Comedic Coping: Humour Techniques and Melancholia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice

Matthew McKeague

Abstract


From a humour analysis perspective on Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, this article will discuss the film’s depiction of melancholia within a world that is both funny and bizarre. Released in 1988, the film seems to directly contrast the conservative culture at the time, Reaganomics in the United States as well as the rise of the religious right; the film not only mocks rampant materialism of the decade, but also its leaders’ patriotism, optimism, and beliefs about the afterlife. Unquestionably gothic, Burton’s film follows a recently deceased couple clash with an eccentric family moving into their small-town home. These apparitions then attempt to scare the family away, unsuccessfully, seeking help from the film’s titular character Beetlejuice. From the start, this film addresses dark topics such as death and isolation, illustrating a sense of loss of the 1980s; yet at the same time, it succeeds in its comedy-horror genre. Many instances of these comedic moments can be explained by exploring their resonance with two leading humour theories, Incongruity Theory and Superiority Theory.

Though addressing dark topics and themes, Burton and his production crew juxtapose these against an unusual world filled with cartoon-like characters, comedic banter, irony, and numerous instances of Incongruity Theory and Superiority Theory. While doing so, the film not only incorporates melancholia throughout the narrative, but also shows the coping power of comedy for characters stuck in hellish situations. The film therefore is not mocking grief or depression, but rather showing how people cope during difficult times. From the film’s eclectic soundtrack to its actors’ over-the-top performances, such a drastic juxtaposition of elements could have resulted in a stylistic mess. However, the film has achieved a cult status and remains a part of our popular culture to this day. This article posits that the film’s ability to address sad topics in enjoyable ways may be one of the factors of its success; by depicting effective coping techniques during a decade of growing conservative and religious influence in the United States, Beetlejuice represented the melancholia of the 1980s while also helping people in the process.


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