Tim Burton and the Disturbing Depiction of Fairy-Tales in His Work

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Tim Burton is an American director, who specialises in fantasy dramas that rely heavily on gothic styles and conventions and who has created an oeuvre that makes him one of the most famous directors in Hollywood today. This is the presentation of my research that will explore the aesthetic and characters in his films, with particular reference to Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Beetlejuice (1988). Known for his gothic style fantasies and described as “an artist, a genius, an oddball, an insane, brilliant, brave, hysterically funny, loyal, nonconformist, honest friend”, his directing is described as “gifted wizardry”, both of which are stated by Johnny Depp, his longtime collaborator, in the foreword of the book Burton on Burton (ITEM 5).


Gothic literature is a genre or style of writing that includes dark or dramatic themes, images, ideas, and settings. It often deals with the supernatural, horror, or mystery. Gothic Literature was first brought to light during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a scientific way of thinking about the world opposed to the traditional Christian teachings; this lead to questions being raised about the ways of thinking about the world. Gothic influences are used in Corpse Bride (2005), (ITEM 3), through the use of dark grey, black, and blue settings, large stone houses and churches, locations near a dark forest and the ideas of death and the afterlife. This is seen in the scene when Victor is running through a dark and creepy forest reciting his vows when the corpse bride rises from the ground proclaiming him as her husband and taking him back to the world of the afterlife; this is also seen in Beetlejuice when Adam and Barbara discover the world of the dead. Gothic themes are also seen in Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with the use of the themes of fear and death to play a key role in the narrative and dark or grey settings which are contrasted with bright, colourful ones; this is shown in the scene where Jack travels from the dark, frightening and nightmarish “Halloween Town” to the bright, colourful and happy “Christmas Town”. Another film which uses the Gothic theme is Edward Scissorhands (1990), (ITEM 1), in which the story centres around a ‘monster’ that is rejected by society, which is also a key theme of Tim Burton’s films, there is also the main character dealing with falling in love in which emotions of fear, love, and isolation are addressed; there are also settings including large, open, abandoned houses; this is shown in the scene where Edward falls in love with Kim but is met by fear and hostility by the other people in society and where it is shown that Edward lives in a big, dark house situated on top of a hill far from the rest of civilisation which contrasts the bright and happy houses in the town below.


As a child, Burton was fascinated with the classic and gothic horror films of Roger Corman; many of which featured Vincent Price in a range of roles. This love of horror films came from what Tim Burton described as being “[his] version of childhood fairy-tales” (ITEM 5) and growing up with this weird love of all things supernatural and dark caused Burton to be ostracised from society as he wasn’t seen to be like everyone else; he was often misunderstood. And as quoted from, the auteur website, So The Theory Goes (ITEM 8) “[Tim Burton’s] childhood experiences living as a social outsider left him with the belief that society tries to stifle anything that makes people individual”(ITEM 8). This sparked the invention of Edward Scissorhands who was made to resemble Burton’s own life of being different and isolated for it. Mark Salisbury wrote in the book Burton on Burton (ITEM 5) “Edward Scissorhands started as a drawing of Burton in his teenage years that expressed the inner torment Burton felt at being unable to communicate with those around him”. This relates to how his films usually look at the theme of isolation and oppression from society. In Tim Burton’s films, the protagonists are usually always childlike and are shown as being kind-hearted and naïve. An example of this would be Victor in Frankenweenie or Edward in Edward Scissorhands (ITEM 1). Those around his protagonists usually misunderstand them and as a result, they isolate them from the rest of society. This is exactly the case in Edward Scissorhands: when forced out of his house and into the town, he is met with hostility because he is not the same as everyone else. People assume he is a mean, violent and dangerous character because of his hands when in reality he is the complete opposite.

