“The Remains of the Day”: How Corpse Bride (2005) and Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Make Death More Reasonable

The concept of death was completely foreign to me as a child. Everything seemed to stretch out, dragging on, sometimes annoyingly so, towards nothing in particular. Afternoons would sometimes speed up. Special events like Christmas and birthdays would pass too quickly. I can remember being 3 and a 1/2 for an awfully long time, longer than any other age I have been. And so, as a kid, I came to the conclusion that time was weird, and that it just kept going. Eventually I realized that this would be the case regardless of if I were there or not.

I wasn’t brought up religious, and so a lot of my beliefs around death and the afterlife were formed by movies, and I was generally attracted to the kinds which were upfront about these issues. Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas were formative in that regard, as they gave me a different, less frightening, perspective on life and death. I still appreciate the way these films examine death, as they essentially gave me a vocabulary to unpack broader philosophical issues. They are entertaining films, but they don’t shy away from issues like mental health, love versus obsession, and of course, what it means to die. Films like these are useful to children, so much more than pretending that death doesn’t happen. Kids are not idiots; they eventually figure these things out. It’s so important to give them the tools to recognize and interpret these issues. It makes death less taboo, or at least, it allows the conversation around death to seem less taboo.

Mainstream culture is terrified of death. One way it negotiates with this ongoing anxiety is by creating convoluted death scenes, where people sacrifice themselves valiantly and die for a reason. That’s not to suggest that such things don’t happen, just that it’s not what usually happens. By attaching meaning to death, we simultaneously attach meaning to what happens after death. That way, if a person dies in a blaze of glory, the viewer knows that they will be rewarded for that behaviour. It is also why we feel so much satisfaction when an evil character dies, as we know that they will face some version of justice.

“What’s This? What’s This?”

There are a lot of films about people who die, but less about the things that happen after you die. Even fewer are for children, and again, these are usually created by and for a Church, so they have a specific message. Things have changed since I was a child, as we now have films like Coco (2017) which create a more diverse and extensive discussion about death and mourning. However, Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas were the only two I saw as a child, and so they had the most impact.

People often tie Bride with Nightmare, as both films were masterfully created in stop-motion and involved Tim Burton. Nightmare is arguably more popular because of its association with Disney, and its insane marketing empire, but Bride is just as worthy of praise. While Nightmare is a sort of moral lesson about self-acceptance and destruction, Bride is more critical of the world of the living and the ridiculous rules it implements in order to maintain a sense of control. Bride suggests that the customs and detailed rules imposed on society are a way to forget that death is so unexpected and unregulated. By meticulously ordering life, one forgets how intrusive death can be.

“Come With Us and You Will See, this, Our Town of Halloween”

People assume that Tim Burton directed Nightmare, when in fact he only created the story and some of the characters in the film. It doesn’t help that the film is officially called Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, even though he wasn’t incredibly involved in production. That said, Burton came up with the idea after watching a store rapidly change its Halloween decorations to Christmas, noting the bizarre aesthetic comparison it created. Burton began wondering how Halloween would feel about Christmas, and what kinds of thematic overlap existed between the two, considering how overlapped they are in our holiday schedule.

The word Nightmare in the film’s title alludes to two things. First, the literal nightmare which happens before Christmastime: Halloween. Second, it refers to Jack’s existential nightmare, the main dilemma in the film. Jack doesn’t know how to make a connection with someone without screaming at them, pretty relatable stuff. He believes that if he steals Christmas, he can steal and recreate the emotions or meaning associated with that holiday.

Jack’s error is that he oversimplifies our relationship to these holidays by focusing on the objects which make them. Rather than talking to Santa Claus about what makes Christmas so special, he locks Santa away and performs experiments on the items associated with the holiday, everything from Christmas’ trees to candy canes. Yet, no matter how many times he tries to remake these objects or experiment with them, Jack cannot recreate the emotions he had in Christmas Town. In a final desperate attempt, he performs as Santa, essentially narrowing Santa’s entire identity into the basic things which symbolize Santa. The outfit, the beard, the ‘ho ho ho’, it’s all part of his role, and he doesn’t know why Santa does it, just that people expect him to.

“There’s an empty place in my bones, that calls out for something unknown”

Jack fails because he was too focused on these objects. Now, perhaps this says something to children about the true meaning of Christmas, and how it has nothing to do with presents or things, but I think there is something else going on here too. Jack isn’t a living being like Santa, he is an object. Technically he is a skeleton, but we see countless of those during Halloween. The fact that every character in Halloween town boils down to a single title -like vampire, clown, rag doll, evil scientist- suggests that they are all just objects for a holiday. They might have names, but their identity depends on how they amalgamate and form Halloween. There can only be one Santa, but there are countless skeletons and vampires.

By comparison, the Christmas Town which Jack stumbles across is busy making toys. The elves are not the literal toys, no child is getting an elf for Christmas. The elf doesn’t have anything to do with the relationship between the child and toy, or the joy created by that toy. This is not the case for Halloween town, as each creature goes out and frightens people, rather than creating an object and sending that out. The relationship between person and Creature is far more direct and immediate than Santa, who leaves toys before kids wake up. As a result, Jack and the other Halloween townspeople are just objects, they are what creates the emotions associated with Halloween. Jack fails because he himself is an object, and thus has an object centric perspective on the world. He struggles to become Santa because he cannot interact with the person receiving the present or any of the people who created Christmas. This means that Jack is a dislocated object, much like the destructive Halloween/Christmas toys made by the townspeople.

