Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Corpse Bride Motif

(The following is based on the idea of the "Corpse Bride" from my thesis, You Only Live Twice: The Representation of the Afterlife in Film)

Title Examples: Liliom (1934 and Carousel 1956) A Guy Named Joe (1943 and Always (1989) Miracle in the Rain (1956) Jigoku (1960 Japan) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) Truly Madly Deeply (1985) High Spirits (1988) Beetlejuice (1988) Made In Heaven (1987) Chances Are (1989) Ghost (1990) The Crow (1994) Haunted Mansion (2003) The Maid (2005 China/Philippines) Corpse Bride (2005) White Noise (2005) Over Her Dead Body (2008) Drag Me to Hell (2009) After.Life (2009) Drop Dead Diva (2009-2014)

A woman’s wedding day should be the happiest in her life. No matter the era, the traditional Western image is a young woman wearing a white dress and a smile on her face. She is about to marry (hopefully) the man of her dreams to take on the roles of wife and soon-to-be-mother. But it is also one of the most haunting images in afterlife cinema: a pale young woman wearing a tattered white dress, a somber expression on her face and is undead. This is the "Corpse Bride" figure.

Marriage signifies transition to adulthood because of the responsibilities entailed. Suddenly a life of independence becomes a life of partnership. From the wedding ceremony on, there is a new way of perceiving life. The next several decades of milestone moments will be shared with another individual. To simplify, there is an eternity of commitment.

The Corpse Bride signifies the death of these expectations. Not only has she lost her life as a woman, a daughter, (and a sister,) but has also lost her life as a wife, a mother, an in-law, and all the other roles she personally and professionally may have had. Her life has been cut short just at the moment it was supposed to escalate. Instead she is stuck in her current body and a moment of transition. In film, the cause of death is either an accident or foul play: rarely is it a natural cause. Something or someone intervened on these women’s plans.

The reverse Corpse Bride is a woman whose fiancé or new husband has died. She is left alone with her dashed hopes, expectations and grief. She is physically alive but emotionally and romantically dead. Her story becomes one based on healing from the shock.

Every Corpse Bride has a mission. Young brides who die at the time of their wedding day are in-between phases and spaces. The bride is of marrying age, thus is no longer a child, but she has also yet to fulfill her potential as a wife. She cannot crossover unless what holds her back is resolved. Though this can be said for all the returned, it is of particular significance to these female characters. Whether they are ghosts, resurrected or reincarnated, their natural lives are over yet still exist in the space of the living or are at least able to visit the space of the living. Upon the film and the characters’ resolutions, the undead Corpse Bride enters a Final Destination: a final phase of existence (within the film story) no longer associated with her natural life. And for the living Corpse Bride, a return to her individuality brings her a new set of goals and outlook. Both types of women do reach a moment of accepting their loss of life and/or loved one and move on.

If she is an undead character, moving on usually means allowing her betrothed to let her go and find love with another. If she is a living character, it usually means allowing herself to let go of him and find new love. But in all of their stories there is resistance. There is jealousy. There is grief. These are the Corpse Bride films’ central conflicts. Because, what bride wants to see the man she loves with another woman? And what bride wants to re-enter the dating scene she fought/hoped so much to leave?

Emily, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated feature Corpse Bride (2005), already knew her fiancé killed her in the woods. Thus, the truth about Emily’s murder is not a secret or revelation except who the character her fiancé/murderer is. Her afterlife existence was about finally getting married: to experience the ceremony and relationship she died for. Bojangles sings, “So she made a vow lyin’ under that tree/ That she’d wait for her true love to come set her free/ Always waiting for someone to ask for her hand…” Even though Johnny Depp’s Victor had unintentionally raised her from the dead, it was speaking his marriage vows and placing Victoria’s ring on Emily’s twig-like finger that brought her back to the land of the living to claim her husband. Of course in the end, she realized she could not keep Victor from his true wife and thus left them together. It is her transformation into a hundred freed butterflies that marks her true transcendence of death.

To immediately show Emily was not alive, but had been dead for a long time, her body and clothing needed to look decomposed: gray-blue skin, skeletal, and even disjointed/unhinged wearing a tattered dress. As with so many of the other dead characters in the Underworld, her limbs can pop out and pop off at any moment. As declared in Bojangles’ song, and of what of the wedding dress and hair garland are intact, when alive she had been young, beautiful, and naive.

