For an end of the year treat, Danny Southward (of Sheffield Gothic fame) presents a holiday special three-part blog on the Burton Theory.
|The Meme that started it all.|
Mind = Blown
Part One- The Nightmare Begins
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. We’ve murdered the tree and dragged it’s carcass into the house, festooning it with intestine-string tinsel links. We’ve made our ransom lists and sent them to the one who watches us sleep. We've left out bribes of milk (or alcohol), carrots and pies by the fire for the season’s herald and his cleft-hooved companions who pull his mighty supernatural sleigh. We’ve got the terrible jumpers ready, the Rennie on stand by and we’re already anxiously anticipating this year’s stand-off with the solitary Brussels sprout that is, inevitably, left rolling lonely around our plates after a fit of epic gluttony.
Yes, Christmas is magical, and so it seems only fitting that we round off the year here at Sheffield Gothic, with a small series about that most gothic of Christmas films: Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. Having been recently inspired by the revelations of the Jar Jar Theory I became engrossed in the search for other incredible fan theories and stumbled across The Burton Theory. The theory posits a general connectivity between the majority of Burton’s opus, suggesting that the central theme is that of a boy and his dog. The theory attempts to create a single continuity between each character and their other representations within the cinematic universe. It’s an interesting read and, of course, has been mercilessly picked apart by the great internet hive mind (the main criticisms citing the changing time periods as a major flaw).
Having recently rewatched some of these films in a fit of what can only be described as Burt-mania, I felt compelled to adapt that theory to one that presented itself, tempered by my own Gothic readings, and which bypasses some of the major issues with setting. I’m only going to be looking at Frankenweenie (2012), Corpse Bride (2005), and, of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for this post and, in doing so, hope to describe how these three films tell the story of a boy striving for an idealised future, while his own anxieties work to undermine and destroy all illusions of such.
|Thus we begin!|
Our theory begins with the last film to be released, but the first in our proposed timeline- Frankenweenie. In the town of New Holland, with the festival of Dutch Day fast approaching, young Victor Frankenstein loses his beloved dog, Sparky, to a car accident. As may be guessed from the title of the film, the narrative then follows a frankensteinian plot, with young Victor resurrecting Sparky by... Science? Lightning, at the very least. Things take a turn for the worse as the secret of his process leaks to other children of the town, whose own attempts to revive their pets lead to disaster as each resurrected animal turns into various horror-film monsters which ravage the town festival. Ultimately Sparky, the Frankenstein's Monster of the bunch, is seen to sacrifice himself for the good of the town, though he is re-resurrected for a final happy ending.
Seemingly a simple story of one boy’s love for his dog driving him to extreme lengths, there are more subtle undertones to the film that I want to explore here, and which have larger ramifications for a unifying Burton theory. And they all stem from Victor, who is anything but simple; he is a complex and, importantly, isolated child. As we see from the opening sequence, Victor spends the majority of his time alone in his parents attic, producing stop motion films that reflect his obsession with horror and monster films (note the posters on his bedroom walls in a later scene) as Victor’s father says:
“All that time he spends [in the attic]- a boy his age needs to be outside with his friends.”
To which Victor’s mother replies:
“I don’t know that Victor has friends, dear. Other than Sparky.”
A fact corroborated later by Edgar, an Igor-like child from the same school who, when coercing Victor to initially become his partner for the science fair, says “who else will be your partner? You don’t have friends.” What we are being presented with is a child who is alone, who is isolated from his peers and finds company only with his dog, Sparky. So when Sparky dies as a consequence of Victor’s actions during a game of baseball, the boy is naturally devastated. I want to suggest that from this point, Victor creates an illusionary world, or rather, enters an encompassing delusion to deal with the death of his beloved dog.
|Victor, grief stricken and inconsolable, resorts to SCIENCE,|
Victor imagines a world in which Sparky is still alive and he has not, in fact, ended the life of his only friend, but rather accidentally killed and found the means to re-animate this dog. Victor’s guilt over the death of Sparky, and the rather mundane death of his only companion, manifests in a fantasy in which he is able to resurrect him, to keep his friend alive. This fantasy, however, continues long past the mere resurrection. Victor continues with the delusion, playing the scenario out as his guilt begins to corrupt the ideal: first he is coerced into sharing the formula for life with Edgar; then his favourite teacher is expelled by an angry mob; and finally the results of his attempting to resurrect the dead turn into an all-out monster brawl with classic horror movie monster facsimiles of Godzilla, the mummy, Gremlins, the werewolf & the vampire coming to trash the town, all of which are stopped by Sparky and Victor.
Victor’s obsession with these movie monsters works its way into the delusion as he fantasises that he and his dog are the heroes of the story. The situation has deteriorated, yet Victor posits himself and Sparky as the saviours of the town, ultimately culminating in a showdown at the windmill, where Sparky ‘dies’ for the second time. Here, though Victor creates an end for Sparky that is a far cry from the tragic and fickle death which sparked the delusion (Burton even has Victor mimicking his earlier posture during the Sparky death sequence, held in place and crying ‘no’, in order to mirror the earlier scene). Instead Sparky dies a hero, sacrificing himself for the greater good, yet even this is unacceptable to Victor, who has created such an all-consuming fantasy that he imagines Sparky resurrected for a second time and a rather false ‘happy ending’ with Sparky ‘getting the girl’ as we fade out into the sky.
|What have you seen Sparky? What have you seen?!|
Victor, unable to deal with causing the senseless death of his only friend, his adored dog, and increasingly isolated from the world, invents a fantastical delusion in which he is able to save his friend. And a delusion in which he is able to not only bring Sparky back to life, but to create a more justified ending for the dog, not merely ran down by some un-named driver, but killed fighting a threat to the town. A heroes death, in fact, and one that is not permanent.
A seemingly harmless thing, so far, but as we will see as we continue, though Victor has created this delusive world, it is the world which will work hard to contain and ultimately trap him. How does this theory fits into the next two films? How could one child's delusion connect with the corpse bride and the Pumpkin King? You’ll have to wait until the next blog to find out! Stay tuned for incestuous dreams, more dead dogs and a tragic fall into fantasy.
Keep Watching for the parts two and three, coming to the blog soon! Danny Southward is a postgraduate researcher in Contemporary Gothic and Metamodernism at the University of Sheffield. He says he has never re-animated a corpse, but then again he also says dogs can't look up, so make of that what you will.