A Hell of a Place


Smithsonian Magazine - - Pro­logue - Il­lus­tra­tions by Juan Bern­abeu


in which peo­ple are pun­ished for evil deeds, a 2014 Pew sur­vey found. Whether your sense of hell is lit­eral or metaphor­i­cal, the con­cept pre­dates Chris­tian­ity, ac­cord­ing to the new Pen­guin Book of Hell. “De­spite all our re­course to rea­son and com­pas­sion,” says edi­tor Scott Bruce, “the power of Hell has not been un­done.” He es­pe­cially be­wails the per­sis­tence of “hell on Earth,” such mod­ern, self-in­flicted tor­ments as war crimes, nuclear bombs and geno­cide. Betel­geuse (pro­nounced Beetle­juice)—a 600-years-dead “bio-ex­or­cist”—to get the job done. Hence the oh-so-quotable phrase “Beetle­juice, Beetle­juice, Beetle­juice!” which sum­mons the anti-hero, played by Michael Keaton, with his wild white hair, rac­coon eyes and rot­ting teeth. And that’s when all hi­lar­ity breaks loose.

“Beetle­juice made ‘weird’ look cool,” says New York Times film critic Glenn Kenny. “It bridged the cul­tural gap be­tween the cult movie and the stu­dio movie, mak­ing a genre-movie quirk­i­ness ac­cept­able to the main­stream.”

All cool fac­tor and quirks aside, the movie also raises haunt­ing ques­tions: Where is home? Where do you be­long in the world and to whom do you be­long? And what hap­pens when you die? That sur­real, sen­ti­men­tal amal­gam is how a movie made for just $14 mil­lion be­came a Hal­loween clas­sic, a Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios theme park at­trac­tion, a Satur­day morn­ing car­toon and a Broad­way-bound mu­si­cal pre­mier­ing this month at the Na­tional Theatre in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

SAY “BEETLE­JUICE” JUST ONCE and movie­go­ers flash on Keaton’s self-pro­claimed “ghost with the most,” but I’m wind­ing my way along Ap­palachian roads in search of the real star of the film: the ham­let of East Corinth, Ver­mont, pop­u­la­tion 926. With no GPS con­nec­tion, I fi­nally find the set­ting for the fic­tional town of Win­ter River, Con­necti­cut, the place the Mait­lands go to scary lengths to stay even after death. “It was stun­ning,” re­calls Mary Gal­loway, Beetle­juice’s lo­ca­tion man­ager, who also scouted spots in Mas­sachusetts and Vir­ginia. “There’s an en­ergy, a kind of ec­cen­tric­ity that flour­ishes in those places.”

At the Corinth His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety Agri­cul­tural and Trades Mu­seum, lo­cated on the town’s main street, Vil­lage Road, co-di­rec­tors Norm Col­lette and his wife, Con­nie Longo, are wait­ing to give a tour of their Beetle­juice ar­ti­facts. “We had cop­per mines, the bob­bin com­pany, all the old trades,” Norm says, point­ing out large bob­bins and metal works, mak­ing his way to­ward the back. “Beetle­juice was an­other good thing that hap­pened to us, an­other claim to fame.” Norm, who at 62 has dark, wavy hair, a warm smile and a ’60s vibe, lifts one of the half-dozen fiber­glass head­stones cre­ated for the town’s faux grave­yard. “Be­fore they made their way here,” he says, “peo­ple would leave them in their yards as jokes.”

Also in the mu­seum: a pho­to­graph of the model of Win­ter River that Bald­win’s char­ac­ter builds as a la­bor of love. “The ac­tual model was up for sale on eBay a few years back,” Norm says. “It sold for $400. We didn’t have the money for it.”

