It’s hard to imagine, 25 years later, how fresh and peculiar Poltergeist felt in 1982. Before Poltergeist, haunted house movies usually went basically like this:

ACT I: Some people move into a haunted house. Maybe on a dare, maybe out of necessity, maybe in a spirit of inquiry. We are told the house is haunted and so we wait for something scary to happen. And the filmmakers drag out every trick they can think of to produce "fake scares," things that have nothing to do with actual paranormal activity.

ACT II: Scary things happen, but they are explained away by one thing or another. Factions are drawn among the members of the people in the house. One person sees ghosts, the others don’t. Maybe it’s all a trick being played by unscrupulous real-estate developers. Maybe it’s all in the mind of one of the people in the house.

ACT III: The people are now trapped in the house and cannot escape, and it is revealed that there are, indeed, ghosts. And many scary things happen as the people desperately try to figure out how to get out of the house. And someone, usually the last person you’d suspect, has the key to get out of the house, or the solution that will appease the ghosts. And maybe it turns out it’s actually unscrupulous real-estate developers after all.

Poltergeist does none of this. Spielberg has so much he wants to tell you about ghosts, you can feel the giddy excitement in the narrative as he unpacks every box of ghost research he’s got. In this way, Poltergeist is almost a sequel to Close Encounters — it’s not enough that Spielberg entertain you — he wants to make you a believer.

(Compare the narrative of Poltergeist with the narrative of Jaws, Spielberg’s previous horror movie, or for that matter The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, nominal director Tobe Hooper’s best-known previous work. Jaws is: Act I, there’s a shark and it’s really scary but we can’t afford to actually show it to you, Act II, that shark is still out there but we still can’t afford to show it to you, Act III, here’s that shark you paid your money to see, we finally gotit to work — doesn’t it look great? Chainsaw is: Act I, nothing happens, Act II, it looks like something might happen, Act III, something happens.)

(And while I’m here, a note on Tobe Hooper’s direction of Poltergeist. There has been much angst exercised over the years regarding whether or not Hooper actually directed Poltergeist. I don’t know one way or the other — I was not there. However, if Hooper did direct Poltergeist, I find it odd that he didn’t think to develop his own visual style for the movie, but instead included dozens of Spielbergian stylistic cues, from following the dog around the house to introduce the characters to the many shots of people gazing wide-eyed in wonder at something fantastic happening off-screen. Not to mention the performances of the children, the uses of light and color and music, the editing, and on and on and on.)

Spielberg in Poltergeist wants to give you value for money. So he brings the ghosts in as quickly as possible — in the very first scene. Now, the problem with writing a haunted-house movie (I should know, I’ve written more than one) is: why do the people stay there? In Poltergeist, Spielberg gives us first one reason, then another. First, he says "Well, what if the ghosts aren’t mean at first? What would be so bad about a haunted house? Wouldn’t it be, in the right light, kind of cool?" And the first act of Poltergeist is, essentially, a suburban comedy about a haunted tract house.

(The idea of a haunted tract house is brilliant all by itself, and the upending of a crucial haunted-house trope, that is, that a haunted house be a "special place" with a "creepy history," far away from the civilized world, preferably up on a steep, forbidding mountain, not an anonymous cookie-cutter suburban dwelling indistinguishable from its neighbors.)

If Poltergeist were a normal haunted-house movie, Carol Ann would see the ghosts but no one else would, and the whole first act would be about whether the ghosts were real and is maybe Carol Anne crazy instead. And the ghosts would stand the chairs on the table but Mom wouldn’t see it happen and Carol Anne would get in trouble, and Mom and Dad would take Carol Anne to the doctor to see if the problem is somehow psychological, and on and on. But as I say, Spielberg has got too much to show us and he can’t wait to get started. He piles it on: glasses break, cutlery bends, TVs whisper, chairs dance, tornadoes strike and trees attack, and that’s all in Act I.

