Spielberg: Poltergeist

(For those interested in my earlier thoughts on Poltergeist, I direct you here.)

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Diane Freeling is a middle-class housewife and mother of three. Like many middle-class mothers, she is content to merely get through the day, negotiating the various comedies and headaches of middle-class American existence — the fighting kids, the snotty neighbors, the promiscuous teenager.

There is, of course, an underlying fear to her life, the same fear that lies beneath just about everyone’s life — the fear of death. Diane does not feel death at her elbow, but she knows it’s out there waiting somewhere, and while she may or may not be content with that knowledge, she very much wants to keep it from her children. This desire first expresses itself as Diane trying to soften the blow of the death of her preschooler’s pet bird, but the stakes for Diane will eventually rise to the point where she will, literally, enter the gates of Hell in order to save her child from death.

The structure of Poltergeist is quite interesting. It has four acts, I think, and is divided not into “chapters” per se but into “days” and “nights.”

ACT I (0:00 – 42:30)

NIGHT 1: The opening scare. The family is introduced as they sleep, but little Carol Anne is awakened by voices. She comes down and talks to the TV, which has just finished broadcasting for the day.

DAY 1: We get a clearer picture of the Freemans and their days. Husband Steve watches the game with his pals and deals with his tetchy neighbor, Diane cleans house and deals with Carol-Anne’s dead bird.

NIGHT 2: Carol Anne gets a pair of goldfish to replace the dead bird. Diane and Steve (Steve!) get high and watch TV. Son Robbie is frightened by a storm. When the TV goes off the air again, Carol Anne again awakens and converses with the voices in the TV. A spectral force bursts out of the TV and shakes the house.

DAY 2: Steve and Diane are concerned about the house shaking, but there are too many petty domestic crises to deal with. The new pool is being dug, the teen daughter Dana is a little out of control, the pool men are obnoxious. There is some ghostly activity but nothing too weird. Once Robbie and Dana go off to school, Diane is left alone with Carol Anne. The kitchen chairs then stack themselves on the table.

NIGHT 3: Steve arrives home to find Diane transformed — supernatural activity is going on in the house and she’s altogether giddy about it. They go next door to talk to the neighbors but get nowhere with that. After bedtime, another storm hits. This time, a tree crashes through the window and attacks Robbie as a tornado whisks through the back yard (I’m still puzzling over that one). AsDiane and Steve tussle with the child-eating tree, the closet door opens and sucks Carol Anne into it.

(42:30 – 1:07:00)

DAY: Some time later. Steve, at the end of his rope, goes to what looks like a university and meets Dr. Lesh, who is some sort of ghost expert. Dr. Lesh, either that day or another day, comes to the Freelings’ house with her team. They are all quite impressed with the level of paranormal activity going on in every corner of the house.

NIGHT: The longest chapter in the movie, with three separate and distinct sub-chapters. In Night A, Dr. Lesh and her team witness Diane contacting Carol Anne. We are given the first indications that there is something else besides a traditional haunting going on here. In Night B, Dr. Lesh admits her fear and comforts Diane and Robbie. In Night C, one of Dr. Lesh’s helpers, Marty, has a series of escalating hallucinations. Directly after this, there is a major ghost event in the living room. We begin to see the enormity of the problem facing the Freelings.

ACT III (1:07:00 – 1:32:30)

DAY: Dr. Lesh leaves, promising to bring help. Robbie goes to stay with grandparents. (It is implied that Dana has been staying at a friend’s house.) Diane tries to maintain a sense of normalcy but fails — she is worn to the nub. Steve’s boss comes by and offers him a promotion, and mentions in the process that his house is built on top of a cemetery.

NIGHT: Dr. Lesh comes back with midget psychic Tangia, who scopes out the house and tells Diane that it, and her daughter, are in the control of The Beast. She has a scheme for getting Carol Anne out of The Beast’s clutches, and this plan, as unlikely and untried as it is, somehow works. Diane enters into the Belly of the Beast and saves Carol Anne.


DAY: The next day. The Freelings, reunited, move their possessions out of the house (how they scheduled a whole-house move on no notice whatsoever is beyond me — master realtor Steve must have connections in the moving business).

