As the film opens, rousing but eerie music plays as the camera pans over a forest and focuses in on a small town, showing its tree-lined streets and white farmhouses from a birds’ eye view. Finally, the camera settles on a large white house secluded on a hill which seems to be in disrepair. A tarantula climbs over the roof of the house and a hand reaches out to catch it, revealing that the house is a model. A man in glasses looks at the tarantula, commenting on its size and bringing it into another room. He brings the tarantula to the window and throws it out into the wild. As he goes back to the model, which appears to be of the entire town, a woman comes into the room and tells him that the model looks great. After wishing him a “happy vacation,” she hands him a present, which he opens to find—to his delight—Manchurian tung oil, a kind of finishing oil for furniture. She tells him that Helen got it for her, and the man is pleased that there’s enough for him to finish the table and the bureau. He then hands her a gift, another home improvement-related gift. “I’m so glad we’re spending our vacation at home,” she says, before going to start a house project.
As she walks away, the man grabs her waist and the couple falls onto a nearby sofa. They kiss, but are interrupted by the phone ringing. After playing a flirtatious game in which each of them goes to try and get the phone, but are pulled back by the other into a kiss, they are interrupted by a car horn outside in addition to the phone ringing. They look out the window and are disappointed to see a woman named Jane arriving at their house. The man says to the woman, “It’s your turn, honey,” as she resignedly goes to meet Jane. The woman runs down the stairs followed by the man as expectant classical music plays. He wishes her luck, kissing her and running into the other room. Jane enters, saying that she’s glad to have caught them before they went on vacation. Jane immediately begins telling the woman, whose name we learn is Barbara, that someone wants to buy their house. Jane is the realtor who sold the couple their house, and insists that a man from New York City really wants to buy their house, and that the house is too big for just a couple and needs to be sold to a couple with children. Barbara scowls at this comment and ushers Jane out the door, closing the blind behind the invasive realtor.
In his workshop, the man turns on some music—Harry Belafonte—and opens the blind, where he finds Jane crouching by the window, wanting to tell him about the offer on the house. “No Jane,” he says, closing the blind on her and getting back to work. He abruptly turns the music off and calls to Barbara that he wants to go to the store to get something for his re-finishing project. She agrees and they leave the house. We see the large house from the outside as the couple cheerily get in a yellow station wagon and drive into town. “Two weeks at home…the perfect vacation,” the man says. Barbara tells him that Jane wants them to sell the house to someone with a family, to which he responds that it isn’t Jane’s business. He then kisses her seductively, suggesting that they ought to try to conceive a child again on this vacation. In town, they greet a man named Ernie who is doing some work on his front lawn.
At the hardware store, another older man greets the man, whose name we learn is Adam, and asks him if he needs a haircut before his vacation. Adam tells him he doesn’t and quickly goes into the store as the older man asks him how the model is coming. Adam gets what he needs at the store and he and Barbara drive back towards their house, Barbara expressing her excitement about their “staycation.” As they pass through a covered bridge, a small dog appears on the road, and Adam yells for Barbara to avoid it. She swerves into the side of the covered bridge, and the car hangs over the side of the bridge, the small dog balancing its weight on a loose floorboard. When the dog jumps off the floorboard, the car goes toppling into the river headfirst.
The scene shifts and we see a cuckoo clock going off, and a fire abruptly lighting itself in a fireplace, as haunting organ music plays. Adam and Barbara, soggy from the car accident, walk into the living room, confused to find the crackling fire. “How’s your arm?” Adam asks Barbara and they sit next to the fire. As they warm their hands by the fire, a rogue flame comes flying out at Barbara’s hands, but instead of burning them, her fingers stay lit like two candles, and she is unharmed. Adam and Barbara look at each other, shocked. Abruptly, we see the house from a distance; the sky is a deep red and dramatic music plays. Barbara says she will make some coffee and urges Adam to get some wood for the fire, but Adam is confused. He doesn’t even remember how they got back up to the house. When he goes outside, intending to retrace their steps, a strange light shines on him, and the camera zooms outward to reveal that Adam is standing in a strange and desolate landscape, far from home.
Suddenly, a strange predator lurches towards Adam, when Barbara grabs his shoulder and pulls him back into the house. As he tries to explain what happened, she anxiously exclaims that he has been gone for two hours. He is confused, as Barbara brings him towards the mantle in the living room to show him something. As they approach the mirror above the mantle, neither of their reflections appear. Barbara picks up a horse figurine and holds it in front of the mirror; while the horse appears, there is no reflection of her hand, so it looks as though the horse is flying through the air on its own. She then points to a mysterious book on a side table nearby entitled Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Frantic harp music plays as the camera zooms in on the book and Adam picks it up. In the bedroom, Adam reads the book and Barbara asks him to explain what he’s reading; she wants to know why he disappeared when he stepped out onto the porch. “Are we halfway to heaven, are we halfway to hell?” she asks, concerned. He reads from the book, unable to understand what it means and slamming the book shut with a thud and a cloud of dust. Barbara throws herself on the bed.
