In an unspecified Victorian-era village somewhere in Europe, Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), the son of nouveau riche fish merchants, and Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the neglected daughter of snobbish aristocrats, are preparing for their arranged marriage, which will simultaneously raise the social class of Victor’s parents and restore the wealth of Victoria’s penniless family. Both have concerns about marrying someone they do not know, but upon meeting for the first time, they fall for each other. After the shy Victor ruins the wedding rehearsal by forgetting his vows and is scolded by Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee), he flees and practices his wedding vows in the nearby forest, placing the wedding ring on a nearby upturned tree root.
The root turns out to be the finger of a murdered woman in a tattered bridal gown named Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), who rises from the grave claiming that she is now Victor’s wife. After fainting, Victor wakes up and finds out he was spirited away to the surprisingly festive Land of the Dead. The bewildered Victor learns the story of how Emily, his new bride, was murdered years ago by an unknown criminal on the night of her secret elopement. Emily, as a wedding gift, reunites Victor with his long-dead dog, Scraps. Meanwhile, Victoria’s parents hear that Victor has been seen in another woman’s arms, and become suspicious.
Wanting to reunite with Victoria, Victor tricks Emily into taking him back to the Land of the Living by pretending he wants her to meet his parents. She agrees to this and takes him to see Elder Gutknecht (Michael Gough), the kindly ruler of the underworld, to return Victor and Emily temporarily to the Land of the Living. Once back home, Victor asks Emily to wait in the forest while he rushes off to see Victoria and confess his wish to marry her as soon as possible, to which she gladly returns his feelings. Just as they are about to share a kiss, Emily arrives and sees the two of them together and, feeling betrayed and hurt, angrily drags Victor back to the Land of the Dead. Victoria tells her parents that Victor has been forcibly wed to a dead woman, but they believe she has lost her mind and lock her up in her bedroom. She escapes her room by window and rushes to Galswells to find a way to help Victor, but fails. With Victor gone, Victoria’s parents decide to marry her off against her will to a presumed-wealthy newcomer in town named Lord Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant), who appeared at the wedding rehearsal.