This summer, a brand new vision of Poltergeist will arrive in theaters everywhere and terrify a whole new generation of fans. While I’m going to reserve my judgments on just how that version is going to fare until I see it on May 22nd, I thought this made for a perfect time to revisit Tobe Hooper’s original film, which has remained one of my favorite horror movies for over three decades and is still one of the greatest and most effective haunted house films of all time.
The first time I saw Poltergeist, I was only 5 years old and, suffice to say, my childhood was forever changed on that fateful day. Growing up, I was raised by a single mom and we lived in a trailer park, so I guess I always viewed families with both parents who could afford to live in a "real" home as individuals that were much luckier than I was. That was, until I met Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) and their loving brood, and realized problems can terrorize good people anywhere, regardless of where they happen to call home.
One of the many wonderful things about Poltergeist is how simply it all starts. As “The Star Spangled Banner” plays over the opening credits, we begin to follow the family dog, laying the groundwork for both the family and the structure of their home, something so important when creating a "haunted house" story. Without a single word being uttered, we know these characters almost instantaneously, which is a huge credit to Hooper (and producer/sort-of-director Steven Spielberg), who put his trust in the viewers to connect with the small, but important, details that they incorporated into that opening sequence.
That first scene with Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) talking to the television static also establishes the relationships within the Freeling family from the onset just based on how they are staged in that brief moment. Steven is positioned closest to her, indicating that special father/daughter bond they share, and then there’s her mother, then older sister Dana (Dominique Dunne) and finally poor Robbie (Oliver Robins), who always seems to be the afterthought in his family’s overall dynamic. Thoughtful touches like these are peppered throughout Poltergeist, proving that sometimes you don’t need to hit viewers over the head with tons of exposition in order to get your point across.
We’re introduced almost immediately in Poltergeist to the community at large, allowing us to settle into the normalcy that is life at Cuesta Verde Estates. Kids are outside playing, the men are inside trying to watch their football games and there is no sign of the troubles that lie ahead, ultimately lulling us into a false sense of security and making what’s to come for The Freelings that much more shocking and terrifying. This is something that Hooper also does during the film’s third act, making those final moments in the house that much more of a gut-punch experience.
Before 1982, most mainstream horror movies didn’t generally bring fear directly into our residences- either victims were traveling (slasher movies generally revolved around kids heading out to the woods to meet their doom), or we were often following people with extraordinary occupations that took them to places far from the place they called home. Other than John Carpenter’s Halloween, many fans just weren’t used to seeing unstoppable forces introduced inside the one place we all universally want to feel safe inside. Bringing that unimaginable terror into the safety of the suburbs made Poltergeist’s story that much more relatable to a new generation of adults and parents who were all working hard to achieve and maintain “The American Dream.”
Ultimately, that’s what Poltergeist was- an all-out (yet uniquely subtle) assault on something that would end up defining an entire era of our cultural history. As the 1980s began, society saw the end of free love and other progressive movements and thusly experienced a wave of consumerism and capitalism unlike anything our nation had ever experienced before. Suddenly, higher education became a major priority for young adults and most people fell into the routine of- you grow up, you go to college, you get a job, get married, get a house, have kids, watch them and their children grow up and then, eventually, you die. That was the life most adults in the 1980s worked for, so to be able to achieve all those milestones was something that became ingrained as being milestones of success for so many of us who grew up during that time.
For Hooper (and Spielberg) though, that dream was all an illusion- what good was having the house, the job, the money and all the stability in the world if you couldn’t keep those you love safe and protected from uncontrollable forces? What happens when all of those things turn on you in the end?
Just as quietly as the movie itself starts, that’s also how Hooper approaches the horrors of Poltergeist- it wasn’t about pummeling us with endless violence and abhorrent kills, much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Rather, this is about the evil that can exist even when you’re not expecting it, creeping in and invading your domain. Sure, there’s the iconic “They’re Here” moment, but in following scenes, you’d never really know that anything out of the ordinary happened the night before- at least to everyone but Diane, who keenly realizes that her youngest daughter has tuned into something that no one else in her family can.
As the day rolls on though, that’s when we get just a taste of what’s to come- bent spoons and forks, kitchen furniture being moved wholly on its own, Carol Anne being entranced by the static on the small TV on the counter- nothing that would necessarily make anyone think they were in any real danger, which is such a fantastic touch by Hooper. Poltergeist’s supernaturally-charged parlor tricks also still remain insanely effective due to the beauty of being able to pull off certain paranormal phenomena all within a single in-camera take. Even after over 30 years, those moments are still so impactful because those involved with production recognized how the realness of that approach would heighten those moments with viewers.
The fun and games would quickly be over for the Freelings as, later that night, they’re struck by a horrifically unimaginable string of events- the oversized and ominous tree in their backyard comes to life and attacks poor Robbie, almost swallowing him whole, and as Steven, Diane and Dana struggle to save him, Carol Anne is taken away through a supernatural portal that appears inside her and Robbie’s bedroom closet. Once the remaining family members realize that the youngest in their brood has gone missing, that’s when we see Steven and Diane’s worst nightmare as parents fully realized- not being able to keep their children safe even within their own home and being forced to choose between your children (even if you don’t realize it at the time).