Norm has vol­un­teered to drive me around town to see the legacy of Beetle­juice. The East Corinth he shows me still looks a lot like that idyl­lic model. The build­ings are a lit­tle more run­down then when Hol­ly­wood de­scended in 1987, but the town has fared bet­ter than some seem­ingly bu­colic New Eng­land vil­lages. Too many have

been hol­lowed out by in­dus­try and pop­u­la­tion loss un­til be­com­ing lit­tle more than stage sets for vis­i­tors. East Corinth’s bob­bin fac­tory might be long gone, but the build­ing has been re­claimed by a so­lar-pow­ered ham­mock man­u­fac­turer, and, yeah, Norm says, it’s hard to con­vince the chil­dren who grow up here to re­turn after col­lege, but the mi­nus­cule pop­u­la­tion has ac­tu­ally grown a lit­tle over the last three decades thanks to artists, mu­si­cians and oth­ers ea­ger to un­plug.

Our des­ti­na­tion is Paula Jewell’s fam­ily farm, where the film’s most rec­og­niz­able fix­ture once stood—the Mait­lands’ home, which in re­al­ity was a shell built for ex­te­rior shots. The huge, white, multi-level Vic­to­rian was erected high on a hill over­look­ing the vil­lage. “Ev­ery­one in town called the house ‘the cas­tle,’ ” Norm says, as he steers the car onto a pri­vate road.

“I wasn’t here when they built it,” says Paula Jewell, 88, whose fam­ily has owned the prop­erty for three gen­er­a­tions. She was away work­ing at the B&M Beans fac­tory in Maine at the time. The cas­tle is long gone now. “My nephew took it down. My brother took some of it, built a lit­tle shed.”

Paula, sil­ver-haired with bright blue eyes and dressed in pur­ple shorts and a pur­ple T-shirt ap­pliquéd with cats, ad­mits she’s not big on the Beetle­juice tourists traips­ing up her hill to take self­ies. They mostly come in early au­tumn, to catch the chang­ing color of the leaves. But not long ago a bus­load came. “I found them up here,” Paula says, tsk, tsk­ing. Did she kick them off the prop­erty? “No. You don’t say nothin’ to the flat­landers.” Flat­landers? Norm ex­plains: “That’s a thing in Ver­mont. If you’re not brought up here you’re a flat­lander. Even if you’re from the Alps—you are a flat­lander!”

Turn­ing to Norm, Paula says, “You’ll never guess what was on the TV last night— Beetle­juice.”

“I know!” Norm says. “Did you watch it?”

“No, too crazy.” Paula fans her hand. “I turned to the ball­game.”

TURN­ING BACK ONTO VIL­LAGE ROAD, Norm says we could park and walk, but the sun is high and hot and he thinks it’s best to drive along the sin­gle block dot­ted with the film’s other lo­ca­tions. All are fa­mil­iar from the first few min­utes of the film, be­fore the Mait­lands’ un­timely demise. Most of the rest of the movie and all of its hellish el­e­ments, in­clud­ing the desert crawl­ing with gi­gan­tic sand­worms and the “nei­ther­world”—a wait­ing room full of goners who ex­pect to meet their maker, but in­stead must take a num­ber to meet a case­worker—were filmed on a Hol­ly­wood sound­stage. But tourists trek here, even 30 years later, be­cause it’s the time Beetle­juice spends in the ac­tual town that trans­forms the movie from a campy ghost story into some­thing un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing.

Norm slows down and points out the Ma­sonic hall, which dou­bled in the film as Miss Shan­non’s School for Girls, be­fore driv­ing over the since-ren­o­vated bridge where the Mait­lands, swerv­ing to avoid a dog, crashed into the river. A lit­tle far­ther down the road we see the old gen­eral store, which was trans-

formed into Mait­land Hard­ware Store. Once the old­est con­tin­u­ously op­er­ated gen­eral store in the state, it was sold 12 years ago to a flat­lander who had big plans to re­store the struc­ture, but in­stead moved to Florida. It’s since gone to ruin—a to­tal eye­sore.

