Aspirational Ghosts: The Films of Tim Burton and the Internet Death Wish

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on the set of Edward Scissorhands
20th Century Fox

Tim Burton’s most lauded films are famously full of death. But they’re also full of would-be ghosts, characters who linger in the margins of living. In Beetlejuice, Gen X-queen Winona Ryder plays Lydia Deetz, a teenage girl whose mother is dead and who sees the film’s ghost couple, the Maitlands, as substitute parents; so she would very much like to be dead herself. A proper goth, she dons all black with white make-up, a ghost haunting her own life. She’s not at all alarmed by the presence of the undead. What she really wants to be is not a corpse but a ghost—but with this, as with many of Burton’s films, the film wrestles from the outset with the question of the death wish and its implications. Lydia’s eventual suicide attempt is stopped by the actual ghosts, a couple more cottagecore than goth, who embrace life and, eventually, their sunny version of death. In Beetlejuice, we learn what happens to those who do commit suicide: they’re forced into civil servitude, pushing papers and answering phones at the afterlife equivalent of the DMV. (It’s a funny joke, but also an oddly Catholic notion: aspirational ghosthood is fine, but you’d better not act on the impulse.)

I don’t know if Tim Burton has read Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he famously wrote “the goal of all life is death.” But many of Burton’s films circle this idea, often featuring protagonists who seem instinctively to understand this. Freud writes of the tension between Eros and Thanatos, the life wish and the death wish. The death instinct, he posited, drove people not just to aggressive actions, but also to self-harming behaviors, and reliving trauma. But what if admiring the beauty in death and darkness, and imagining one’s death, could be cathartic? Enter the goths, and later the death positivity movement, along with the internet culture of death memes. Burton’s many oddball protagonists, who often find the only acceptance in their lives in death or an afterlife-centered culture, seem more relevant than ever today. 

Beetlejuice came out in 1988, a full five years before internet browsers would become mainstream, and many years before meme culture became a thing. Still, when Lydia dramatically declares “I want to be dead,” it’s an anthem for the modern internet and its most online denizens, in the age of the widespread death wish meme. Goth culture is more mainstream than ever, death cafes have sprung up all over the country, and entertaining, sharing, and making art about morbid things is a frequent pastime for younger generations who live online and grew up listening to Ben Gibbard sing, “fear is the heart of love…we’ll hold each other soon, in the blackest of rooms.” Google memes about wanting to die and you’ll get a long list of articles, sites, and images. Every few years the dark joke takes on a new form; remember Tide Pods? Examining that trend in Salon, Deidre Olsen wrote, “Millennials—who were born and raised on the internet and produce and consume much of their culture there—have had our whole lives characterized by economic anxiety. We have a dismal economic outlook…and our own culture-making—this kind of nihilistic, cynical humor epitomized in memes like eating Tide Pods—is merely a reflection of our worldview. It is cathartic in a sense.” Generation X, of course, was always there—films like Heathers and Beetlejuice, dark comedies around death and suicide, were catnip to a generation that prided itself on nihilism. But new generations have come to appreciate Burton’s earlier films, no doubt in part due to the easy recognition of characters that straddle that same life/death divide.

Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice
Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice (1988) | Warner Bros.

Burton comes back to the theme of catharsis through the descent to Hades again and again, in films like Corpse Bride, Batman, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, and others. The lead characters—often odd and dark misfits in their turn, their exclusion from society shaped as its own kind of death wish—seem strangely modern now. The death wish was dark, oddball stuff back when these films came out, but it’s par for the course now, as Phoebe Bridgers sings “We talk until we think we might just kill ourselves,” and the kids who grew up watching Michelle Pfeiffer return from the dead as a goth cat are now adults planning their own natural burials. Pfeiffer, as Selina Kyle, speaks the language of stan culture when she tells Bruce Wayne, “You’re the second man who killed me this week, but I’ve got seven lives left.” In her New Yorker essay “Love, Death, and Begging for Celebrities to Kill You,” Jia Tolentino writes of the love-and-violent-death Twitter trend, “Love may be timeless, but the half-ironic millennial death wish has become an underground river rushing swiftly under the surface of the age.”

The animated film Corpse Bride, for example, seems like a standard story about a beautiful bride (Helena Bonham Carter) murdered on her wedding night. But Burton adds something, well, Burton-esque to the mix: an awkward, misfit young man (Johnny Depp) who finds he rather likes the land of the dead, and perhaps has more in common with this dead bride than with his living one. He offers to let her kill him; we get the impression this might not be an entirely unwilling sacrifice. It ends happily enough, with the dead bride released and transformed from her undead state, and the young man and his living love together. But each time I watch it, I feel more sure that Burton wants me to wonder: might the young man have been happier among the dead? Who wouldn’t want Helena Bonham Carter’s sexy dead bride to step on their neck?

