This blog post is written in collaboration with Black content creator Willa, whose work seeks to unpack the social conditions that affect our lived experiences.
Jewish legends are, well, legendary. They are filled with mystery, magic, fascinating creatures, wild adventures, and dazzling heroes. But if you ask most people, even most Jews, they may be largely unfamiliar with Jewish folktales outside of the Bible or Fiddler on the Roof. That is until you unravel the way in which Jewish folklore has been commodified and removed from its Jewish roots in order to be suitable for a non-Jewish audience.
This phenomenon is not new and not singular to Jews–not in the slightest. Cultural stories, and so much more, are routinely co-opted and commodified, erasing the culture, religion, and heritage of the original storytellers in order to make the story palatable for audiences outside of the original group. Sometimes so egregiously or viciously that it is largely unrecognizable to those who aren’t intimately familiar enough to spot it.
One such story is, allegedly, The Corpse Bride.
A “2005 stop-motion animated musical dark fantasy film directed by Mike Johnson and Tim Burton with a screenplay by John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler based on characters created by Burton and Carlos Grangel”, the movie was a massive success–with a star-studded cast and a cult following³. But most people don’t know that the movie is allegedly based on the Jewish fairytale known now as The Finger. Legendary Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz published a collection of Jewish folktales in the 1980s, Lilith’s Cave, and then later as a paperback in the 90s, and included in that book is the tale titled The Finger. Also included is a story called The Demon in The Tree, both stories bearing a resemblance to the story that would reach the big screen as The Corpse Bride to varying degrees. The concept for the film originated when an executive producer introduced Burton to these works.
The Finger is based on the writing Shivhei ha-Ari, which documented stories of Rabbi Isaac Luria, “The legends and stories contained in the book are mainly based on the letters sent by Shlomo Meinsterl in the beginning of the seventeenth century from Palestine abroad. In these letters Meinsterl related what he had heard of the greatness of the Ari. At first the letters were published together with other books but later different editors had added new stories, and they appeared as separate books….It was published in various versions and languages. Editions appeared in Ladino, Arabic and Yiddish. Many versions of the book still preserved, hail from many countries including Yemen and Persia.”¹
The Finger follows the tale of a young man, who, the night before his wedding, goes on a stroll with his best friends. Under the full moon, they find a shallow grave where they can see a finger. Reuven, the groom-to-be, is goaded into placing his wedding ring upon the finger of the corpse as it protrudes from the earth. He recites the marriage vows three times, as is custom: “Harai at m’kudeshes li-” , “you are betrothed to me”, but as soon as he finishes reciting these words, the corpse comes to life, clawing her way to the surface. She screamed “my husband!” as she gazed upon Reuven, but he and his friends were already running terror and fear. They locked themselves in their homes, terrified. The next day, the morning of the wedding, Reuven goes to the mikveh (ritual bath) to prepare as normal, in the hopes that nothing will come of the night before. At the ceremony, as the Rabbi is about the pronounce the vows, the corpse arrives, shrieking in her worm-eaten shroud. Everyone but Reuven and the Rabbi flees. The rabbi inquires of the woman and she tells him what has happened. Reuven confirms that he placed the ring upon her finger, said the vows thrice, and did so before two witnesses, in accordance with Jewish law. A rabbinic court, a Beit Din, is convened. The families of the betrothed testified that the true bride and groom had been betrothed, not the groom and the corpse. Reuven also testified that it had been in jest, not a true wedding. The corpse testifies that he is her true husband, as she had never been married in life and had been denied this joy. At the end of this grueling case, the Rabbi declared that while the marriage had taken place, due to Jewish law, the following must be taken into consideration: as he had been previously betrothed, his second vow could not negate the first. Secondly, it had not been on purpose. And thirdly, there was no precedent for a living person to marry a corpse. Therefore, the marriage was annulled. Upon hearing this, the corpse bride wailed and shrieked, falling to the earth, returning once again still and deceased. The corpse was properly buried, far beneath the earth so nothing so tragic could ever take place again and her parents called upon to give her a proper ceremony. After this, Reuven and his bride were married.
The 'life' and subsequent second death of the corpse bride is dependant upon Jewish law and mythology: it is with the Jewish marriage oath that she is animated and with the Jewish courts ruling that she is returned to the arms of death.
The secondary story, also featured within Lilith’s Cave, is The Demon in the Tree, which features 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 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.
