The 1975 adaptation of The Stepford Wives opens with a family moving out of their Manhattan apartment. While getting into their station wagon, the young mother spots a man across the street, carrying a nude mannequin. She pauses to take an artistic photograph. “Daddy, I just saw a man carrying a naked lady,” says one of the children. “Well, that’s why we’re moving to Stepford,” he answers.
It’s a familiar American tale: Family leaves the city to escape the noise or the crime or the lasciviousness and discovers the suburbs to be a scarier prospect. In this case, the suburb has become a breeding ground for dangerously stringent mid-century conventionality and conservativism; inconvenienced by the ripple effects of second-wave feminism, Stepford’s husbands have combined their white-collar skills to replace their wives with life-like robotic replicas. Wearing vacant, endless smiles, these automated wives cook, clean, rear their children, screw their mediocre husbands, and rather ominously shop for groceries, all against the backdrop of an idyllic town where the schools are good, the neighborhoods are safe, and cultured urban feminists are put to pasture. This town is located, of course, in Connecticut.
If you have not been to Connecticut—or, perhaps, even if you have—you might know it as a place made of aristocratic white people and quaintly sinister farmhouses in which someone at some point may have been murdered with an antique axe. This is not entirely inaccurate, though I’d guess it’s the result of a series of cinematic cameos in which Connecticut is cast as a repository for either suburban repression (see: The Stepford Wives, The Ice Storm, Revolutionary Road) or rural horror (The Conjuring, The Last House on the Left, The Haunting in Connecticut, The House of the Devil and on and on and on). The general implication is that the region’s most ineradicable pests are the rich and the supernatural—again, not entirely untrue. Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the country, by per capita income, so, yes, there are rich people. There is also gross income inequality, crumbling industries, shuttered-up main streets, vacant shopping malls, and, of course, the looming, immortal specter of colonial history. Hence the ghost stories.
Like many American landscapes, Connecticut’s pop culture identity is so omnipresent that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the stereotypes end and the real place begins. This may be even truer for a place like Connecticut, which has contributed little to the cultural landscape since the days of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is as much the birthplace of the cotton gin as it is the inspiration for Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, a quirky, fictional hamlet made of pumpkin festivals and haughty descendants of the Mayflower, so widely beloved that it has inspired a fan festival that attracts more than a thousand attendees each year to the real-life town that served as its inspiration.
Growing up in Connecticut, I observed most of its clichés from the inside out. Though vaguely aware of the presence of a nearby country club, the Connecticut I knew was mostly deer ticks and apizza and pungent, rocky beaches where my mother and I spent hours collecting soft shards of sea glass. I generally understood it to be a small, forgettable place—a disdain based somewhat in lived experience but more so in a tableau of cinematic reference points that illustrated to me what Connecticut was not: the gritty bustle of New York (Ghostbusters), the romantic novelty of a Chicago suburb (all of John Hughes), the surreal glamour of Southern California (Fast Times, Valley Girl, and all their successors). It did not occur to me that someone might see Connecticut as a fairytale made of lobster rolls and hillside towns where the leaves are somehow autumnal all year long. My preliminary reference point (other than actually living there) was Who’s the Boss?, a sitcom about an Italian-American widower who relocates from Brooklyn to Fairfield with his daughter to become a live-in housekeeper for a divorced advertising executive. Though the housekeeper and his daughter eventually warm up to life in the suburbs, Connecticut fails to escape its fate as Brooklyn’s prudish neighbor.
And then, with the 1988 release of Mystic Pizza and Beetlejuice, Connecticut experienced a kind of unofficial cinematic renaissance. Why these two movies coincided in 1988 is beyond me. Outside their geographical mise en scène, they have little in common—one is a coming-of-age rom-com, the other a wholesomely morbid fantasy. As far as I can tell, their simultaneity was pure coincidence, but together they allowed for a transgressive portrait of Connecticut to slip discreetly into the cultural discourse—knottier than the one-dimensionality of Who’s the Boss?, more relatable than the times of the cotton gin, more radical than any interpretation I’d seen before, or perhaps since. Over time I grew to rely on them as proof that Connecticut has, dare I say: depth.
Mystic Pizza tells the story of three young waitresses from working class Portuguese-American families, navigating life while they cope with being poor against a backdrop of tacky 1980s Connecticut wealth. Their hub is the eponymous pizza parlor, owned by the pragmatic Leona, a tough-as-nails mother figure who stubbornly refuses to reveal the secret ingredients in her infamous pizza sauce. Each of the young women suffers through her own romantic saga: headstrong Jojo (Lili Taylor) fears that her impending marriage to a fisherman will turn her into an old maid; Yale-bound Kat (Annabeth Gish) has an ill-fated affair with a handsome college professor; flippant Daisy (Julia Roberts, in her first breakout role) gets entwined with a WASP-y golden boy who got kicked out of law school for cheating on an exam. Connecticut rolls by in the background of their lives, a picturesque and oppressive place, both a stomping ground for the New England elite and an inescapable habitat for overburdened immigrant families.
