What’s the true horror at the heart of Poltergeist? Is it discovering that your house is haunted? Is it the tangled mess of behind the scenes problems that almost kept the film from being made? Or is it the spectre of Baby Boomers approaching middle age?
As a 9 year old in 1982 Poltergeist scared the bejesus out of me; the haunted closet and menacing tree scenarios were both familiar elements of my own night terrors. The film transformed standard haunted house tropes into the blockbuster format for which I was so hungry; I thrilled at the ending, which is essentially a cacophony of explosions. I wasn’t suburban, but I understood what the suburban setting meant - moving the haunted house away from the ramshackle gothic structure and making it something more familiar.
But now, as a 38 year old, the meaning of the suburban setting is different. Yes, Poltergeist is about making alien the familiar and making scary the safe, but the suburban setting isn’t what is alienated - it’s what is alienating. This isn’t a film where the TV and the cookie-cutter home become scary, it’s a film where these things are what is actually terrifying.
That’s an important distinction to make, and it cuts to the center of what the film is truly about. It’s about the dawning of the 80s and how totally fucking scary it was. It’s about the Baby Boomers coming of age, waking up from the Me Generation 70s and finding themselves with kids and a mortgage and a job. They woke up as protoyuppies, the standing army of the consumerist 80s.
The word yuppie was new when Poltergeist came out - first printed in 1980, really only popularized in 82 - and it defined the next stage of Boomer evolution. The children of the 60s had grown up and gotten jobs and all of the energy they had put into anti-war demonstrations and sit-ins was now being put towards business and personal advancement. They became the Reagan Democrats - of which Steven Freeling is surely one, since he’s raptly reading a Reagan bio.
Understanding the Freelings is the key to understanding Poltergeist. They have three children, but there’s a big gap between their first and second child. Dana (Dominique Dunne) is probably around 16 years old, and it seems fair to assume that she wasn’t completely planned. Steven (Craig T Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams, possibly inventing the concept of a MILF in this movie) married young because of their child and Steven had to find a job that could support his family. He became a realtor in the planned suburb of Cuesta Verde , and a very good one at that - James Karen’s boss character says that Steven is the most valuable guy in the office, and he wants to provide him with a big promotion to partner.
Steven’s good at his job, but he doesn’t seem to like it much. He’s not a huge fan of Cuesta Verde at all, in fact. After Diane discovers the anomaly in the kitchen the film dissolves to an identical, empty kitchen. At first we think that the family has moved out, but it’s actually Steven showing a new home to a new family. He acknowledges that even he has a hard time telling the places apart.
In a lot of ways Steven has become as cookie-cutter as the houses. Diane remembers him as once being ‘open minded,’ but now he’s a standard American male figure. He works too much, and then he spends his time at home watching football with the guys. This second opening scene (the film’s actual first opening scene, with Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) being ‘called’ down to the TV in the living room, feels tacked on) defines the film’s feminist subtext: Steven’s friend comes into the house spraying beer everywhere as the other men focus on the football while Diane deals with heavy issues of life and death with the kids. The big conflict comes when the neighbor’s remote ends up on the same frequency, turning the football into family-friendly Mr. Rogers (one of the guys seems to actually not know who Mr. Rogers is). The generic quality of the suburbs is back - everybody even has remotes on the same frequency - but more than that Steven is put into a situation where he’s fighting to maintain his aloof male santuary from a guy who wants to keep his kids happy.
Steven has no idea what’s happening with his kids, though. Diane is left with that duty, and she’s left to deal with the death of Tweety, Carol Anne’s bird. While Steven has a mock gun battle with his neighbor, Diane is giving Carol Anne her first understanding of mortality, creating an almost Egyptian-level sarcophagus for the corpse of Tweety.
This is the first time the film presents us with one of its themes: only women can get things done. Throughout the movie it’s female characters who are forced to actually effect change, and it all begins with Diane’s tender ceremony for Tweety. Later Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Strait) is the glue that holds the parapsychology team together, then Tangina is the key to the final rescue of Carol Anne - which Diane must do herself while Steven can’t even hold the rope correctly.
Diane fell into suburban motherhood just as much as Steven did, but she seems to be holding her own. She’s still smoking joints at night while Steven reads his Reagan book. She’s incredibly strong and capable, and the weird occurrences in the house don’t scare her at first - she’s actually thrilled. The kitchen anomaly turns her into an amateur scientist, running tests and marking the floor to see where the anomaly operates. And she’s even using Carol Anne, hunched over in a football helmet, as a test subject.
She’s a cool mom who seems to understand where Dana is coming from as she goes through her adolescent angst - possibly because she was around Dana’s age when she got knocked up. She’s also a stay at home mom. In 2012 this character probably couldn’t exist - she would have to be a writer or a painter or sell crafts on Etsy because the modern movie world doesn’t truly respect stay at home moms. But for all of her fond remembrances of ‘the old days,’ Diane doesn’t seem unhappy to be at home with the kids. Steven’s adulthood has turned him into a person he doesn’t truly recognize - it’s turning him into James Karen, in fact - but adulthood has been better to Diane.
