With Tim Burton’s spooky new series about Wednesday Addams hitting Netflix this November, we thought it would be fun to explore the origins, screen adaptations, and enduring appeal of America’s favourite Gothic family, the Addams.
Why do tales of a quirky family of outsiders continue to captivate audiences 80 years after their introduction? Let’s find out.
'The Addams Family' did not start as a television show, but as a New Yorker cartoon. Their creator, Charles Addams, was an American artist and cartoonist. He was fascinated by the more macabre parts of life, spending a lot of time in a Westfield cemetery as a child imaging what it would be like to be dead (didn’t we all, Charles?). He was always a good drawer, his style ghoulish but delightful, and he was encouraged throughout his childhood to practice his skills by his father. Charles went on to study at Colgate University (1929-1930), University of Pennsylvania (1930-1931), and Grand Central School of Art in New York (1931-1932).
His love for the macabre increased as he entered adulthood and the working world. His first job was for True Detective magazine as a member of the layout department. His main responsibility was to remove the blood from photos of corpses featured in the magazine, which frustrated him. He once argued that ‘a lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were’. Keen to continue improving his own artistry, Charles submitted a humorous sketch of a window washer to the New Yorker in 1932 and it quickly became a regular series, running until 1937.
Charles introduced the world to the Addams Family in 1938. It was meant to be a one-off, satirical gag showing a typical US salesman trying to sell a hoover to a gothic woman, but the New Yorker loved it and wanted more. Published in a one-panel gag format, the Addams Family were a wealthy family of aristocratic but delectable weirdos, the ultimate subversive version of the ideal American family. In stark contrast to the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’, prim and proper, traditional family image being pushed by the US government in a bid to improve the country’s psyche during the Great Depression, the Addams' embraced seemingly grotesque interests, delighting in activities other people found frightening or odd, either not caring what people thought of them or being genuinely unaware that anything about their behaviour was unusual.
They lived in a Victorian-style mansion overlooking a cemetery, something not considered traditionally American at the time at all. The humour was satirical, ghoulish (some of the best body horror comedy comes from the Addams Family), and charmingly spooky.
‘Gomez and Pugsley are enthusiastic. Morticia is even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly. Grandma Frump is foolishly good-natured. Wednesday is her mother's daughter. A closely-knit family, the real head being Morticia—although each of the others is a definite character—except for Grandma, who is easily led. Many of the troubles they have as a family are due to Grandma's fumbling, weak character. The house is a wreck, of course, but this is a house-proud family just the same and every trap door is in good repair. Money is no problem’ — Charles Addams
The Addams Family were an instant hit, earning Charles a permanent place with the New Yorker. He published over 1,300 cartoons for them, 58 of which featured the Addams'. Readers adored them for their dark humour but kind souls: despite how they may appear on the outside, the Addams Family are not bad people. Gomez and Morticia are exceptionally supportive parents who are not only madly in love but publicly and passionately affectionate with each other, they care deeply for their extended family, they are welcoming of guests and often donate substantial amounts to charity, and they never judge. In a word, they’re wholesome.
The Addams Family on Screen: Television and the 1960s
American television of the late 1950s and early 1960s was dominated by sitcoms featuring the ‘ideal American family’: 'I Love Lucy', 'The Dick Van Dyke Show', T'he Honeymooners', T'he Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet', T'he Donna Reed Show', 'Leave it to Beaver', you name it. These shows sought to reinforce the perceived normality of the traditional nuclear family in post-war America. These families often lived in middle-class suburbs, featured a husband, wife, and two or three children, prescribed to traditional domestic gender roles (husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker), and insinuated that anything beyond a peck on the cheek was immoral (couples even had separate beds).
American television was crying out for something different, something subversive that would stand out from the crowd and let people indulge in fantasy. Enter The Addams Family (and The Munsters, but we’ll get to them another time).
There seems to be some fictionalizing of fact and lore regarding the Addams Family television show, but we know for sure that David Levy, a TV producer, wanted to create a new show and approached Charles Addams: he wanted to use Charles’ cartoon as the basis for the show and wanted Charles to give his characters names and flesh out their personalities.
Explaining his premise for the show in 1964, Levy said: ‘we have made [the family] full-bodied people, not monsters…they are not grotesque and hideous manifestations. At the same time, we are protecting the images of [Charles] Addams' 'children', as he refers to them. We are living up to the spirit of his cartoons. He is more than just a cartoonist. He's a social commentator and a great wit’.
The TV show, at its core, was a comedy. The series producer, Nat Perrin, was a close friend of the Marx Brothers, a family comedy act famous for their vaudeville approach to humour, and incorporated their screwball, slapstick, wordplay, and satire sensibilities into the show. Most of the humour comes from the running gag that what the Addams find endearing and normal is strange to others; their clothing, their gothic interior design (almost like a macabre museum), their hobbies/interests, and even their food (like toadstools and hemlock). But despite their seeming oddness and culture clash with their neighbours and acquaintances, the family are kind, courteous, and sincere. They may be the ‘weirdos’, but they’re the kindest weridos on the show. One of the best things about the show, and the Family generally, was and is their ability to be kind in the face of their adversaries; their kindness satirized the insane social conventions pushed upon American families, especially the pressure to confirm.
The Addams Family thrive in the opposite of what’s expected from them, like when Gomez is overjoyed at losing money in the stock market, or even Gomez and Morticia’s relationship. Their genuine passion for each other was seen as abnormal, which tells you a lot about what people expected of couples in the late 50s and early 60s. Gomez and Morticia’s relationship is a huge part of the Addams Family’s enduring legacy. They unapologetically profess their love for each other, compliment and admire each other, and genuinely wish to spend time together. They’re supportive of their children, indulging their seemingly odd hobbies, and provide care for the older members of the family without complaining. Couple goals, am I right?