Here we witness the Jewish mythological understanding of demons and their ability to reason, marry, and act. We also read of a classic Jewish trope of reasoning and attempting to outwit a foe rather than using brute force to overcome.
However, Tim Burton would convince you that the story he heard of (allegedly from within Lilith’s Cave) isn’t actually Jewish–in fact, he doesn't even know the origin. In their 2018 YouTube video, Jewish Erasure in Tim Burton Films, channel The Princess and the Scrivener plays a clip of Burton stating, “Joe had heard a little story, like a paragraph, which was an excerpt from an old fable–I don’t even know from what country it came, my recollection is that it didn’t have a specific place of origin. [I] Wasn't really interested in what the real ethnic origins of the tale were, because the thing that got me was the fable aspect of it”⁹.
The “Joe” that he is referencing is Joe Ranft, the late executive producer to whom the film is dedicated. Pfefferman cites, “Burton got the idea for the movie when his late executive producer, Joe Ranft, brought him excerpts from the 16th-century legend.” Tragically, Ranft was devastatingly killed in a car accident during production, and with Burton’s consistent obfuscation of where he got the story, we may never be granted the truth.
“I definitely didn’t want to root [Corpse Bride] in a specific place, and wasn’t really interested in what real ethnic origins of the tale were, because the thing that got me was the fable aspect of it”⁹.
If one checks Wikipedia, they will see a reference to a 19th-century Russian folktale that claims to be the basis for the film. However, The Princess and the Scrivener traces this claim to a Tim Burton fan website called The Burton Collective. The version of the folktale they portray on their website is without an author, citation, provenance, or evidence of where the story originates. But, and this is the important thing: it is still Jewish.
The tale, vitally, is a Russian-Jewish folktale featuring a decidedly Jewish narrative and a rabbi. It also specifically makes note of antisemitic pogroms that would take place at the time, wherein Jewish brides were viciously attacked and murdered by antisemites on their wedding day, buried in shallow graves while still in their wedding attire. Due to the pervasive nature of this idea, even articles that attempt to recognize the Jewish story behind the Corpse Bride accidentally end up conflating multiple tales, like this MentalFloss article which claims that The Finger is the Russian folk tale and took place in Russia, despite Shwartz's clear provenance of Palestine. So whether you believe that he allegedly stole from a 16th-century or 19th-century Jewish folktale, it would appear that it is consistently taken from a Jewish foundation, no matter which era or location you choose.
Screencap obtained via the The Princess and the Scrivener video cited.
But as many of Burton’s defenders have readily argued, how can we possibly know if he meant to take from Jewish culture? What if this is just a coincidence? According to journalist Naomi Pfefferman, who covered this story in 2005 for the Jewish News of Northern California, the co-screenwriter John August has this to say, “The characters are non-Jewish, he added, “because Tim gravitates toward universal, fairy-tale qualities in his films.”²
He also addresses some of the changes that were made to the story: “We wanted to make a version that wasn’t so disturbing that you couldn’t put it in a family movie,” seemingly referencing scenes in the original stories from Lilith’s Cave that would not have suited Burton’s “universal” audience.
Why would the co-screenwriter even bother to address such a point if it were not the basis for the story? He is in discussion with a Jewish journalist for a Jewish publication–talking about the changes that were made to make a Jewish story palatable to a non-Jewish audience. Tim Burton, of course, cares not for the people he takes from because he wants his films to be “universal”--he states so blatantly that he cares not for the ethnic origins of the tale. According to all available sources, he is not Jewish but “grew up in a Protestant household, but no longer has any attachment to religion.”⁸
The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it also suggests that people from around the globe cannot enjoy Jewish folklore: that is wrong. Clearly, Jewish folklore is worthy of enjoyment, praise, and accolades. It is worth being enjoyed. We have examples of Jewish stories that have been successful, wonderfully and magically so. You do not need to cut us from our own stories in order to wash away the Jewishness in order to make them palatable for non-Jews. The idea that non-Jews cannot consume Jewish stories with a voracious appetite is to demonize and disparage the Jewish stories that give you the ground on which you stand. The idea that only white Christianity is “universal” is abhorrent.
Fairy tales include a semi-aspirational aspect to them; creating a dreamlike, magical fantasy that exists just outside of the realm of reality, in order to create something that the public watches with an air of longing. Even Burton’s macabre version of fairy tales are not without this feature. The idea that in order to create something with this energy, this perception of aspiration, desire, and ‘universality’ you must wash away all Jewishness and in its place pencil in white Christianity is to enforce the notion that the only desirable, worthy, and universal stories are white and Christian.