Earlier in the movie, there’s a scene where Diane and Steven are sitting on their bed, discussing Carol Anne’s sleepwalking habits and whether or not the pool they’re having installed is a safety concern. At that moment, it seems like such a toss-away conversation, but when you really examine what’s being said against everything that follows, you realize that what that discussion represents is that helpless feeling all parents have- regardless of any and all precautions you could possibly take in this world, sometimes there are things you just aren’t able to protect your children from.
And in the case of Poltergeist, that includes angry supernatural entities that end up kidnapping your daughter and transporting her into another plane of existence.
Once Carol Anne is gone, that’s when we see just how deep the devotion of this family truly is and that’s something that has always made Poltergeist so special. It was one of the few modern horror films that gave us a real, nuclear family that never once wavered in their love for one another despite the odds. We see them all go to great lengths in order to save Carol Anne and bring her back home. That kind of emotional dedication amongst a family of characters was rare and it is remarkable how Hooper showed such respect for and celebration of the family unit as a whole. At a time where we were seeing a rise in single-parent homes, The Freelings stood defiantly in the face of these societal changes and proved that in the end, family is what really matters most.
Interestingly enough, the second act of Poltergeist quietly sets up a rather thoughtful debate between faith versus science once Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her assistants, Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson), arrive to determine what’s terrorizing the Freeling home. Rather than just accepting everything they see so matter-of-factly, we see the parapsychology team (despite the blatant presence of something otherworldly around them) still investigating the authenticity of the strange occurrences they’re witnessing, as if this poor family would be trying to pull one over on them.
These new characters also set up one of my favorite moments in Poltergeist- the flask scene between Lesh, Diane and Robbie, where they quietly discuss what happens to us when we die and whether or not we’re actually alone in this world after all. It adds a nice touch of humanity to the horrific elements of the story and allows the trio some real bonding time, so when Dr. Lesh adamantly tells Diane the next morning that she will return with help for their family, you know that she’s serious about helping them. These aren’t just people she’s studying- she feels a genuine sense of concern and responsibility to resolve this terrifying ordeal for the Freelings.
“Now let’s go get your daughter.”
The moment Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein) utters those powerful words, it’s almost like the mood changes in Poltergeist- gone are any heart-warming moments when the commanding psychic medium realizes that Carol Anne’s in imminent danger. Action is needed and Tangina’s rescue plan is going to involve Steven and Diane, especially, being tested as parents in unimaginable ways as they must work together in order to bring Carol Anne back to their realm of existence.
Tangina’s arrival is important in relation to Diane’s evolution throughout Poltergeist as well. We see Williams' character spend much of the first two acts of the film helpless, unable to do anything to bring Carol Anne back, so when she’s finally told what she needs to do, it becomes Diane’s time to step up and evolve into this warrior woman who’s willing to travel to a different plane of existence if it means she’ll be reunited with her youngest daughter.
That evolution continues in the finale when Diane must fight with every fiber in her being to rescue Robbie and Carol Anne after their home evolves into a perpetual house of horrors, complete with skeletons popping up and out of their graves. During the infamous swimming pool scene, Williams is pushed to her physical limits (and I’m guessing mental limits too) as she fights against the odds in what’s probably one of the ballsiest scenes we have ever seen a major studio get behind, considering the great risks (and real skeletons) involved. It’s also worth mentioning that while everyone in the film turns in near flawless performances, Williams is truly the heart of Poltergeist, as it becomes very much about her journey as a mother and as an empowered woman as well.
Something else that has always stuck with me about Poltergeist since I was a kid was how Hooper found a way to strip away any kind of innocence that existed when it came to a children’s bedroom or their playthings. Kids are meant to feel safe in their rooms (and we all know what Leslie Vernon thinks about the closet metaphor in the horror genre- it represents the womb), so to see someone tarnish the sanctity of that space was almost unthinkable… but HIGHLY effective nonetheless.
And let’s be honest, Poltergeist is probably the number one reason most people who grew up during the last few decades fear clowns (next to Stephen King’s It, of course), as the scene when Robbie’s maniacal doll attacks him during the finale still remains one of the creepiest moments of modern horror. It was the reason I checked under my bed almost every single night for a year after seeing Poltergeist for the first time. It also created something of a dark fascination on my part with my toys, as I would often spend time at night (when I was supposed to be falling asleep) just watching them, waiting to see if they were going to spring to life at any given moment.
That’s just the beauty of a movie like Poltergeist- it quietly affects you as a viewer in so many different ways that you don’t even initially realize it. Rather than just trying to shock audiences with a bunch of jump scares and loud music cues, Hooper instead turns the terror inwards on the viewers by making everything we’re seeing on the screen feel relatable to our own lives in so many different ways.
Through the characters, their emotions and relationships, and the horrific ordeals they all must face as they do their best to overcome this evil force that has threatened to destroy them, Poltergeist has come to mean so much more to me over the years than just being the first great haunted house movie of its kind. Poltergeist found clever and subtle ways to instill terror in audiences of all ages and walks of life, all while remaining a film that still endeared itself to more particular genre fans. It's also one of the rare horror movies that garnered several Academy Award nominations and made Hollywood sit up and take notice of the burgeoning visual effects industry.
While there may be an updated version coming to theaters this May, there’s nothing that can ever replace the wonderful legacy that Poltergeist created when it was released back in June 1982. So many films have tried over the years to emulate that same magic we found waiting inside the home of the Freelings all those years ago, but very few have ever come close to capturing the heart and the terror that both Hooper and the film’s iconic producer, Spielberg, instilled in audiences during that fateful summer movie season.