In High Spirits (1988), while Steve Guttenberg’s Jack drunkenly roams the Scottish castle halls, he comes upon the nightly ghostly reenactment of the family’s ancestral tragedy. Daryl Hannah’s seventeenth century Mary runs through walls chased by her jealous husband, Martin (played by Liam Neeson). Jack thinks this is just another of the castle staff’s haunted house gimmicks. He continues to witness their fight until he unintentionally steps between them; saving Mary and ending the curse. Over the next few nights, Mary’s spirit and Jack fall madly in love. Mary’s young yet pale afterlife appearance, in her rumpled wedding dress, do not show decay from death but are signs of suffering Martin’s physical abuse. Because it was her spirit and not body that was nightly resurrected, her physical form was not affected by time. However, for Jack and Mary to live happily ever after, he has to kiss her in full-body form: a withering wrinkled green skin barely-functioning corpse of decomposed clothes and thinning hair that represents the two hundred years she had been dead in the family crypt. Like Beauty and the Beast, luckily upon their kiss, she becomes as youthful as the day she died rather than staying a two hundred year-old rotting newlywed. In addition, throughout Jack and Mary’s courtship, his wife Sharon and Martin shared a passionate physical attraction. When Sharon dies/ jumps to her death, she became his eternal ghostly lover.

Eva Longoria’s character Kate in Over Her Dead Body (2008) is one of the best expressions of the Corpse Bride. In the opening scene, Kate micro-manages her wedding reception catering staff. Claiming she wants everything to be perfect, she also ignores her fiancé Henry’s (played by Paul Rudd) suggestions she stay relaxed. Just a few minutes later an angel ice sculpture falls and crushes her. In an In-Between white space, an angel tries to inform Kate she must return to earth but cannot say soon enough what her mission is. Back among the living, albeit invisible, Kate mistakenly believes she is supposed to watch over a depressed Henry and protect him from further hurt. Instead of trying to help him move on, she purposefully does all she can to prevent him from entering another relationship by sabotaging his new romance with psychic Ashley. First appearing at Ashley’s apartment, Kate pretends to be alive and under a trance: she levitates, turns her head 360 degrees, and speaks in a low demon-like voice to warn her of continuing to pursue Henry. But Ashley is not deterred for long. At a weekend getaway Kate further ruins what was supposed to be Ashley and Henry’s sexual consummation with distractions of fart noises and yelling. Only after their breakup and months apart can Kate see the damage she had on Henry’s life. His darkened mood returned now with two great love losses. By communicating with Henry’s parrot that he should get Ashley back, Kate reunites the lovebirds at the airport. Ashley and Henry’s wedding follows, where Ashley reassures Kate she will love and protect Henry. This peace of mind for her beloved fiancé and relinquishing her ghostly powers allows Kate to finally and healthfully move on as well. Kate’s controlling personality followed her into the afterlife but she had to come to the realization life must continue without her and that death must make way for new experiences.

In White Noise (2005) Michael Keaton’s Jonathan Rivers’ young second wife Anna disappears the day she tells him that she is pregnant. Devastated even after her lifeless body was found weeks later, and after moving to a new apartment, he mopes about depressed and unable to concentrate on work. Jon’s spirits are lifted for the first time when a mediator shows him Anna’s message from the afterlife. Though skeptical at first, increased research makes him a believer and subsequent apprentice. He keeps his EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) monitors on for any further communication. What he receives are Anna’s warning messages about the future: people he needs to save from death. The electronic ethereal Underworld’s guardians try to keep the two worlds separate by bullying and killing intruders when necessary: including the medium, Jon’s companion Sarah, and eventually Jon as well. Jon’s unhealthy obsession with crossing afterlife barriers began because he could not cope with Anna’s death and their would-have-been expanding family.  Whatever Anna’s reasons were for sending these messages to Jon, they put him in danger. She should have let him heal naturally from her death. And this film teaches that the death of a loved one, specifically a spouse, may be sudden and tragic but you must emotionally mend by focusing on life.

White Noise's Jon and Anna are a 21st century re-imagination of the Classical story Orpheus and Eurydice. After Anna’s death, Jon metaphorically descends into Hell to reunite with Anna, just as Orpheus had to journey into the Underworld to reclaim Eurydice’s soul. Upon the film’s ending, as the three gatekeepers kill Jon for his transgression and to restore natural order, it is reminiscent of Cerberus guarding Hades: except these shadowy figures cannot be swooned to submission. Orpheus’s second loss of Eurydice is too much to bear, goes mad and he is later killed.

