Friday, July 28, 2023

The Jewish Bones of Tim Burton's 'The Corpse Bride'

The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.
Did you know that Tim Burton's, stop-motion animated movie "The Corpse Bride" has Jewish bones?

The Finger - A Russian-Jewish Folktale
It's based on the Russian-Jewish folktale "The Finger" from the “Shivhei ha-Ari” ("Praises of the Ari", written in the 17th century), which collected tales about the alleged supernatural and magical feats of the (real-life) Rabbi Luria, 'proving' his mastery. 
The stories are hagiographic legends — tales about a master that show his great powers. In the corpse-bride narrative, Rabbi Luria confronts the cadaver, who accepts his authority. (Jewish Journal)
Howard Schwartz included his own retelling of this tale in his book Lilith's Cave, and is the first printed version to have a corpse bride instead of a demon who traps the foolish bridegroom.
Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural
selected & retold by Howard Schwartz

Here's an evocative excerpt from a retelling by ProjectShalom2:
... as his friends looked on in amusement, Reuven took off his ring and slipped it on that finger, pronouncing as he did the words Harai at m’kudeshes li-“You are betrothed to me”-three times, as the law requires. But no sooner did he finish speaking than the finger began to twitch, much to the horror of the young men, who jumped back at the sight.

Suddenly the whole hand reached out from the earth, twitching and grasping. And as they stared at it in horror, frozen in place, the ground began to rumble, as if the earth were about to open. Suddenly the body of a woman, wearing a tattered shroud, rose out of the earth, her dead eyes staring directly into those of Reuven, her arms open as she cried out, “My husband!” in a terrible and terrifying voice. 

Image via ProjectShalom2 - artist unknown

In this tale, the bridegroom gets lucky as a Rabbi rules the marriage to be invalid. The animated corpse and almost-bride emits one last shriek collapsing into bone dust for good.
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.
Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride
It was excerpts of this tale, told to Tim Burton by the late executive producer Joe Ranft (also screenwriter, animator, director, storyboard artist, and voice actor) that had Burton decide he wanted to make a family-friendly, fairy tale fantasy. Rather than wallow in the darkness of the tale -which this one has plenty of! - Burton chose to take a gothic-romantic approach and combine it with some enchanting Halloween-like fun, all via the medium of stop-motion animation, which is very well suited to animating the dead. 

The effect is hauntingly magical (in the best sense of the word 'haunt') and is even more fairy-tale-like than the original folktale, or the fairy tale ballet legend Giselle, (which I will get to shortly).
“Bride” revolves around a shy, bumbling groom, Victor, who is practicing the wedding ceremony when he impulsively slides his ring on what he assumes is a stick. The corpse who emerges is not a hideously disintegrating cadaver, but a lovely, if unearthly heroine. “When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik said. The cadaver claims her husband, but does not emit bloodcurdling shrieks or insist upon the consummation of the marriage, like her folk-tale counterpart. Her mild flaws include a tendency toward petulance and an understandable proclivity for dropping a limb or having her eyeball pop out. (summary from Jewish Journal)
She does, however, take Victor down to the Land of the Dead, leaving the naturally confused and bereft fiancee behind. Just like the strongly related Jewish folktale (The Demon in the Tree*), which, from production anecdotes, appears to be part of the inspiration (see notes at end of article), it is the "true bride" - Victor's fiancee - that enables the wronged bride^ to release Victor and eventually find her own release, in an unforgettably lovely scene.

