Few things can tap into our inner fears like ghost stories. Gothic ambience, supernatural mystery, and fears of the unknown often drive the fascination with the haunted house sub-genre popularized in books and films throughout the ages.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House remains a literary landmark of psychological horror finely adapted into The Haunting in 1963 and later a Netflix series directed by Mike Flanagan. The classic film House on Haunted Hill (1959) starred Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire, offering unsuspecting guests $10,000 to spend the night in his haunted mansion.
George C. Scott left his mark on the genre, starring in the 1980 thriller The Changeling. Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s The Shining into one of the most influential horror films of all time with his epic take on the modern ghost story. We’ve witnessed the mediocre fare of The Amityville Horror series, the found footage phenomenon of Paranormal Activity, Japanese imports like The Grudge, and a slew of others from the likes of Blumhouse and A24.
There are too many to mention, but one thing is clear, horror sometimes works best when it’s consigned to the familiar surroundings of home. No other film in recent memory captures this localized premise quite like the 1982 horror hit Poltergeist, where one family faces malevolent spirits from beyond.
The film’s opening credits impose over a closeup of an American flag on television with The Star-Spangled Banner playing, followed by white noise. The Freeling family sleeps soundly as their youngest daughter Carol Anne awakens and approaches a flashing television. She then engages in conversation with an unknown entity. After placing her hands on the screen, an apparition bursts from the TV and flows into the wall above her parents’ bed. The room rumbles, shaking the parents awake. They find their daughter unfazed and welcoming their new visitors with the now iconic line, “They’re herrre.”
Five-year-old Heather O’Rourke made movie history with that line. She was perfect for the role as was the entire cast. Since its release, Poltergeist has become a mainstay of our culture. It remains a timeless work, boasting impressive special effects courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Robert Edlund of Star Wars and Ghostbusters fame.
The movie embodies a uniquely idyllic time and place, centering on an average American family facing an unreal situation. Their plight intensifies after Carol Anne is sucked into parallel dimension, with little hope of getting her back. This frightful spectacle of suspense, drama, and horror was achieved through the combined forces of movie master Steven Spielberg and horror legend Tobe Hooper. Rarely would we ever experience such a film from two artistically opposite spectrums. Their differing sensibilities created a perfect balance of heart and horror amid a movie embroiled in controversy over creative control and the tragic fates that would later follow some key actors involved.
Poltergeist concerns the Freeling family who reside in a quaint California subdivision complex. The father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), is a realtor who sells homes among the very complex he lives in. His wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) spends her time raising Carol Anne, eight-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne). Their seemingly normal existence is upended upon the presence of an unexplained paranormal phenomenon. TV channels change on their own, glasses spontaneously break, chairs move, and the family dog seems fixated on the wall above the parents’ bed. These strange and subtle occurrences are only the beginning of an increasingly sinister threat determined to wreak havoc on all who occupy the home.
After Carole Anne’s inexplicable disappearance, her parents enlist the aid of an investigative parapsychologist team to provide answers and help recover their daughter. The sympathetic team soon determine that the house is besieged by the presence of a “poltergeist” that must be studied and recorded with video cameras and audio equipment. The stakes are raised, and the true nature of what they’re up against becomes more apparent (and frightening) as the story proceeds. Rescuing Carol Anne is the catalyst for a desperate family pushed to the brink. After bouts of sleepless nights, the father discovers matter-of-factly from his boss (James Karen) that their entire housing development was built on a former cemetery, where they moved the headstones but not the bodies underground.
Poltergeist is the kind of movie dominated by everlasting set pieces. I don’t find the movie “scary” in a traditional sense today, but there were moments as a child, where I was too frightened to watch. The giant oak tree crashing its branches through the children’s second-story bedroom window, the clown doll coming alive, skeletons spilling out of coffins, and the house imploding into another dimension are just a few memorable moments of macabre. And who can forget the hapless researcher tearing his face off in a bout of hallucinatory fervor?
It’s a gripping story, where everything on screen works, including Zelda Rubinstein’s turn as the predominant medium who attempts to “clean” the house once all hell breaks loose. All is not what it seems, and just when we think it’s over, the movie pulls us back in, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s heart-pounding score.
As viewers, we’re invested in the family’s plight because they’re down to earth and relatable. Such traits have always been Spielberg’s strong suit with characters. The movie feels very much like a Spielberg film, which fueled endless debate over who actually directed it. As writer and producer, Spielberg was contractually obligated to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) at the time and unable to direct. He hired Tobe Hooper based on the strength of Hooper’s landmark horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and his first studio film, The Fun House (1981). Hooper, in turn, wanted to emphasize the horror aspects over what was originally a science fiction story, with wondrous results.
During production, A Los Angeles Times article insinuated that Spielberg was the real director of the film based off comments Spielberg made about “taking charge.” This, coupled with marketing Poltergeist as a Spielberg film, further casted doubt on Hooper’s role, but the record has since been made repeatedly clear…mostly. Anyone who knows and admires Hooper’s work (as I do) can clearly see his directorial touches. It is undoubtedly a Tobe Hooper film. Despite it being his most commercially successful work, he never quite recovered from the implications following the film’s release, which has since become Hollywood lore.
Further infamy arose around the murder of actress Dominique Dunne by her ex-boyfriend shortly after the film’s release. Heather O’Rourke then succumbed to a rare form of intestinal septic shock after filming Poltergeist III in 1988. There has been countless speculation of a Poltergeist “curse” due to the use of real skeletons in the film’s climax and its overall exploration of the supernatural. Such notions are common but no less disrespectful to the talents lost and their families.
An entire piece could be written about the television symbolism portrayed throughout Poltergeist, for starters. The film’s endearing relevancy comes down to its realism, intelligence, and innovative take on the supernatural. Such rarity is further distinguished by its status as one of the most notable PG-rated horror films out there. Spielberg and Hooper successfully appealed the MPAA’s initial R rating. It’s a movie that left a huge impact on my childhood that can still be enjoyed and embraced by fans and newcomers alike. Just leave the light on after watching. You can never be too sure.