Drop Dead Diva (2009 to 2014) was one of Lifetime Television’s most popular shows, (at the time of this article's original posting) now in its fourth season. Deb Dobkins, a young aspiring Los Angeles model with blonde hair and blue eyes, dies in a car crash. While in the In-Between for assessment, she refuses to accept death and hits the aptly fitting “return” computer key. She is promptly put in the overweight dark haired body of lawyer Jane Bingum. Deb is a Corpse Bride because on the day she died her longtime boyfriend Grayson was planning to propose. Her life would have immediately escalated had she been alive to receive the ring and marry her true love. However, Deb soon realizes there are many advantages to being Jane. Having plugged into this new body, Deb has access to Jane’s book-smarts (but not memories) that are used for creative legal problem solving. And she is now in a position of power with a steady salary that can afford a BMW. Deb’s extrovert personality transforms what was Jane’s dull introverted life and thus others’ perceptions of her. Jane’s existence as Deb-in-Jane shows how confidence can trump looks when seeking respect. Though Deb enjoyed her life as herself, her new life as Jane allows her to be more intelligent, able to help people, and win accolades for her work.

In the second season episode entitled, “Last Year’s Model,” Jane’s colleague/Deb’s fiancé, “Grayson takes on clients who think their house has been haunted...(At the house) Grayson is made a believer when he sees Deb. She asks how he is and asks if he’s seeing someone. And Grayson lies and says no…(Later,) Grayson goes back to the house to talk to Deb and admits that he is seeing someone (Vanessa, who finds toxic mold in the house)...he admits (to Jane) he saw Deb in the haunted house, which is a big surprise to Jane. Grayson admits to her that if he believed in ghosts he’d like to think Deb would find a way to stay close to him…(Kim tells) Jane that Grayson is still in love with his dead girlfriend. That’s got to give Jane a bit of hope.” (The Summer TV Blog by Kara Howland, Sunday Aug. 8, 2010)

Deb’s ghostly spirit appears to Grayson, bathed in light as if coming from Heaven, and in a white nightgown: perhaps how she would have dressed on their honeymoon. Ghost Deb assures Grayson she is happy and that though he can honor her memory he should find love with someone else. Though Grayson’s hallucination of Deb in the haunted house was caused by toxic mold, it shows that a year after her death, he still loves Deb and is hesitant to move on with his new girlfriend Vanessa. The show continues on to feature Deb/Jane and Grayson in separate relationships: Grayson almost marries Vanessa and Deb/Jane dates a few other men. While in most Corpse Bride stories the couples are supposed to let go of each other, the show’s plot hinges on a “will they or won’t they” reunion. Thus, because Deb is not in a separate afterlife space, she as Jane can still wind up with Grayson, and they can finally have their wedding ceremony.

Chances Are (1989) and Ghost (1990) are the reverse examples. Instead of physical death, the women emotionally died when their loved ones did, in front of them. While Sybil Shephard’s Corrine was already married to Louis for a year and expecting a baby, these circumstances are the definition of a life on the cusp of transition. They were supposed to raise their child and grow old together. Instead, Louis died and she was left to raise Miranda alone. Corrine may have continued on without him, but she has been attending therapy for years, refuses entering romantic relationships and refocused her energies towards her daughter and career. In addition, she still talks to him before and after bed, leaving him snacks by his picture on the side table, and keeps another photo in her car visor. Only when she is reunited with Louis in the young Alex’s body (played by Robert Downey Jr.) can she reclaim her sexuality and then let him go. The film closes with her wedding to longtime friend and confidant Philip (played by Ryan O’Neill).

Meanwhile Demi Moore’s Molly is made a widow even before her engagement. Though she and Sam (Patrick Swayze) have recently moved in together, she thinks they should keep progressing and get married. She brings up the topic with Sam as they leave the theater, that they should “just do it,” but before he can give her an answer, Willy kills Sam. Molly is left without her could-have-been-husband. In the time after his death she refuses to move on and throw away Sam’s possessions, let alone be convinced he is a ghost. When Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg’s award winning role) finally sits with Molly to prove Sam’s continued existence, Sam takes over Oda Mae’s body for one last physical moment. As the film ends, Molly can hear his last words of love and goodbye. She is able to let him leave as she knows he will be in Heaven. What happens to Molly afterwards is unknown, but it is assumed she will at least continue her art.