There is also a strong emphasis put on words and vows in the film, or The Power of the Word. In Jewish tales, Jewish magic is created with words. (See Further Reading at the end of the article for more on this.) Victor's words in practicing his vows, though stumbling and not said as a promise to the "root" - actually a finger bone - have the power to animated the dead bride, while in "The Finger", the words reciting the groom's vow - despite being uttered in jest - also have the power to bring a corpse to life. It's an unconscious, but important connection with the roots of the story.
Annemarie Heinrich (1912-2005), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Giselle Connection
It's not difficult to see that these themes are reflected in another mediums, specifically ballet. One of the great classics, Giselle is considered to be a "fairy tale ballet". In the ballet, Giselle, a young naive girl, who loves to dance but has a weak heart, falls in love with a man who betrays her - he's a nobleman in disguise and already promised in marriage, an agreement he has no intention of breaking. Giselle, on finding out, goes mad with grief and becomes heartbroken - literally. Her heart gives out and she dies. In the second act, she is raised from her grave by the Wilis, a 'sisterhood' of vengeful supernatural women, still wearing their unused white wedding dresses (and gifted with 'flight' and little fairy wings). These ghost brides (there is a whole TV Trope on this type of ghost) looking very ethereal and chillingly inhuman, aim to take revenge on the men who betrayed them on or before their wedding day, leading them to an early grave of their own. Giselle, rather than take her revenge, resists the spell of the Wilis and protects the man she still loves by shielding him and helping him survive until morning when the Wilis' power fades. Her love also stops her from becoming a "full Wilis" (and, essentially, a demon). In the end, she passes 'over' to her afterlife, rather than joining the ranks of the Wilis. Love conquers death. 

While there has never been any mention (that I can find) to connect The Corpse Bride with Giselle, there are a lot of shared ideas, as is the atmosphere.
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.
How To Get Out Of Marrying A Demon
You can find a retelling of the Jewish folktale "The Finger" in the book Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of The Supernatural, selected and retold by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 1988), but it is worth noting here, that Schwartz, has assured scholars he is the first translator and writer to use a bride for the story, rather than a demon. It should also be noted that this book includes a second tale, very much like 'The Finger', titled 'The Demon in the Tree'. (A summary* of this fascinating story is included in the notes below this article.) 

In his text, Schwartz traces the roots of the story back to a Hebrew-biblical commentary about Adam's "insubordinate wife", Lilith, who eventually became a seductive demon. Later variations on this Adam-Lilith tale have the man seeking to escape a marriage (of accident or force) to a demon:
“the forced or accidental marriage of a man to a demon; an attempt to be free of unwanted vows and a decision reached by a rabbinical court,” Schwartz wrote in “Lilith’s Cave.” The unearthly characters “perhaps represent the fear of marriage to gentiles and hybrid offspring,” he said. Like the supernatural fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm... the corpse bride of folk tradition also serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the consequences of bad behavior... (and of being careful to not take vows lightly.) (Jewish Journal)
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.

A Bloody Connection With History (& Why We Remember This Tale)

But this tale  - "The Demon in the Tree" - also has a bloody connection to history. The point of the tale appears to be, to remember the anti-Semetic pogroms, carried out in the 1880's-1900's, and the brides that were uniquely targeted during these hideous raids.

pogrom is an organized massacre of an ethnic or religious group. In this case, it was Jews who were slaughtered in the thousands, by Russians who followed the Czar, Alexander III. It was said that during this massacre, wedding carriages and wedding parties were specifically targeted and attacked. Why? Their agenda was to murder the bride, so she could not produce any more Jewish children. Truly horrifying.

In this tale, there is also the very real question of how to deal with grief.

