Alabama-born author Michael McEachern McDowell (1950-1999) is perhaps best known for his role in writing the screenplays for the popular films The Nightmare Before Christmas and the cult hit Beetlejuice. But with more than 30 novels, McDowell was a prolific novelist in his own right and gained popularity across the country, even earning the high praises of acclaimed author Stephen King. McDowell’s niche centered on Southern Gothic literature and horror in general.
McDowell was born on June 1, 1950, in Enterprise, Coffee County, to Thomas Eugene McDowell and Marion Mulkey McDowell both of Geneva, Geneva County. Michael was their first son, followed by a daughter and a second son. His experiences in Alabama helped shape his literary career. As many of his Southern Gothic novels demonstrate, McDowell had extensive knowledge of southern culture and geography. In his childhood, McDowell lived and was educated in the small south Alabama towns of Geneva and Brewton, Escambia County. He attended kindergarten in Geneva before transferring to Brewton Elementary School. In 1968, he graduated from T. R. Miller High School in Brewton as class valedictorian.
Following high school, McDowell pursued a college education at Harvard University as an English major and graduated in 1972. He received his doctorate from Brandeis University in 1978. His dissertation, entitled “American Attitudes Towards Death, 1825-1865,” explored death and its impact on American culture from an academic perspective. His later works are characterized by gruesome descriptions of horrific events mixed with a dark sense of humor. His grotesque writings, however, did not derive purely from his imagination, as his doctoral research also led him to amass an extensive collection of death memorabilia. Items include postmortem photographs, jewelry made from human hair, and even a child’s coffin. His research informed his later writings as a novelist and screenwriter.
McDowell’s education prepared him for a career as an English teacher, but his career goals changed. As he was working on his dissertation, McDowell decided to pursue a career in writing. He worked as a secretary to earn an income while writing his first novels. After landing a contract with Avon Books, McDowell earned enough money to quit his secretarial position and pursue writing full-time. Although he had previously written six unpublished novels, The Amulet (1979) was his first published novel. It traces the harmful effects of an enchanted piece of jewelry that wreaks havoc on the inhabitants of the small, fictional town of Pine Cone, Alabama, which is loosely based on Geneva and Brewton.
McDowell’s wrote in several genres, but his most successful niche was horror. When asked why he pursued horror and occult novels, McDowell explained in a 1984 Fangoria interview that he was frustrated with the failure of his novels not selling. Purely as a writing exercise, McDowell expanded a screenplay into The Amulet, which sold immediately. Realizing his success, McDowell continued writing in the horror genre with great satisfaction. McDowell’s unintentional entry into the genre garnered much attention with the successes of popular novels like Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980), The Elementals (1981), and the six-part Blackwater (1983) series, among others. Cold Moon Over Babylon depicts the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl named Margaret Larkin and the mysterious revenge the murderer faces near the Styx River. Often considered McDowell’s most terrifying work, The Elementals is more a traditional haunted house story but offers a mix of natural and supernatural omens warning the Savage and McCray families of the house’s deadly past. The Blackwater series was originally published as a six-paperback installment of the novel in which its main character Elinor Dammert strives to belong to the small Alabama town but holds a deadly, mysterious secret. Each of the four novels above reflect McDowell’s experiences and knowledge of Alabama culture and geography. McDowell wrote or coauthored more than 30 novels under his own name and numerous pen names, including Nathan Aldyne, Preston Macadam, Mike McCray, and Axel Young.
In addition to his work as a novelist, McDowell also wrote a number of screenplays and related works for the film industry. Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas are arguably his most successful works, but McDowell’s contributions in the film industry included work for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales from the Crypt, and George A. Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. McDowell’s work with acclaimed director Tim Burton in the production of both Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas earned McDowell a place as a pop culture icon. (Beetlejuice also featured Alabamian Glenn Shadix in the role of Otho, and Burton filmed portions of Big Fish, a film based on a Daniel Wallace novel, in central Alabama.) The now-famous McDowell returned to Brewton to attend his twentieth class reunion at in 1988, the same year Beetlejuice was released.
In 1994, McDowell was diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), at the time generally a terminal illness. He not only continued writing screenplays but also began teaching screenwriting at both Boston University and Tufts University. He died of an AIDS-related illness on December 27, 1999, in Massachusetts at the age of 49. At the time of his death, McDowell was survived by his partner of 30 years, author, actor, and director Laurence Senelick, and two siblings. His personal papers are housed in the Michael M. McDowell Collection at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and his extensive collection of death memorabilia was purchased by Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, for research purposes. At the time of his death, McDowell was in the process of writing another novel. Novelist Tabitha King, wife of writer Stephen King, completed McDowell’s unfinished manuscript, and it was published under the title Candles Burning. In the novel, Calley Dakin, a seemingly ordinary little girl, is exiled with her mother to a family home in Pensacola Beach after her father’s vicious murder. But as the story unfolds, readers discover there is more to Calley than what meets the eye. McDowell’s Alabama connections are also honored annually in the city of Brewton’s Cold Moon Fest, a free concert featuring various popular artists, each October. McDowell’s legacy in the horror genre continues to play an important role for readers today.
Selected Works by Michael McDowell
The Amulet (1979)
Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980)
Gilded Needles (1980)
The Elementals (1981)
Beetlejuice (screenplay, 1988)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (screenplay, 1993)
Michael McDowell Death Collection, AS10. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
Michael M. McDowell Collection, Browne Popular Culture Library Manuscripts, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Wiater, Stanley. Dark Visions: Conversations with the Masters of the Horror Film. Kindle Edition. Edited by Samantha McCabe. Hertford, North Carolina: Crossroad Press, 2018.
———. “Michael McDowell: Interview with the Popular Horror Writer.” Fangoria 40 (December 1984): 54-56.
Winter, Douglas E. Faces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror. London: Pan Books, 1990.