Visionary of the Strange and Unusual
by Vincent Lacobelle '20
Selected for an honorable mention in the 31st issue of Connecticut Student Writers (CSW) magazine
Burbank, California, known today as the home of Warner Brothers, Disney, and Universal, is also the birthplace of America’s favorite father of freaks and oddities. Timothy Walter Burton was born in August 1958 to Jean Rae Burton, gift shop owner and proud mother, and William Reed Burton, a Parks and Recreation worker. Burton had a secluded childhood; his best friends were vintage movies, cartoons, and his own illustrations. As a teenager, Burton received recognition for his artistic abilities when he won a local contest for designing an anti-littering poster. Burton attended California Institute of the Arts after high school and was subsequently hired as an animator by Disney where he worked on films such as The Fox and the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985). Burton’s most influential early work is his own animated short, Vincent (1982), a critical success that marked the beginning of a unique career. From the shadowy groves of the West Woods to American suburbia, Burton’s dark, whimsical creations have captivated audiences for decades. A master of the craft, commonalities that define Tim Burton’s style include gothic themes, flashback storytelling, and eccentric, misunderstood outcasts.
One of the most striking elements of Tim Burton’s films are the gothic visuals. The appearances of characters and architecture of scenes contribute to the odd settings Burton creates. Edward Scissorhands, with his wild hair, black clothing, and of course, scissors, stands in stark contrast to the pastel wonderland of the neighboring suburbs. His gloomy, Victorian-era mansion set high on a hill overlooks identical waves of soft-hued houses. In Beetlejuice, Adam and Barbara Maitland’s classic New England home is transformed into a comically macabre mess of grayscale art and fashion by the Deetzes. Lydia Deetz, daughter of the new homeowners, dawns traditional gothic dresses, veils, and other accessories reminiscent of the 18th-century clothing in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. This take on Washington Irving’s story displays the monochromatic village of Sleepy Hollow in the shadows of horror. It is a perfect example not only of Burton’s dark visual style but his implementation of gothic themes as well.
A recurring characteristic of gothic literature that drives many of Burton’s plots is the idea of breaking boundaries that should not be crossed and the chaos that ensues. In Sleepy Hollow, for instance, Lady Van Tassel exhumes the Headless Horseman to carry out her evil will and seek revenge on the town. When she does this, she opens the door between Hell and the living world. Similarly, the deceased Maitlands call upon the bio-exorcist Betelgeuse to drive out the new inhabitants of their home. Unfortunately, the well-meaning couple does so without realizing the mischievous nature of the demon. Peg Boggs breaks the boundary between her world and the unknown when she enters the hilltop mansion and discovers Edward before inviting him into her home. Edward’s presence stirs curiosity and eventual hysteria in the suburb, which leads to conflict and the death of a man who attacks the innocent outcast. Tim Burton also experiments with the notions of death and the afterlife, often experimenting or playing on primal fears. Beetlejuice totally reimagines the rules of what happens after death. David Elstein describes the film for Rolling Stone Magazine, “The afterlife isn’t grand and Spielbergian but a mangy series of typing pools and waiting rooms, in which you have to take a number to see your caseworker.” There is no religious controversy, no Heaven or Hell; just decades of the worst part of the living world- waiting in line. Sleepy Hollow also plays with the idea of the supernatural. Witches and hellish spirits haunt the village and challenge rationality. As notable as these elements may be, there is something else that makes Burton’s films truly memorable.
Tim Burton’s long lineup of wacky, outcast main characters have made their way into the hearts of viewers around the world. Lydia Deetz not only stands out for her unique garbs, a morbid outlook on life and ability to communicate with the dead make her an exceptional young lady no one can understand, besides the deceased Maitlands. In Lydia’s own words, “I've read through that handbook for the recently deceased. It says: 'live people ignore the strange and unusual.’ I myself am strange and unusual.” Ichabod Crane wishes he could ignore the strange and unusual. He is a constable from New York who is reassigned to the Village to investigate mysterious beheadings. In the city, Ichabod is disliked for his speaking out against the police force’s cruel techniques and leadership. In Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod is a city slicker who seems to be the only one ignoring the existence of the supernatural, that is, until he witnesses the demon beheading a man before his own eyes. Besides his rationality, Ichabod’s strange investigation tools of his own invention and frazzled personality reinforce that he is an outsider. Similarly, Edward Scissorhands’ timidness and horrifying features make him into a pariah. Edward’s life of isolation and obvious physical deformities blind the outside world of his loving nature. What allows audiences to understand Edward and other outcasts is the storytelling in these movies.
Tim Burton makes wide use of flashback sequences throughout his films. This method of interrupting the story’s timeline offers insight into Burton’s beloved main characters and the plots that surround them. Hadley Freeman of The Guardian explains, “he almost always gives his protagonists a backstory, explaining their strangeness: Edward Scissorhands was left an orphan when his creator died; Bruce Wayne saw his parents killed, and so on.” Without these little bits of history, Burton explains to Freeman in an interview, eccentric characters have no meaning. Edward loses his only parent-figure and is left all alone. He spends years in his inventor’s withering mansion until Peg introduces him to the world. Ichabod Crane finds his purpose in law and justice, despite his quirkiness. Pieces of Ichabod’s childhood are strewn about Sleepy Hollow in dream sequences that ultimately explain his mother was murdered for accusations of witchcraft. Ichabod reflects on his mother’s death, “I was seven when I lost my faith. I believe in sense and reason, cause and consequence.” As an investigator, Crane commits to logic and evidence to do right by his community.
Tim Burton has created a bizarre dynasty of classic films with his signature style. His gothic inspiration is a refreshing alternative to many of the overplayed themes of Hollywood. Burton’s eccentric outcasts and their lovable idiosyncrasies are instant icons- their histories contribute to their charm. Burton’s own backstory has made him the talented filmmaker he is today. As someone who found his place not fitting in, he represents the freaks and oddities of our world, proving there truly is beauty in the strange and unusual.
Beetlejuice. Directed by Tim Burton, performances by Winona Ryder, Michael Keaton, Alec
Baldwin, and Geena Davis, Warner Brothers, 1988.
Brooke, Michael. “Tim Burton-Biography.” IMDB,
Edelstein, David. “‘Beetlejuice’: Tim Burton, Michael Keaton on the Ghoulish Masterpiece.”
Rolling Stone, 2 June 1982, www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/mixing-beetlejuice-78733/
Edward Scissorhands. Directed by Tim Burton, performances by Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder,
Diane Wiest, and Vincent Price, 20th Century Fox, 1990.
Freeman, Hadley. “Dark Arts.” The Guardian, 22 Jul. 2005,
Sleepy Hollow. Directed by Tim Burton, performances by Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, and
Christopher Walken, Paramount Pictures, 1999.
“Tim Burton: Boyhood traumas of a director.” Independent, 26 Feb. 2010,