Lydia Deetz Paved the Way for Tim Burton’s Goth Heroines - Nerdist
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Lydia Deetz Paved the Way for Tim Burton’s Goth Heroines

Wednesday Addams—the creepy, kooky child of Morticia and Gomez, and creation of cartoonist Charles Addams—is a goth girl prototype. She’s been around since the 1930s, when Addams brought the family to life in the pages of the New Yorker. Her legacy traces back to other goth girls of yore, like the women of Brontë or Shelley novels, or the Annabel Lees of Edgar Allen Poe. But she also traces her way forward to another beloved goth girl, one who set the stage for a long succession of onscreen follow-ups: Lydia Deetz.

photo of winona ryder as lydia deetz
Warner Bros.

Tim Burton’s Wednesday is currently on Netflix and we finally get to see our favorite goth dad’s take on the Addams daughter. She’s the latest in his cauldron of spooky sisters, which really started with Deetz. She’s his first true sad girl in black and star of his second feature film Beetlejuice, released in 1988. Winona Ryder famously brought the character to life in the first of many collaborations with Burton.

It’s easy to see what he saw in Wednesday: charmingly disaffected, macabre but non-threatening, effortlessly smart and endlessly cool. These words describe Lydia too, with her all-black ensembles and striking dark makeup. Only Winona Ryder could say that famous Lydia line–“I myself am strange and unusual”–and keep it from feeling utterly cringe.  

In Beetlejuice, Lydia is an outsider by nature and therefore a perfect heroine for Burton’s expressionistic worldview, which was especially fresh in the late ‘80s. She is the daughter of Charles and stepdaughter of the eccentric Delia. The family moves to an old farmhouse that, unbeknownst to them, is already occupied by the recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland.

The ghostly couple are appalled when Delia remodels their delightfully cottagecore home into something freakish and modernist. Desperate to drive the Deetzes from the house, they summon the eponymous ghoul to help them scare the family away. But not before they befriend Lydia, who can easily see what others cannot by virtue of her interest in oddities.

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Unfortunately for her, that penchant for darkness also makes her an object of affection for Beetlejuice, who attempts to make her his bride. Beetlejuice is raucous and morbid and funny and cutely bizarre, with story zigs and zags that all lead back to a pleasant co-existence between the Maitlands and Deetzes. But Beetlejuice’s manic energy and the disorderly families wouldn’t work without Lydia as an anchor. Despite her unusual demeanor, she has a soft heart, and it’s her love and good-natured purity that saves the day. Even though he didn’t write the script for Beetlejuice, Burton must have liked what he and Ryder conjured on screen, because he copy-and-pasted Lydia’s template into so many of his successive films.

There are shades of Lydia in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns, Natalie Portman’s Taffy Dale in Mars Attacks!, and Christina Ricci’s Katrina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow. Her pale face and hollow eyes already existed in Burton’s pre-Beetlejuice artwork, but she helped solidify what we continue to see in his work. Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, to name a few. Lydia Deetz would fit nicely into every one of Burton’s fantasy films, because she helped lay the groundwork for an enduring aesthetic.  

Lydia remains one of pop culture’s primary goth girls, even outside of the film. She’s a major Halloween costume almost 35 years later. You still see people hiding behind a big camera and swooping black hat at Halloween parties, or draped in her trademark red bridal gown. Even her cartoon TV show alter ego is recognizable in costume form. Her iconic gelled bangs feel utterly modern and classically timeless all at once. And her face and famous quotes still adorn apparel from Hot Topic and Spencer’s and other outlets. She will never really go out of style, because she set her own vibe. There’s no one quite like her.

Wednesday Addams stands with thing on her shoulder in tv show powers
Netflix

Which is why Burton’s foray back to weird girl territory with Wednesday is so exciting. It seems wild that this is his first time in the Addams Family household; it’s understandable to assume he’s been there all along. Maybe that’s because of how perfectly he captured Lydia way back when. Like the Wednesday we’ve already seen in the classic live-action TV show and the Barry Sonnenfeld films, Lydia is dry-mannered and obsessed with dead things.

They both have the dark plaits, the witty comebacks, the dead-eyed stare. Christina Ricci, who popularized the modern take on Wednesday (and appears in Burton’s series), is a former Burton girl herself. She even played Ryder’s sister in another beloved film, Mermaids. The lineage is clear. Lydia and Wednesday are of a single piece. Burton siblings separated by a generation, ready to unite in his canon forever. It’s easy to see that Jenna Ortega has the right spooky sauce to make this new Wednesday pop. She’ll fit nicely into the strange and unusual canon that Lydia Deetz helped set forth.

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