So: why does the family stay? Spielberg solves the problem with an ingenious solution: Carol Anne, our favorite character, gets kidnapped by the ghosts, forcing the family to remain in the house. It’s brilliant. I don’t know how he came up with it, except that the Family Under Attack is Spielberg’s Big Subject and the heart of most of his movies.

Act II begins, and the Experts are called in. Now, again, in most haunted house movies, the experts would be called in and the house would suddenly calm down again, and there would be much suspense about whether or not the ghosts would appear to outsiders, and is the family going to be thought crazy, blah de blah de blah. Spielberg sets us up for this eventuality wonderfully, then shows the experts utterly overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of phenomena on display, another brilliant stroke.

The movie glides on rails the rest of the way, a series of expertly handled set-pieces.

I do have two Hollywood-screenwriter complaints. I didn’t have these complaints in 1982 when I went to see this movie ten times in the theaters, and I didn’t have them any of the ten times I watched the movie in the ensuing 25 years, but these things did finally occur to me while watching it the other night:

1. The movie is called Poltergeist, yet the phenomenon in the house turns out not to be a poltergeist at all, in a big way. Rather, it starts as a poltergeist-like problem, then evolves into some other kind of haunting thing after the experts show up. It seems that Spielberg, dissatisfied with the dramatic potential of a pure poltergeist phenomenon, started tossing all kinds of ghost ideas into the narrative to make the movie more exciting (extra bonus points: it works). Strange articles appear in mid-air — why? Yes I know they’re from the graves of the people buried under the house, but why do they appear, through what agency, and why? And why at that moment?

And then the movie turns out not to be a haunted house movie at all, rather a possessed house movie, so that we’re not talking about getting rid of ghosts, we’re talking about getting rid of Satan (or, as he’s called here, "the Beast"). This is all well and good, but it makes me wonder about the Bad Guy Plot. With that in mind, let me see if I can construct such a plot.

POLTERGEIST — THE BAD GUY PLOT: The Freeling’s house is built over a cemetery. The people buried in the cemetery are restless — why? Is it because Dad works for the real-estate company? Why are they restless now? Why weren’t they restless when the place was first built? What is the inciting incident? The movie has a great idea with the "open TV channel" inviting the ghosts into the house, but why do they enter the house on this particular night? The movie indicates that "Dad falling asleep in front of the TV" is a common occurrence in the Freeling house, why do they wait until this one night to show up? And is it even the ghosts who show up, or is it already The Beast? Who talks to Carol Anne? Is it The Beast, or is it the ghosts? The Hollywood Screenwriter in me suggests that it’s The Beast who whispers to Carol Anne, and who snatches her into the closet at the end of Act I. Who else but The Beast would go so far as summoning at tornado as a distraction to get the family into the yard so it could snatch the child?

So, if there were no ghosts in Act I, but only the actions of The Beast, then why do the ghosts demonstrably show up in Act II? Were the ghosts always there, but essentially benign until Carol Anne was kidnapped? WHAT DOES THE BEAST WANT? The Beast wants to lure the ghosts of the Freeling house into Hell, using their fascination with Carol Anne as bait. The struggle between Carol Anne, the ghosts and the Beast, if I had to guess, is what causes all the weird stuff to happen in the Freeling house. This would also explain the full-scale, neighborhood-wide freakout at the end of the movie. As The Beast comes to claim what it feels is Its, all hell breaks loose with the neighborhood dead. Although I can’t for the life of me figure out why the Beast, or the ghosts, or Carol Anne would think it necessary to make Expert Guy With Glasses hallucinate eating rotten meat and then tearing his face off.

So maybe it’s that The Beast snatches Carol Anne, which excites the ghosts into gathering around where The Beast holds Carol Anne, which is near the bi-location, which is what causes them to drop their personal effects into the Freeling’s living room. If this is the case, I wouldn’t have minded having all this spelled out, because right now it just seems like a lot of steadily-escalating weirdness.

2. The Freelings have a 16-year-old daughter, even though the mother is said to be only 32 years old. This makes no sense, and the daughter is included, if I had to guess, because poltergeist phenomena tend to occur around adolescent girls. Yet the 16-year-old girl exits the narrative early on and has zero impact on the story. Possible solutions to this problem: cut the teenage girl entirely, or loop the dad’s line of dialog that says Mom is 32. Say she’s 40.It’s not too late!

