by B Drew Collier
So, I’m watching Beetlejuice (for about the 99th time) and once again I’m struck by something that happens right at the beginning of the film that skews my perspective of the events that follow, and by extension the concept of death (not just the afterlife) that Tim Burton presents to us.
If you’ve never seen Beetlejuice, stop reading right now and go watch it. Go on. I’m sure you can stream it from somewhere. I’ll wait.
Seen it? Isn’t it surreal? Isn’t it cool? Doesn’t it just mess with your head? Despite your best effort to maintain a cynical outlook on life, doesn’t it make you feel good in the end?
Great. Now think back to the beginning of the film: the Maitlands are on vacation. Barbara and Adam plan to spend their vacation at home catching up on thrilling projects around their house like wallpapering the dining room and refinishing the wardrobe. They’re obviously real go-getters because it’s something like 6:30 in the morning and they’re already fully dressed and jumping straight into the day even though they’re on vacation. This lovely couple’s up in their attic exchanging some gifts, some pleasantly romantic banter, and a few smooches on the old attic sofa. They’re so delightfully smitten with each other and have such a perfect life together that I think Andy Griffith might have had a hand in the script.
Now here – not later on the covered bridge – is were I believe everything changes for the Maitlands, right at this point where they’re wallowing in the midst of their perfect happiness.
The phone rings.
They continue to canoodle on the sofa and playfully ignore the phone call. Barbara gets up to answer it, Adam pulls her back, they smooch some more, etc. Everything’s a sunny holiday until a car horn outside snaps them out of their romantic game. We quickly discover that the car and its horn belong to Jane, the town’s real estate agent, who pesters the Maitlands about selling their house, but we never find out who was phoning them so early in the morning.
In our 21st century mindset, we might think that the phone call is from Jane: she’s on her cellphone letting them know she’s on her way up the drive, but keep in mind that Beetlejuice came out in 1988, long before cellphone ubiquity made it normal to call someone from the end of their driveway (or text them from across the table). Yes, there were car phones available at the time, but they cost $4,000, and Jane is a small-town realtor who isn’t likely to be able to afford something like that. More concretely, she’s driving a Lincoln Continental that doesn’t have a mobile phone antenna on it, so we can eliminate her as the caller.
So, who is on the other end of the phone line?
I’ve searched all over for an answer but continually come up empty handed: nothing mentioned in interviews, no enlightening script notes, I can’t even find anyone else asking the question. So, I’m left with nothing but the source material. If I’m going to find an answer, I have to look for it in the film.
Considering Beetlejuice as a whole – the opening sequence of the model house on the model hill in the model town inside the real house on the real hill inside the real town inside Burton’s movie (or perhaps his mind, depending on which authorial theory you believe), the improbably long set up with the dog and the Volvo and the rickety covered bridge crossing the river that divides the Maitland’s home from the town, Adam’s careless disregard for the handbook that ends up in Otho’s hands and leads to the Maitland’s ultimate moment of despair – it’s clear that Burton has set the Maitlands up in a nesting-doll universe that operates on a set of Rube Goldberg (chains of action/reaction) principles.
If I may continue with the nesting doll metaphor, the Maitland’s model is the core doll: an inanimate yet complete representation of the limited world where the film takes place. The Maitlands, who are the only main characters without any immediate family, are the next doll, ensconced in their home with minimal contact between themselves and the next doll out, which is the real town with Jane and her daughter and the other townies who themselves interact minimally with the next doll out, which is the larger world where the Deetz family and their business partners and friends originate.
Got all that?
Don’t worry, it’s not very important except for the fact that the Maitlands don’t have any immediate family. No parents or siblings or children. So it’s not like Adam’s dad is calling him at 6:45 in the morning to see how the big-ass model in his attic is coming along. I realize that within the film there isn’t much direct evidence to support this contention beyond the awkward exchange about Barbara’s inability to have children and a complete lack of any references to family members, however the original shooting scripts suggest that Adam inherited his hardware store and home from his family, so we can reasonably extrapolate that he has no close relatives.
We’ve eliminated some possible sources for the phone call, but still haven’t come up with an answer.
What other evidence can we find? I have to ask, why do the Maitlands ignore the telephone, even mock it, although they instantly respond to the toot! toot! outside their window? Is there a difference in the level of reality between the ringing phone and the car horn? The Maitlands definitely hear the phone. Barbara stands up to answer it, but the call passes away like a phantom without any further mention.
Consider also that the phone call terminates inside the Maitland’s house, inside that level of the nested dolls where Barbara and Adam abide while alive and where they must reside once they’re dead (unless of course they want to visit the sandworms or the bureaucratic offices of their caseworker). Jane and her car and its horn remain outside, in the next layer of nesting doll world, even when the Maitlands are still alive. In fact, no one enters the house apart from the Maitlands until after they are dead.
Is it possible that the phone call, which is the first thing to enter the Maitland’s house yet doesn’t intrude on their personal reality and immediately fades from their memory, originates somewhere beyond the nest of dolls we’ve established?
Could the phone call be from death itself? I can imagine death as a the sporting type, giving the Maitland’s a chance to divert their fate – if one of them had answered the phone, they would have been in their house longer, would have missed the encounter with the dog and, of course, their plunge into the river. However, they not only don’t answer the phone, they joke with it. I like to pretend that death, on the other end of the line, shrugs, hangs up and heads for the bridge.
One counter argument is that we never see death in a corporeal form. However, while the Maitlands and Beetleguese and all the other characters in the afterlife have bodies, they were all alive at some point, so they had bodies to begin with. Death, being a concept rather than a corporeal entity, may not have a body to speak of. Perhaps this is why everything works like a Rube Goldberg device. Death doesn’t get its hands dirty because it has no hands. It just shows up at the right place at the right time.
I’m still not 100% comfortable with this idea. Burton doesn’t introduce any other conceptual entities within this film, and the Beetlejuice world does seem to be particularly human-centric. I’m left with some other possibilities such as a phone call from someone previously deceased, perhaps Adam’s father or mother; or even a morbid gag by Burton himself, calling his creations each time the film starts, knowing they will never answer the phone and go on driving off the bridge forever.
But that kind of takes the fun out of the movie.