hair, the mold on the neck. The character is as inscrutable as his appearance. Betelgeuse represents the deceptive, the depraved, the clever, the pure id of whatever may lurk inside Death. And! The character is barely in the film. The whole thing revolves around him, but he doesn’t appear in more than a handful of scenes. I try to replicate that when I write horror.
Maybe all of this got soaked into me through childhood? And I never cared to have an answer. And the fear and wonder was enough to carry me through?
Secondly, what else carried me through was humor. I have rarely watched a horror film, read a horror story that’s full-tilt terror and enjoyed it. What lasts for me is always ringed with humor. It’s not that it offsets the scares and makes it tolerable—although it can do that. But it sets a counterpoint to the horror. The old yin-yang thing. There is a sense of ominousness to Betelgeuse before he arrives. And then he does and he’s eerie but hilarious. But not long after he appears, there’s a scene where he lures a fly into his grave with a Zagnut bar. And he eats the fly. Heeeelllp meee! it screams as it’s eaten off screen. That scene terrified me as a kid. And the residue of that terror persists, though I see the humor in it as an adult. It’s that strange amalgam of terror and laughter, the uneasy mixture that Beetlejuice carries.
This lack of laughs is what made someone like Lovecraft hollow for me. I love cosmic horror. I wrote a novella full of it (I think)! But no one has time for a laugh in Lovecraft. Moreover, the first drafts of Beetlejuice had nowhere near the laughs. Michael Keaton brought that on set through improvisation. And it married Burton’s nightmare vision perfectly.
Maybe this is why the 80s is such a prime era for horror. The combination of humor and horror in the films of Carpenter, Burton, Craven, etc. made more evident the need for more depth in the genre, despite horror being seen as less-than.
Kyle Winkler lives in northeast Ohio and teaches (mostly) writing and rhetoric at Kent State University – Tuscarawas. He also teaches/has taught Shakespeare, Science Fiction, and Literary Theory. His stories and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, The Rupture, The Rumpus, The Millions, and elsewhere.
Twitter & Instagram: @bleakhousing