Scaring Children The Handbook for the Recently Deceased
In the film ‘Beetlejuice’, death is exaggeration. To die is to become a different size, to be viewed as grotesque by an outside observer.
This is Scaring Children, a column by A. E. Osworth that explores children’s horror media from the nineties and early aughts through the lens of queer adulthood.
One of the last things I did in the Before Times was attend a wedding. Two dear friends of mine, both nerds; they had a sign with the Millennium Falcon on it that read, “Wedding of the Millennium.” My podmate recently joked that it certainly did turn out to be the wedding of the year. And one of the first things I did in 2020 was start taking testosterone.
The intersection of these two statements is as follows: I used to powerlift with a personal trainer. I took the very lowest dose of testosterone I could take and still see something of a result, but my body drank it up like it had been missing that hormone all my life, and I changed. Fast. Within the first four weeks, my dead lift PR jumped thirty pounds, all the way up to 225. I was both proud and shocked. I had only been on T a few weeks; also, I felt like a superhero. I strutted back to my apartment and hopped in the shower and I looked down at my naked legs.
Wait a fucking second.
My legs were an entirely different shape. Stronger, thicker. It wasn’t supposed to happen quite so quickly. Crap. Crap crap crap. I dried myself off quickly and ran to my closet, pulled out the two suits that I owned, suits that had fit mere days before. I pulled each pair of pants on and prayed, but in this instance, prayer did not work. I couldn’t get either past my newly exaggerated thighs.
I’d gone from two suits to no suits. The wedding was in two days.
I cannot believe Catherine O’Hara is in this movie. We all remember Winona Ryder is in Beetlejuice as Lydia Deetz, but I sure did not remember O’Hara as Delia. Nor did I quite register Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as the Maitlands. It’s such a star-studded cast for such a bad movie. The plot is barely causal; the loosest threads tie each event to its effect: The Maitlands die in a car crash and mysteriously wind up back in their house.
A guide appears on the table, the Handbook for the Recently Deceased . Because death is a bureaucracy, there is a process to it, and the Maitlands are condemned to stay in their home for 125 years, which, honestly, they would probably appreciate were it not for the New York City businessman who buys the property.
The Deetz family (Charles, Delia, and their daughter Lydia) moves in, does a gut renovation with their piles of money to make it look like some haunted version of the Museum of Modern Art, and are generally disagreeable to the Maitlands, who represent a simple and loving life to foil the Deetz family’s rampant capitalism and social disconnection. To get rid of the Deetz family, the Maitlands contract the help of bioexorcist and title character Betelgeuse, who they immediately wish they’d never summoned because he’s so abhorrent. The Maitlands, who are not the brightest stars in the constellation, keep leaving their handbook around, which means the Deetz family, particularly Lydia and the interior-designer-turned-exorcist, know altogether too much about the ghosts.
The movie was born the same year I was, which means its humor does not hold up even a little. Betelgeuse (the character’s name spelled differently than the movie’s title, as in the name of the star) keeps grabbing Barbara Maitland, lifting her skirt to look under it—at one point possessing her—and the sound effects of it suggest that we should find it funny. Honking noises, squishing noises. All the trappings and timings of slapstick.
To Tim Burton’s credit, Barbara never reacts as though it is comedic. Which makes me wonder if we were ever supposed to think it was. Were the sound effects meant to package Betelgeuse’s lechery for children, only some of whom would understand what that groping meant or felt like? If so, it worked. I don’t remember any of it when I sit down to rewatch it, and I am freshly horrified by what Betelgeuse actually is, does, and represents.
What I remember is the aesthetic of the afterlife, one that I loved when I was little. One that was formative. The doors all slanted at the lintels, the lighting dramatic and green. The strange, exaggerated bodies of the dead, and all dependent on how they’d passed: one with a shark attached at the leg, one flattened by a truck, and Juno (the Maitlands’ afterlife caseworker) with a large slit in the throat from which cigarette smoke cascades as she inhales.
“This is what happens when you die. That is what happens when he dies. And that is what happens when they die.” At this last, the afterlife’s receptionist points to a femme, hair piled high and wearing fishnet stockings. And yes, the joke is that this person has been sawed in half, so now they are plural.
Still. There’s something queer about this postcorporeal place. Death as exaggeration. To become a different size, to be viewed as grotesque by an outside observer. Body parts shrink and grow; proportions distort.
I came out as trans in 2017. In some ways it was a disaster, and in some ways it wasn’t.
Here is a piece of fiction, a place where I am going to make some things up wholesale. This is a variable, a stand-in for a comma-separated set of experiences, a composite of cis people meant to stand in for many cis people in my life. An unholy mash-up mixed with an imagining, something that isn’t real but is true.
Imagine a person—his gender doesn’t matter, only that he is not trans. Imagine that he has known me for five years or twenty years or my whole entire life. Imagine that when I tell him that I am trans, he begins to cry. I do not know if he cries when I am not there, but when his eyes settle upon me they well up with the knowledge that I am different, now, than I was before. This happens over and over again. Imagine a person who says to me, “Just don’t change your name. That—I couldn’t handle that.” The dread in their voice. Imagine a person who insists I cannot swim in the pool or at the beach if I get top surgery because “it would be shocking for us to see. Traumatizing.” Imagine a person who tells me I should not correct anyone who misgenders me in public, because it’s just something that happens sometimes and people were just so used to me before, what am I expecting anyhow?