Burton also likes to explore social issues through these characters by constructing a discourse about peer pressure and conformity. Once again Edward Scissorhands can be used as a good example of this as when the town’s people try to force Edward to conform to its rules, by making him look like them, getting him to go to school, getting a job and forcing him to behave the way they do it is portrayed as being hostile and inhospitable. And when he is unable to conform to their way of living, he is rejected by nearly everyone in the town and forced back out of society and left back in isolation. Edward’s hands are a signifier of otherness and difference. The fact that his hands are different and perceived as dangerous serves to separate him from society and make him unacceptable and “other”. We judge people on who we are and if they aren’t the same then they are seen as “other” and rejected. The theme of other is also a key aspect in Frankenstein (1818); a lot of influences from Frankenstein can be found in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Vincent, Frankenweenie and The Nightmare Before Christmas. One of the similarities between all of these films and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that there is the character of the mad scientist makes a reanimated corpse-like monster and then something happens to the mad scientist leaving the “monster” incomplete and vulnerable. This idea of the “monster” is seen in characters like Edward in Edward Scissorhands whose creator dies before completing him which leaves Edward with scissors for hands. It is also seen in Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas whose creator, Doctor Finklestein, isn’t dead or even remotely upset with creating Sally, instead he wants to keep her locked away but much like other creations with this problem of being “other” Sally wants to be normal and free.Powerpoint: (Insert Slide 9)Presenter: In his films Tim Burton uses consistent and recurring character types.

There is definitely a repeated element in his films as the characters are constructed in the Gothic style and are often seen in costumes with a 19th century Victorian style, even if the story is set in more modern times. The characters usually wear an array of clothing with, more often than not, black-and-white stripes. The female characters often sport flowing blonde locks, pale white faces and ethereal gowns very much like those seen in Renaissance and Victorian paintings.Powerpoint: (Insert Slide 10)Presenter: Tim Burton’s most known character type is “The Skittish Outcast”. The skittish outcast is the character that is usually seen to relate personally to Tim Burton and his experiences growing up in the suburbs as a social outcast. In the foreword of the book Burton on Burton (ITEM 5) Johnny Depp describes his first meeting with Burton on the set of Edward Scissorhands (1990); Depp describes the meeting as seeing this “hypersensitive madman” who “[was] Edward Scissorhands”. Burton bases this character type on himself and uses personal experiences and stories from growing up in the suburbs and being a social outcast to bring these usually one-dimensional flat characters, with no personalities, into a character with layers and meanings or goals. Many of Burton’s films construct a discourse about otherness and difference, through their characters and also the narratives in which those characters find themselves. This discourse can be related to, not only the other as explored in Frankenstein and the Gothic, but also to ideas of race, gender and disability. Examples of these characters are Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Lydia in Beetlejuice, Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Professor Robert Murphy, an Emeritus Professor in Film Studies, writes in his book Citylife: Urban Fairy-Tales In Late 90s British Cinema, that a standard fairy-tale narrative has to “begin either with a lack which must be remedied,…a curse which has to be removed,…or a harmonious situation which is disrupted and has to be restored”; this is seen in Edward Scissorhands (ITEM 1) as Edward has a curse of deformed hands which if removed would make him normal and would result in him being accepted. There is also a lack of humanity in Edward due to his disfigurement and if Edward’s hands had been fixed then the lack would have been remedied and it would have been a fairy-tale. However, due to the film ending in Edward being alone once more it does not fit into the generic fairy-tale narrative. Fairy-tale narratives are often used to allow a form of escapism into worlds of fantasy and the supernatural, while often remaining grounded by particular morals and lessons.

However, many people overlook the violent and graphic nature of certain fairy tales, Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard (1697) is a particularly disturbing example of this, is often overlooked in contemporary culture and often re-written as a child friendly story. Burton, however, embraces the dark elements and in a 2005 interview with American writer David Breskin, described the fairy tale “tradition” as ‘about as disturbing as it gets’. Burton’s films often use well known fairy-tale storylines but distorts them to fit with his style. An example of this is Edward Scissorhands and Beauty and the Beast; both these films have the main male protagonist with a visual disfigurement that causes them to be isolated from society, they fall in love with a kind hearted girl who accepts them for who they are underneath, but it is all ruined when they are outed as a “threat” and as an “other” by someone who wants the girl to themselves which results in the antagonist falling to their death. The only difference is that Beauty and the Beast has a happy ending where the beast transforms back into a prince and they live happily ever after but Burton’s take on it has a slightly more realistic and gothic side to it as when Jim falls out of the window to his death, Edward is seen as a murderer and his to disappear back into solitude with Kim telling everyone he is dead to protect him. Burton’s suburban gothic fairy-tales find the strangeness in love and the horror in our lack of empathy.In conclusion, Tim Burton’s aesthetic, although seemingly simplistic, enables him, as an auteur, to explore a wide range of themes and ideas whilst retaining the essential gothic elements that define his style.


Read more