The Afterlife of Beetlejuice

The “Ghost with the Most” has been haunting movie watches—and one small Vermont town—for 30 years

Illustration by Agata Nowicka

While we were shooting, I’d say to myself, what the hell is this?” the actor Alec Baldwin recalls of his starring role in Beetlejuice. “Even trying to explain to people what the movie was about—it was difficult. People gave me the most crazy, blank stare.”

Thirty years later, the madcap macabre little miracle of talent and stop-motion animation directed by Tim Burton is still hard to boil down. Bare bones, it’s what happens when the Maitlands, a couple of married New England ghosts (Baldwin and Geena Davis), fail to scare away the appalling New York yuppies who purchase their beloved Victorian home. The sweet spirits are forced to call on the services of the maniacal Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetlejuice)—a 600-years-dead “bio-exorcist”—to get the job done. Hence the oh-so-quotable phrase “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!” which summons the anti-hero, played by Michael Keaton, with his wild white hair, raccoon eyes and rotting teeth. And that’s when all hilarity breaks loose.

Beetlejuice made ‘weird’ look cool,” says New York Times film critic Glenn Kenny. “It bridged the cultural gap between the cult movie and the studio movie, making a genre-movie quirkiness acceptable to the mainstream.”

All cool factor and quirks aside, the movie also raises haunting questions: Where is home? Where do you belong in the world and to whom do you belong? And what happens when you die? That surreal, sentimental amalgam is how a movie made for just $14 million became a Halloween classic, a Universal Studios theme park attraction, a Saturday morning cartoon and a Broadway-bound musical premiering this month at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.

* * *

Say “Beetlejuice” just once and moviegoers flash on Keaton’s self-proclaimed “ghost with the most,” but I’m winding my way along Appalachian roads in search of the real star of the film: the hamlet of East Corinth, Vermont, population 926. With no GPS connection, I finally find the setting for the fictional town of Winter River, Connecticut, the place the Maitlands go to scary lengths to stay even after death. “It was stunning,” recalls Mary Galloway, Beetlejuice’s location manager, who also scouted spots in Massachusetts and Virginia. “There’s an energy, a kind of eccentricity that flourishes in those places.”

At the Corinth Historical Society Agricultural and Trades Museum, located on the town’s main street, Village Road, co-directors Norm Collette and his wife, Connie Longo, are waiting to give a tour of their Beetlejuice artifacts. “We had copper mines, the bobbin company, all the old trades,” Norm says, pointing out large bobbins and metal works, making his way toward the back. “Beetlejuice was another good thing that happened to us, another claim to fame.” Norm, who at 62 has dark, wavy hair, a warm smile and a ’60s vibe, lifts one of the half-dozen fiberglass headstones created for the town’s faux graveyard. “Before they made their way here,” he says, “people would leave them in their yards as jokes.”

Also in the museum: a photograph of the model of Winter River that Baldwin’s character builds as a labor of love. “The actual model was up for sale on eBay a few years back,” Norm says. “It sold for $400. We didn’t have the money for it.”

Norm has volunteered to drive me around town to see the legacy of Beetlejuice. The East Corinth he shows me still looks a lot like that idyllic model. The buildings are a little more rundown than when Hollywood descended in 1987, but the town has fared better than some seemingly bucolic New England villages. Too many have been hollowed out by industry and population loss until becoming little more than stage sets for visitors. East Corinth’s bobbin factory might be long gone, but the building has been reclaimed by a solar-powered hammock manufacturer, and, yeah, Norm says, it’s hard to convince the children who grow up here to return after college, but the minuscule population has actually grown a little over the last three decades thanks to artists, musicians and others eager to unplug.

Our destination is Paula Jewell’s family farm, where the film’s most recognizable fixture once stood—the Maitlands’ home, which in reality was a shell built for exterior shots. The huge, white, multi-level Victorian was erected high on a hill overlooking the village. “Everyone in town called the house ‘the castle,’” Norm says, as he steers the car onto a private road.

“I wasn’t here when they built it,” says Paula Jewell, 88, whose family has owned the property for three generations. She was away working at the B&M Beans factory in Maine at the time. The castle is long gone now. “My nephew took it down. My brother took some of it, built a little shed.”

