Emily, a beautiful, animated, living corpse, is the main protagonist from Tim Burton’s 2005 production, The Corpse Bride. Abandoned on the night of her wedding and left to die by the man she loved, Emily inhabits a colourful underworld realm of the living dead, whose other occupants include a rickety skeleton by the name of Elder Gutknecht, a parodic re-imagining of a deceased Napoleon Bonaparte humorously titled General Bonesapart, and a severed head simply named Paul. In the film, Emily appears fully dressed in her wedding dress and veil, and possesses an uncanny mix of both repulsive and attractive features including decomposing limbs, a tall and regal posture, an attractive face with detachable eyes, and a small, green maggot for a conscience. Whilst not particularly scary for a monster within a children’s animation, Emily’s character intricately embodies nuanced concepts of female monstrosity and the walking dead.
Critical literature focusing specifically on Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride tends to follow two main veins of interpretation. The first focuses on Emily’s status as a female figure of monstrosity. Steven Allen suggests that Emily’s melancholic fate acts as a warning against overt female sexuality and passionate emotions, where Emily’s naïve decision to run away to elope with Lord Barkis is responsible for her untimely demise (Allen 100) . However, Allen also notes that the obligatory nature of marriage within the film, where “Love becomes something to be dreamed of, either as aspiration or nostalgia, as marriage destroys it” (Allen 100), also acts as a critique of patriarchal society and the adult world. Jacque Foltyn takes an alternative approach to interpreting questions of gender and sexuality within The Corpse Bride, suggesting that sex and death are inherently intermingled in popular culture, a phenomenon that is is embodied in the attractive, but deceased figure of Emily. According to Foltyn, “the corpse has become pop culture’s latest porn star… [and] is most often a female, not only because of the long discussed patriarchal oppression of woman and the control of mass media by men but because of woman’s closer association with birth, sex, death, depravity, and dirt” (Foltyn, 166-167). Foltyn analysis reflect Mary Douglas’ theories on purity and danger; Emily is “matter out of place” (Douglas 40), not only as an entity that occupies the space between the living and the dead but also as a monstrous female. The second vein of analysis surrounding the film is the concept of nostalgia. As well as discussing gender and sexuality, Allen also suggests that the intermingling of old and new film techniques within the production, as well as the exploration of themes pertaining to lost love and bereavement, inherently reflects notions of nostalgia and yearning within the film. Additionally, Debbie Olsen also suggests that “The binary light/dark in Nightmare and Corpse Bride is also analogous to the juxtaposition of adult vs. childhood. In Corpse Bride, Burton pits the boring, strictly organized world of the living against the freedom and youthful vitality of the world of the dead” (Olsen 34). Consequently, the “youthful vitality” of the living dead idealizes the notion of childhood, and reflects the impossible desire to return to a place of nostalgic significance.
In addition to external literary theory, The Corpse Bride, also reflects two key ideas discussed throughout the course. Firstly, it epitomizes Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Thesis III: The Monster is the Harbinger of the Category Crisis” by effectively collapsing the boundaries between the living and the dead, and the familiar and unfamiliar. According to Cohen, “The refusal to participate in the ‘order of things’ is true of monster generally: they are disturbing hybrids who externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to to include them in any systematic saturation” (Cohen 6). Both the monster within The Corpse Bride, Emily, and the film itself, transcends conventional categorization. The use of traditional, yet, then technologically advanced stop motion techniques, combined with the relatively new phenomenon of computer generated graphics (presented to us in animation of the birds and butterflies) does two things. Firstly, it interweaves elements of the old and the new into one unit, thereby creating an “uncanny” atmosphere that is both familiar and unfamiliar (Allen 89). Secondly, it involves the active process of bringing inanimate objects, such as puppets and models, to life, which reflects the vivification of Emily’s corpse within the film. The plot also explicitly collapses the boundaries between the living and the dead; not only is Emily, despite being dead, the main heroine of the story, but by the end of the film, the worlds of the living and the dead are both literally and symbolically combined, and little distinction can be made between the two. For example, the conventional trope of ending a novel or film with either a wedding or funeral is challenged by essentially having both at the same time: a wedding that is attended by the living dead, where the final scene features not the embrace of a happy couple but the death of the male antagonist. Additionally, the film The Corpse Bride also reflects May Douglas’ theories on “matter out of place” (40), where the penetration and invasion of the dead into the world of the living is rendered monstrous, and indeed unsettling for audiences, as it disrupts the order in which categorize our society.
Allen, Steven. “Bringing The Dead To Life: Animation And The Horrific.” At The Interface/ Probing The Boundaries 61 (2010): 87-107. Web.
Foltyn, Jacque L. “Dead Famous And Dead Sexy: Popular Culture, Forensics, And The Rise Of The Corpse.” Mortality 13.2 (2008): 153-173. Web.
Gorer, Geoffrey. “The Pornography of Death.” Encounter 5 (1955): 49-52. Web.
Killmeier, Matthew A. “More Than Monsters: Dark Fantasy , The Mystery-Thriller And Horror’s Heterogeneous History.” Journal Of Radio & Audio Media 20.1 (2013): 165-180. Web.
Olson, Debbie. “Little Burton Blue: Tim Burton and the Product(ion) of Color in the Fairy Tale Films The Nightmare before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.” MP: A Feminist Journal Online June (2007): 32-40. Web.