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22 Responses to “Poltergeist”
  1. Todd says:

    I saw Poltergeist II a while back. I don’t remember it being very good.

    • popebuck1 says:

      It was pretty lame, but at least it was trying to maintain the atmosphere of the first movie (mixing the “family” stuff with the “horror” stuff, that kind of thing). The third one, however, had no redeemable features whatsoever.

  2. zodmicrobe says:

    If one is to do a structural analysis of this movie, one has to address The Big Fake Ending. Because so few films do it anywhere near as well as this one does. I remember watching it for the first time and thinking “Wow, that was cool, it’s really over” after Zelda proclaims “the house is clean!”

    And then, of course, there’s another 20 minutes of total bugfuck nutsoness (and the “solution” to the entire mystery). I can only imagine in 1982 people gathering their stuff, collecting their coats, waiting for the credits to start rolling… just to have the movie continue… and then somewhere realizing oh wait, this movie isn’t over…

    (I recall clearly watching people gather their belongings when Indiana Jones was on the ship at RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as well.)

    • Todd says:

      The movie so thoroughly freaked me out by the “fake ending” that when it didn’t end, I found myself getting quite upset. I remember thinking “Ah! Yes, and now they’re moving away from the house. Good for them! — Er, wait, why are they still in the house? Where’s dad? No. No. Not a close-up of the water coming out of the tub faucet! NOOOOOOOO!!

      It’s the piece de resistence, Spielberg’s final treat in the movie. “Oh, you thought you liked that, huh? Well guess what, I haven’t even gotten started yet. Heh heh heh heh heh.”

  3. curt_holman says:

    “The Freelings have a 16-year-old daughter, even though the mother is said to be only 32 years old.”

    YES! I watched Poltergeist a few weeks ago, and wondered the EXACT thing!

    In retrospect, it’s pretty sad when Zelda Rubinstein says “This house is clean,” when in fact, it’s going to get a lot dirtier, with the rotting corpses about to erupt from the earth and all.

    I wonder if Spielberg or anyone involved with the writing of the film commented on its resemblance to The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost,” about a young girl who gets stuck in misty alternative dimension, but is still audible from her home.

    The computer-animated “Simpsons” story Homer3 offered a spoof of the episode:
    Rev. Lovejoy: Can you see a light, Homer?
    Homer’s voice: I think so.
    Rev. Lovejoy: Go into the light, my son!
    Sound effect: ZZZZZT!
    Homer’s voice: AUGH!

    • Todd says:

      Seeing as how Spielberg’s very next project was Twilight Zone: The Movie, it’s hard to imagine he was unaware of the episode.

  4. craigjclark says:

    Ever since I was a kid I always thought that the trigger event that causes the ghosts to start being restless was the remote control war between the Freelings and their neighbors in the opening scene.

  5. jstrocel says:

    >Although I can’t for the life of me figure out why the Beast, or the >ghosts, or Carol Anne would think it necessary to make Expert Guy With >Glasses hallucinate eating rotten meat and then tearing his face off.

    The Beast probably wanted the experts to go away, since more people means that eventually they’ll figure out a way to keep it from its objective. While it would’ve liked to get rid of all of them, the glasses-wearing expert was probably the most susceptible.

    I believe that the scene was key in raising the stakes of the movie. It’s hard to sell a ghost as a scary villain. Ordinarily they can’t interact with solid matter, and when they do it’s no different from a solid person wielding a knife or club. You can’t be afraid of something if it doesn’t pose some sort of threat. In poltergeist, that threat is being scared to death – think post-traumatic stress disorder times a billion.

    • Todd says:

      There is no question that the scene is frightening, but I watched it the other night with someone who’d never seen the movie before (yeah, I know — where’d I find one of those?) and even seeing it for the first time, my viewing companion was like “What? What does this have to do with anything? Now ghosts can cause hallucinations?

