1982’s “Poltergeist” was very influential on my childhood. I don’t know if I was ever able to get through the whole movie as a kid, just out of pure terror, but I knew the majority of what I had seen had messed up my whole universe. Dark rooms in my own house didn’t feel safe, and the sound of a TV scramble became severely unsettling. Watching the film again as an adult, the horror elements of the movie weren’t as graphic as I remembered them, yet I still felt unsettled after every viewing. What made this film so effectively frightening to so many people like me? Like so many Steven Spielberg films, it looked like more of a fantasy than a straight horror movie. So, like a man on a mission, I popped in the DVD and tried to watch a movie I’d seen dozens of time in a different way- like the 8 year-old kid that I was when I first saw it.
The story takes place in a newly developed housing community in California called Cuesta Verde, where we meet the Freeling family. Father, Steven (Craig T. Nelson) is one of the realtors who helped develop the community, and is living in one of the homes with his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), eldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), son Robbie (Oliver Robins), and youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). One night, as the TV station signs off and the channel transmits static, Carol Anne wakes up, walks downstairs, and begins talking to the TV set, apparently hearing voices talking back. The following night, the same thing happens, but now an apparition comes from the TV, and into the walls of the house, triggering an earthquake.
For the next few days, bizzare, yet harmless poltergeist activity starts to plague the Freelings, from chairs sliding across the kitchen, to silverware bending on their own. As the activity begins to intensify, it also grows more harmful, as Robbie is pulled out of his window by a tree in the backyard. While the family is distracted, Carol Anne is pulled through a portal in her closet and disappears. Steven and Diane are sent into a panic for several days while looking for her, and when it becomes clear that the threat is supernatural, they contact a team of paranormal researchers from the local college to help find their daughter. Steven then discovers through his boss, Mr. Teague (James Karen), that Cuesta Verde was built on the site of an old cemetery, providing an explanation for the sudden disturbances. The poltergeist activity gets more and more intense as the team investigates, until it becomes painfully necessary for them to recruit spiritual medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), who reveals that Carol Anne is actually trapped in another plane of existence with the many spirits who inhabit their home. While most of these spirits are harmless, there is a demon, only referred to as “the Beast” who holds her there in order to keep the other spirits in his possession, as they are drawn to her “life force.” In order to get Carol Anne back, the Freelings must be willing to encounter a force they could never imagine, and face their own fears, as “it knows what scares you.”
Although directed by Tobe Hooper, known to the world for his game-changing horror film, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it soon became very clear to viewers that this movie was Spielberg’s (who wrote and produced the film), as the all-too-familiar themes of childhood and family were at the forefront. But in order for Spielberg to truly scare his audience, he first had to earn their trust by using the same themes from his previous films, like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters,” such as the childlike innocence and wonder that allowed the children in his movies to see and notice things that adults couldn’t, as well as bringing ordinary people into events of extraordinary circumstances. The first act of “Poltergeist” reflects these themes so strongly, it draws the viewers into a sense of safety. The neighborhood is shown, even comically at times, to be a safe all-American suburb. Even the initial poltergeist activity draws the audience into a childlike wonder, as Diane and Carol Anne play harmless games with the phenomena. But the reveal is that the sense of security was false all along, as Spielberg effectively uses a bait-and-switch, turning the wonder into pure terror.
But even after luring the audience into that falsehood, the next two acts show little to no graphic horror, but instead, uses everyday, ordinary objects as sinister catalysts to make the setting so frightening. The character of Robbie gets the worst of it, for example, as he is attacked and literally swallowed by a twisted-looking tree, as well as getting pulled underneath his bed by a stuffed clown toy. These two scenes were, by far, the two most iconic, yet traumatizing visuals in the entire film. But it’s those kind of scenes that reveal the real nature behind Spielberg’s vision of horror- the violation of that childlike innocence. THIS was why the movie disturbed so many audiences worldwide, including myself. The young Freeling children were targeted by the evil in their own home, in the presence of their parents, violating a place where they should have felt the most safe. Even the use of Jerry Goldsmith’s lullaby-like score is as innocent as it is unsettling. Couple that with the fact that the movie doesn’t go crazy feeding us visuals of the ghosts and the spirit dimension, but rather, allows the characters’ explanations fill in our imaginations. It’s an old school, yet highly effective horror technique.
“Poltergeist” was released in the summer of 1982, otherwise known as the “Spielberg Summer,” as it also coincided with the release of his other mega-blockbuster, “E.T. the Extra-terrestrial.” In one theater, audiences could experience a child’s discovery of friendship beyond our world, and at the same time in another theater, experience a child’s worst nightmares coming to life from beyond that same world. While “E.T.” was by and large the better film, the effect of “Poltergeist” on viewers was undeniable, as no two words unsettles movie-goers to this day quite like, “They’re heeeere…”