It’s been too long since I last updated the Pagan Sermon, but I could never let Samhain pass by without posting something. It seemed appropriate to begin the festival noting some distinctive yet unobtrusive paganisms in our current society. What better area than cinema?
View from the Other Side
It always amazes me how human society trends still toward the traditionally pagan. Artists have always been party to realities beyond the purely mundane, and that goes for modern cinema as well. Tim Burton is perhaps one of the easiest examples to point at, and one of his most exemplary movies from a pagan point of view is his 1988 cinematic answer to Disney’s the Haunted Mansion, Beetlejuice.
If you’re reading this blog and you’ve never seen Beetlejuice, then I conjure you to cease reading immediately and get access to this film at once. It is, like many of his films, simple magnificence. If you read that sentence and thought “what’s so great about Beetlejuice?” then I call your attention to the fact that it should have been in fact a horror movie were it made from the perspective of the living. In other words, if the Deetz’s had been the protagonists it wouldn’t have been a comedy but a proper horror movie. In the end, four people wind up dead but you don’t really even notice because the whole movie is full of so many grisly corpses walking around.
That is, of course, the point. We are all of us walking corpses in the end, coming at last to the completion of all life. It’s like Burton’s film is saying “yeah, I know you’re all worried about life and death and stuff, but you really need to get over yourself,” and it’s Beetlejuice who says it most loudly. It’s a shift of perspective from that of the living to that of the dead, out there in the weird, macabre darkness of All That Is looking in to the mild, manageable realm of life with its warmth and conventional beauty that allows people the room to be as ignorant as the Maitlands.
To say that “the dead are people too” in a way that shows our small little Island of Life in the middle of the swirling chaos of everything else is deeply pagan. It’s the old view that gave us the sparrow in the meadhall in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People and the idea of Miðgarðr in Norse Mythology.
Naturally, Burton did not set out to make a film that was deliberately pagan. There are no visual or narrative tropes that mark it as pagan from a modern perspective, but the assumptions that form the world in which the characters act are pagan in the same way that many horror movies are inadvertently Christian. Hellboy is a perfect if obvious answer. You are operating within a Christian cosmology when you have a Manichaean ethical dichotomy (Good vs. Evil) and direct manifestations of that Evil (demons, monsters, etc.) attacking the poor, ill-equipped living who are just trying to get on with their virtuous lives filled with good, down-home family values. Pagan cosmology is infinitely weirder and ethically more complex.
But is Beetlejuice Traditionally Pagan?
Remembering that our criteria for traditional paganism are polytheism, ritualism, localization, and tribalism, it’s pretty clear that, yes, Beetlejuice is pretty traditional.
First, Beetlejuice is in fact polytheistic with a focus on Roman religion. The Maitland’s case-worker is a woman with cut throat named Juno.
The suggestion is that she’s another suicide working as a social worker of the dead, but as a proper case-worker she exudes authority and knowledge. What’s more, she’s not bound by the rules of the after-life, moving freely to the Maitland’s house and back, and her frustration with the ignorance of the living strikes me at least as what most gods must feel toward us mortals. Most importantly, the Roman goddess Juno was said to be “she who brings children into light.” To my knowledge she was not a psychopomp (leading the souls to the afterlife), but that’s not really what her character does in Beetlejuice either. Juno the case worker simply helps out where she can, and if she doesn’t seem all that motherly you didn’t have the grandmothers I did. Juno is actually a very caring and maternal figure. She just doesn’t put up with any BS.
Are there other gods in Beetlejuice? It’s not clear, but the afterlife seems so huge and crazy that there is clearly the suggestion that there are some pretty vast and potentially terrifying beings out there setting the rules. I mean, what’s up with Jupiter and the sandworms?
Ritualism is easy in Beetlejuice. There are rules and spells and everything. Lets move on.
Localism? We are told that haunted houses are highly valued. The Maitlands are bound to their house and cannot leave it. This is what a landscape imbued with the sacred looks like from the other side of “the Veil.”
Finally, the importance of the local family or clan comes out in the journey Lydia takes. Her misery with her biological family and subsequent adoption of the Maitlands really underscores the central importance of the family. This story is about a family being brought into right relationship with each other through being brought into right relationship with the supernatural in their local region. That they must leave the city to move to the country even suggests some degree of a nature-centered religion, but ultimately this is a story about a family lost in our modern post-monotheistic dystopia stumbling into a traditionally pagan life and being made whole by it.
So, yes, Virginia; Beetlejuice is traditionally pagan. Let’s hope the eventual sequel will live up to the quality of the first!