Possession, Privilege, and the Racial Politics of Beetlejuice (1988)

“This is my art, and it is dangerous”

I remember the first time I saw the iconic “Banana Boat Song (Day O)” scene in Beetlejuice. I was terrified of the shrimp hand, and to this day, I can’t stand the idea of eating shrimp, let alone a shrimp cocktail. You never know when it might grab your face like the xenomorph in Alien. That said, this Harry Belafonte musical sequence is arguably the best scene in the film because it is bizarre, hilarious, and spooky. But it is also radically different than any other possession scene in cinema, and not just because it’s played for laughs.

Beetlejuice was one of the first films to play with demons and ghosts while also creating a new non-secular afterlife, where everyone gets essentially the same treatment after they die, regardless of how they behaved in life. Beetlejuice is a demon, but it’s unclear why he has special abilities. He mentions a few historic events, so its possible that he has just been around for awhile on the outskirts of the netherworld. But this titular musical scene has nothing to do with Beetlejuice or his demonic style.

“I’ve Seen the Exorcist about 167 times, and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it”

The Maitlands are not good at haunting. Sometimes I wonder what they would be doing in the universe of Six Sense or a more intense ghost film. This sequence is one of the only times the Maitlands use their ghost powers to directly impact other people. What I mean by that is that most of their powers have to do with their bodies, which the living don’t see. Barbara’s hand catches on fire, she and Adam warp their faces, etc. Each of these is limited to their experience, their bodies. Possession means extending yourself into another person, and the “Day O” scene is a very literal demonstration of this. Their power is totally different than what Beetlejuice can do, as his power is always a reflection of him. It is the same colour as his skin, hair, decay, and outfit, and it often looks just like him or happens to his body. Even when he possesses someone, he is standing right beside them and its very clear that its his voice. The Maitlands become less self-centered as they possess, as they move into another person and use a brand-new voice.

The other difference between the Maitlands and Beetlejuice’s powers are that they have totally different reactions. The “Day O” scene is fun for everyone, including those possessed. It is the first time the Deetzs have noticed that their house is haunted, as they have previously ignored a bunch of red flags. For instance, their attic is locked for most of the film, and yet, they don’t seem concerned about it. Now granted, we don’t know how much time has passed since the Deetzs moved into the house, but they have had time to redecorate, so it seems crazy that they haven’t really tried to inspect the attic. Sure, Lydia steals the only skeleton key, but it is hard to believe that Delia would let that stop her after she knocked down walls and spray-painted things downstairs.

The Deetzs certainly believe in ghosts after this scene, but they are more amused about the afterlife than alarmed. That is because the characters are still conscious and aware while they are possessed. In most demon and ghost films, the possessed loses control of their body and mind, and so the demon gets to walk around as the person. Possession is frightening because first you lose control, and then the thing inside you can blend in and ruin your life. Possession films similarly transform the possessed into something horrifying and brutal, like Regan in The Exorcist (1971). In that film, Regan isn’t responsible for anything she does as a demon because she is unconscious and physically altered.

“Let’s Turn on the Juice and See What Shakes Loose”

Beetlejuice offers a different possession model, as the Deetzs are totally aware of what they are doing, but they cannot stop themselves. They are definitely alarmed by this possession, but they are not doing anything harmful or horrific. Being possessed here is embarrassing and confusing, yet it solves a big problem. Before this point, the dinner was going poorly, and the Deetzs couldn’t entertain their guests. What’s interesting is that Delia and her guests become possessed because Delia doesn’t know what to talk about. She tries to change the subject away from ghosts, but in doing so, inadvertently opens herself to possession. She is desperate and prone, looking around for something, anything, to talk about. Because she doesn’t know what to say next, someone jumps in for her.

It is noteworthy that each figure in this scene has trouble expressing themselves prior to the possession. Delia and Charles want Maxie Dean to invest, but they are having trouble convincing him. Dean doesn’t want to invest, but he can’t outright say that until after dinner. Otho and Beryl have a strange relationship, as its unclear why they know and hate each other. Either way, Otho and Beryl are openly hateful to one another, but this never develops into the fight they clearly want to have. Lydia is the strongest example of blocked speech, as she is upset with her Father and Stepmother, but hasn’t told them about her serious depression. She has joked about it a few times, or made comments about it, but she hasn’t mentioned just how dangerous it has gotten. Keep in mind, Lydia tries to commit suicide in the film, going so far as to write a suicide note for her parents. I don’t think her parents discover this in the film, so its unclear if they ever learn what Lydia was going through.

The possession reorganizes everyone, at least momentarily. They get to let go of their heavily curated words and lives and let someone else take control. Everyone is relieved afterwards because they had an out of body experience, and in doing so, moved away from what they couldn’t talk about.

