At the start of the film, the camera pans over the town in which the movie takes place. As the perspective rests on the Maitland’s house on a hill, the viewer thinks that they are looking at a normal sized house, when suddenly a giant spider climbs over the roof of the house, revealing that we are looking at a model of a house, not an actual house. The spider is off-putting and creepy, and thus serves as a symbol for the unsettling events that will take place in the film. It signals to the viewer that the film deals in unsettling themes and imagery, but in a playful way. By changing scale and subverting the perceptive expectations of the viewer, Burton uses the spider to represent the creepy and outrageous iconography and visual world of Beetlejuice. Later, Beetlejuice pulls spiders and other various creepy animal pests out of his pocket (snakes, rats, etc.) signaling that he is an unsavory character, an unwanted varmint himself.
Adam & Barbara, The Archetypal Couple (Allegory)
In many ways, Adam and Barbara, the wholesome, whitebread protagonists of the film, come to stand in for married couples and idealistic young people, who just want to stay in their home and fix it up over a stay-cation. While they would perhaps like to have children, they are not bent out of shape that they do not have any. In the beginning of the film, their lives represent the honeymoon stage of a relationship. When they drown in the river, they are pushed into a difficult period and their wholesomeness and kind natures are put to the test. They are still the same good, pure-hearted people, only now they can stretch their skin to ghastly proportions, and their main jobs are to haunt their old house. As the film progresses, they must learn to co-habitate with the Deetzes, and learn many lessons. In a climactic moment, they are conjured against their will into the living room, appearing in their wedding clothes and aging at a distressingly rapid pace. This transformation can be interpreted as an allegory for marriage itself; to marry someone is to confront one’s own death, because in marrying someone you agree to stay with them until death. In this way, Adam and Barbara’s story, however grisly and unsettling it may be, is a fractured representation of the progression of a relationship.
While Beetlejuice is a character in his own right, one who greatly affects the plot of the film, he is an archetype and a symbol as well. With his lustful appetites, his vulgar behavior, and his uninhibited cartoonish antics, he can be seen as symbolizing base desires and uncouth behavior. He stands in for what is known in psychology as “the id”: the base and unruly appetites that dominate our unconscious. More specifically, Beetlejuice can be seen as representing a characteristically male libidinal impulse, as exemplified by his comically libidinous visit to a brothel, the nonconsensual kisses and gropes he plants on Barbara, and his dogged desire to marry the teenaged Lydia. Much like Hades, the Greek God of the Underworld who plucked Persephone from the world of the living to marry him and live with him underground, Beetlejuice attempts to find his own bride to live with him in his grave home.
Harry Belafonte Music (Motif)
The Caribbean-influenced music of Harry Belafonte features prominently in the film’s soundtrack. At the start, Adam listens to a Harry Belafonte record while he looks for materials for building his model. The smooth, dance-y, and tropical quality of the music strikes a stark contrast with the sleepy, quiet New England setting. Belafonte’s “The Banana Boat Song” features later when, in the middle of her dinner party, Delia begins to lip sync along with Belafonte’s voice, and gradually all the other guests join in. This is Adam and Barbara’s attempt to haunt the party guests and send them running from the house, but it only has the effect of delighting them; they cannot possibly be spooked, because Belafonte’s music is so fun. Then, at the end, when Lydia returns home from school and tells Barbara and Adam that she did well on her math test, she gets their permission to levitate in the living room and dance to Belafonte’s music. In a world that is so characterized by its morbidness and dark humor, the use of such warm and infectious music strikes a dynamic motivic contrast.
Delia’s Bad Art & Design (Symbol)
A comic centerpiece of the film is the fact that Delia has garish, expensive, and markedly bad taste. Her ugly sculptures (which no one likes, but no one can bring themselves to critique) symbolize her pretension, her misguided belief that she has an elevated sense of space and aesthetics. When she gets literally pinned to the wall of the house by one of her sculptures that gets dropped from a crane, the image is a comic one: she has literally trapped herself under her own pretension. She forces Charles to agree to her redesigning the house, even though he likes it precisely for its simplicity. Delia’s bad taste not only represents her pretension and her incompatibility with the simple country life that she finds herself in, but it also symbolizes her shallow values and cold personality. The changes that she and Otho make to the house render it cold, impersonal, and dark, which mirrors the ways that she treats her husband, Charles, and her stepdaughter, Lydia. Her preoccupation with cold and impersonal design aesthetics is an extension of her impersonal and status-conscious temperament, qualities that do little to endear her to the depressive and soulful Lydia.
Beetlejuice Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Beetlejuice is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.