And so we have our two Baby Boomers, each approaching their middle age and their suburban lives from very different directions. Both directions, in the end, lead to the Other Side.
TV was the central figure in the lives of many Baby Boomers. They grew up in its warming glow; while Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Martin Scorsese and that whole crowd were known as the Film Brats, they were really the TV Kids, having seen many classics on television and having been fully enveloped in the pop culture of the air waves.
They were the first generation to grow up with TV, and so there was always something soothing about it. But the omnipresence of TV was also unsettling. TV for this generation meant something very different than TV for the current generation; today a TV is a tool that brings us what we want, whether it be video games or movies or sports events. Before the advent of home video and game consoles TV brought you what it wanted. TV was a portal through which others visited your home, and while you invited them in, they came at their own schedule. TV wasn’t an interactive servant of the viewer, it was the master and the viewer came to it.
Take that back to the first scene, with the tug of war over the remotes and you see that the film looks at TV as something you cannot control.
That’s the essential horror metaphor of the TV in Poltergeist wrapped up. It’s a pretty straightforward one, including the idea of being ‘trapped’ within the TV as a reflection of the fear of the addictive nature of the tube. What the film does with this metaphor that’s clever is it presents a twisted version of family TV time, with all the Freelings around a television tuned to white noise, hoping to get a transmission from the Other Side. It’s TV room recast as heroin shooting gallery, haggard figures huddled together to get what they need.
For the Baby Boomers the fear of the TV may have been magnified for their children. These people grew up rapt to a box that offered only a handful of channels, and by 1982 cable television was changing the viewing landscape. One of the other elements at play in Poltergeist is that this generation was the first to go overboard on protecting their children - the 80s would usher in the era of playground safety surveys and toy recalls - and one of the film’s central fears is that even being in the suburbs cannot protect your children.
In fact the suburbs might be the worst place possible. What fascinates me about Cuesta Verde is how empty it is; there’s the neighbor with the remote (later Steven and Diane come to his house to see if they’re having weird experiences too, but there’s no neighborliness there), and there are some asshole kids in the street who send an RC car after Steven’s friend with the beer. Then there’s James Karen as the boss, although where he actually lives is unclear. Other than that the Freelings are essentially alone, trapped in this enormous suburb without close connections. There’s no sense of community in this planned community.
Besides being aesthetically generic and emotionally barren, Cuesta Verde is just simply haunted. It’s strange that the Freelings appear to be the only people in the neighborhood with paranormal activity (is it somehow related to the fact that Carol Anne was born IN the house? That fact is mentioned in a throwaway line, but never really followed up on. It seems more chronologically likely that the new pool stirred things up, but it has less thematic resonance with the film’s finale) since the entire development is built on a cemetery. And it’s not the standard spook-story native burial ground - Cuesta Verde is built on the graves of white people, and not poor folks either, judging by their paranormally manifesting jewelry.
That distinction between a native burial ground and a white people cemetery is key. Poltergeist isn’t about how we built our cities on the bones of the people who came before; that’s old territory. It’s about how our suburbs are built on the bones of the America that came before. The suburb is largely a post-WWII invention, offering affordable housing to returning soldiers. The first Cuesta Verde-like* suburb was New York’s Levittown, a homogenized and racially exclusive planned community of 2000 identical houses on Long Island, built from 1947 to 1951. It served as the model for other suburbs across the country, and it’s considered so important that Smithsonian has been seeking an entire Levittown house to put on display.
The suburban explosion meant two things: the slow death of the standard American small town (you can chart a line from Levittown to the preponderance of big box stores) and the rapid destabilization of the American city. Whites fled the cities in huge numbers, leading to a wave of de-investment in them. By 1950 more people lived in suburbs than anywhere else in America. This new, bland living situation was killing not just the bucolic true rural communities but also the vibrant city centers. These are the bones upon which Cuesta Verde is built.
And so in Poltergeist it isn’t that the suburb is invaded by evil - the suburb is the invader. These identical masses of homes are like rapidly metastasizing cancer cells (Cuesta Verde is about to expand yet again in the next phase of development), and they aren’t just eating at the land, they’re eating at the very values that made the American dream. Cuesta Verde isn’t a place built on connections with neighbors, it’s a place built on the desire to insulate yourself from everyone else. Nobody wants to stand out, and everybody just wants to be left alone.
The most ironic thing about the movie Poltergeist is that it really has nothing to do with poltergeists. Instead it’s a pretty standard haunted house scenario, with a small nod to the fact that most poltergeist incidents involve young girls.