Jack’s existential crisis additionally stems from his inability to die, as he is already dead. He is bored with Halloween because he has done it so many times, and always with the same results. Eventually, he can rewrite Halloween and start a new life with Sally, but prior to this point, Jack is stuck in this unliving object position.

“Can a heart still break once it’s stopped beating?”

Corpse Bride distinguishes the world of the living from the afterlife by emphasizing that death is somewhat liberating. Except for Emily, the dead characters are so much happier than the living, and this is largely because death negates so many of the regulated customs up above. We spend the first part of the film exploring this cold and uncaring world, where Victor and Victoria are tossed together not because they care for one another, but because it makes economic sense. While Victor and Victoria develop feelings for one another, that is completely beside the point. This tone contrasts the loud and bright world of the dead, where there is no pain or suffering, just music and celebration. The film thus reverses our associations with life and death, as the world of the living is filled with dead emotionless people, while the afterlife is full of life and joy. Even the colour choices in the film demonstrate this, as Victor’s world is grey, while Emily’s is orange, green, and purple.

The film connects these worlds through the colour blue, as shown on the butterfly, the moon, and Emily’s skin tone and hair. On Emily, it suggests that she is still connected to the world of the living, that her heart is still beating. She has not fully decomposed into a skeleton, like some of the other inhabitants, and instead, she is still a fresh corpse with equally fresh wounds and emotions. Emily struggles with this tether throughout the film, and she uses Victor as a physical manifestation of that tether. Emily hopes that by marrying Victor, and bringing him to the afterworld, she can finally move away from the world of the living and finish her life the way it was supposed to. Rather than being killed on her wedding night, she can restart this narrative and change its outcome. However, she discovers this is the wrong approach once she realizes that by taking Victor, she is inadvertently stealing someone else’s life. Only by releasing Victor, and accepting that what happened to her was tragic, but that she can only change her response to that tragic event, can Emily move on to a different spiritual world beyond life and death.

“Now, why go up there when people are dying to get down here?”

The afterlife is a reflection of life, as it looks similar, but like its inhabitants, is livelier and more deconstructed. This implies that when you die, you continue to live as you did, but without inhibition. When Mayhew arrives, recently dead, he no longer has a cough or any pain, and he has the freedom to do what he wants. This is the exact opposite of his life above, where he was constantly sick and a servant. Although life isn’t an antagonist in the film, regulated life is.

Like Nightmare, where Jack was unable to move beyond the appearance of things to find meaning in them, none of the living characters are happy, but they keep themselves busy by regulating every aspect of life. The way they talk, dress, perform, etc. Each of these are stiffly managed, and the film regularly critiques these systems through Victor and Victoria. They are the only characters who quietly reject these systems, but they are also afraid to disobey their parents. So, while they recognize that these systems make them unhappy, they have no ability to reject them. Victoria comes closer than Victor, as she escapes her house and tries to convince the priest that Victor has been kidnapped by a dead bride. However, when she is returned to her family, she goes along with marrying Barkis, as she is given no other option. This is the fundamental difference between the living and dead worlds, as the dead figures have so much more freedom. For example, the skeletons transform their bodies into instruments and then back multiple times, and other characters regularly lose body parts and have to reassemble themselves. This implies that the dead are in a constant state of reinvention. However, they are always haunted by their lives before, and when they rise at the end of the film, they return to their families and loved ones who they desperately missed. At the same time, they know that these family members will eventually join them, it’s only a matter of time.

“It’s a sad, sad state of affairs we’re in”

The living are the only antagonists in the film, primarily Victoria’s parents and Barkis. Each of these figures are obsessed with money, and they are willing to abuse religious orders – marriage – to get more. Victoria’s parents, the Everglots, are willing the sacrifice their daughter for wealth, and Barkis wants essentially the same thing, but with more death. These characters are so single-minded that they are unable to look beyond their ambitions to see how they effect other people. I would argue that this is the primary criticism in the film, as it implies that we should be like butterflies. Emily is regularly connected with the butterfly, as she has the same colour tone, and she transforms into hundreds of them at the end of the film. This implies that for most of the film, she is in a cocoon state, unable to break away from her old life and not ready to move beyond and transform into a new person. Characters must be adaptable, as ultimately everyone dies. It is only by accepting this, and being open to change, that Victor and Victoria overcome their parents, and Emily overcomes her murderer.

The film additionally suggests that although the living are not haunted by the dead, the dead are most certainly haunted by the living. When Barkis murdered Emily, he started a chain of events which nearly destroyed Emily, but also Victor and Victoria. The implication is that destruction bleeds outward, and that it gets on everything and stains it. The same sort of events repeat themselves, but we only realize this after seeing as the dead characters. They have seen the same people do horrible things again and again, like Barkis with Emily and Victoria. The film suggests that Emily is just one of multiple women Barkis has murdered and stolen from, but even worse, Emily behaved in a similar way. She wanted Victor to kill himself, to give her his life. Once she realizes that Victor has feelings for Victoria, and once she sees Barkis again, Emily realizes that she has been repeating the violence done to her. Rather than going through with this violent chain, she breaks free and floats away, knowing that her assailant will be brought to justice, and that this chain can end with her.

Ultimately, Nightmare and Bride both deal with life and death, and thus make a good pair. Nightmare seems more preoccupied with examining what it means to live, while Bride focuses on how to die and move on, or how to reinvent yourself rather than staying the same person forever. Each demonstrates that things change, and that we have little control over that change, but we can control our response to such things. Death is just a way to reorganize things, as life is filled with even more reinvention and change.