The Addams Family on Screen: 1990s Cinema
Though the show was cancelled after just two seasons (as was The Munsters), it remained relatively popular in the collective imagination. Enough so that one of 20th Century Fox’s Development Executives, Scott Rudin, pitched the idea for a feature based on the cartoons and television show in 1990. The studio loved the idea!
Casting began almost immediately.
Angelica Huston, who plays the career-defining role of Morticia, thought the role would go to Cher but was herself a lifelong fan of Morticia Addams, and I can’t imagine anyone else playing her. She gives the character a wholesome and sincere warmth that the television Morticia lacked. Her iconic eye-look was an ‘arduous’ experience, according to Huston. They made her eyes slant upward at the sides to create an ethereal and mysterious look by attaching an elastic strap to the back of her head using fabric tabs glued at her temples. The straps were uncomfortable, giving Huston headaches if she wore them too long, and they snapped at the slightest movement of her head, so she learned to walk and turn without moving her head and upper body, moving only at the waist, making Morticia unintentionally ghostly and elegant. Her ghostly presence was made all the more effective by lighting her eyes with key light (similar to Bela Lugosi’s hypnotic look in White Zombie) which Huston specifically included as a clause in her contract.
Raul Julia plays a very animated, and debonairly handsome, version of Gomez, and his passionate relationship with his wife becomes his defining characteristic, even more so than the television show.
‘Raul and I knew where we were coming from with these characters, having both been big fans of the Charles Addams cartoons. We knew the kind of devotion that we wanted to bring to the characters of Gomez and Morticia. They’re an old married couple, but they’re newly in love. Every morning they wake up and look at each other, and can’t believe how fortunate they are. They live counter to reality in that they’re completely entranced by each other at all times. They can do no wrong; they’re devoted to their children and they take tremendous joy in living their peculiar lives’. - Anjelica Huston
Their chemistry shone on screen and was evident to the rest of the crew: Carol Kane, who played Grandmama in 'Addams Family Values', said, ‘it’s absolutely unimaginable to me that anybody but Raul and Anjelica could play Morticia and Gomez; they tapped into exactly the right tone for those characters’. Wednesday and Pugsley, the mischievous siblings, were played by Christina Ricci (a career-defining role for her) and Jimmy Workman. The pair have great chemistry and play off each other exceedingly well; you genuinely believe they’re siblings, which is rare in child actors.
The story was true to Charles Addams original creation and stuck to the format established by the television show (it wasn’t until the sequel, Addams Family Values, that the production team got political: they wanted to mock the Republican notion of ‘family values’ and challenge their insinuation that only Conservatives could be a loving, all-American family).
The studio fully expected the film to flop – it had financial difficulties throughout production and was going to be competing at the box office with Stephen Spielberg’s latest venture, Hook – but it surprised everyone by being an instant hit! Though critical reviews were mixed, audiences loved it and the film was nominated for various awards, including an Academy Award for Achievement in Costume Design and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) for Angelica Huston.
Legacy: the Enduring Appeal of Wednesday Addams
There have been numerous on-screen adaptations of the Addams Family since the early 90s, but Tim Burton’s 2022 Netflix series 'Wednesday' has chosen to focus exclusively on the eldest daughter, and no-one is surprised. Out of all the fun and spooky members of the Addams clan, Wednesday is the most popular.
But why? For me, it’s an inseparable combination of her personality and aesthetic.
Wednesday never doubts who she is. She is fiendishly intelligent and creative, is not spoiled or whiny despite her parents giving her practically anything she wants, and she is always honest, mature, and macabrely existential for someone so young (as I was). She does not bow to those who are wrong just because they’re adults – like the camp councillors in 'Addams Family Values' – which is something I always respected and admired. She is wonderfully sardonic in her interactions with others, barely expressing any emotion but somehow able to say everything she needs to. She gave the weird and macabre kids, like myself, someone to look up to. Wednesday Addams is unapologetically different and she’s proud of it.
Speaking of her role as Wednesday with The Boo Crew, Christina Ricci perfectly captured the reasons we love the Addams Family and her character specifically: ‘I think that they really tap into our sort of most mischievous nature. I think especially with children. Just the idea of, these people are doing things we’re not supposed to do. They’re having so much fun in life, living in a way that is wrong, or bad… but not really hurting anyone. I think that that really appeals to people. We eek out what joy we can. So, to see people living in such a joyous manner, I think it’s really appealing to people. Especially when it’s not your stereotypical kind of lifestyle. It’s fun to see people happy. And the source of that happiness to be so macabre… I think is so freeing to people.’
Wednesday’s aesthetic has become a cultural phenomenon. A simple black lace dress, white collar, and plaited black hair. Part of its appeal lies in its classic simplicity; people can easily copy and adjust this outfit to fit themselves. As fashion PR Daisy Hoppen says, "it’s a feminine look with some toughness to it". The look is instantly recognizable and conjures associations of the spooky and macabre; it’s a direct way of saying who you are, what you value, and what brings you happiness without having to explain it. People just know.
Tim Burton has always been a massive fan of Charle Addams' creation (no surprises there) so I can’t wait to see what kind of spooky and kooky vibe he and Jenna Ortega bring to their teenage version of Wednesday.
- Victoria Brown
'Wednesday' starring Jenna Ortega, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzmán and Gwendoline Christie premieres on Netflix November 23rd.