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Dual Analysis: Beetle Juice – KB’s Thoughts

Part two of a new Dual Analysis costume film review.

Beetle Juice (1988) is one of the landmark films in my life. There is “Before Beetle Juice” and there is “After Beetle Juice”. The film is important to me because it was the first film to reflect a subculture that I recognized firsthand: goth.

I was a teenager in 1988, and the gothic movement had started (on the West Coast of California, in any case) in about 1984 – 1985. It wasn’t called goth, or gothic, at that point. In fact, I don’t even remember hearing the term ‘goth’ to describe this look until the mid-nineties, when the movement had gone totally mainstream with Marilyn Manson and Hot Topic. Let me say for the record that I think ‘goth’ is the wrong word to describe the look of 1987.

‘Goth’ is what we now know as poseur-ish, store-bought and self-conscious. Back in 1987, people dressed like this to actually express themselves. There was no store that sold tight plaid pants with studs, chains, and vinyl pockets. You had to make them yourself. You had to reach out for this look and create it using your own ingenuity. There was authenticity to this look; there was soul to it. Not. Any. More.

But I digress.

In 1987 (when the film was being made), this was the look: spiky dyed-black hair, heavy eyeliner, pale skin, black clothing, tight pants, creepers, black fingernails.


The vibe: obsession with death, being alone and misunderstood, coffins, smoking clove cigarettes, morosity and Edward Gorey. The sound: Bauhaus, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, The Smiths, Gene Loves Jezebel, and Joy Division, among others.

There is (and was) a clear distinction between this (so-called ‘goth’) look and the other fringe-y looks of the time. To put it in context for those of you who were not yet born in 1987, this so-called ‘goth’ look was happening (mostly among teenagers on the fringe) while the rest of the world was embracing the following:

Big Hair

Shoulder Pads

Stirrup Pants

Acid Washed Denim

Bon Jovi – Living on a Prayer was No.1 for over a month in the U.S.

Guns-N-Roses’ Appetite For Destruction album hit the shelves

Michael Jackson released his album Bad

The Simpsons first season

The Cosby Show

Top Gun

And lastly, Ronald Reagan.

So, think about it. The world was pleasantly cocooned in the hairy nest of the above, oblivious to the unrest to which it was quietly giving birth. Those of us familiar with the music, the culture, the scene as it was happening were pleasantly surprised, nay, shocked, to see Winona Ryder costumed in such a distinctly subversive manner in such a mainstream movie! Could it be that someone in Hollywood was culturally aware. Was someone paying attention to the angst and disenfranchisement in the house that Reaganomics and conspicuous consumption built?

Evidently so, and that someone was Aggie Guerard Rodgers.

To get back to the movie, Winona Ryder plays Lydia Deetz, the so-called ‘goth’ daughter of Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and step-daughter of Delia (Catherine O’Hara) Deetz. The Deetz family moves to the countryside to the quaint, old, haunted New England farmhouse, much to the dismay of the original owners Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis), now ghosts. Lydia is the only person who can see or communicate with the deceased Maitlands.

I haven’t read the script to know whether Lydia’s ‘goth’ costumage came from the script or from a brainstorming session with the costume designer and director, but it was a truly savvy choice. The mainstream audience probably didn’t grasp the depth of character that the costume provided (culturally identifying her as part of a movement that is obsessed with death, coffins, alienation, and the like), but for those of us who thoroughly knew what her costume signified, it was a revelation.

Simultaneously, I suspect that for many hardcore early ‘goths’, this revelation was also a shudder of unwanted exposure. The cat was out of the bag. This so-called ‘goth’ look had been dragged out from obscurity and put on to the big screen. However, Tim Burton has continued his love affair with the movement, penning Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Corpse Bride, sweet odes to gloom, alienation, and characters wearing black.

Beetle Juice inspired me back in 1988 to take costume design more seriously as an art form. The use of the ‘goth’ look in this film made me realize that everything we experience in this world – whether it is being a part of a group, organization, religion, movement, culture, regional environment, hobby or occupation – is part of life that we can express on screen. Beetle Juice was a wakeup call, in a sense; encouraging me to mine the depths of my life experience to create more fully realized characters.

I will always be thankful to Aggie Rodgers and Tim Burton for that. It was a powerful nudge in a direction that has since shaped my life.

*Library images courtesy of Visit the site for a lively transcript conversation between myself and costume designer KB (Kristin Burke) on the costumes of Beetle Juice. – Chris

© 2009 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.