NIGHT: The move, apparently, extends into more than one day — there are still plenty of possessions in the house at nightfall. Steve goes in to the office to wrap up his business there while Dana goes on a date and the kids fight over toys. It’s back to life as usual, except that as evening turns to night, The Beast attacks again, stronger than ever, and tries to take back Carol Anne. Diane must, again, risk her life to save her children. The Freelings barely get out of the house before The Beast, in its rage, destroys the house and large portions of the neighborhood.

THE BEAST: “Clear your mind, it knows what scares you” is, of course, the key line of Poltergeist. And the first thing you should maybe clear your mind of is any knowledge you might have of poltergeist phenomena, because it’s only going to confuse you. As I discussed before in my earlier post (see top of entry) Poltergeist fudges quite a bit on the whole “ghost” part of its ghost story. All kinds of stuff happens in Poltergeist, much of it terrifically thrilling, from bent silverware to instant tornadoes, but very little of it has anything to do with poltergeist phenomena as it is generally understood. As I noted earlier, Poltergeist is closely related to the early, forgotten Spielberg TV movie Something Evil, where an upper-class New York couple move themselves and their two kids to a house upstate that happens to be possessed by the devil. As in the earlier movie, not that much in Poltergeist makes that much sense; unlike the earlier movie, Poltergeist is plenty scary and hugely entertaining.

Diane’s problem, of course, is that she, like Roy Neary in Close Encounters, has wandered into an upper-middle-class life without any real plan in mind. (The screenplay skates right past the fact that she’s 32 years old — that means she had her first child, Dana, at 16.) Now approaching middle age, Diane has a husband bringing in good income, and a house and family to take care of, and those things keep her busy just kind of stumbling cheerfully through the days. The appearance of a poltergeist in the house at first seems like a saving grace to Diane — she’s momentarily transported to a moment in her life when her mind was still open and her life wasn’t filled with all the useless crap she has. But then The Beast punches a hole in her child’s bedroom closet. Once that happens, Diane is reminded — violently — that her middle-class life with all its comforts and petty distractions is nothing but a charade, a sad attempt to ward off the inevitability of death.

Diane, you see, has “bought into the system” — joined the big consumerist juggernaut. She’s gotten married to an “earner,” had a kid (I think in that order, the script doesn’t specify) gotten the nice house in the suburbs, with all the modern conveniences, and is now putting in a pool. This system, she finds out, is literally built on the bodies of the dead, and there is, within her house, an eternal battle for good and evil taking place, and the stakes are the lives of her beloved family.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. And yet, the movie does begin with a close-up of a TV screen playing the national anthem. And Dana is first shown wearing a “Question Authority” button on, of all garments, her bathrobe. And Steven does read a book on Ronald Reagan as he smokes pot with his wife after hours. “The Beast” is a name for Satan, but it is also a term that Nixon used to describe the the heartless, unstoppable capitalist machine that drives the US forward. And if the capitalist machine is the true villain of Poltergeist, how the hell is it going to get into the Freeling house if not through the TV? “It knows what scares you” is the tag line, and what better description of the capitalist machine, alternately luring and threatening middle class families with delights and terrors directed at their children? Tangina says “To Carol Anne, it is simply another child,” and I can’t help but think of the way my own children think of the marketing that comes at them through the TV — they believe the advertisers attached to the various entertainments and toys advertised are their friends who only want to have fun with them, not canny, sophisticated businessmen scheming to separate their college tuition from their parents’ bank accounts.

“We worked so hard for this,” sighs Diane after she and Steve have made their decision to drop out. She and Steve have based their existences on the American dream and it turned around and tried to kill their family — a fitting movie for the dawn of Reagan’s America.

I have, of course, many questions about this Beast. First, why here? Why the Freelings’ house? As near as I can figure, the house-on-the-cemetery has created all these restless spirits, and the restless spirits have centered their restlessness on the Freelings instead of any of the otherdozens of houses in the development because Steve is the number-one salesman in the neighborhood, and so The Beast, seeing an opportunity to scoop up a few hundred restless spirits, punches a hole through Carol Anne’s closet and grabs her, using her as a lure to get the restless spirits to come over to the dark side. And Diane is the only thing that stands in The Beast’s way of achieving its goal. Why the Beast has to take what is apparently a number of weeks to accomplish this is beyond me, and how the physics of Carol Anne’s disincorporation and reincorporation are supposed to work are similarly unexamined. And what this all has to do with Marty’s meat-centric hallucinations is unclear.

