An Ode To The "Strange & Unusual"

How Beetlejuice Helped Me Deal With Death As A Kid

He's the ghost with the most for a reason.

Emma Chao/Courtesy Warner Bros/The Geffen Film Company; Scary Mommy; Getty Images

Clowns. Snakes. That infamous horse scene in The NeverEnding Story. These are all things that fundamentally terrified me as a child. Then, at the age of 6 years old, I was forced to face something I'd never encountered before but proved to be as scary as any monster under the bed: I was introduced to the concept of death. My grandfather passed away during the summer of 1993 from complications due to a stroke. I was old enough to understand that he had been having some health issues for a while, but after being told he had died, I was overcome with a huge wave of sadness and shock. Here was this kind, soft-spoken, older man who had been such an integral part of my life up until that point, and just like that, I realized I would never see him again.

Death can be really difficult for anyone to process, especially when you're young. How can a person be here one second and gone the next? It didn't make sense to me. My parents did the best they could in trying to explain things and provide as much support as possible, but I still couldn't quite wrap my head around the idea. Surprisingly, one of the biggest comforts I found during that time was watching Tim Burton's 1988 cult classic Beetlejuice. Now, I know what you're thinking. Beetlejuice? Really? At first glance, you wouldn't think a film centered around the exploits of a recently deceased couple and a conniving, obnoxious bio-exorcist would be all that consoling to a young child. But if you go back and rewatch this iconic movie — which celebrates its 35th anniversary on March 30 — I think you'll come to realize what a powerful message it sends.

Death isn't the ending you think it is.

For those needing a little refresher, the movie's main focus is on Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) and her husband, Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin), who both die in a fluke car accident while driving home one day. After arriving back at the house — with no recollection of how they got there — they soon discover they're deceased and unable to leave the confines of their home (unless they enjoy the company of ghost-killing sandworms). But as they start to come to terms with what's happening to them, a new and eccentric family moves into the house and disrupts their quiet little afterlife. Desperate for some help, they eventually turn to a self-proclaimed bio-exorcist to scare the newbies away. Naturally, chaos ensues.

Obviously, there's a lot more to the movie than that, not to mention a ton of jokes hidden throughout the film that completely went over my head as a kid. But I distinctly remember feeling so relieved by the idea that Barbara and Adam still had an existence together after death. Heck, they even had their own bureaucratic system, which hilariously parallels our real-life government. I mean, who hasn't experienced the soul-crushing torture of waiting in line forever to talk with an authority-type figure for five minutes?! (Ghosts: They're just like us!)

Seriously, though, Barbara and Adam may have died, but ultimately their story was only beginning. They went on to make new friends, share new memories, and create a whole new adventure for themselves outside of their physical form. It was different, sure, and probably nothing like they had envisioned. But it wasn't nothing.

I couldn't help but think about my grandfather while watching the film, hoping that he, too, was off somewhere on a new journey — no longer with us, but not merely buried in the ground. Maybe, like the Maitlands, there was more out there for him. I liked that idea, and it allowed me to finally come to terms with saying goodbye.

Being different isn’t a bad thing.

Despite their rocky start, the Deetz family became a type of extended family to Barbara and Adam, particularly the young daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder). When they first moved into the house, Lydia was clearly harboring some dark thoughts and feelings that went a little beyond typical teen angst. But after meeting Barbara and Adam, she came out of her shell and became more comfortable in her skin. How often do you see ghost-like figures add joy to someone's life rather than fear? That in itself proved to be a beautiful, unique element of the film and showed how love and kindness can transcend spiritual planes. (Bet you didn't think Beetlejuice was so sappy, did you?)

Plus, it was also kind of great how every character was a misfit in their own special way — yet it was never considered a weakness. Instead, those quirks made the characters all the more enjoyable to watch. The film allowed you to embrace your inner weirdo, which is honestly an excellent message for people of any age.

You don't need to fear the unknown.

Regardless of your belief system, death remains a mystery to everyone. You don't know for sure what happens until it happens to you, which makes it inherently scary. That fear of the unknown is extremely common and a big part of what was so genius about this film. Beetlejuice pulled back the curtain on the other side (quite literally) to show what a post-death existence could look like. And sometimes, the afterlife can be pretty entertaining. Apart from when he turned himself into a snake, Beetlejuice was hilarious, even to a kid. He was a free spirit (again, quite literally) who didn't like playing by the rules; you never quite knew what kooky trick he'd come up with next.

Then, of course, who could ever forget this iconic scene:

Fun little dance numbers may be all the rage these days (hello, Wednesday). They were rare to see on-screen back then, though, making this "Day-O" performance a distinctive thing of beauty. While Catherine O'Hara has had some phenomenal acting scenes throughout her illustrious career, this possession dance sequence she performs as Delia Deetz is a true masterpiece.

What am I trying to say here? This film genuinely helped me when I needed it the most. Now I'm all grown up and have sadly said goodbye to all four of my grandparents. And while I've developed beliefs as an adult that help me deal with loss, I've never forgotten what this movie did for me in its own quirky way. For that, I am forever grateful — and since we know how powerful it can be to say something three times in this fictional universe, let me end things by saying: thank you, thank you, thank you.