Considering the Corpse Bride in the Jewish folktale "The Finger", is in pain due to her life being lost before she was able to live it, here's a reflective summary, that considers the aspect of grief, from Cherie Dawn Carr aka Pixie Lighthorse:
In... The Corpse Bride, a wrongfully murdered woman comes forth from the grave, wearing a tattered gown on a decaying body, wanting the wedding day she never got to have - she died before she got a chance to. The living bridegroom she desires (who stirred her from her slumber in the unmarked resting place by repeating the wedding vows three times and placing the ring on her protruding finger) is spoken for, but she pursues him anyway. This is because unfulfilled dreams and ungrieved pain can be very powerful motivators. In the end, it is the (living) bride who soothes her restless soul. She is the only one who can. She promises to lay her to rest respectably, shows her compassion and empathy for the wedding day she did not get to have, the children she did not get to birth, the partnership she did not get to enjoy. The bride promises to live a full and robust marriage with all that is in her today, and when the corpse feels heard and seen, honored, the spell is released.
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.
Shroud vs Wedding Dress
There is an English tradition of burying a bride in her wedding dress, if she died very close to the wedding day, and among Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, (which, as we are now well aware are geographically close to Russia, with some overlap between Ukrainian and Russian traditions) young women who died unmarried were, and sometimes still are, also buried in wedding dresses. I am not able to find a similar Jewish custom, especially as traditional Jewish burial rituals are very specific in having everyone be 'equal' at death and must be buried only in a shroud - no special clothing

That this Jewish tradition of equality at death is not represented in Burton's The Corpse Bride, is due to Burton's "artistic license" since the folktale, The Finger, specifically mentions a tattered shroud the almost-bride is wearing as she rises out of the ground. (You can read a detailed note** at the end of the article on Burton's awareness of the cultural origin of this story.)

The image of a corpse in a wedding dress is more easily recognizable as a bride to American and Western audiences than if she wore a culturally correct shroud, and while it probably was not intentional of Burton to actively erase any Jewish connection at the time, it was still his conscious choice to move away from Jewish references. He was, as he said in an interview, trying to make "a universal fairy tale quality", but the result clearly shows a white and Western bias to an idea of a fairy tale, and does indeed result in having an erasing effect.
Tim Burton on The Corpse Bride, from an interview on the press tour

The racial whiteness of the image of a corpse in a wedding dress is further underscored by being placed in a clearly-Victorian setting, and while I understand that this was in order to juxtapose the very gray, living-death-like, stifling world of Victorian control against the ironically free and lively Land of the Dead (which, interesting, Burton specifically mentions he used to reflect cultures which honor the dead, rather than fear of it, such as with the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, though even this design is dominated by Olde World English Pub-type styles, despite the addition of Moroccan motifs!), from a cultural context, this doesn't sit well. In fact, it undermines the very "universal fairy tale quality" Burton says he was aiming for. Burton's idea of "Fairy Tale" appears to be deeply white and Western. My hope is if Burton were creating the film now, he would find a way to better honor this tale's Jewish roots (or someone would insist he did!). While a wedding dress on a corpse is a haunting image, and Burton did a stellar job of making it look "fairy tale" and recognizable, I think he could easily rise to the challenge of depicting a shrouded, Jewish not-quite bride, and not lost an iota of "universal fairy tale quality". It's the cultural blindness of white preference here that unfortunately ages and unsavorily skews this otherwise fabulous - and somewhat feminist - film.

Returning to a Jewish Horror Tale
There is one last connection worth mentioning for anyone looking to really study this and that is the Polish horror movie Demon, released in 2015 (rated R). 

Here is a summary from the New York Times:
“Demon” is based on “Adherence,” by the Polish playwright Piotr Rowicki, but also shares much with “The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds,” by the Russian ethnographer and revolutionary Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport (a.k.a. S. An-ski). Set in an Eastern Europe town, “The Dybbuk” tells of a yeshiva student who uses kabbalistic means to win the woman he loves. Instead, he dies, and his spirit enters her body as a dybbuk — the evil soul of a dead person. (“I’ve returned to my beloved, and I’ll never leave her!”) The realms of the dead and the living are inseparable in this story, where wedding parties dance around a “holy grave” to “cheer and comfort” a couple murdered in a pogrom.

Wikipedia describes the plot, and intention, of the movie this way (below), and I'm including it because it's enlightening in its reflection of the themes and, specifically, the erasure of Jewish culture, which I find to be a satisfying return of motif:

Piotr (Itay Tiran), who has been living and working in England for many years, and Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), a Polish lady, are to be married; they had met only over the Internet, but he knew her brother. Piotr speaks Polish awkwardly, remembering more from his ancestors than from personal experience. He moves into a run-down large rural estate previously owned by Zaneta's grandfather.