The socio-economic dynamics presented in the film are intrinsic to real life in Connecticut, which tends to juxtapose the super-rich with the working class and the rural, who fade into the scenery like the staff at a country club. Around the same time Mystic Pizza came out, my mother, a seamstress by trade, took a sewing job for a woman named Sherri who lived in a house I then and would still describe as a mansion. I regularly tagged along on trips to Sherri’s house to drop off or size a garment, and briefly enjoyed the luxuries of her daughter Alexandra’s charming and sophisticated existence, complete with an au pair and a closet full of frilly dresses from Bloomingdales. Growing up in Connecticut meant conceptualizing myself as the yin to someone like Alexandra’s yang. We stood in for two extremes: the unimaginably affluent, who sequestered themselves behind tall, pruned shrubs on private cul-de-sacs, and the furtively poor, whose shrubs grew wilder and wilder each year, slowly disappearing our homes behind their wildness.
Mystic Pizza dug into those extremes, mocking the lives of the Connecticut riche as absurd and contemptible. Daisy’s golden boy, formally called Charlie Gordon Windsor Jr., drives a red Porsche and comes from a family that looks like a Yankee Magazine centerfold. When he brings her home for a formal family dinner, she learns a friend of hers is working for them as a maid. The family attempts to tactfully navigate this awkward realization until the maid accidentally gets some sour cream on an uncle’s sweater. “These Portuguese girls are very hard to train,” blurts out the aunt, instigating Charlie to pick a fight with his whole family, in which it becomes obvious that Daisy’s relative poverty is just another object of his insubordination. “If you can’t train a golden boy like me, there’s no way you’re going to train a dumb Portagee, isn’t that right Dad?” Charlie asks, before dramatically yanking the white tablecloth and upsetting everyone’s picturesque lobster dinners.
The scene is admittedly a little heavy-handed, but maybe it needed to be—at least, for an audience of working-class Connecticut girls hungry for representation. I was asked about what my parents did for a living often enough to conclude that this mattered and that my answer was inadequate. My mother was a self-employed seamstress, and my absent father was in the house painting business, which I knew meant his real income came from some vague, disreputable source. I vacillated between being ashamed and being brash, knowing my place and rejecting it—a fusion that Daisy perfects (in the way that, perhaps, only Julia Roberts can). “Bring home your poor Portagee girlfriend for dinner,” she argues later. “Shake up the family a little.” As she says this, she’s wearing a dress with the tags still attached, knowing she can only enter Charlie’s world on borrowed time.
Mystic Pizza’s heroines exuded a kind of gritty, low-brow dignity that allowed me to believe an atypical Connecticut existence was not only possible, but preferable. I wouldn’t quite call them role models, but they were smart and rowdy and no doubt able to have more fun drinking beers on golf carts outside the country club than whatever was happening inside. They were the same riffraff who waited tables at the pizza parlors my Sicilian dad took me to as a kid (and I say riffraff with absolute fondness), but here they were in a movie, showing the world that Connecticut was a complex place full of wisdom and moxie and class warfare.
I wish I could say I fully recognized that as a kid. I then understood the movie’s greatest attribute to be that it took place in Mystic—a real place!—where I had once gone on a school field trip to visit an aquarium. Even though I had been there in the flesh, its appearance in the movie somehow made it more real.
Beetlejuice offers the opposite of this reality; its Connecticut is a thrilling, nightmarish version that leans into its own stereotypes in order to subvert them. Unlike Mystic Pizza’s old money shoreline locale, Beetlejuice is set in a sleepy New England town, where the sweet and childless Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) drown after driving their station wagon through the side of a covered bridge (how very Connecticut). Their ghosts become trapped in their neo-gothic home, which is soon reoccupied by Manhattan real estate developer Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), his posh sculptor wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and their teenage daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Charles longs for a ducks-and-plaid life straight from the pages of Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook, but Delia revamps the house with her neo-expressionist sensibilities into something more evocative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—a style now inextricable from director Tim Burton’s aesthetic.
