Secret Doors to Peculiar Worlds

It’s October, and at this, the Halloweeniest of times, my mind reliably turns to Tim Burton. It will be an especially Tim Burton Halloween for us this year because my son has decided he wants to dress up as one of the gorgon twins from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. He actually wanted to be Millard, the invisible boy, but we couldn’t figure out a way to execute it that he was happy with so he’ll have to settle for turning everyone to stone.  

Oddly, I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about why I love Tim Burton’s films so much, perhaps because it seems obvious. They’re about spooky things, freaks and misfits, portrayed with an empathy and aesthetic sensibility that appeal to me in equal measures. Beetlejuice was one of my early favorites, where spooky Lydia and her parents end up living as a happy family in the microcosm of their new house with the ghosts of the previous owners, unbeknownst to the outside world. But watching Miss Peregrine, I realize it’s also because he creates ways for his characters to live in their own world rather than having to find a way to fit themselves into society. 

It’s not the most common theme. So many stories inevitably end with leaving Neverland, but what if Neverland is actually where you want to live? What if you don’t belong in the really real world? Leaving Neverland is so often associated with the concept of “growing up” and taking responsibility, but it’s always seemed to me that it’s perfectly possible to be a decent, responsible person without accepting society’s definition of adulthood or living in the world the way other people might expect you to.

I know people who say they don’t feel like adults. I’ve looked at other adults and pondered what it means that I can’t relate to how they live in the world, but I don’t feel like that’s about not being an adult. I’m the kind of adult who has watched every episode of Adventure Time and buys a box of Count Chocula every year at Halloween. I take care of all the things I’m accountable to the people around me for, I’d just rather play with the kids and their Lego minifigs than talk about wine and mortgages and vacation spots.  What I’ve realized is that when I go to social events, or work, or to do official things, I feel like I have to put on my human suit to interact with the people. It’s such a relief when I meet someone who doesn’t require the human suit.

All of this is to say that of course I relate to the creatures and monsters and misfit toys who choose, or are forced, to live apart from the world. And it’s also natural to me that I would gravitate towards stories in which they find a genuine place in the world, or at least don’t have to change themselves to survive. There’s almost always sacrifice involved, of course, but any choice precludes others and in the end it comes down to choosing the thing you value the most. Sometimes that means creating a space to be something other than what is expected of you, even if it means that you’ll never lead a normal life. Whatever that is.

So it is with Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children. They are all quite peculiar, some more visibly than others, but there is clearly no way that the boy full of bees or the perpetually shrouded gorgons will ever be able to live in the world at large. Thus peculiar adults like Miss Peregrine create time loops for the children to live in, a single endlessly repeating day in which they remain forever young but also forever themselves. The central character, Jake, has grown up in the outside world with no idea he was peculiar and could easily go back to it. That’s what his grandfather did many years ago, and given the chance to see his grandfather alive again, Jake does go home. His grandfather knows the cost of that choice though. He gives Jake the gift of his own road not taken in the form of a map of time loops and money in every currency he’ll need to search the world for his peculiar friends and live with them in their loop.

A different, much sadder vision of finding a safe place out of time where you can be yourself, is Edward Scissorhands. Edward was created and raised by an inventor in an old house, away from everyone who might misunderstand his goth looks or lethal fingers and eventually chase him with pitchforks. After his inventor-father dies he learns that fitting into society isn’t a realistic option and returns to his creepy old house on the hill, but his own world is a lonely place with just him inside it, never growing old. The scene at the end where he causes snow to drift down onto the town as he uses his scissor hands to carve ice sculptures of the people he knew and the girl he loved decades ago almost makes it seem like he’s living in a snow globe.  

I always feel like a door to another world should be a wonderful discovery for a child who feels like they don’t belong, but Coraline focuses on the dangers of stepping into another reality. Coraline goes through a door into the Other World, where her button-eyed parents initially pay her much more attention than her real parents until her Other Mother turns out to be a terrifying, soul-eating creature who traps children there by sewing buttons over their eyes. It reminds me of Miss Peregrine’s Home, where creepy nightmare creatures called Hollows hunt peculiar children and bring their eyes to the villain so he can consume them and grow his own powers. It also makes me think of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children book series, where certain children who are so inclined find portals to other worlds that they may be better suited for than their own.

The catch with the doors in Wayward Children in is that not all of the worlds are safe or pleasant. They are categorized into four major alignments, compared to the cardinal directions on a compass – Nonsense, Logic, Wickedness, and Virtue – and within those there are subdivisions and gradations. For instance, a High Logic world would have no exceptions to the rules and leave nothing unexplained, whereas a High Nonsense world would be essentially chaos where reality was constantly being redefined by everyone’s wishes. Neverland is a much less extreme example of a Nonsense World, where wishes can come true but cause and effect are still in operation. Often the children find that the world speaks to who they are in a fundamental way and decide to stay forever, but If they choose to leave or are kicked out for failing to abide by the rules, the door to that world may never open for them again. Kids who come home but can no longer cope with their lives or get over the longing to return to their other worlds end up at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children. Much like Miss Peregrine, Eleanor West was, herself, one of those children and has taken it upon herself to protect others like her and create a world where they don’t have to pretend to be anything else.  

The happiest Tim Burton film of all for me though, and one of my favorite stories of doors to other worlds, has always been The Nightmare Before Christmas. All of the Halloweeny creatures live in Halloween Town behind the door with the jack-o-lantern, and the Christmasy creatures live in Christmas Town behind the door with the festive tree. It’s all very clearly labelled, and aside from Jack Skellington’s midlife crisis. where he jacks Santa Claus’ ride to try out a new career path, he and all of his fellow creepy creatures are able to live happily together exactly as they are in a world where they belong.

I do have to admit that I’ve always wondered what, exactly, one would find behind the Thanksgiving Turkey door given the bleak history behind that particular holiday and how not fun it is for turkeys. Perhaps it’s a terrifying nonsense world built around turkey dreams. Probably best not to open it.


It’s possible that alex MacFadyen has been called peculiar on more than one occasion.

3 replies »

  1. This is a lovely, thoughtful piece and I very much would like to live a life in a world where I don’t have to put on my human suit. Tangentially, I am absolutely positive that Gir would open the Turkey Door.


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