While digging in the yard with a backhoe right before the wedding, Piotr finds a skeleton, which at first he keeps quiet about. He is increasingly haunted by the vision of a woman in a wedding dress – Hana. During the wedding reception, this vision draws closer and closer to him, and he has apparent seizures. He is eventually possessed by Hana, the woman in the dress. Zaneta's family is well-to-do, and they want to keep his breakdown quiet from the rest of the wedding guests, so they distract their guests with vodka and loud music while locking Piotr in the basement, first with a doctor, then a priest. Finally, the "teacher" (Wlodzimierz Press, who appears to be the only surviving Jewish resident of the town pre-war), realizes that Piotr is speaking Yiddish and that he is possessed by the spirit of Hana, a lovely Jewish girl he knew before the war who suddenly disappeared.

The film is a re-telling of a classic dybbuk story and also an allegory for Polish-Jewish relations before and after the war. It is implied that Zaneta's grandfather may have gotten rich in part by "possessing" this property once its former Jewish residents were gone.
You can read an interesting review discussing, in particular, the themes of societal erasure, on the Roger Ebert website HERE.
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.

For Contrast, Here's a Jewish Tale of a Corpse Groom
Since I've been discussing imbalances and the importance of cultural context, I thought I would add the bonus of another Jewish folktale called "The Maiden and the Corpse". It has less in common with the 'Grateful Dead' types of tales (ATU505) and more in common with the 'Search for the Lost Husband' tales (ATU 425), as well as a few others in the mix. I am unable to find this tale in any Jewish collection or world tale collections available to me, other than Amy Friedman's Tell Me A Story series, popularized on CD and audiobook. The tale is (supposed to be) on Volume 3 - Women of Wonder. Unfortunately, I do not have either the book or the audio to verify this for myself, at the time of writing this article.

Unlike many other tales of extensive deeds and tasks undertaken while searching for the groom, or contracts involving the dead, there has been no misdeed or mistake made by this girl. She is the good sister who keeps her word and a positive perspective during her trials.

This is how it begins:
Credit: Times Herald-Record
Once upon a time, a poor peasant woman had three daughters. One day the eldest daughter, Raisa, said, "Mother, I'm off to seek my fortune." Her mother baked a cake and cooked a chicken, and handed them to her daughter. "Take half with my blessing," she said, "or the whole with my curse."

Raisa frowned. "The whole is little enough," she said, and off she went. Her mother did not curse her, after all, but she did not give her a blessing either.

Raisa walked until she was hungry, and she sat down to eat. A poor beggar woman came by and asked if she could have a bite or two.

"It's too little even for me," Raisa said, and she ate it all up.

She walked on until she reached an inn where she stopped for the night.

"I'll give you a spade full of gold and a shovel full of silver if you'll watch my son's corpse," said the innkeeper's wife. "He's in the next room."
You can read the tale in full at, HERE.
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.
Is Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride Worth Seeing Then?
Unequivocally yes! It's a beautiful fairy tale film, and, while imperfect, raises a lot of important questions and has a satisfying ending that, on first viewing, isn't apparent you're going to reach. 

If watched with an awareness of Jewish origins and history, and what has resulted in the subtext due to adapting for a Western audience via a white bias, this has an important place in the history of fairy tale films. Highly recommended.