Imagine a person—no, a whole cadre of people, that’s more honest—who won’t speak any name for me at all. Months go by and the linguistic gymnastics get more fantastic while I get more transparent. The way that people take the long way around “foreign” pronouns and ignore my repeated requests. Sometimes they frown, they reminisce about the name I used to have, the way I used to be. A sigh here, worried looks there, as if to ask, “Are you doing okay?” But those glances are never for me; they are for others. The cis people comfort the cis people about my crossing over. They eulogize me to my face.
My mentors, my coworkers, my friends, even my family—so many of my people essentially mourned my death while I watched.
It was hard not to take it personally, and I did not succeed. I kept insisting that I hadn’t died. I didn’t understand being mourned at all, didn’t understand the grief. It felt gross, like in their eyes I had simply vanished when in my eyes I’d just become real. That is what happens when they die.
“The living usually won’t see the dead,” reads the Handbook for the Recently Deceased .
“Can’t or won’t?” asks Adam Maitland.
But one living soul can see the Maitlands—Lydia Deetz, a teenager. When asked why: “The living usually ignore the strange and unusual. I myself am strange and unusual.”
Can’t or won’t? I’m here to tell you that the difference between can’t and won’t doesn’t matter in the end. Another difference I am not sure matters: the difference between a villain and those mourned as dead. Why is it I loved this aesthetic growing up, when Betelgeuse is so fucking gross, such a fucking monster?
Does my own ghostly presence render me the villain in my own story? Or does it merely render me strange and unusual?
I didn’t understand being mourned at all, didn’t understand the grief. It felt gross, like in their eyes I had simply vanished when in my eyes I’d just become real.
A friend told me about Switch n’ Play, and I knew I had to see them. A queer burlesque and drag troupe full of trans and nonbinary performers. When I saw them, a documentary about the troupe-and-family had just aired at NewFest. The Branded Saloon, their usual haunt, was overfull with people who wanted to see the troupe in the flesh. Some of those people were folks like me, wayward in their audienceship and who, while squarely queer, had to go break a twenty into ones at the bar because they forgot about the pleasure of slipping a single dollar into a genderqueer G-string. Others were from outside the community, practiced at the art of going out, but spectators from a different vantage point.
The show had a distinctly Halloween vibe and, as much of drag entails, the looks featured bodily exaggeration nine times out of ten. Performer Vigor Mortis stood on the stage feet from me, decked in a sober suit, and lip-synced to a recording of Alfred Hitchcock talking before he got into his song, during which his oversized cravat became soaked in blood. He described his character’s own death by shooting, slow and smooth, exaggerated lips moving sensuously about the tragedy of it, winged eyebrows expressing a delicious sorrow.
And I perched on my foldout metal chair, too enthralled for my body to hurt about it, shoulder to shoulder with other queers, so close to the small stage as to smell the sweat. Miss Malice, our host, wore a red wig her head’s height over again, making her unbelievably tall. She sat at the corner of the stage for every act. I wasn’t sure why; she pulled her phone out to photograph or video the performer every so often. But surely it wasn’t worth giving up the real estate on the small stage? It was a bar, the whole place was small, everyone crammed up against everyone else.
I cannot remember the performer’s name, but I remember she was from Chicago, a guest that night, and I remember the lighting was blue. I remember that the song was clear as a bell and sad, that she did a lot of staring into the middle distance. One of the things I appreciate about Switch n’ Play is that they don’t prioritize party songs. They aren’t afraid of art. They aren’t afraid of the strange and unusual. From the second she entered from behind the audience, it was clear her performance was going to be about the art of it, and not as concerned with whether or not her audience was here to rock out.
I remember her bob, the way her eyes seemed massive because they’d been painted, extended far beyond the normal purview of eyes. She walked up the aisle with a suitcase and passed two people, sitting one behind the other, holding full plates of food and balancing their drinks in tall glasses. It would be a grand assumption to call them (a) straight and (b) women, but for the way they were behaving. Because as the performer elegantly walked past them on her way to the stage, they began to have a full-throated conversation, the woman in front turned entirely toward the woman behind.
I got so very uncomfortable. So, so uncomfortable. There was no way the performer didn’t notice, the conversation was so loud. The whole bar could hear its contents. And Miss Malice, with her red wig and sparkling lips, snapped her fingers. Over and over again. And she pulled “excuse me” faces at the crowd and, specifically, at these two who couldn’t be arsed about the art, about the sad song, the complex one. Malice kept gesturing toward the performer onstage, a movement that said, “Look at this person you literally paid to watch.” I understood, then, why Miss Malice sat onstage. As a buffer and a bouncer.
Later, the same performer came back for a rager of a song, pop-bright and happy, in which she threw her wig into the audience. One of the two talking women caught it and screamed, now rapt. I imagined that she wouldn’t dream of having a conversation during this number.