“I would Rather talk about…day o…day o”

Harry Belafonte’s songs are regularly collapsed onto this horror comedy classic. If someone hears “Day O” on the radio, they will most likely think about this scene. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing, as Belafonte’s music is fantastic on its own, and it doesn’t need to be compared with a film he had little involvement in, let alone one which displaces his voice. The strangest element of the possession scene is that it’s still Belafonte singing. This is important to note, as many possession scenes still use the victim’s voice. But the Deetzs aren’t singing, their bodies are just radios picking up on some ghostly signal.

The famous scene initially seems to remove the song from its original context, as it’s a Jamaican folk song about dock workers loading bananas onto a ship. It is probably Belafonte’s most famous song, but since its release, it has been parodied, occasionally in a racists context which greatly contrasts Belafonte’s own civil rights activism. For instance, our current Prime Minister (Justin Trudeau) admitted to wearing blackface and doing a Jamaican accent while performing “Day O” in high school. So how do we read the song’s presence in Beetlejuice, a film dominated by a mainly white cast? I think it’s done to contrast the privileged and ignorant Deetzs and their guests, who aren’t willing to talk about real issues, let alone race. The song’s subject has nothing to do with the Deetzs, which is one of the reasons it is such a strange moment. It isn’t their voice, and the song’s subject and singer are far more political than anything they are willing to talk about.

The film uses multiple Belafonte songs, like “Sweetheart from Venezuela”, “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” and “Jump in Line”, but never talks about Belafonte. Adam plays one of the songs at the beginning of the film, which suggests that he is a fan of Belafonte, hence its presence in the possession scene. But in a film preoccupied by ghosts, Belafonte is another ghostly presence in that he never appears in the film, is never mentioned, but appears in supernatural moments. His music signals that the characters have or are about to change. In the beginning, we hear “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” just before the Maitland’s leave their house and die. The “Day O” scene is where the Deetzs discover that they are not alone in the house. Finally, “Jump in the Line” at the end of the film emphasizes that the characters have won and are more willing to communicate and work together as life has fallen into line. In each instance, Belafonte is this unseen presence, and he is not the only black character who is treated in such a way. There is also the silent voodoo priest in the afterlife waiting room, the one who shrinks Beetlejuice’s head. He is the opposite of Belafonte in that he is seen but not heard, while Belafonte is heard but not seen.

I am not sure where these points leave us, but I do think that these detached bodies and voices further illustrate how clueless the film characters are. They are detached, so much so that it is regularly played for laughs. Charles leaves the city so he can relax and think about nothing. Delia is too in love with her art to think about anyone else. The Maitlands are also selfish for most of the film, as we first meet them in this giant house which everyone wants them to sell. Then they don’t want to share the house, and that is their main objective for most of the film. They are clueless about the afterlife, the very system which governs their existence yet still places them at an advantage. You’ll note that the Maitlands get to see their case worker after a few minutes, versus everyone else in the waiting room who has been there for years. The Maitlands are also constantly bitching about their house, when even Juno their case worker notes that they are lucky to have one, to be a ghost, and to enjoy a slightly carefree life. Each of these characters wants to live life their way, and that is clearly having some horrible effects on people like Lydia, who is just surrounded by egotistical people.

“What’s the Good of being a ghost if you can’t frighten people away?”

Life is hard, but death is even more so in Beetlejuice, as the legal structures which dominated our life reappear in an exaggerated way in the afterlife. The fact that the Maitland’s are confused and just give up on the manual demonstrates how unwilling and privileged they are. I think the complicated presence of Belafonte and the few other people of colour in the film continues to emphasize how privileged and oblivious these main characters are. Is that commentary intentional or am I reading into things? I love the film, and so I am inclined to think that the Belafonte moments emphasize how unpolitical and privileged the other characters are, regardless of if that was intended or not. We also should consider Beetlejuice’s unmade sequel, Beetlejuice Goes to Hawaii. Apparently, Charles and Delia try to develop a resort on ancient burial grounds in Hawaii, and the native spirits begin haunting the guests until Lydia summons Beetlejuice for help.

There is a lot to unpack with this sequel plot, and it’s hard to say if it would have been a tactful criticism of the brutal tourism industry in Hawaii or just racist as they never released anything more than this basic overview. It could have been really interesting depending on its representation of the indigenous community and its discussion on colonization and death. Or maybe it would have totally dismissed these issues, been deeply flawed, and made it difficult to enjoy the original film. Who knows? Regardless of what could have been, I find it interesting that the sequel would have removed the Deetzs from this privileged suburban home and inserted them into a potential discussion about exploitation and lost history. Had the sequel gone in this direction, perhaps there would be more critical readings of how the original deals with white privilege, or if its aware of that treatment. Or maybe it would have made the caricatures in the original film more apparent.

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