The classical version of poltergeist phenomena involves an unseen entity that engages in telekinetic mayhem. Most often the mayhem is centered around a young girl. Poltergeist activity rarely involves visible ghosts or seemingly intelligent entities, and they’ve been recorded back for centuries. Perhaps the earliest American poltergeist case is 1682’s Walton haunting, which saw stones, hammers, crowbars and other object materialize above and rain down on a New Hampshire cottage.
Modern parapsychologists tend to believe that poltergeist cases aren’t even hauntings but are rather spontaneous displays of psychokinetic ability in pubescent girls. Essentially Carrie is much more of a poltergeist movie than Poltergeist is. It’s possible that Poltergeist was influenced by a very widely reported case from 1967 and 68, that of Annemarie Schneider, a 19 year old secretary who was at the center of a series of weird events, including the unexplained movement of objects and a host of electronic oddness - including hundreds of phone calls made by no one, at a rate impossible with the 1967 mechanical dialing technology. The Schneider case was one of the most investigated and best documented poltergeist cases in history, and the electronic component is very different from earlier, all-physical manifestations.
It isn’t just ghosts bothering the Freelings. Poltergeist is a movie split into two halves, divided by the abduction of Carol Anne, and the second half becomes increasingly about a malevolent entity that is probably the actual Devil. In the first half we get to know the Freeling family and see a slow escalation of paranormal activity that blows up remarkably quickly. In a short span of time the incidents go from mysterious spoon bending and objects being moved around the kitchen to a menacing tree coming to life and attempting to literally eat son Robbie (Oliver Robins)** - which is all actually a feint to give the evil entity an opportunity to kidnap Carol Anne into the land between life and death.
What’s the impetus for the sudden explosion of activity? The Freelings have been living in the house for years - remember that Carol Anne was born there - but this stuff doesn’t start happening until a new pool is being dug. Surely the sewer and water mains were laid at least as deep as the pool, so why does this bit of digging set things off? This wouldn’t be so noticeable if the movie didn’t insist on having the phenomeno go from essentially 0 to 60 in a short time span. I feel that it’s likely the confused origins of the activity come from the troubled behind the scenes journey of the film (also evident in the ending, which is strange when you think about it - after all that happens the family is moving out IMMEDIATELY, that very night... but the house is still unpacked and Diane takes time to bathe and dye her hair. It simply doesn’t flow).
I like to think that it was Carol Anne’s birth that started it all, though. It certainly fits thematically with what comes later - her closet turns into a huge vagina, and she is returned from the Other Side in an ectoplasmic birth caul. The rescue of Carol Anne is a rebirth, almost quite literally when she and Diane aren’t breathing in the tub.
It also helps explain why The Beast is interested in the girl. It seems unlikely that the Freeling’s pool is the first serious digging in Cuesta Verde, but it is plausible that Carol Anne was the first baby born on the development. That makes Carol Anne’s rebirth a cleansing new start, a reclamation of the birth process.
Carol Anne as the focus also feeds into the film’s essential feminism. The Beast wants to use Carol Anne as a beacon to attract the souls trapped between this side and the other; it’s her life force - something that comes from the feminine - that attracts them. The Beast is specifically said to be male - a male entity that is abusing the warmth of femininity to devour innocent souls.
The film has two endings, each needing to be bigger than the last. Poltergeist gets really big halfway through with the tree attack, but it mostly recovers from that. While Carol Anne and Robbie’s room has become an extreme (and ridiculous) example of paranormal activity (honestly - the room alone is enough to rewrite the annals of science. It’s the first thing the investigators see when visiting the home. Why do the Freelings need to still keep everything so quiet? Part of it is the suburban mentality, but part of it comes from the brinksmanship of blockbusters. After the tree scene a toy moving on its own doesn’t have any impact - an entire room of toys must fly in circles and then attack observers***), the second act is filled with smaller and more personal incidents.
In fact one of the most famous scenes in Poltergeist is a hallucination; Marty, the nerdy parapsychologist, first sees maggots exploding from the meat he was eating and then runs into the bathroom where he imagines himself tearing off his own face. It’s an effective scene (that helped usher in the PG-13 rating) but it’s out of place in the larger film, where all of the activity to date had been purely physical.
Things eventually get back to blockbuster size when Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) arrives. The diminutive psychic is the final element of the film’s feminist trilogy - the cool mom, smart doctor and tough as nails medium seem to make up the life cycle of childhood, adulthood and whatever comes next - and she ramps it all up to the next level. More than that, she understands the basic dynamic of the house, that Diane is the comfort and love giver while Steven is the voice of hard discipline. That’s why Steven is recruited to yell at Carol Anne, while Diane is the one who actually goes into the portal to rescue her.