It is this kind of visibility cis people, in my experience, grant trans people (though I would be quite happy to be proven wrong in individual circumstances). Invisible until spectacle, less a spectrum and more a light switch. Far more binary than I would like. Not worth looking at until we can be consumed, and when we are gazed upon, still misunderstood. Here for the wig throwing and not the complexity. Seen only for the aesthetic and not for the reasons behind it—the honesty of it, how our experiences become written upon our bodies.
Now, I watch a Q and A with Switch n’ Play on YouTube to relive the experience of being surrounded by my people (save for those two women).
“At the end of the day, I’m just really glad that I learned how to play within this world, for myself, and to complete the vision that I have—like, I feel beautiful. How do I communicate this to the world so that other people can know I feel beautiful?” says performer Pearl Harbor.
And I think about the complexity of the wig-throwing moment too. How just watching the party doesn’t necessarily mean Witnessing it.
“I’m just really grateful that I got to learn how to use drag to play with gender,” Harbor says, “and to keep shifting and to keep playing. And to keep wearing dead women’s wedding dresses.”
It is this kind of visibility cis people, in my experience, grant trans people—invisible until spectacle, less a spectrum and more a light switch. Far more binary than I would like.
“Never trust the living,” warns Juno in Beetlejuice . And it turns out she is right.
In an effort to make a spectacle of the Maitlands, who will not appear before the Deetz family’s dinner party to entertain them, the interior decorator uses the knowledge he gained from the handbook to force the Maitlands to appear—by laying out their wedding clothes and beginning to exorcise them. He doesn’t know how to make it stop.
As Lydia pleads for the decorator to let the Maitlands go, another dinner party guest tells her not to worry. The ghosts, he insists, can’t feel a thing. To him, to the rest of them, the ghosts are only valuable as curiosities—Barbara withering inside her wedding gown, Adam fading beside her in his tuxedo. And Lydia, a child who never stops seeing the Maitlands in all their complexity even as they die a second death before her, releases Betelgeuse to stop the exorcism on the condition that she will marry him, dressed in a red dress, princess-esque with a tulle skirt. I think of the performer from Switch n’ Play, invisible if not a spectacle. I think of me, ignored in the Met, in my home, while someone else wails and mourns my passing, ignored everywhere except as an unseen force, a source of stress.
Another piece of fiction: Imagine that one of the suits I couldn’t fit over my thighs after taking testosterone was my own wedding suit, once upon a time. I will not tell you if that is real, if I was ever married. But for the sake of the image, for the sake of my own exorcism, imagine that I wore it to get married. It need not be real for it to be true. Imagine it laid out on the bed like Adam Maitland’s tuxedo, laid out on a dining table for his summoning. Imagine that the living all want to see me in the suit, that they called me to put it back on. Imagine that it was a custom suit, made to fit my body exactly before it changed. Imagine I got the suit in 2016 before I had top surgery and, when I put the vest on, I could see the ghost of breasts long gone. Imagine that this object is supposed to summon me, but that death means change in the end, and my body has stretched and grown and shrunk in myriad ways, and I no longer fit in the suit. It would be impossible to force me into it; I can’t fade away.
It would be emotionally resonant, wouldn’t it? If it happened that way?
For all its flaws, Beetlejuice seems really clear on (1) who is truly monstrous (Betelgeuse), (2) who is behaving badly and could be redeemed (the Deetz family and their dinner party guests), and (3) who is merely dead (the Maitlands). Monstrosity is entirely decoupled from being an object of mourning or an object of spectacle; the shift in body, in proportion, becomes a feature, an aesthetic that simply is , that may even be intentional. But it certainly, by itself, doesn’t make a person evil or even badly behaved.
To be honest, I now understand my people’s mourning, though I didn’t at the time. Anyone with a relationship to horror or tarot cards knows that death is rarely quite as literal as that; death is metamorphosis. And in the case of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice , it means a beauty in the off-kilter, a satisfying queerness; it means never walking through a square door again.
So, back to the wedding I was supposed to attend.
I was on the phone with another trans masculine person, someone who would understand both the predicament and the resultant desire, a want that reached through time and space and a whole drag troupe to get to me as I looked inside my closet for the one single pair of black pants that still made it to my waist.
“I found this black-and-white striped shirt at H&M,” I said. “If I overnight these gold glitter loafers to myself and wear this black velvet dinner jacket that mercifully still fits, I can go for a sparkly Beetlejuice effect.”
Of course, I hadn’t deeply thought about it, or rewatched the movie, or drawn any parallels between the movie and the drag troupe, or come to the conclusion that I had changed so very much that death wasn’t a far-off metaphor anymore, nor should that actually render me invisible to my family or anyone else if they were themselves strange and unusual, nor was it an indicator of monstrosity, and I hadn’t yet grappled with claiming my gorgeous hypervisibility and deciding that I didn’t care about the difference between can’t and won’t , and that I wouldn’t give the “living” any leeway either way and that they could see me or not, and that I would make them see me.
I hadn’t done any of that, but my friend summed it up just the same.
“That’s gay,” he said.
I thought, That’ll do .