When asked which movie first scared them, most people turn to an expected slate of children’s flicks: appropriate for all viewers, but containing some undeniably freaky images. (The Wizard of Oz comes readily to mind, as does Disney’s Snow White.) But when you ask which horror movie first scared them, a significant number of people would probably pick Poltergeist. It was rated PG, after all, and prominently featured Steven Spielberg’s name when the director was preparing to unleash the ultimate cuddly alien upon us all. So who worried about letting the kids take a look at Poltergeist?
That attitude lasted – at best – until the hideous fucking clown popped out from under the bed. An entire generation followed it up by sleeping in mommy and daddy’s room for the next month.
We would have done well to look closer at the poster and note that Steven Friend-to-All-Children actually only produced the film (though rumors continually surface to the contrary). The director, Tobe Hooper, has a much different set of films on his resume… notably one about power tools and suspicious meat products. With that name in the forefront, the pants-wetting terror that followed should come as less of a shock. Certainly, the two filmmakers baited their hooks well. The film’s haunted house appears in modern suburbia, occupied by a Norman Rockwell family of the sort that Spielberg adored. The first half hour plays like a low-key sitcom, as dad (Craig T. Nelson) bickers with his neighbors, mom (JoBeth Williams) negotiates the passing of a pet canary, and their three kids engage in various forms of low-key normality. Even little Carol Anne’s (Heather O’Rourke) sleepwalking incidents seem perfectly ordinary, as does her habit of talking to the TV after all the channels sign off for the night.
Therein lies Poltergeist’s sublime rope-a-dope. We integrate ourselves into this family immediately, and the film unwraps its carnival of horrors solely through their eyes. The ghosts in the TV soon manifest themselves more directly and while we eventually understand their reasons for being here (more or less), that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. We see much of it through the perception of the children, who view it as alternately fascinating and horrible. The parents ultimately revert to a similar state. They understand nothing about what’s happening around them and can only latch on to the most direct goals if they wish to escape their formerly perfect home alive.
Hooper’s scares rely upon that unknown quality: the fact that that these spirits could appear at any time in any form and do any number of scary things. The banality of suburban America makes the horrors on display all the more chilling. We built our tract homes on the bones of older, darker things… things that have a way of asserting themselves over our ridiculously self-centered attempts to cover them up. (Kubrick touched on the idea first with The Shining, and shades of the concept echo in more recent horror films like Ringu.) To that, Poltergeist adds an instinctive knowledge of childhood fears: monsters in the corners, demons beneath the bed, the imposing tree outside the window ready to gobble you up at any moment. If they can exist where we live– amid the humdrum worries of raising kids and keeping up with the neighbors – then their veracity becomes impossible to deny.
Looking at the film thirty years later, it remains a ferocious product of the 80s… not just in its fashions and suburban locale, but in things like the TV which plays such a pivotal part in the proceedings. Station sign-offs no longer exist, and the electronic snow that entices Carol Anne rarely (if ever) appears on our screens. That datedness helps add to its charm, as does the relatively slow pace with which it unfurls its story. A more recent film would jump right to the scares, but Poltergeist seduces us with more discipline than that. The supernatural goings-on start out comparatively benign – as if the spooks and specters were nothing more than the latest appliance to make the folks next door envious – before showing their true colors and exacting a terrifying cost.
Whether Spielberg or Hooper actually directed it is irrelevant. Shades of both filmmakers appear within the film’s framework, and it becomes all the stronger for each man’s contribution. It remains the ultimate Reagan-era horror movie: nuclear family consumerism thrust against the terrifying fundaments of the universe. And in a long-ago summer bereft of financially successful horror movies, its impressive box office performance speaks volumes about the fears it could conjure. Thanks to Poltergeist, more than a few of us still sleep with the lights on: the world has changed, but our closets haven’t, and it knows better than most movies what lurks in the darkness beyond.