Further Reading & References:

*"The Demon in the Tree" summary via Jewitches: 

(A) young boy who places a ring around the finger of a demon, accidentally. He forces it from his mind, hoping his actions will have no consequences. When he grows up and gets married, his first bride is murdered by the demon as she walks past the tree to their home. The second bride meets this same fate. The third bride, however, is too quick and ducks as
Rusalka - Ivan Bilibin/public domain via Wikimedia Commons
the demon attempts to kill her. A very smart woman, the third wife confronts the husband and he confesses to having married the demon in his youth. The wife decides to make peace with the demoness, bringing her plates of jam and leaving them outside of the tree where the demon resides. The demon returns the plate with a gold coin upon it. They live in peace for some time, but when the wife falls pregnant, she knows the demon wife will not be pleased. She decides to meet with the demoness and they come to the understanding that they will share the husband, with the agreement that the demoness will have the husband for one hour at sunset every night, so long as she leaves the wife and her family alone. Seven years after the agreement is struck, the wife goes to replace the plate of jam and finds on it the wedding ring that her husband had given the demon so many years before, indicating the demon had finally gone.

^ The Wronged Bride
When discussing adaptations of folk and fairy tales it's important to note differences between the originating inspiration (that is, the tale variation used as a source for the adaptation), and the retold version. In this case, not only is it important that the source was Jewish and the adaptation intentionally not reflective of that, but the fact that Burton's
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.
Corpse Bride is a murdered bride where the source female corpse was not murdered but died before she could have the experience of being a bride and wife, is also important. Two aspects (at least) are at work here: one is that Burton took pains to make sure the audience felt sympathy for the monster, which is Emily, a reanimated dead woman, so increased the tragedy of her backstory, and, as a result, wove in a tale of justice for her murderer, and freedom from trauma that continued beyond the grave. Although it seems to make good story sense in trying to humanize what essentially is monstrous, an astute audience should be asking why this Westernized tale needed the woman (Emily) to be murdered to engender sympathy, rather than just the pain of missing out on her dreams of being a wife and a married life. Logic suggests the filmmaker/s believed audiences would have dismissed, possibly even disdained, this sort of pain for a woman. Instead, she had to be murdered and wronged for the audience to equate her desires as important and worthy of consideration. A woman's intense grief at missing out on the life she aimed to have is too easily dismissed. What does that say about our society?
The second aspect is the metaphor of the murdered bride seeking her right to be married and revenge for her betrayal. In Burton's tale, it's clear Victor is struggling with the idea of "with marriage comes death and loss of personal freedom", a common Western male perspective - so common it's joked about in Western pre-wedding rituals. The audience is made to sympathize with Victor's sense of feeling trapped and that any possibilities and dreams for his own life are ending, even more than the tragedy of Emily's murder. Ironically, Victor's fear of the "death of his dreams" is just like the source tale's corpse, and becomes the focus, gaining the audience's sympathy, whereas if Emily had been portrayed as having died more naturally - that is, not murdered - in the circumstance of her dreams being unfulfilled, her rising and insistence on her bride rights per Victor's vow, would seem more akin to her being a Bridezilla than a tragic figure. Again, women's pain, both in unfulfilled dreams and in becoming literal victims, is put secondary to a man's rather than seen as equal and as valid. Even Victoria, whose own situation holds the triple tragedy of her dreams being crushed, a seeming betrayal by Victor, and being pursued as an intended victim of Lord Barkis (a killer a la Bluebeard in the making), does not win the sympathy of audiences until she shows agency and rebelliousness, with no allies and her own murder looming. (Here Atwood's quote 'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.', is directly reflective of the discriminatory sympathy at work here.) As in fairy tales across time, however, it is in learning the story of the woman gone before her - the cautionary fairy tale - that aids Victoria at the crucial moment. The murdered bride is avenged and finally dissolves into freedom from her pain and curse.