There’s a big Spielbergian lightshow here, with everyone yelling over the thundering sound of... the light, I guess. There are blue flames and an enormous Beast that emerges from the closet, scaring the shit out of Steven and forcing him to let go of the rope, sending Carol Anne and Diane off on their own in the Other Side. It’s his penultimate fatherly failure (he won’t even be home as the final attack begins).
The movie stumbles here again at the epilogue. With Carol Anne rescued and the spirits sent happily over to heaven or whatever, things appear to be over. But in a post-Carrie horror landscape one last shock is needed. Because this is a big blockbuster film of the 80s, that last shock needs to be big.
As mentioned above the basic set up of the finale makes little sense - the family is moving out immediately, and we see them filling up a moving truck, but their house seems fairly full and Diane decides to hang out in the tub while Steven fucks off to the office yet again - but it’s entirely effective. Just as everything seems to be winding down it turns out that the Beast isn’t happy, and he returns for one last grab at Carol Anne. This time he’s more powerful than ever, and he turns the closet into a fully realized, pink tissued vagina, complete with Japanese-reminiscent tentacles.
While he’s doing that he also begins sexually assaulting Diane. It’s a weird scene, and the molestation of JoBeth Williams seems heavily modeled on the molestation of Barbara Hershey in The Entity, which had come out in 1981 (and which also has a more true ‘poltergeist’ feel to it). But since the film is a family movie, the Beast’s molestation mostly comes down to pulling up her shirt while she lays in bed and then dragging her around the room and across the ceiling.
She recovers and immediately rescues her kids. Again, Steven is nowhere to be found, and Diane is left to be the only shield between her kids (at least Robbie and Carol Anne; Dana is off with some boys, possibly remaking her mother’s teenaged mistakes) and this evil, corrupted vagina.
When Steven does arrive the shit continues to hit the fan, with the still-interred corpses bursting from underneath the house and bobbing about in the pool. The house had been cleansed of the spirits of these dead, but the effect is impressive anyway. And this, again, is an 80s blockbuster. Things need to get loud and explodey.
The final explosion is actually an implosion, as the Beast just sucks the entire house into the Other Side. The visual effect here is very much a quote of Raiders of the Lost Ark, capping off a movie that has been hugely self-aware (Robbie’s room is jammed with Star Wars stuff - while there’s an argument to be made that this is what would be in the room of a boy in 1982, the sheer amount of it feels like a back pat to George Lucas). Everybody’s screaming and yelling and James Karen falls to his knees, wondering how to explain this shit at the next home owners association meeting.
But there’s nothing to explain. There is no solution. Cuesta Verde is evil from its very core, which is why the attempt to cleanse did nothing. The Freelings couldn’t make the suburbs any better, their only recourse was to escape them.
Regardless of whether or not Spielberg directed Poltergeist, his name is all over the credits - he gets screenplay and story by credits, as well as producer credits. In a lot of ways the ending of Poltergeist is the opposite of the ending of Close Encounters - instead of breaking the family apart, the strange phenomena brings them together. They’re all left sleeping in a hotel room together, jammed into probably just two beds.
Spielberg was the child of divorce, and his suburban films are filled with broken homes and absent fathers. In that way Steven Freeling is just another Spielberg character, just another reflection of Spielberg’s own family life. But what’s fascinating is that Steven Freeling doesn’t leave the family; while he’s unable to really be effective - it’s all about the mom - he stays. And he tries his best. Poltergeist, which is probably the darkest fantasy that has Spielberg’s hands directly in it, a film that is about the ugliness at the center of the suburban experience, reads like his wish fulfillment. Where ET has a fatherless boy discovering wonder in the suburbs, Poltergeist has a horrible suburban experience bringing a family together. This is the story of how a suburban family stays together, not how it breaks apart. Spielberg finds hope in the darkness.
Is that hope for the future, and not just a wish fulfillment of the past? It can't be a coincidence that the dad here is named Steven...
Poltergeist is one of horror’s great odes to motherhood. It’s funny that one of the few non-Star Wars posters in Robbie’s room is Alien, a movie that recasts birth as violent horror, and whose sequel would try to reclaim the concept of motherhood. Poltergeist flirts with vagina dentata, but it ends up coming down squarely on the side of motherhood. Moms, it turns out, are the only thing standing between us and The Beast.
Coming Soonish: Part 2 of my examination of Poltergeist will look at the behind the scenes troubles of the movie, and they don't just include the question of who actually directed the film.
* suburbs had existed long before WWII, but the meaning and demographics of suburbs changed massively after the war.
** in a film so centered on motherhood and birth, is it possible that the consumption of Robbie is male fear of vagina made real?
*** this scene feels like the Rosetta Stone of ghostly activity in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, by the way... if Evil Dead hadn't premiered the year before Poltergeist came out. I wonder if anyone in the production had seen Raimi's little movie, which wasn't actually released until 1983.