Right next door is Sarah Polli’s house, which played the part of Jane But­ter­field’s Real Es­tate and An­tiques in the film. (The Win­ter River Fire De­part­ment? That was her garage.) “Oh, it was very ex­cit­ing,” Sarah says, sit­ting at her kitchen ta­ble with a high pile of pho­tos taken dur­ing the ten days of film­ing in town. Among the pic­tures are a smil­ing 31-year-old Geena Davis flanked by her vis­it­ing par­ents, an­other of her hold­ing an um­brella to pro­tect her ghostly pal­lor, and an­other of the li­brary, which was com­pletely sur­rounded by a fiber­glass fa­cade to repli­cate the orig­i­nal li­brary built in 1902. The old codger seen pol­ish­ing faux lion stat­ues in one photo—and in the movie—is Sarah’s un­cle, Mau­rice Page. “All the ac­tors just loved him,” she says. “He got roy­al­ties for years! Not much. He had one line: ‘Hey, how are ya?’ ”

My tour ends down the hill and across the street from where the cas­tle once stood, at the Youngs’ house. A hand­some cou­ple, Neil and Louise were born and raised in East Corinth and have lived in their tidy home since their wed­ding 62 years ago. Neil, who served in the Army, worked in the bob­bin fac­tory and the gran­ite plant, and spent 14 years as the chief of the fire de­part­ment. At 88, he’s tied with his close friend Paula for the ti­tle of East Corinth’s old­est res­i­dent. Most nights Paula joins them for din­ner. No sur­prise Neil shares her view of the film: “We went to White River Junc­tion to see it. I think it was the big­gest $5 bill I ever wasted.”

“It’s hard for me to see peo­ple come in from Cal­i­for­nia and make be­lieve they’re Ver­mon­ters overnight,” Neil con­tin­ues. “Their twang is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent and their act­ing is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent.”

Louise, pour­ing us iced tea, says, “Well, I re­ally en­joyed it. Some peo­ple, when they knew it [ Beetle­juice] was com­ing, said, ‘There’s go­ing to be all this crime, ’ but they were very nice peo­ple!” After serv­ing, Louise pulls out her scrap­books and news­pa­per clip­pings, clearly a fan. “Them be­ing nice wasn’t put on,” Neil ad­mits.

Ev­ery so of­ten, Beetle­juice tourists come knock­ing on the door ask­ing to use their bath­room. Neil’s happy to ac­com­mo­date them. Of course, “Paula Jewell thought it was ridicu­lous that we let them in to use it. Paula got a let­ter from some­one this year ask­ing could they get mar­ried up there. She said, no way. They sent a sec­ond let­ter and she still said no!” He chuck­les.

You can’t blame them for try­ing to cap­ture some of the old-fash­ioned charm that in­spired both the liv­ing and the dead in Beetle­juice to fight over the right to live here. “Peo­ple drive for­ever to see the leaves,” Louise says, smil­ing, look­ing out her win­dow. “And I say we don’t have to go any­where to see the leaves—they’re right there.”

C. 400 B.C. The An­cient Greek un­der­world—guarded by Cer­berus— was al­ways grim, but the idea of eter­nal tor­ture for earthly wrong­do­ing didn't be­gin to ap­pear un­til the age of Socrates.

A.D. 200-300A burn­ing river of fire and otherflam­ing tor­ments de­scribed in the Apoca­lypse of Paul shaped me­dieval Europe’s un­der­stand­ing of damna­tion—and our own.

C. 594 Pur­ga­tory didn’t be­come church doc­trine un­til 1245, but the con­cept emerged in the sixth cen­tury in works like Pope Gre­gory I’s Di­a­logues.

Penned by an Ir­ish monk, the Vi­sio Tnug­dali was the most graphic map of the devil’s lair un­til Dante; it in­spired the 16th-cen­tury paint­ings of Hierony­mus Bosch.C. 1150

1000-1300For cen­turies, the idea of hell was con­fined to clois­ters. At the turn of the mil­len­nium, clergy be­gan to spread vivid tales to laypeo­ple to en­cour­age goodbe­hav­ior.

1665 Post-Re­for­ma­tion Protes­tants em­braced hell, but they fo­cused more on God's judg­ment than phys­i­cal pain, as in this Pu­ri­tan tale of the “res­ur­rec­tion of damna­tion.”

Dante’s In­fernobrought or­ga­ni­za­tion to the af­ter­life, with clear ge­og­ra­phy and pun­ish­ment to match the sin. The worst fate was the frozenninth cir­cle.C. 1320

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