Paula, silver-haired with bright blue eyes and dressed in purple shorts and a purple T-shirt appliquéd with cats, admits she’s not big on the Beetlejuice tourists traipsing up her hill to take selfies. They mostly come in early autumn, to catch the changing color of the leaves. But not long ago a busload came. “I found them up here,” Paula says, tsk, tsking. Did she kick them off the property? “No. You don’t say nothin’ to the flatlanders.” Flatlanders? Norm explains: “That’s a thing in Vermont. If you’re not brought up here you’re a flatlander. Even if you’re from the Alps—you are a flatlander!”

Turning to Norm, Paula says, “You’ll never guess what was on the TV last night—Beetlejuice.”

“I know!” Norm says. “Did you watch it?”

“No, too crazy.” Paula fans her hand. “I turned to the ballgame.”

* * *

Turning back onto Village Road, Norm says we could park and walk, but the sun is high and hot and he thinks it’s best to drive along the single block dotted with the film’s other locations. All are familiar from the first few minutes of the film, before the Maitlands’ untimely demise. Most of the rest of the movie and all of its hellish elements, including the desert crawling with gigantic sandworms and the “neitherworld”—a waiting room full of goners who expect to meet their maker, but instead must take a number to meet a caseworker—were filmed on a Hollywood soundstage. But tourists trek here, even 30 years later, because it’s the time Beetlejuice spends in the actual town that transforms the movie from a campy ghost story into something unexpectedly moving.

Norm slows down and points out the Masonic hall, which doubled in the film as Miss Shannon’s School for Girls, before driving over the since-renovated bridge where the Maitlands, swerving to avoid a dog, crashed into the river. A little farther down the road we see the old general store, which was transformed into Maitland Hardware Store. Once the oldest continuously operated general store in the state, it was sold 12 years ago to a flatlander who had big plans to restore the structure, but instead moved to Florida. It’s since gone to ruin—a total eyesore.

Right next door is Sarah Polli’s house, which played the part of Jane Butterfield’s Real Estate and Antiques in the film. (The Winter River Fire Department? That was her garage.) “Oh, it was very exciting,” Sarah says, sitting at her kitchen table with a high pile of photos taken during the ten days of filming in town. Among the pictures are a smiling 31-year-old Geena Davis flanked by her visiting parents, another of her holding an umbrella to protect her ghostly pallor, and another of the library, which was completely surrounded by a fiberglass facade to replicate the original library built in 1902. The old codger seen polishing faux lion statues in one photo—and in the movie—is Sarah’s uncle, Maurice Page. “All the actors just loved him,” she says. “He got royalties for years! Not much. He had one line: ‘Hey, how are ya?’”

My tour ends down the hill and across the street from where the castle once stood, at the Youngs’ house. A handsome couple, Neil and Louise were born and raised in East Corinth and have lived in their tidy home since their wedding 62 years ago. Neil, who served in the Army, worked in the bobbin factory and the granite plant, and spent 14 years as the chief of the fire department. At 88, he’s tied with his close friend Paula for the title of East Corinth’s oldest resident. Most nights Paula joins them for dinner. No surprise Neil shares her view of the film: “We went to White River Junction to see it. I think it was the biggest $5 bill I ever wasted.”

“It’s hard for me to see people come in from California and make believe they’re Vermonters overnight,” Neil continues. “Their twang is altogether different and their acting is altogether different.”

Louise, pouring us iced tea, says, “Well, I really enjoyed it. Some people, when they knew it [Beetlejuice] was coming, said, ‘There’s going to be all this crime,’ but they were very nice people!” After serving, Louise pulls out her scrapbooks and newspaper clippings, clearly a fan. “Them being nice wasn’t put on,” Neil admits.

Every so often, Beetlejuice tourists come knocking on the door asking to use their bathroom. Neil’s happy to accommodate them. Of course, “Paula Jewell thought it was ridiculous that we let them in to use it. Paula got a letter from someone this year asking could they get married up there. She said, no way. They sent a second letter and she still said no!” He chuckles.

You can’t blame them for trying to capture some of the old-fashioned charm that inspired both the living and the dead in Beetlejuice to fight over the right to live here. “People drive forever to see the leaves,” Louise says, smiling, looking out her window. “And I say we don’t have to go anywhere to see the leaves—they’re right there.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.