In 2009, Justin Long’s characters Clay and Paul from Drag Me to Hell and After.Life, respectively, were going to ask their girlfriends to marry him, but the women died before he could. He is the Corpse Groom (possibly a topic for another article but will suffice here). In the former title film, Alison Lohman’s Christine turns down an elderly woman gypsy’s home loan extension and thus is cursed for Hell. In its last scene, believing she escaped death, she buys a new trench coat, and meets Clay at the train station for a weekend getaway. Just when he is about to ask her to marry him, the ground opens up and swallows her down into the fiery pits. Clay is left on the platform stunned. She may not return and thus Clay will have to grieve alone. In After.Life, Christina Ricci’s Anna loves Paul but her stronger instincts for emotional self-preservation prevents her from fully expressing those feelings. Paul’s initial intentions were to tell Anna he had been promoted, would have to move, and wanted them to marry so she can come with him. However, after only hearing the first part, Anna jumps to conclusions and from her seat, accuses him of wanting to breakup. She leaves Paul before he has the chance to pop the question, and he will never have the chance because that night she is supposedly killed in a car accident. Actually, the funeral home director (played by Liam Neeson) holds Anna hostage drugged in the basement, making her believe she is not alive. Paul tries to save Anna (after her burial) but can’t, and he too is held captive. Both are unable to tell each other their true feelings and neither will be able to have the life they both wanted.

The Crow (1994)’s Eric and Shelley were killed the night before their Halloween wedding. As the detectives examine their apartment crime scene, the camera shows the invitation and mannequin wearing the white wedding dress. In flashbacks, we see Eric and Shelley alive and happy: especially his proposal of marriage. They are in love and expect to grow old together. Eric’s resurrection and purpose is to bring their deaths justice. When his mission is completed and as he returns to his grave, he sees Shelley bathed in white light and wearing a white dress. She comes to him so they will celebrate their marriage in a Final Destination.

A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Steven Spielberg’s remake Always (1989) each feature a couple that has just reconciled their commitment issues, but are separated by the male pilot’s tragic death. Pete (Spencer Tracey and Richard Dreyfus) loves Dorinda (Irene Dunne and Holly Hunter) but he loves flying just as much, if not more. When he faces losing her, he agrees to settle down and get married. But before doing so, he has one more flight mission to complete: which also happens to be his last. Pete dies but returns to Earth to help train Ted; a (much) younger pilot. Pete then happens to invisibly reunite with Dorinda a year later. He inadvertently brings her and Ted together. Instead of promoting Dorinda’s obvious romantic feelings for Ted, which will let her move on from mourning Pete, he lets his presence influence her reluctance. He feels slighted that she could love another man. Upon the film’s resolution, Pete must use his presence to help Dorinda fly a dangerous mission but realizes her own skills are capable of recuperation, professionally and romantically. He whispers he loves her,

Made in Heaven's (1987) Michael and Annie met in and are married in Heaven. But soon after their ceremony, Annie must leave to be born on Earth to fulfill her incarnation destiny. Michael is grief stricken and demands to be reincarnated as Elmo, with a mission to find Annie born as Ally. Before Michael left, Heaven’s chief administrator tried to convince him that Annie’s life on Earth would not seem so long because of how relative time is experienced. He goes anyway because any amount of time without her was not worth wasting. Here, it is life, not death that tears them apart just as they could begin an eternity to be together. Heaven’s rules for reincarnation are equally as natural as death is for the living.

Geena Davis’ Barbara and Alec Baldwin’s Adam’s newlywed bliss in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) was cut short when they careened off a bridge in their newly adapted rural community. However, much time passed by, they returned as full-bodied spirits who can change their appearance to spook the house’s new owners and levitate under sheets. Barbara and Adam’s farmhouse interior design plans and escape from the Yuppie lifestyle were no longer possible. They would not be able to stop Delia’s redecorating endeavors of abstract dark sculptures. Towards the end, two couples are wearing wedding attire. Barbara and Adam’s decomposed green wrinkled bodies (like Daryl Hannah’s Mary in High Spirits) signify lost time and death while Wynona Rider’s Lydia and the ghoulish Michael Keaton’s Beetljuice are getting married in prom-ready costumes. Lydia’s ceremony is of course stopped but until so, she is facing the end of her life as a teenager, to begin eternity as a monster’s young wife. The last scene features Barbara and Adam’s acceptance of death and making use of their time as Lydia’s second family. Meanwhile, Lydia rids her Goth image for ‘school-girl prep’ and concentrates on scoring higher test grades. Having defeated an early death and marriage, she strives for a life beyond high school.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Although the afterlife is a sensitive topic, this blog focuses on how it is visually represented in film. Please do NOT comment your personal beliefs, religious doctrine, or a philosophical argument. Please DO comment on the film or topic analyzed in the article, afterlife movie news, and afterlife movies to watch or write about.