We must contend with the fact that this is a blatant lie. Not only is the promotion of these stories as the only aspirational stories a facet of upholding white supremacy, Tim Burton does not, and never has, told “universal stories” in a way that would be somehow harmed by including Jews in the plot. The only “universal” aspect to stories, in some opinions, are shared human experiences—birth, death, love, loss, etc–but the adornment of those stories are not universal. Burton tells almost exclusively white Christian stories in Europe and America. His Corpse Bride takes a fairytale from either 16th century Palestine, 16th century Germany, or 19th century Russia and transports it to Victorian England—because the experiences of white, Christian Victorian English characters are more wondrous to him. Burton’s most famous other works include The Nightmare Before Christmas; a decidedly not universal story that centers wholeheartedly around Christianity. You cannot have Christmas without Christ.
The Corpse Bride itself features a priest. It allegedly takes a Jewish story—whose Jewishness is both its center and its supposed crime–and adds Christian elements, perpetuating the ever-present Christian narrative that Christianity will continually and forever supersede Judaism, replacing us forever, even within our own unique narratives. It is a small detail–but one that is indicative of the wider cultural understanding of Christianity and Judaism’s relationship, intentional on the behalf of Burton and production or much more likely not.
Fans of the film greatly rebuffed the idea when it was presented to them, time and time again. It was covered in 2005 when it was released, but over the years there have been dozens of articles, blog posts, tweets, videos, and more on the topic–each providing layered insight into the harm caused by its erasure. One important point is that this is not the end of the world, nor is it a capital offense. We can analyze and acknowledge harm without pretending that it is the most egregious harm to have ever been perpetuated. The idea that something must be a capital offense to be worthy of offense ignores the systems in place that make such offenses possible.
One common argument is that “this is how stories have always been adapted across cultures!” and there are numerous problems with this argument. Presuppose that this is how stories have always been shared, which it has not, that argument would not make something acceptable or moral. The fallacy that something is permissible due to its long-standing nature is just that: a fallacy.
The idea that this particular order of events is the ‘natural evolution' of art is also a fallacy. We live in a time of extraordinary access: you can give credit to the cultures from whom you blatantly take stories. This is not, as some people have asserted, the same as travelers of the early medieval period bringing home with them stories and those stories being molded to fit the culture that exists in their own countries. The very idea that these are the same fails to acknowledge the material changes in society and access to cultures around the world. Burton’s film was set for theatrical release in theatres around the globe: not on a tiny stage in a town in England without access to the outside world. Were it not for the access of the modern era, Burton would have never been presented with the collection of Jewish fairytales that would allegedly be stripped down in order to become the Corpse Bride.
And this is not the only Jewish story given a Burton-makeover and somehow coming out the other end far less Jewish than it began. His 2016 film version of a book by the same name, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, takes a story about the grandchild of the survivor of the Holocaust and removes a great deal of what made the book so special. “Jacob witnesses his grandfather’s murder–ostensibly by a half-human beast–and discovers that the photos might not have been fakes at all. Because he was Jewish, Abe Portman was hunted by the Nazis. And because he was born with special powers (in the book’s parlance, “peculiars“), he was hunted by ghostlike beings.”⁵ The same The Princess and the Scrivener video mentions that the movie never mentions the words Jew, Jewish, Nazi, World War II, or Holocaust, despite each of those words being necessary to the book's plot–though, a swastika is shown once, as well as a single solitary mention of ‘Germans’. There are far more in-depth reviews that discuss the lightening and erasing of the Jewish aspects of the story, but to quote, ‘My own takeaway was this: it really would have been better with the Jewishness left in. Would it have fixed the film? Probably not. But it might have helped.” ⁶
But Burton’s alleged collaboration in co-opting Jewish stories for profit are not alone in his horrific actions. We cannot discuss Burton without discussing his egregiously racist history, though this is not an all-encompassing discussion of his alleged behaviour.
Where there is one expression of bigotry, there is often another. This is very much the case with Tim Burton. In concert with the erasure of Jewish identity from his worlds, Burton also sees little place for people of color in his so-called vision. Regarding discussion of the overwhelming whiteness of his films, Burton comments, “things either call for [ethnic diversity] or they don’t.” This is a curious sentiment from him, considering his alleged commitment to telling universal stories. Are people of color not a part of this universe? Do they not deserve to be seen as heroes in these fantastical tales? Not according to Tim Burton. He does, however, think them good enough to be included as villains. Both Oogie Boogie of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Barron in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children are portrayed by Black men. The actors, Ken Page and Samuel L. Jackson respectively, are incredible performers and shine in their roles, but it’s hard to be truly thrilled when you consider the way those characters were written.