** On director Tim Burton's awareness of the Jewish origins of the tale. 

For this note I am referencing two books: Tim Burton's Corpse Bride - An Invitation to the Wedding (which is the beautifully assembled official "making of" book for the movie), and Fairy Tale Films - Visions of Ambiguity, edited by Pauline Greenhill and Sidney Eve Matrix, Chapter 10, "Tim Burton and the Idea of Fairy Tales" by Brian Ray
Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride: An Invitation to the Wedding
In the official "making of" book the origin story of this movie is told like this (excerpts are from pages 17-19): 
The genesis was a 19th-century East European folktale told to Burton by his friend Joe Ranft... "Joe gave me the idea around the time of Nightmare," recalls Burton who had been looking for another project to do in stop-motion, "and it was minimal. There were no characters in it from what I recall, except for the Corpse Bride. It was like a little short story. And even though it was only a couple of paragraphs long, it captured my attention...." The tale concerned a young man traveling home in order to wed his fiancee, When his wedding ring winds up on a rotted finger of a murdered girl, who then returns from the grave and insists she is the man's lawfully wedded wife, he's then forced to journey to the underworld to set things right, while his fiancee remains among the living, pining for his return.
[Ed - Are you getting inverted Persephone vibes here? I sure am!]
While the original folktale had been of Russian origin, Burton didn't want to set Corpse Bride in any particular country. "It was very clear to me that I wanted to keep that fairy-tale aspect," he says. "Even though it's got Victorian elements and a largely British cast, I didn't necessarily want to set it in a specific place."
[Ed - Except that adding the double layer of Victorian elements and British voices did precisely that.]
Then there is the additional information from producer Allison Abbate, who it appears came across a little more research, again via Ranft. The tale she's referencing though, is not The Finger, in which the live bride is pretty much terrified and absent, but The Demon in the Tree, in which the live bride has character and agency. On page 21, she writes:
"I found out later that the original fable really stresses Victoria's point of view and the Corpse Bride is more of a monstrous, villainous character... "I didn't know that until Joe Ranft came to visit us and happened to mention it," she continues. We naturally gravitated to fleshing out Victoria's storyline because she gets the guy in the end. She is, in so many ways, the heroine of the piece... not just the "other woman."
Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity
edited by Pauline Greenhill
& Sidney Eve Matrix
In Fairy Tale Films - Visions of Ambiguity, (scholarly essays and research), chapter 10's essay by Brian Ray includes a detailed section on Burton's The Corpse Bride. In it he includes this note: "Many sources on the Web and in print... have misattributed the source of Burton's film to a vague nineteenth-century retelling of the original version. Jewish folktale expert Howard Schwartz assured me in an email on May 12, 2008, that his short story, "The Finger," in his collection entitled Lilith's Cave, is the first adaptation of the Venus-ring motif [Ed - accidental marriage to a statue] to make the bride a corpse, rather than a demon. He did so "to make it more a tale of terror"
Furthermore, Schwartz's story is the only version that Burton and Warner Bros. officially acknowledge as inspiration." (p213)

On Joe Ranft's Folktale Knowledge and Possible Text or Oral Sources
Clearly, the key source here is Joe Ranft, a gifted and knowledgable animator, and "story guy", widely loved and respected, who passed away in a tragic car accident in 2005. Many have talked about how knowledgeable he was regarding tales and storytelling, though I have never read anything about his personal studies in literature or folklore, apart from a deep appreciation of Robert Bly's book Iron John: A Book About Men (source: Two Guys Named Joe by John Canemaker), which draws on the fairy tale of Iron John and other tales and myths. A colleague of Ranft's, attempting to learn more about this man after hearing so many amazing anecdotes at his funeral, interviewed Su, Ranft's surviving wife, and asked about his faith. I am including it here in case it becomes apparent that his faith, and interest in other cultures and faiths, shed any light on where he learned the tale he told to Burton. Here are her words: “He was raised a pretty strict Catholic in an Irish-German-Czech-Catholic family,” Su said. “And even though he was not a practicing Catholic when we were married, he never had a harsh word to say about it because it made him who he was.
“He did read the Bible, and there were so many things in there that became part of his moral ethic and his interior compass. He was interested in reincarnation and karma, all the different religions; he didn’t just confine himself to Christianity.
The Corpse Bride/ Credit: Warner Bros.Entertainment Inc.


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