Poltergeist (1982) explained: TV, terror and suburbia

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

The ghosts in 80s horror movie Poltergeist aren’t just for scares. They’re a way of looking at family, childhood – and what comes after death.

What is Poltergeist about?

The Freeling family are living the American dream: three kids, a beautiful home and room for a pool. But when 5-year-old Carol Anne hears voices coming from the TV, it’s the start of a nightmare that sees the little girl taken by spirits haunting the family home.

The end of childhood

Growing up is hard to do, a truth that cinema, literature and society returns to time and again. Poltergeist’s haunting builds on this same metaphor.

The film revisits popular theories of the time that linked pubescence with poltergeist activity, especially in girls. Even The Waltons – America’s cosiest TV show – saw youngest daughter Elizabeth manifest fears of growing up with a haunting.

With hindsight, the trend seems a rather suspect way of dwelling on the bodies, desirability and sexual availability of young girls.

In Poltergeist, it’s 5-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) who attracts ghosts, while older sis Dana (Dominique Dunne) attracts openly lecherous builders. Incidentally, this latter scene may have passed without note at the time, but is downright creepy now.

Yet it’s not just the children who must grow up. Parents Diane (JoBeth Williams) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson) are themselves still adolescents who smoke pot and jump on the bed. Diane in particular has a lot of growing up to do on-screen.

She starts the film dressed in boy shorts and sneakers, as though she’s just come in from playing in the yard. It’s only when her daughter disappears that we see her more like a traditional suburban mom in slacks and blouses.

She wears all-white to rescue Carol Anne (and even kneels in front of Tangina to take her blessing, like a kind of baptism). And she ends the movie with a streak of white hair, a badge of honour signifying wisdom and experience.

Her journey through the closet – with shades of Narnia – signifies a kind of coming of age. It’s the end of innocence and the knowledge of death (foreshadowed by Tweetie at the start of the film).

Similarly, the Freeling kids between them face all manner of childhood fears: clowns, scary trees, storms and the dark. The whole film is as much about childhood as it is about the supernatural.

The film also plays on subtle triggers of childhood. Children are innocent and we (largely) don’t like to think of them in serious peril. At the same time, children can themselves be a source of eeriness – just ask these parents on Mumsnet.

How Poltergeist explains the afterlife

Poltergeist uses the ghost story for scares, but also as an examination of family, childhood and the afterlife.

The film doesn’t have vague theories about what happens after death, by the way – it has a whole university department. Several 80s movies did, in fact, including Ghostbusters and The Entity.

These parapsychology experts provide context for otherwise unbelievable events, and explain what’s happening to the audience. Their scientific authority lends truthfulness to unnatural events, and simultaneously makes them more frightening.

Yet while the film calls on science, it ultimately hands authority to a more folkloric type of knowledge keeper in Tangina Barrons (Zelda May Rubinstein). With her tiny frame and high voice, Tangina is yet one more ‘child’ in the movie.

Tangina is both child and [grand]mother figure. She shares the latter role with parapsychologist Dr Lesh.

Together, the women explain that some people die and go straight into ‘the light’ – i.e., the afterlife. Others get lost and need a guide to show them the way. And still others don’t realise they’re dead at all, or aren’t ready to leave. They linger in-between, mourning the lives they’ve lost and consumed with malevolent feeling.

“There is no death. There is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness.”

Tangina Barrons

It’s these lost and angry spirits who have Carol Anne, Tangina says. They’re attracted to Carol Anne’s light or life force (again reinforcing those dubious messages about desirability being most potent in young girls, and non-existent in old or older women).

Tangina’s explanations do much to create the film’s sense of dread. The childlike simplicity of lines like “Hold on to yourself. There’s one more thing,” is a stroke of genius as much as Carol Anne singing “They’re heeere.”

Yet despite all this wisdom and knowledge, it’s Robbie who explains how to bring Carol Anne back:

“If I get killed, could I see her, show her how to get back here? You could tie a rope around me and hold it tight, and somebody could come get us.”

In fact, this is exactly how the film resolves the journey into and out of the afterlife.

TV people and the terror of technology

Like 1983’s WarGames, Poltergeist examines our burgeoning relationship with technology.

In WarGames the danger is Artificial Intelligence. In Poltergeist, it’s television. This may not sound particularly terrifying, but keep in mind that TV is much harder to avoid.

  • Parents have long warned kids not to sit too close to the television (you’ll ruin your eyes). If you watch too much TV you’ll end up square-eyed. Or round-bottomed, perhaps.
  • The little screen has often been a threat to the big screen, too. This feels particularly relevant during the pandemic, as cinemas remain closed and viewers turn to streaming content. 2002’s The Ring revisits the rivalry, but swaps television for video.
  • Video was a source of social terror in the 80s, both for the way it disrupted entertainment media (as streaming now does), and for related fears about video nasties (BFI article).

Countless children have imagined that little people behind the screen make the magic of TV. Poltergeist builds on this. It introduces the threat via a snow-filled TV screen (complete with the hazy outlines of hidden figures) in the film’s opening scenes.

For audiences at the time, this was also a clever way of creating jump scares long after the film ended. Anytime your own TV fritzed, or when programming finished for the day, you were likely to remember the film and shudder. The Ring uses the same technique.

The technology has evolved yet tensions remain. The ‘TV people’ trigger subconscious fears of being watched without consent.