Eager to get their house back, the Maitlands set out to scare off the Deetzes by way of a traditional haunting, which begins with them levitating around the house wearing bedsheets. “Jeez, Lydia, is Connecticut so boring?” Charles says when confronted with Adam’s ghost. “Your mother’s gonna kill you when she sees you cut holes in her $300 sheets.” Their next attempt happens during a dinner party, where they possess the guests into a spirited rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” but the New Yorkers and their pretentious friends treat the supernatural like a gallery-worthy Americana spectacle. Against the advice of their afterdeath case worker, the Maitland’s turn to bio-exorcist “Betelgeuse” (Michael Keaton), whose less wholesome scare tactics still fail to impede the Deetzes’ determination to monetize the novelty of their rural experience.
The only medium between the living and the dead is Lydia, a fashionably gloomy city kid who becomes a sort of conduit for both sides, exuding morose urban sophistication but also longing for the bucolic homogeneity of Connecticut life. Lydia Deetz has since become a goth icon, probably because “strange and unusual” girls all over America finally had a template on which to base their peculiarities. I, too, was an outlandish black-haired girl who lived with an artist mother in a menacing New England house. Nonconformity suited me, but, like Lydia, I secretly longed for the quotidian luxury of parents who cared what grade I got on my math tests. As I watched and re-watched Beetlejuice over the course of my early adolescence, I increasingly saw Lydia’s true uniqueness as her ability to bridge cosmopolitan melancholia with suburban mundanity—a plight that echoed the dichotomy of my southern New England existence.
Connecticut is fraught with these kinds of paradoxes—an elemental attribute that Beetlejuice embraced. While actually filmed in Vermont, the choice to locate the story in Connecticut seems ultimately like a move to satirize the state’s reputation as a refuge for New Yorkers who grow weary of the city and retreat north for a quieter life (à la The Stepford Wives and Who’s The Boss?). What they get instead is a flashy, clownish haunting, more evocative of the New York art scene they fled than the scrimshaw-and-weathervane aesthetic of their small town. The film seems to say if you want the Connecticut life you have to survive Connecticut’s hazing rituals, perhaps a consequence brought forth by pitting the metropolitan against the provincial, the modern against the puritan. (I wonder sometimes if Connecticut’s presumed hauntings are nothing more than the byproduct of its own aversion to progress.) And yet, Beetlejuice ultimately allows for those opposing principles to come together. In the end, Lydia’s influence inspires the rich and the dead to make friends and accept their inevitable coexistence. They combine to form a very un-Connecticut-like alternative family with two sets of parents, two planes of existence, and two wildly disparate interior decorating schemes.
Mystic Pizza does not end with as much optimism. Jojo relents and marries her fisherman, out of love, presumably, but more subtly out of expectation (“If he really loved me he’d wait, but I guess, if I really loved him, I’d marry him.”); Kat’s Ivy League affair ends predictably in heartbreak; Daisy dumps Charlie after his childish dinner party brawl. As a 1980s rom-com, though, it’s obliged to reconcile the two leads. In the final scene, Charlie shows up at Jojo’s wedding reception to apologize to Daisy. They don’t quite make up, but she doesn’t quite tell him to get lost either. She sticks him with the task of scooping ice cream and retreats outside to a cold November fire escape with Kat and Jojo. It’s the kind of superficially sweet scene meant to emphasize the resonance of female friendship and to capture the moment right before their lives change, right before they realize they’re already on whatever inevitable path to the future they so fastidiously tried to circumvent.
Though I have lived apart from Connecticut for two decades, I still struggle to shake the stink of its reputation. I am acutely aware that the fact of my Connecticutness is likely to conjure a vision of boat shoes and prep school and never-ending autumn; the existence of a few complex Connecticut narratives does not render those images any less ingrained in our shared pop-conscious. Despite the influence Mystic Pizza and Beetlejuice had on my perception of Connecticut, a movie like The Stepford Wives will no doubt have a more extensive impact, partly because it set a kind of cultural bar, partly because there’s a familiar kind of satisfaction to be found in stories that reaffirm the singular dimensions we’ve collectively assigned to a place. Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of Connecticut risks upsetting the careful ecosystem of regional stereotypes we’ve grown to rely on as a kind of awful map. It’s much less tasking to believe a person can transcend her Connecticutness than it is to believe Connecticut can transcend itself.
Mystic Pizza and Beetlejuice now function more like home movies to me. The small reserve of Connecticut pride I’ve cultivated in my adult life echoes the tenderness Adam Maitland radiates while working on his elaborate small-scale town model, or the wildness in Daisy’s eyes when she revenge-dumps a barrel of dead fish into Charlie’s Porsche. I watch them with an unexpected sense of kinship that makes space for me to think: Yes, these are my people.