Beetlejuice: A Metaphor for Gentrification

Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice

The movie Beetlejuice can serve as a metaphor for gentrification. The Deetz are gentrifiers, moving into the former home of the Maitlands. In the opening scene, Mrs. Maitland is approached by her neighbor coaxing her to help her sell her home and that she saw someone willing to buy it for over 250k. Later the Maitlands die and their home gets sold to the Deetz who start the rehabilitation of the home.  Even though deceased, the Maitlands want to stay in their home. Seeing all the changes that the Deetz are making they try to scare the Deetz away but the Deetz dont even see them. The Maitlands invisibility is an allegory to the invisibility of communities of color pre-exisiting in neighborhoods that are under gentrification.

Oblivious to the Maitlands, the Deetz are representative of a class of developers. While the wife is an artist, the husband is scheming on other properties around the city and desires to pitch projects to investors. The daughter is despondent to all of this, and can actually see the Maitlands. Much like the younger progeny of those who gentrify are forced to engage with the indigenous communities in which they find themselves among. Her goth attire perhaps represents the anarchists, radical left ethos of many who accompany the gentrification, poor working class whites who are against the system as well but find themselves enmeshed and entrenched in it still.

The true hero of the movie Beetlejuice, is Beetlejuice himself. He represents the unfettered true to who he is, pathologies and all – the dead. While he is not native to the Maitlands neighborhood – he specializes in getting gentrifiers (the living) out of newly deceased folks homes. The Maitlands being oblivious as to what to do to retain their home and not be displaced. When they learn a few insights on how, and try their hand at scaring the Deetz out – the effort is seen as a performance and the Deetz then try to capitalize on their presence and attempt to market them as an element of their  new home.

Does any of that sound familiar? How about the nonprofit organization that pops up in the community of color to work with underprivileged youth but doesn’t have any staff from said community on its board/staff? You know how they take the picture of the little black kids during xmas time and send it to potential donors? Perhaps even the co-opting of token blacks into their organizations and using them to pretend they are inclusive and diverse? In both instances, their is no recognition that their presence is a form of colonization and an act of displacement in the communities in which the gentrifiers find themselves.

Upon realization that their efforts are not enough to get the Deetz out their house, (the popular Banana Boat Song and dance routine) the Maitlands call Beetlejuice. Remember they are warned by their caseworker in the afterlife department that Beetlejuice USED to work for the afterlife department but he was too dangerous. They also get shown that the dead who get exorcised just drift in the void – perhaps a metaphor for those who are displaced by gentrification. They dead dead. (As an aside Betelgeuse is one of the largest stars in our galaxy, noted to be on the verge of supernova as in it is about to die in a million years) Beetlejuice is crass, disheveled, impolite, total non status quo, kinda like the drunk uncle at your family reunion. When they realize he might hurt the Deetz instead of just scaring them off – the Maitlands back out and reign Beetlejuice back in.

The Maitlands decision to resign on having Beetlejuice do his work is a metaphor for what happens when the gentrifiers and the folks who are being gentrified find those key individuals who are indigenous but are ok with the gentrification happening. Maybe they dont mind the taxes going up, other indigenous residents being pushed out, they might not be thinking of the long term implications of displacement, or the stress it causes and how many indigenous community members are at risk to lose their homes. The indigenous activist community that is anti gentrification could be allegorical to Beetlejuice in that they have not sold out on the idea that gentrification is a good thing.

Shaken not stirred by the encounter with “ghost with the most”, the Deetz deepen their resolve of marketing their property as having ghosts (cough) blacks (cough). The absolutely loved the Banana Boat dance thing. One of their associates Otho; got his hands on a handbook of spells for the newly dead and decides to rise the Maitlands from the dead for amusement of the guests and to attract investors for their further development of the town. I think we have seen those parties where black/brown people are put on display to perform for the wealthy and white. The Maitlands dont want to kill the Deetz, and have grown fond of their daughter and decide they want to try to share their space with them.

The young goth anarchist daughter seeing the pain and demise of the Maitlands happening (Otho apparently was about to make them dead dead with his spell) calls upon Beetlejuice who says he kind of an illegal immigrant he can only stay if he gets married to her. She agrees. He comes. The idea of indigenous community activists forming collaboration with anarchist relatives of the gentrifiers has to be noted. What if that happened? Could indigenous activists be blocked from meetings? Would threats to have police called on them be successful? Beetlejuice knocks the developers thru the roof. Saves the Maitlands. Tries to marry the girl as agreed to but gets reigned back in by the Maitlands at the last minute. Beetlejuice gets sent back to the afterlife department. Movies goes off with Maitland and Deetz living in purported harmony. The entire ending is problematic because they dance to the Banana Boat Song with ghost football players or whatever.

The point is they (the Maitlands) only stayed the inevitable. The jewel in the movie is the marriage of interests with the Maitlands and the young goth anarchist girl who we infer that them – the co-opted ndigenous community and her – could find a bond and realize a way in which everyone could live together in peace. Mr. Deetz is even seen reading a book about cohabitation with the undead.

An entire arguement can be made about horror movies are metaphors for social issues in our community. The zombie movie represents the poor working class rising up and taking over. The haunted house as a metaphor for gentrification. The slasher film for the sins of sex without marriage. What are some other examples of movies you have seen that have correlations to issues in contemporary society?

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