The Truman Show elevated this idea – TV watching us back – to clever new heights, commenting on the growth of reality TV.

Likewise, we’re now facing the consequences (or fears) of digital devices opening up a conduit to hackers and others who mean us harm. This Guardian article is just one example of digital dangers.

Some horror movies see characters haunted by their own bad choices, such as those who mess around with ouija boards. But others have seemingly innocent families unfairly attacked by circumstances (hauntings) they can’t control.

Poltergeist has a foot in both camps. The Freelings don’t deliberately provoke evil spirits. They buy the wrong house, then invite the afterlife into the front room through poor viewing habits. Tough call.

In poltergeist, the TV acts a spiritual medium, ‘channelling’ ghosts into the front room (pun intended).

In that respect, it stands for the ouija board used in other horror movies. And the TV war the Freelings have with their neighbours foreshadows the much bigger battle to come.

The suburban nightmare

Television may be the instigator of unease in Poltergeist, but suburbia is its co-star.

At first the suburbs represent safety and predictability. The film’s eerie night tour of the Freeling’s home gives way to morning, and sweeping shots of uniform, spacious houses and kids of bikes.

These scenes are similar to those in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (also 1982). Spielberg, who directed E.T co-wrote and produced Poltergeist. And both films evoke Spielberg’s own suburban childhood.

The suburbs have a reputation as safe, perhaps even boring. Yet in both films, this is a false floor. Rather than delivering the Freelings to safety, the Cuesta Verde estate is the source of supernatural horrors. This chimes with The Stepford Wives, where the suburban horror is misogyny.

The suburbs represent material wealth and financial security. The rolling landscape – far removed from the cramped, dangerous city – is akin to an unspoilt, heavenly afterlife. It’s the reward for the Freeling’s hard work, as Diane says later in movie.

Unfortunately, any such promise has already been ruined. The development company built the estate on old burial grounds – but only relocated the headstones. The Freelings pay for this sacrilege through the haunting itself, but also when the bodies burst through the floor of their dream home.

The Freelings, as the archetypal American family, also play a role in their own terror. They willingly champion over-consumption with their swimming pool, and the TV sets all over the house.

Finally the family flee suburbia. They do so like Biblical characters, with dad Steve sounding like Lot as he tells the kids not to look back. When they reach safety – a Holiday Inn – they ditch the TV, just as they’ve rejected suburbia.

Poltergeist’s take on suburban living revisits a familiar theme in film and culture: paradise lost at human hands. See also Se7en, Knowing and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Why are the Freelings haunted?

The Freeling’s home is built on a former burial ground. But, rather than deal with this respectfully, the development company relocates the headstones and leaves the bodies behind.

“It’s not ancient burial grounds. It’s just … people. Besides, we’ve done it before.”

What happens to the Freelings is partly (and unfairly) a punishment for this. But the film also explains it’s because Carol Anne was born in the house, and has a particularly bright life force.

Robbie and Steve add to this at the start of the film, when they talk about how the scary tree was there long before the estate. Robbie’s fear stems from the tree knowing everything about them – like the TV people, it’s watching them.

There are a few gaps in this explanation. There must be other children who have been born on the estate, yet we don’t hear of any other hauntings – the Freelings are singled out. That (and the vagueness of the backstory) adds to the terror. Ultimately, the film’s dread comes from the things we don’t know … and maybe can’t avoid.

Extras

  • The film’s abrupt cut scene in the Freeling’s kitchen (when Diane first tells Steve about the poltergeists) is supposedly due to a negative reaction by Pizza Hut. Read for yourself at thebeardedtrio.
  • Family dog Eboz is a clever camera device at the start of the film. He introduces the family, visiting each of them while they sleep. Goof: someone walks in front of Dana’s door just before Eboz enters (yet the family are asleep).
  • Spot the angelic references, including a framed picture of an angel in Diane’s bedroom. There’s also a brief clip of 1943 film A Guy Named Joe playing on the TV, in which Spencer Tracy plays a guardian angel.
  • The ghosts are playful at first, but it’s all a big distraction. The tornado marks the turning point, with Carol Anne abducted during the storm. Afterwards, the family find they’re ‘not in Kansas any more’.
  • The confusion about whether Carol Anne should or shouldn’t go into the light – they change their minds and argue about this several times – is a tension device. We don’t know for sure whether Carol Anne can be saved until she finally opens her eyes.
  • The rope between the entry and exit points is a kind of umbilical cord. Diane must save Carol Anne through a repeat birth, a visual metaphor which peaks with the scene in the bathtub.
  • Diane worries Carol Anne will accidentally drown in the pool they’re building. But later, it’s Diane who almost drowns in it. This pool scene used real skeletons. And the pool turning into pit of mud and death is a final visual comment that the suburban dream is over.

Poltergeist (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper

Other films similar to Poltergeist
  • The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring (haunted houses, malevolent ghosts)
  • Videodrome (80s, horror, video technology)
  • The Ring (90s, horror, video technology)
  • The Shining (80s, horror, childhood Vs the supernatural)
  • The ‘Burbs (the suburban nightmare)
  • The Stepford Wives (the suburban nightmare)
  • E.T. (Spielberg, suburbs, childhood)
  • Seven (paradise lost)

Picture credit: Sven Scheuermeier