By Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund 

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She asked me to name my favorite movie, and I told her the question was too difficult. I knew I was stifling the same answer I’d given for years, but not because it was made five years before she was born. It wasn’t because she might not recognize the title; this teenage girl prided herself on knowing the “cool” and “vintage” things she thought I would like.

She persisted in the way high school students do when they want to up the ante: “If someone put a gun to your head, then.”

“A gun to my head? Well, in that case, Edward Scissorhands.”

Immediately I cringed. I had just admitted to being a sucker. After Hot Topic took over all things Tim Burton in the early 2000s, I began to temper my praise of the decided one-trick pony. The affluent would-be Goths could have him, for all I cared. In college, I shocked my family when I finalized my abandonment and bought a Velvet Underground poster to replace my enormous Edward Scissorhands film print on my bedroom wall.

When the girl asked me why I was so embarrassed about my answer, I couldn’t explain to her all the complexities of feeling betrayed by the commercial success of your own sacred story.

Ad 1After thinking about why this student’s question bothered me for the next three days, I realized that of all the things I couldn’t explain to her that night. I wish I could have said that it was never about subculture or retro Johnny Depp to me. I was too young to understand all that then because I was four in 1991 and living in Blair, Nebraska. That year, we were snowed in due to blizzard conditions on trick-or-treat night when I watched this eerie movie for the first time.

It wasn’t until years later that I knew why I was never afraid of Depp’s Robert Smith-inspired mop and bondage outfit as a preschooler. The tragic hero of Edward Scissorhands taught me about human cruelty and rejecting the weirdo, but something else seemed familiar about it.  At the time, I didn’t know a lot of stories, so I couldn’t compare it to Frankenstein. That is why I related it to one of the stories I did know at the time. Whenever I sat on my father’s lap, he told me about Jesus and my mother listened to Rich Mullins tapes in our car. Although I’d heard a lot about Jesus from my parents (and Rich Mullins), Jesus was still God and therefore less accessible than fairytale protagonists or heroes. When I saw Edward’s story, however, I could explore the importance of suffering.

When I think of my childhood, I don’t remember being happy as much as feeling lonely. Even at four when I was curled up in the basement eating my mother’s homemade candy apples, the combined themes of isolation and wonderment resonated with me. For the first time, I cried during a movie. I hid behind my father’s big brown Lay-Z-Boy recliner and wept as quietly as possible when the beneficent police officer fired some shots into the air to scatter the angry townspeople who were ready to storm the old mansion. I wondered how they all could be so mean to him, and I cared because though I didn’t have the words, I thought I knew what it meant to be impossibly alone.

Edward Scissorhands demonstrated the human suffering of Christ better than any Sunday School lesson I ever learned because it aroused compassion when I was looking for some for myself. Had I never identified my own loneliness through a figure outside myself, I don’t know if I could have wept over Christ’s.

Over the years, I was drawn to the film because it made me feel sad, clean, and pretty all at the same time. It was like closing my eyes while lying in a night’s deep snow, still feeling safe. That’s why I watched the movie whenever it played on TV or whenever a friend suggested it.

Ad 2By the time I reached my sophomore year of high school, I had progressed in my aesthetic analysis, as I was transitioning from projecting myself onto characters and beginning to look for archetypes and tropes. It was then that I first entertained the notion that Edward may have been far more like Christ than I was. On one of the days I stayed home “sick” from school, I opened our family’s trove of VHS tapes that my dad had recorded from television. He kept them all catalogued in a floppy black binder. Edward Scissorhands was taped on number 114 and the tracking on it was terrible.

That day I took notes throughout the movie, trying to figure out why it meant so much to me. Looking past Edward’s fallibility, I saw his being refused and banished from the world of men as completely undeserved. He seemed too good for opportunistic suburbanites who had to gentrify him in order to stand being near him.

Still, Burton never intended Edward for a Christ figure: he was to embody the kindhearted outcast. Burton has admitted that Edward Scissorhands is by far one of his most “personal” films because it expresses the depth of his own separation and his desire for intimacy during high school. That’s exactly why the film became so popular with people like me. Burton, as alone as he may have felt, lived through the same hellish teenage years most Westerners face, full of awkwardness and unnecessary loneliness.

Edward’s topiaries, if I am to guess, express Burton’s own creative genius that was perceived as too strange for the general population. As predicted by the film, it has since been praised and embraced by a sizable group of people. To compare Burton to Edward, and then directly go from Edward to God, will undoubtedly fall apart because God simply doesn’t do camp—that is all Burton. Edward, as a character distanced from his creator, however, is an artist whose person expands with his impact, from cutting his own imaginative fancy into shrubbery to actualizing people.

