Poltergeist scares the shit out of me. It was one of the first films that gave me nightmares, and kept me awake listening to every little noise at night. To this day, I worry that my house could have been built on a half relocated cemetery and soon my closet will become a portal trying to suck me into the other side. This is my favorite horror movie.
Written by Steven Spielberg, the film focuses on a family in a newly built suburban neighborhood. With typical parents and three kids, I felt like it could have been my family. The youngest, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), hears people through the TV static. It seems like just the workings of a five-year-old’s imagination, until in the middle of a stormy night, ghostly hands come out of the television, then shoot like lightning above the parents’ bed, rocking the house like an earthquake. Only Carol Anne is witness to the event, announcing, “They’re here.”
The next day is less than normal when the parents learn that no one else felt an earthquake. Throughout the day, Diane (JoBeth Williams) who stays at home with Carol Anne witness chairs moving and even being stacked when her back it turned for only a moment. By the time Steve (Craig T. Nelson) gets home from work, there is no denying that some sort of disturbance is going on. The scene where they ask the neighbors if they have had any disturbances is not usual neighborhood banter.
What really scares me is how disturbances go from odd and harmless quirks to full blown violence so quickly. Just as Diane is getting comfortable with the idea of chairs moving across the kitchen floor, the creepy old tree bursts through the window and tries to eat Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne is sucked into a portal that appears in the closet. Suddenly, the whole family is launched into a nightmare and seek out a paranormal investigator to bring Carol Anne back.
There are two main aspects of paranormal movies that Poltergeist does perfectly. First of all, it’s not just bumps in the night. The disturbances are scary enough to still freak me out as an adult and are not designed to just make me jump. While only a few of the frightening images are a little outdated (the face tearing hallucination and image of The Beast), it doesn’t bother me. To me, most of the strange images have a timeless sense of fear of the unknown. The flickering lights, meaty goo that covers anything out of the portal, and Carol Anne flying out of her bed are amazing images that have stayed clear in my mind since I first saw this as a small child.
Second, the paranormal investigation isn’t all science and logic. While the cameras and gadgets provide indisputable evidence, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) provides support as well as facts. The way she describes the situation with the spirits and the light is comforting and easy enough for little Robbie to comprehend. Tangina’s (Zelda Rubinstein) presence adds an even more mystifying quality to the movie, but now I can never trust anyone who says, “This house is clean.” To deny this film a spiritual element would make it much less powerful.
Parents should tread cautiously when deciding whether to let the little ones watch Poltergeist. I grew up watching it, first saw it around age six or seven, and look how I turned out. I keep a bat under my bed in case zombies, creepy clowns or spooky old trees attack. However, older, braver kids might really love Poltergeist and it can be a great introduction to horror. The characters are not violent, they don’t rely on foul language and they value family. The lengths Steve and Diane go to get their daughter back are astounding and feats of bravery in some real terror.
“Oh, Jesus. Don’t do that, honey. You don’t want to see mommy lying in a cigar box covered with licorice.”