In Winter River, Connecticut, Barbara and Adam Maitland accidentally drive off a bridge near their home and drown. Thinking they are still alive, the Maitlands return home to discover that their reflections do not appear in mirrors. When they try to leave the house, they fall into a nightmarish desert that sends them scurrying back inside, where they discover a book titled Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Accepting that they have died, Adam combs the manual for advice but finds it difficult to decipher. The next day, Adam places tiny graves for himself and Barbara in a model version of Winter River he has built in the attic, while Barbara wonders if they are in heaven or hell. They spot Jane, a local real estate agent, outside the house, but although Adam calls to her, she does not respond. Barbara tells Adam the living usually cannot see the dead, according to the handbook, as Jane plants a “For Sale” sign in the yard. Soon after, Charles Deetz moves in with his morose teenaged daughter, Lydia, and his eccentric wife, Delia, who despises her new surroundings. Lydia disagrees with her stepmother, Delia, and proclaims she likes it there. Adam and Barbara detest the renovations Delia is planning and try to scare the Deetzes away, to no avail. Barbara loses patience and says she cannot watch people destroy her home, but when she walks outside, she falls into the nightmarish desert again and a massive, man-eating “sandworm” chases her back inside. That night, Delia complains that she misses New York City, but Charles, who recently suffered a nervous breakdown, is perfectly happy in Winter River. As major renovations begin on the outside of the house, the Maitlands happen upon an advertisement for Betelgeuse, a ghastly-looking “bio-exorcist” who claims he can get rid of humans. Outside, Lydia takes photographs and spies Adam and Barbara in the attic window. Lydia sees Jane, the realtor, who gives Lydia a skeleton key to pass along to Charles. Having read in the handbook that they can draw a door in case of emergencies, Adam draws one on the attic wall and knocks three times as instructed. The door opens, and the Maitlands are lured into a waiting room populated by disfigured deceased people who look exactly as they did when they died. The receptionist warns Barbara and Adam that they must spend 125 more years in their home and only get one help session with their caseworker, Juno, whom they choose to see right away. A man whose body was flattened by a car points them in the direction of Juno’s office, but instead they wander through a door that leads them to Delia’s newly decorated version of their home. Taken aback by the stark furnishings and Delia’s spiky, metal sculptures, Barbara and Adam are further startled when Juno, an older woman, appears behind them. The caseworker advises them to read the “haunting” chapter in their handbook and discourages them from employing Betelgeuse’s help. Juno explains that the only way Betelgeuse can be brought into the world is by saying his name three times. In their next attempt to scare Charles and Delia, the Maitlands cover themselves in sheets and moan around the house. Thinking they are her parents, Lydia takes Polaroid photographs of them, but when the photographs develop, she notices they have no feet. Lydia confronts Adam and Barbara, and discovers she can see and hear them. The Maitlands admit they are trying to scare her family away, but Lydia warns that Charles never walks away from an investment. Barbara notices a miniature version of Betelgeuse in Adam’s model town and calls his name twice. Adam encourages his wife to say it a third time and, when she does so, the couple shrinks to miniature size themselves. At Betelgeuse’s gravesite in the model cemetery, they dig until he emerges in a frenzy, groping Barbara, spinning his head around, and transforming his face into a scary mess of tentacles. He suggests they strike a deal, but Barbara shouts “home” three times, transforming herself and Adam back into full-size. At a dinner party in their house, the Deetzes entertain several guests, including Otho, their interior decorator, and Bernard, an agent who represents Delia’s unpopular sculptures. Hearing about Lydia’s ghost sighting, Otho claims to be an expert in the paranormal. Suddenly a loud song is heard and Delia lip-synchs along, looking frightened. In seconds, everyone at the table has lost control of their bodies and join in a coordinated dance. Finally, hands shoot out from their plates and grab their faces. Celebrating the successful haunting, Adam and Barbara run up to the attic and wait for the guests to run screaming from the house. However, the eccentric group enjoyed their paranormal experience and desires more. They send Lydia to retrieve the Maitlands, who refuse to come downstairs. Meanwhile, Charles brainstorms ideas on how to capitalize on the haunted house. Along with Otho, Charles and Delia storm the attic, but the ghosts hide from them. Spotting the Handbook of the Recently Deceased, Otho steals it. Later, Betelgeuse taunts the Maitlands about their failed efforts and upstages them by appearing in the Deetzes house as a large snake with a human head. Although the Deetzes are terrified, Adam and Barbara reprimand Betelgeuse for intervening. Frustrated. Betelgeuse claims he has not been released into the world in 600 years, but the couple refuses to say his name three times. The Maitlands seek out Juno, who coaches them to try a scarier approach to haunting. Lydia goes to the attic, and Betelgeuse calls to her from the model town. He says Adam and Barbara are gone forever and asks her to release him. She says his name twice, but the Maitlands return in time to stop her from saying it again. Although Lydia longs to be dead, too, Barbara discourages her and promises that she and Adam plan to live harmoniously with the Deetzes from now on. Downstairs, Charles presents plans for a paranormal research center and other real estate developments in Winter River to potential investors. Although the adult Deetzs demand to see the ghosts, Lydia announces that the Maitlands will not be exploited. Otho uses a spell from the handbook to conjure the Maitlands, who appear in wedding attire, hovering above a table. Barbara and Adam begin to wither like corpses, and Otho claims he cannot stop the spell. Lydia calls Betelgeuse for help, and he agrees to intervene only if she marries him. Lydia reluctantly accepts and calls his name three times. As Betelgeuse appears, he frightens the Deetzes and traps them inside Delia’s sculptures. A dead man appears and presides over the wedding of Betelgeuse and Lydia, and the Maitlands become young again. The Maitlands try to stop the wedding by calling out Betelgeuse’s name, but he silences them with his supernatural powers. When Lydia tries to say his name, Betelgeuse covers her mouth and co-opts her voice to declare her love for him. Although Betelgeuse drives the Maitlands out of the house, Barbara falls into the desert, where she mounts the man-eating sandworm and rides it back inside. Just before the marriage becomes official, the sandworm crashes into Betelgeuse and sends him back underground. Sometime later, Lydia happily rides her bike home from school and finds the Maitlands redecorating their house to look the way it once did. To celebrate Lydia’s good grades, the Maitlands send her floating into the air as she dances to an upbeat song. Upstairs, Delia shows Charles her latest sculpture, a bust of Betelgeuse.