The scene shifts to a view of Adam and Barbara’s house from the bottom of the hill, then to some kind of underground lair, with candles and cards that read, “Betelgeuse, the Bio-Exorcist!” The camera slowly pans over to show a man reading a newspaper entitled “The Afterlife” with a headline, “Sandworm Incidents Increase.” The man speaks to himself, saying that he must get a job and turning to the Business section. When he flips through, he lands on the obituaries, which include one for Adam and Barbara. The man is intrigued by this entry, looking at the photograph of “The Maitlands,” snickering and calling them a “cute couple.” He adds, “Look nice and stupid too.” Meanwhile, Adam and Barbara hole up in the attic, Barbara dusting and Adam making a model of their graves on his diorama. Barbara slumps onto the couch, complaining that she cannot clean because the vacuum is out in the garage, but they cannot leave the house. She then bemoans that they haven’t encountered any other dead people in the world, that it's just the two of them. Adam smiles at her, “Maybe this is heaven,” but she is unconvinced.
Adam goes to the window and looks down to see Jane the realtor, in mourning clothes, with a small child. Adam calls to her, but Jane cannot hear him, as Barbara confirms that Rule #2 in the book is that “the living won’t usually see the dead.” Barbara gets frustrated that the book makes no sense, but Adam comforts her, telling her that now that they’re dead, they don’t have to worry about much. The scene shifts to Jane’s car driving away from the Maitlands’ house, past a “For Sale” sign that reveals that the house has already been sold. The next morning, Adam and Barbara wake up, Barbara levitating a few feet above the floor in her sleep. As they awaken to something stirring downstairs, Barbara falls to the ground with a thud, and the couple runs into the hall. Looking down into the front hall, they hear a man’s voice and see a couch being pushed in. A woman walks in, looking around suspiciously, and her husband greets her as Delia. She seems unsure about the house, but he assures her that it will be a good home. When he tells her the kitchen is large enough for her to “finally cook a decent meal,” she looks at him resentfully.
The husband beckons her into the kitchen, but she does not follow him, looking around at the house with disgust. We then see their daughter, a black-haired, black-clad goth-y girl with a camera. She looks around curiously and snaps some photographs, as her father exclaims that they will have to rip out some plumbing, but that other than that, it’s perfect. Barbara looks at Adam, horrified at the presence of new inhabitants in their home. The daughter, whose name we learn is Lydia, looks at a spider hanging on the banister and says that she likes the place. Delia becomes alarmed as one of the movers brings in one of her sculptures. She warns him that it’s not a sculpture that she bought, but one that she made, and so it must be handled with care. The mover throws the sculpture, a strange abstract object on the table carelessly, as Delia’s husband sits in a rocking chair and marvels at how perfect the house is. Suddenly a man, called Otho, climbs into the house through the window. Delia tells Otho how pleased she is that he came with them, to which he sarcastically responds, “Of course you are.”
Growing impatient, Delia’s husband reminds her that they bought the house in order to enjoy the country setting, not to trash the place. Meanwhile, Lydia continues to take pictures, as Otho tells them that he plans to re-decorate the entire house. He is, apparently, their interior decorator. “Otho, I am here to relax and clip coupons,” the husband tells Delia and Otho, and Delia sends him away so that she and Otho can plot what they are going to do to the house. Adam and Barbara are discouraged by the arrival of the Deetzes, but Adam tries to look on the bright side. He says, “I’ve been reading that book and there’s a word for people in our situation: ghosts!” Downstairs, Otho hands Delia a spray bottle and they climb the stairs, Otho lamenting the fact that the house has “no organic flow-through!” As Delia compares the house to an ant farm, Otho notices a strange creak in the next room and catches a glimpse of Adam and Barbara, but quickly shrugs it off.