(I’m trying to put myself into Tangina’s mindset when she says “well, two tennis balls went into the Mouth of Hell and came out the living-room ceiling, I see no reason why the same trick shouldn’t work with a human being — and we should be able to grab Carol Anne while we’re at it!”)

The neighborhood in Poltergeist is virtually identical to the one in E.T. (which opened a week later — think of that), and as this phase of Spielberg’s artistic development comes to a close, one can look at the Freelings, the Nearys of Close Encounters and Elliott’s family as a kind of trio of broken, middle-class American families, their houses all cluttered with mass-culture garbage, stumbling through their lives until a cosmic event comes along and shocks them out of their routines. The production design on these houses is brilliant and filled with subtle clues about the relative status and income of the families’ breadwinners, and deserve a long, thoughtful post of their own. But probably not written by me.

I was delighted to discover that Spielberg includes his favorite sound effect, The Wilhelm Scream, in the war-movie clip that Carol Anne watches on TV.



6 Responses to “Spielberg: Poltergeist”
  1. Anonymous says:

    The Beast

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks for the great articles on “Poltergeist.” I run one of the biggest fan web sites dedicated to all three films at http://www.poltergeist.poltergeistIII.com. Feel free to check it out and contact me (my email is on the site).

    I agree that some of the narrative explanations for WHY things were taking place in the original film are a bit thin. The sequels, however flawed, do attempt to explain more and give a backstory. For example, it’s revealed in “Poltergeist II” that “The Beast” isn’t Satan at all but rather an insane preacher (“Rev. Henry Kane”) who took his followers to die in a cavern beneath the cemetary. This cavern was directly under the Freeling’s house. That’s another flaw of the sequel though-they don’t really spell out how the lost souls of Kane’s followers relate to the lost souls buried in the cemetary right above them. I think it’s hinted that Kane and his group are “the core,” and the cemetary ghosts were sort of “drawn in” with the rest later.

    Thanks again for the article.


  2. curt_holman says:

    “Why the Freelings’ house?”

    Wasn’t that the first house built in the development?

    “The screenplay skates right past the fact that she’s 32 years old — that means she had her first child, Dana, at 16.”

    Jobeth Williams was apparently about 33 when they filmed it — maybe they wrote for an older actress, cast a younger one and hoped nobody would notice.

    “The neighborhood in Poltergeist is virtually identical to the one in E.T. (which opened a week later — think of that)”

    I remember articles at the time saying that ‘ET’ was a like a kid’s dream, and ‘Poltergeist’ was like a kid’s nightmare. And in retrospect, it seems like a pointed artistic statement for these two Spielberg films (one directed by him, one that looks just like it was directed by him) to come out in tandem. They’re “twinned,” like he made his own double feature. I wonder if it was a fluke of scheduling, or what? At the very least, you’d think the films would have been released with a couple of months between them, so they wouldn’t have drained each other’s business.

  3. Diane, you see, has “bought into the system” — joined the big consumerist juggernaut. She’s gotten married to an “earner,” had a kid (I think in that order, the script doesn’t specify) gotten the nice house in the suburbs, with all the modern conveniences, and is now putting in a pool. This system, she finds out, is literally built on the bodies of the dead, and there is, within her house, an eternal battle for good and evil taking place, and the stakes are the lives of her beloved family.

    This reminds me of Stephen King’s similar comments about The Amityville Horror in Danse Macabre – that the “horror” of the title is the horror of being chewed up and spit out by the system of money and debt, as embodied by the big house the Lutzes just bought and which they’re forced to flee at the end of the story. He noted the scene where George Lutz loses the money he was going to lend his brother-in-law in particular.

  4. I never liked Poltergeist. I saw it in the theater when it came out, was probably around 21-22 yrs old and frankly was bored by it.

    Reading your write-up about it today made me think that perhaps one of the most recognized aspects of the film makes it feel dated. In this day and age of hundreds of channels on cable and satellite, channels that air 24 hours a day, are there any stations that actually sign off and go to static anymore?

    • Todd says:

      Well, obviously not. But the “Star Spangled Banner” closing leading to static was one of the hallmarks of the pre-cable era.

  5. moroccomole says:

    The notion of bourgeois families getting shaken up by cosmic events is also a recurring element in the novels of Douglas Coupland. In an interview, Coupland once told me that he loved disaster movies as a kid because his suburban upbringing was so predictable and stultifying.