They’re (still) Heeeere!: ‘Poltergeist’ at 40

| June 4, 2022

Steven Spielberg doesn’t talk about Poltergeist for reasons that I can only speculate. The last time that I recall that he even mentioned the film was on an AFI special 20 years ago in which he dismissed any suggestion of subtext by saying “Poltergeist was just meant to be a rollercoaster ride. I wasn’t trying to do anything subtle with it.” Having seen the film many times, I am left to wonder if that is actually true. The movie is chocked full of subtext. If it is unintentional, then he may be an even better storyteller than I thought.

Poltergeist was released in the United States 40 years ago today and it remains my favorite horror movie and that underlying subtext is a major reason why.  Here is a commercial movie, a big-budget ghost story, and yes, a rollercoaster ride, but underneath lies a potent commentary about the ugly side of the American dream. It is a potent allegory about the sins of the past coming back to haunt us, about commonplace domestic bliss in the good ol’ U.S.A. provided compliments of a tradition of colonialism in which we settle into our homes with our T.V. and our appliances and our wall-to-wall carpeting, blissfully unaware of what lies just under our feet.  We are consciously aware that we are living on land that has been spoiled and ground up in order to build the illusion of ‘easy living’ but, the movie suggests, what would happen of the sins of the past came back to demand restitution?

That is not to say that Steve and Diane Freeling are the propagators of such sins, but they are living the capitalist dream in a way that throws the flower-power generation non-conformist promise right out the window.  They have abandoned the revolutionary spirit of their youth and now these tenants of the flower power generation have fully immersed themselves in the comforts of capitalist domestic bliss. Their home is a happy nest of commercialism: stereos, toys, a swimming pool and, of course, a TV in every room.  They straddle the fence of their generational goals and the commercial conformity: in one scene they sit up in bed while Diane smokes a joint while Steve reads a book about the legend that is Ronald Reagan.

Punishment for giving in to the machinations of capitalism are obvious.  There’s a drawback to their American dream.  They live in a heavily manufactured middle-class subdivision in which they live too close to their neighbors.  Steve invites a group of surly guys over to watch the football game but they are clearly not his friends (they’re around for the free beer and perhaps because he has a nicer TV).  The house is built so close to the neighbors that the TV remote can change the channel next door, yet the family is so alienated from their neighbors that when the pounding, the flashing, the screaming and the music starts, no one comes over to check on them, and no one calls the cops.

That isolation is not present inside the home.  One thing that separates Poltergeist from other haunted house movies is that we feel a very close (read: Spielbergian) connection between the different members of the family.  They don’t feel like actors thrown together for an Industrial Light and Magic exhibit.  They feel like people.  We recognized these people.  There are fractures in their relationship.  Diane holds fast to the idealism of her flower power past and criticizes Steve for letting it slip away (he’s a real estate agent).  The oldest daughter Dana is spaced away from the family, spending most of her time with friends.  The younger kids, Robbie and Carol Anne, are close but they pick on each other like siblings.  In that way, they don’t feel like tools to get the visual effects rolling.

The first hour of this movie is all about character establishment, save for a small hint of things to come when little Carol Anne apparently sleepwalks at night before talking to the television set that is tuned to an empty channel (remember those?)  Largely, the first hour is about what we fear at night, channeled through Robbie whose conduit of midnight terror is commonplace to most kids: shadows, lights, thunder, lightning, a creepy clown doll, and most immediately an ugly tree that lurks just outside the window.

It is unusual to have a horror movie that does this.  Most filmmakers are at the mercy of the studio execs who want to see every dollar of the special effects budget on the screen.  Lesser filmmakers seem focused on ordering up some kind of broody series of weird events but they never seem to have the patience to establish rules or to build a functioning story.  What is interesting here is that the haunting begins on a playful note.  Diane likes having strange things happen in the house.  She’s curious.  This establishment gives us the sense of spirits who are strangely clever.  They want to kidnap Carol Anne but they know that they don’t want to scare the family out of the house.  The movie earns the special effects light show of the kidnapping.  It earns the ghost hauntings that besiege the house for the next hour.

For those reasons, I have always credited Poltergeist is a successful redo of The Amityville Horror, another box office hit released three years earlier about a family living in a house who discover that whatever is haunting the place is playing games with their sanity. Where they differ is that Spielberg and his team fashioned together a movie that makes more narrative sense. Poltergeist seems built around the characters, whereas Amityville centered on the elements of the haunting – flies in the sewing room, blood in the toilet, the spectral marching band in the living room. It is all done to benefit the audience, not the story. Poltergeist has the elements of the haunting but they serve to help us understand how they plan to kidnap little Carol Anne and what the family has to go through to get her back. Take, for example, the tree that tries to eat Robbie. It’s a ruse, to lure the family away from the house so that the spirits can take Carol Anne into their dimension. Same with the clown that attacks at the end of the movie. It attacks Robbie as another ruse to reclaim the girl after she has been rescued.  In Amityville it’s all for the benefit of getting the family to flee the house and the audience to get its money’s worth.

Plus – and this is important too – in Poltergeist the Freeling family has lived in the house for many years (Carol Anne was born in it), so that we get a sense that the haunting is an invasion of their sanctuary. In Amityville the Lutz’s have just bought the house so it feels less like a sanctuary and more like they’ve been snookered by a real estate agent who was suspiciously eager to unload a lemon – our concern is less about their safety and more about their financial situation. The problems with Amityville are the problems with most modern haunted house movies – they’re interested in everything but the family.  Poltergeist works better because it is a horror movie infused with Spielberg’s softer touches – family bonding, a sense of childlike wonder and whispers in the dark about the comforts of The Other Side.

As a Spielberg production (he didn’t direct it – that credit went questionably to Tobe Hooper), Poltergeist resides in a very strange place, historically.  This was the other Spielberg production of 1982 as it was released exactly one week before E.T.  Both were commercially successful, both were among the 10 highest grossing films of 1982, but E.T. beat the socks off of any other film released that year and it was so popular that it was nominated for Best Picture.  Yet, time would tell a different tale.  The audience that made E.T. an astonishing success seem to have left it behind.  Meanwhile, Poltergeist seems to be as big a success as it was 39 years ago.  It is difficult to really understand why.  Both films have something to say about the temperature of the American psyche but perhaps the differing tones (and genres) are the split that keeps Poltergeist part of the lexicon while E.T. seems to have lost it’s hold on the average moviegoer.  E.T. is about the dream state of the childhood experience while Poltergeist operates on a much deeper and more sinister level – one that offers difficult questions about the nature of the American dream.  In that way, Poltergeist seems more current.  Who are we as Americans?  What have we done to get where we are?  And are we willing to live in blissful ignorance?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1982) View IMDB Filed in: Blog, Horror