      • jstrocel says:

        I guess that’s where it comes down to personal preference. If you have exposition to explain absolutely everything that happens in a horror movie, the scares become predictable and the fear dies.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I always thought the 16-year-old mother thing was actually on purpose. Teenage parents add a little spice to the story.

    • jake82 says:

      Yeah, I always thought that was part of the muddled connotations about these Funky Modern Times, in a 1980’s kind of world where the former 60’s wild child (signified by the parental pot-smoking scene) is settling down to a bland, capitalistic suburban life. The teenage daughter is their mistake kid, and the younger offspring are their “let’s make a nuclear family” kids. They’re just trying to do the right thing, and move on from their checkered pasts, but it turns out the right thing is built on an ancient burial ground by the greedy pigs these love children have succumbed to!

      • Anonymous says:

        And there are a number of bits suggesting that the “mistake kid” is taking after her parents (getting knocked up herself).

  7. “However, if Hooper did direct Poltergeist, I find it odd that he didn’t think to develop his own visual style for the movie,”

    Yeah, but producers come in different flavours. Consider Tsui Hark, for example, who also exerts a lot of influence over his productions and has a distinctive style regardless of the director. The director’s main role has expanded considerably in Western cinema to cover aspects that, really, the director doesn’t need to oversee. But this is not the time to get into an argument about auteur theory.

    “Hey Tobe, why not follow the dog around to introduce the characters?”
    “Well, I was actually planning to–“
    “No, no, that’s cool too. Tell you what, shoot both and we’ll choose later.”

    And then when the producer is in charge of editing…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Julia Phillips

    In producer Julia Phillips’ memoir, YOU’LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN, she confirms that Spielberg directed POLTERGEIST.

    Then again, she was snorting buckets of coke at the time, and may not have been the best expert witness

    • Todd says:

      Re: Julia Phillips

      Zelda Rubenstein, who plays the Magic Midget, says that Hooper wasn’t even there on the six days that she worked. She also indicated that he was doing too many drugs to direct a movie.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Julia Phillips

        Betraying my utter ignorance here, but what’s the point of having Tobe as the credited director if Speilberg is/was going/turned out to be the actual director? I half-suspect that Spielberg thought that it would simply be amusing to have a “ghost-director” (instead of a ghost writer) on a movie called POLTERGEIST.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Julia Phillips

          I’m going way out on a limb here, but I remember something about how Poltergeist went into production before E.T. had wrapped (they came out within a week of each other!) and the DGA told Spielberg he couldn’t be the director on two active projects at once.

  9. planettom says:

    I was really impressed with the bit where all the chairs are balanced on top of the table, because it’s such perfect non-supernatural proof of the supernatural. She doesn’t see them levitating, but there’s no way Carol-Anne could have done it when she wasn’t looking.

    And now I’m realizing I’m confusing it with the similar scene in THE SIXTH SENSE where the mother leaves the kitchen for just a few seconds and returns to find every drawer opened, in a way that the kid couldn’t have done but would be completely unimpressive if she ran and got someone to look at it. “Uh, all the kitchen cabinets being open means something supernatural is happening?”

  10. Anonymous says:

    Haunted house’s movies

    Hi Todd,

    Beside Shining and Poltergeist, which haunted house’s movies would you recommend to watch as I’m doing some researches right now for a script that I’m writing. I’m looking for movies that are more targeted for teenagers (like Monster House…).

    Thanks a lot,

    • Todd says:

      Re: Haunted house’s movies

      Well, there’s The Haunting of course, the Robert Wise one please, the other is an atrocity, The Innocents, which is an adaptation of Turn of the Screw, The Others of course, which is magnificent. I’ve never seen the originals of The House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts, but I’d recommend checking them out, you’ve got your Ju-On movies from Japan that are pretty freaky. I don’t particularly care for the Amityville movies, but you might find something there.

      The key, generally speaking, is that the haunted house movie is a mystery: why is the house haunted? What happened there, that the previous occupants can’t “move on?” And, why is our protagonist the only one who can break the curse?

      Good luck!