Oogie Boogie is an anthropomorphized bag of bugs with a head that’s shaped eerily like a Ku Klux Klan mask, who loves to gamble and is evocative of “New Orleans” and the Westernized, commercialized aesthetics of Voodoo. For example, Oogie Boogie’s Song sees him bathed in a sickly green glow while he torments the innocent figure of Santa Claus, who radiates a pure blue light. As the personification of rot, bugs spill out of Oogie’s cracks and crevices. Surrounded by shambling skeletons, he dances across a spookily decorated roulette wheel and sings an ominous, jazzy tune intended to unsettle the audience. It’s an evocative sequence and it toes the line of being both entertaining for its showmanship and concerning for its racial undertones.
Consider that one of the movie’s screenwriters, Caroline Thompson, had issues with Oogie Boogie’s portrayal and actually confronted Tim Burton with her concerns. She too believed Oogie’s shape was reminiscent of the Klan’s infamous garb and found the name itself offensive. She said, “First of all, he looks like a Klu Klux Klansman. Secondly, 'Oogie Boogie' is an old, southern, derogatory phrase for an African-American and I'm from Maryland, which is just on the cusp of the south, so I'm hyper-aware of that and sensitive to it.”¹⁰
When she made Burton aware of her concerns, he brushed her off as “being oversensitive”. Thompson stood by her word and insisted that Oogie Boogie’s portrayal was “a fun segment of the story as it was executed, but … a troubling one.” Fun but troubling is actually quite an apt description of most of Burton’s work. While he actively ignores efforts to approach subject matter with some consciousness of the world outside of his all-white fantasies, other people are seeing the writing on the wall. ¹⁰
Much of the concern with Oogie Boogie is about implication and the connections people make due to cultural biases. What are you saying when the only prominent Black voice is that of a villain? And when that villain is subtly associated with predominantly Black spiritual practices which are already demonized, what negative frameworks are you building for an impressionable audience? The Nightmare Before Christmas is a children’s movie, after all.
The issues with Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are far louder than that of Oogie Boogie’s. Jackson was the first Black actor to play a lead in a Burton film. Considering that the film came out in 2016, and Burton’s rise to prominence happened in the early 90s, it’s clear he has an incredibly poor track record with even casting actors of color. Barron, Jackson’s character, proves that simple inclusion is not enough.
As mentioned above, the specifically Jewish nature of Miss Peregrine's was totally erased in favor of those elusive universal stories Burton claims he likes to tell. In this erasure, Barron and his accomplices replace the book’s monsters, which parallel Nazis. Using a Black character as the replacement for this specific kind of evil is a fundamental betrayal of the book’s message and makes the narrative unrecognizable for what it is: a condemnation of antisemitism. Part of the problem with this erasure (in addition to the way it disrespects Jewish people’s experiences) is that there was clearly no consideration for the implications that come with a Black actor donning the mantle of “monster”. Barron is a shapeshifter that consumes human flesh for power and inserts himself into the lives of the protagonists by shifting to appear as white people. Historical legal constructs like the ‘one drop rule’ - the notion that even a single drop of “black blood” was enough to taint a bloodline - have spoken to a deep white supremacist anxiety that Black people would infiltrate white spaces for over a hundred years. Additionally, visions of Black people as animalistic and depraved have permeated American culture since its inception.
Whether Burton and the team meant for the character to be perceived that way, this is the tradition he falls in line with. A thorough interrogation of his own values and cultural perceptions of Black people may have led Burton to make different, better choices. But, over the years, he’s made it abundantly clear that he believes himself to be above reproach. Considering the popularity of his films and the man himself, Burton’s influence on peoples’ consciousnesses is undeniable. It is precisely because of this impact that the bigotry in his works needs to be unpacked with honesty.
There’s no need to feel badly for finding his movies entertaining - they’re literally designed to be - but parts of those designs cause real harm. These things can all be true at once. Critically consuming content is vital.
This blog post is written in collaboration with Black content creator Willa, whose work focuses on seeking to unpack the social conditions that affect our lived experiences.
Alison McMahan (2005). "The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Contemporary Hollywood". p.27. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005