In one of the rooms, Delia takes her spray bottle and spray paints the word “Mauve” in purple paint on the wall. Otho agrees and they go to open a closet. When they open the door, Barbara is hanging there by the neck and she rips her skin off her face in one grotesque swipe. Otho and Delia look horrified, but we soon realize that the cause of their horror is the size of the closet; they cannot see Barbara’s terrifying display. Otho asks Delia what happened to the people who owned it before, to which Delia brusquely replies, “They died.” In another room, Otho insists on painting the walls “viridian” and tells Delia that he used to be a “hair analyst,” and knows a lot about chemistry. As they go into the adjoining room, Barbara is standing there holding Adam’s head and a bloody knife, while his body lies crumpled on the floor. Again, Otho and Delia are horrified—not by the ghosts, whom they cannot see, but by the decorating scheme in the room. “Deliver me from L.L. Bean,” Otho says, sardonically.
Suddenly, Delia’s husband jumps out and scares them. Adam’s animate but dismembered head tells Barbara that he doesn’t think their haunting is working out. Delia says to her husband, whose name is Charles, “Charles, I will not stop living and breathing art just because you need to relax.” Charles finally agrees to let her redecorate the house, on the condition that they conserve this room, a library. Delia agrees. “I’m gonna get her,” Barbara says, watching Delia leave.
The tone of the film is immediately playful and uncanny. Director Tim Burton plays with the audience’s perceptions of reality in the opening minutes of the film. After panning through the small New England town in which Adam and Barbara live, he settles on their house, when suddenly the house is revealed to be in fact a model of their house, evident from the fact that a large tarantula climbs over its roof. As the perspective zooms out, Adam reaches out his hand and takes the tarantula, and the viewer can see that the house is in miniature. This opening shot, along with the upbeat and unusual score, set the scene for the fantastical and creepy narrative of the film. In Beetlejuice, things are not as they seem; houses can turn into models and giant tarantulas can suddenly appear. Within the first few moments, Burton establishes the strange and macabre universe of the film.
Adam and Barbara are the perfect earnest protagonists for this grim narrative landscape. They are shown to be desperately in love, just about to enjoy a glorious at-home vacation spent fixing up their old house. They can barely answer the phone or the doorbell because they are too busy being in love, pulling one another back onto the couch into an embrace every time one of them tries to go tend to the anxious call of a nosy neighbor. Their purity and good nature is in direct contrast to the off-beat world of the film. They are the image of expectant and optimistic youth, anxiously hoping to conceive a child and renovate their house to make a beautiful and wholesome life for themselves.
As one can perhaps anticipate from the tone of the film, Burton has no reverence for such a pure-hearted plight, and the gregarious couple aren’t alive for long. The scene of their death is treated comically, however grisly it may be. In attempting to spare the life of a small dog, they are sent to their deaths by that very dog when it jumps off the floorboard holding their car up on the covered bridge. The viewer barely gets to know Adam and Barbara before we see their car overturning into a river. Their deaths make no difference, however, as in this film, the undead are just as animate and functional as the living. Unaware of their own deaths, Adam and Barbara make their way back to their house as though nothing has happened, the only difference being that they are soggy from the river.
The revelation that Adam and Barbara are dead transports the bushy-tailed couple and the viewer into a strange, exciting fun house, a ghostly and outrageous domain, inhabited by the grotesque titular character, Beetlejuice. In keeping with the prevailingly irreverent tone, Adam and Barbara seem unfazed by the discovery that they are dead. While they are mystified, the revelation seems perplexing more than disturbing. Their nonchalance is encapsulated in Adam’s line, “Barb, honey, we’re dead. I don’t think we have very much to worry about anymore.” Indeed, little has changed, other than the fact that they cannot leave the house or communicate with the living. As a reclusive, stay-cationing couple, however, this doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for them, and maybe is more of a relief than anything. Perhaps death was all they really needed to get some quality alone time.
There is, of course, a catch. The arrival of the Deetzes, yuppies from New York City set on completely refurbishing the house and stripping it of its New England charm, move in almost immediately and set to work dismantling Barbara and Adam’s abode right before their very eyes. The Deetzes are a cartoonishly villainous coterie, complete with the uptight patriarch, Charles, who tensely screams that he just came to the country to relax; his icy, self-absorbed wife, Delia; their goth daughter, Lydia; and their narcissistic interior decorator, Otho. The arrival of these intruders leaves Barbara and Adam feeling hopeless and discouraged for a moment, forced into co-habitating with (i.e. haunting) a group of tasteless urban snobs. Their outlook changes as they realize, however, that they have been presented with an unexpected opportunity to be ghosts. Adam grins as he informs his wife of their newfound ghost status, and thus an unexpected and rather comic haunting begins, with the modest country folk haunting a clueless group of urbanites. The hopelessly snobby New Yorker’s inability to see their morbid grotesque fantasies strikes a humorous tone; while it seems as though Delia and Otho are distressed by the blood and guts of the couples’ haunting, they are only dismayed by the quaint country design.