And Burton didn’t create Batman, of course, but the character’s morbid obsession with the death of his parents and the most patently Freudian death drive ever (Aggression? Check. Reliving old traumas? Check.) is extremely Burton’s aesthetic, which may be why he created what is still the blueprint for all subsequent film depictions of the character. (Just Google “Sad Batman” and see how many memes pop up.) Likewise, the psychotic, death-obsessed Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) goes through a kind of death and rebirth as the pale rider, the Joker, bringing death to the citizens of Gotham with his Smilex chemical formulas, and making a living ghost of girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall).

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight,” he asks the young Bruce Wayne. Both characters balance on the knife edge of this question—the Thanatos is much stronger than the Eros. Here, too, the aspiration is the tilt toward darkness, whether death or oblivion or hell.  

Batman (Burton, 1989)
Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) | Warner Bros. Pictures

The sequel, Batman Returns, is even more closely tied to the death wish: Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman is killed in a fall but revived as a sort of vengeful ghost by street cats, in a scene as horrifying as it is compelling. What young woman hasn’t fantasized about being a gorgeous revenge beast? Danny DeVito’s Penguin is abandoned in the sewers as a child and creates what is, essentially, his own underworld kingdom, with shades of Hades. He makes repeated reference to death and mayhem, embodying the destructive side of the death drive. “You gotta admit, I played this stinkin’ city like a harp from Hell,” he says. Both characters are tied as closely to animals as to humanity, their chosen form more feral than fantasy, a ghost-life built on transformation.

Perhaps the horror character or monster who most embodies this straddling of the two worlds, with a strong pull toward the world from whence he came, is the Frankenstein monster, an outcast created from bodies who struggles with his own strange half-life. In the brilliant James Whale film, Bride of Frankenstein, he finally destroys himself and others after declaring “we belong dead.” Burton has stated his fondness for the Frankenstein films and their dark outcast sensibility, saying, “You could always relate those monster movies to your own life. The neighbors were the angry villagers and you’re Frankenstein.”

Burton would go on to make two films—Frankenweenie and Edward Scissorhands—modeled after the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley-created character. The first is a lighter film, though any child who has lost a pet can understand its twinned themes of death and life-longing. Edward Scissorhands, though, is a master reimagining of the Frankenstein story, with Johnny Depp as the Monster, created by an appropriately-cast Vincent Price. Left all alone when his creator dies before giving him hands, Depp is taken in by a kindly Avon saleswoman (Dianne Wiest) and finds love with her daughter (Winona Ryder). But he remains an outcast, ultimately killing his romantic rival and retreating back to his castle alone to a second kind of death in loneliness. If not exactly dead, Edward Scissorhands cannot fully participate in life, like so many of Burton’s characters, because he is so profoundly misunderstood.

Edward Scissorhands (Burton, 1990)
Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990) | 20th Century Fox

Ultimately, it’s Lydia and Beetlejuice that remain the most perfect example of Burton’s aspirational ghosts and how they would presage internet trends like the death meme. “I want to be dead,” Lydia says to the ghost couple in the house, to which Barbara (Geena Davis) replies, “Being dead really doesn’t make things any easier.” But it’s easy for Barbara, a cheerful, Laura Ashley-wearing, country-home-decorating beauty to say. Barbara has probably always been popular and well-adjusted. Barbara’s mother isn’t dead. Lydia, depressed and sad, aspires to something that will help her belong, if not make her happy. 

Internet culture, full of depression jokes and depression memes, knows a lot about that. When Phoebe Bridgers, whose first album is adorned by the melancholy but strangely comforting ghost artwork of Angela Deane, sings, “Jesus Christ, I’m just so blue all the time, and that’s just how I feel, always have and always will,” it’s an entirely modern sentiment that Lydia would recognize. It echoes Burton’s films completely. Our depressing internet is full of aspirational ghosts. 

Of course, like all history, there’s nothing new under the sun, and the Romantics before us were equally enthralled with their own mortality; thus, tales like Frankenstein were spun (or like Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff aspires to to be a ghost with his Cathy again). Then, tuberculosis was rampant, with so many young people coughing blood blooms into white handkerchiefs that it seemed almost practical to rehearse for death, death as romance, ghosthood as aspirational. Now, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people between ages 10-34. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the knife’s edge is where we find the edge of internet culture, and it’s right at home with those classic Tim Burton films that wrestle with what it means to wish for death, or to find comfort in the thought of it.

But like internet kids asking Harry Styles to run them over with a truck, Lydia is not really searching for death. She’s just searching for home, for people who accept her. Sometimes it feels like the obsession with ghosts and death in modern internet culture is just that: a wish for belonging in another world. Tim Burton’s films give us that without ever succumbing to hopelessness; they show us that we can aspire to be strange ghosts while fully embracing being alive, as long as we don’t let the darkness overtake us. They also identify firmly on the side of the freaks and monsters. As Lydia says, “I myself am strange and unusual.” All aspirational ghosts are wanted; all are invited; all are welcome.