In the bushes-turned-dinosaurs, Edward uses the stuff of the earth to manifest wonderful and awful expressions of himself. When Edward shapes topiaries and custom-cuts the hair of the town women, he animates the shrubbery and draws out each woman’s personality. His job is like the inventor’s, but instead of building, he awakens things. He knows the possibilities and purposes of things and makes them more of what they are as he blesses them.

Moreover, when he’s called again and again to touch up lawns or haircuts, he never asks for compensation. By the end of the film, the people who never paid him anything of value, run him to their neighborhood limits to kill him.

If that isn’t reminiscent of Christ, I don’t know what is.

Ad 3Siskel and Ebert dismissed the film for being painfully simplistic and predictable, and they were right. It’s easy to pity Edward: he was sexually harassed, overworked, underpaid, pitiful and pale. After Peg introduces him to the town, he is viewed as a commodifiable curiosity, and later, a loathsome monster-man whose existence only reminds those around him that life isn’t simple. With a classically star-crossed love affair thrown into the mix, Mr. Scissorhands can’t catch a break.

When Burton separates Edward from the rest of the world he restores him to his earlier isolation and ends the film with a lamentable and glorious end. Edward’s misfortune is nonetheless sorrowful, but the shavings from the ageless sufferer’s ice carvings provide the stuff of myth-making.

Nevertheless, I still treasure the story of Edward Scissorhands. I still cry every time I watch the movie because of that unbearable otherness Edward faces when his sharp hands keep him from experiencing the warmth and safety of embracing someone he loves. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I think I’ve known it too; but when I’m not, I remember that other terribly ageless figure of whom Edward first reminded me.

Growing up, I split my time between Catholic school and the Brethren Church. One afternoon in a Wednesday mass, I realized that my Sunday church didn’t have a dying Jesus on the cross like the one above the altar behind the priest. When I asked my dad about it, he told me it was because Jesus didn’t stay on the cross and that empty crosses told the whole story a bit better than the gruesome, sad one at St. Ed’s. (He wasn’t the parent who grew up Catholic.) I didn’t disagree with him because what he said seemed to make sense, but I could never get over feeling so complicit whenever I passed by the crucifix. Seeing it felt too personal and embarrassing. He was emaciated, nearly naked in his dirty white loincloth, bleeding, and his head was bowed. Once when I had to retrieve a jacket I’d left in the sanctuary at school, I was afraid to be left alone with Him.

On that crucifix, Christ threatened me. He was neither novelty nor legend—He was so profoundly pathetic, and I didn’t want to look.

Ad 4Reflecting on the moments when I have wished that I could ignore it, I know Christ’s story is so much more awful. Unlike Edward, Jesus wasn’t created. His Dad wasn’t dead—He just had to turn away from His son at the most crucial time in His life on earth because He chose to be detestable. Instead of being brought down like an unassuming toddler, He chose to go down to die for a bunch of people who would never even care to know a thing about him. Moreover, although he was treated like a freak, he was far from incomplete. On the contrary, He was the most finished human ever born, sharpening the contrast of His perfect divinity and humanity and our mixed up temporality.

Edward Scissorhands isn’t a Christ figure, but I’ve learned a lot about Him from the movie. Perhaps there is no better place to consider than when Peg Boggs cradles her daughter Kim in one of the last scenes of the film, telling her that the world wasn’t “ready” for Edward. In the scene, Peg regrets having to deal with the changes he brought to the neighborhood, but when he retreats, things could mostly return to normal. Sometimes I wonder if God ever wrung His hands, regretting sending Christ because so few seemed “ready” to receive Him.

No one ever went to get Christ, and He knew that the world wasn’t and will never be ready for Him. With every intention of wooing His bride, He never stumbles into Love. His deformity is His perfection, so alien to our wasted state. When He left Earth, His death wasn’t His cover-up to keep him at a safe distance to live forever brooding in his creative reservation. Christ’s physical death and resurrection proves that the separation from the lover and the beloved is merely optional.

Acknowledging these differences reminds me of how ludicrous it is to try to make Christ figures out of tragic heroes, lonely monsters, and misfits. Without the earthly means to interpret the human suffering of Christ, people run the risk of reducing Him to the shiny baby at Christmas, a felt board character, a personal Jiminy Cricket, or one more guy with impossible expectations. Yet by identifying with my first tragic hero in this cult classic, I began to contemplate how absurd and alone my savior has to Be in order to love me.

Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund teaches English as a foreign language in the DFW area and writes when she can. She received her MA in English from Baylor University, with a concentration in 19th Century American literature. Before moving to Texas, Haglund (nee Ditlevson) worked as a journalist in northeast Ohio. She is co-founder of the creative cooperative  Present Ghost, a blog of creative writing and music at presentghost.com

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.