Adam and Barbara Maitland adore their quaint country home in Winter River, Connecticut. They love it so much, in fact, that they plan on spending their entire two-week vacation working on little remodeling projects around the house. But that awesome stay-cation hits a tiny snag when they're on their way back home from town and their car swerves to avoid a dog and plunges off the side of a bridge into the river.
The good news is they make it back to the house. The bad news? They're dead.
They don't pick up on it a first, but then the Maitlands find that they can't step outside the house without being attacked by giant (like, dino-sized) sandworms. They also stumble upon a mysterious coffee table book called The Handbook for the Recently Deceased. There are red flags all over the place, and it eventually occurs to them that they didn't survive that crash.
After a while, a family from New York, the Deetzes, move into the house. Charles Deetz has had some kind of near-nervous breakdown and hopes to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City. His wife, Delia, is determined to tear out every last bit of charm in this cozy New England house with the help of her interior designer, Otho. Charles' teenaged daughter, Lydia, is an über Goth, so she's just digging the spooky vibe the Maitlands have got going.
Even though they're dead, there's no way Adam and Barbara can share their beautiful house with these awful people. Their game plan? Try to scare 'em away. It's a lot tougher than it seems since, you know, the Deetzes can't see them. In a moment of desperation, Adam and Barbara come across an ad for "Betelgeuse the Bio-Exorcist."
Hmm… maybe this guy could help get rid of these living pests?
Eventually, Adam uses The Handbook and figures out how to draw a door to the afterlife. There, he and Barbara discover a massively depressing bureaucracy. (Seriously, remind us never to die.) They have to sit in a waiting room for three months to meet with Juno, their caseworker. By the time they get back home, Delia has entirely remodeled their house. It's very modern and very awful.
Juno tells the Maitlands that they're gonna be stuck in this house for the next 125 years, so they need to get to scaring and get rid of the Deetzes themselves. Whatever they do, they should not—definitely not—call Betelgeuse. It would be a big mistake.
Uh, we get the feeling it's a mistake they're gonna make. After all, the movie is called Beetlejuice.
Okay, so this is Adam and Barbara's big plan: cut holes in sheets and moan like ghosts.
It doesn't scare Charles or Delia. Or Lydia, for that matter. She takes pictures of the Maitlands and talks to them. They end up taking her up to the attic to show her the model town that Adam has built, and they bond over their mutual loneliness and frustration with Charles and Delia. Lydia wishes she were dead like the Maitlands. They disagree.
After their failure to terrify the Deetzes, Barbara gets desperate and calls Betelgeuse by saying his name three times. Right away, the Maitlands realize this was a terrible, no good, very bad idea. Betelgeuse is rude and crude—and they can't get away fast enough.
That night, at a dinner party, Barbara has another idea. She and Adam spirit-possess Delia's dinner guests to make them all dance to "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." It's a way better idea than the sheets, but no one's scared. In fact, they kind of dig it.
Being a ghost is tough work in this house. Shmoop would be outta there by now.
After dinner, Betelgeuse breaks out the real horrors. He turns into a snake and terrorizes the family. Barbara manages to send him back the model town by saying his name again three times.
Crisis averted. For now.
Juno arranges a distraction for Betelgeuse (a brothel, natch) and meets with the Maitlands again. They've really messed up this time. Not only did they let Betelgeuse loose, but Otho also managed to swipe The Handbook from them. Come on, guys. Adam and Barbara head back to the attic to find Lydia talking to Betelgeuse. He's trying to get her to say his name and let him out of the model town, but the Maitlands stop her before she can make the same mistake they did.
Later that night, Charles is attempting to interest his old business partner in buying land in Winter River. Just think of all the ghostly attractions they could sell. Canny businessman that he is, the partner demands to see some ghosts before he invests. Lydia refuses to produce any, but Otho has some tricks up his sleeve.
Otho uses some incantations from The Handbook for a séance that brings Barbara and Adam to life right in front of everyone's eyes. It also causes them to start rotting and decaying a few minutes later. Lydia's desperate to help them, so she rushes over to the model town and asks Betelgeuse to do something. He agrees to help, but only if Lydia will marry him.
Betelgeuse pops out of the model town and starts cracking jokes and terrorizing everyone. Once he helps Adam and Barbara, they try to stop him, but he transports them to other dimensions where they'll be out of the way. Just as Betelgeuse and Lydia are about to be pronounced man and wife, Barbara bursts through the ceiling riding on the back of a giant sandworm, naturally. The sandworm swallows Betelgeuse and crashes down through the floor.
The Maitlands decide to let the Deetzes stay if they lose the postmodern aesthetic and restore the house to its original charm. Lydia's happy again, with Barbara and Adam as surrogate parents who care about her homework and occasionally indulge her appetite for the supernatural.
As the movie draws to a close, we see Betelgeuse sitting in the afterlife waiting room getting his comeuppance. Seeing that he's number 9,988,383,750,000 in line, and they're only on "3," he steals the ticket from the guy next to him who's next in line. Problem is, the guy's a headshrinker—a real one, not a psychiatrist—and our boy's head shrinks down to next to nothing.
Always the player, Betelgeuse decides this could be a good look for him.