How did Betelgeuse die? Despite all the rules in the movie and the obvious way everybody else joined the afterlife, we never have a clear answer for the title character. It’s also interesting to point out that unless we had actually seen them die, we wouldn’t have known how the Maitlands bought it either.
You could go crazy trying to pin point all the rules in the world of the afterlife in Tim Burton’s 1988 movie “Beetlejuice”. Everything that we think we know comes from the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, the “Bible” of the afterlife. Of course we never get to read this book in all, and passages of it imply we, as the living, wouldn’t understand it anyway (except for rare cases like Lydia and Otho). From clues in the movie we know that exorcised ghosts end up in some sort of torturous limbo. A ghost is doomed to stay where they lived or died or end up on “Saturn” (referenced to “The Great Void” at first, in the script, and then “Saturn’s Moon, Titan”)—a sandy planet on another dimension populated by a sandworm that sends you back to the infamous waiting room for however long it takes them to call your 8 digit number in order. Time has no meaning. You wait three hours in the waiting room, it ends up being three months in the land of the living. People who commit suicide are forced to work as “civil servants” in the afterlife. We are introduced to a few characters who killed themselves — the receptionist slit her wrists, Juno possibly slit her own throat, and it looks like the flat guy probably laid in front of a semi truck.
What about Betelguese? We know very little about him, and what we do know is based on mostly ad-libs by Michael Keaton. We know he died in the 1300s (but that he lived through the Black Plague) and that he used to work for Juno as her assistant before trying to set up his own business as a “bio-exorcist”—someone who kills the living. He lives by a bizarre set of rules that none of us know why they work. Say his name three times, he’s brought from the underworld. Say his name three times again, he’s sent back. Or possibly just sent back to the afterlife. The only way he can stay in the land of the living is if he gets married to someone who is living. This could be a ruse.
In order to separate the ad-libs from the real deal, we look at the second draft script by Michael McDonald, written in the spring of 1987. At least we can see what the writer originally intended. While reading the script, it’s important to remember that the part of Betelgeuse was originally intended for Sammy Davis Jr. Although the Candy Man is a great guy, Michael Keaton was the best choice.
The answer from the script that we don’t get in the movie: he’s a demon. A rather weak demon, but one anyway.
He was demoted to a Grade-6
malevolent spirit. He’s been
imprisoned on that plane ever
Well, that’s it then. What else does the script tell us? Not much. All the lines in the script pretty much made it into the movie. Michael Keaton makes the character likable You want to see more of him (which is where the last “head-shrink” scene came from). His catchphrase is “Rat shit”.
Betelgeuse probably died from the Black Plague, even if he says he doesn’t. In the script, the Deetzes end up moving back to New York City, but leave Lydia at the Maitlands with the couple. The exterior of the house looks like a dump, while the inside is fine. There is no Harry Belafonte, but annoying doo-wop music.
And Betelgeuse stays on Titan with the sandworm and the whore house.
As an aside, there is a red giant star in the constellation Orion named Betelgeuse (named long before the movie ever came out). It’s located at the left-hand shoulder. Because it is a red giant, it could collapse or become a super nova at any time. Maybe it already has and the light hasn’t reached us yet. Or it could in hundreds of years. If it does become a super nova, it will be bright enough to see during the day and become almost a second Moon at night. Something to watch out for.