About a week ago, I posted a review that had all the ingredients of the kind of haunted house story that I love. It was a book that I could savor, and savor it I did, reading little bits at a time every night. Sarah Walter’s The Little Stranger was one of the best reincarnations of the Gothic style in modern times. Hundreds Hall was an old manor. Belonging to the noble Ayers family, it was passed down from generation to generation. Memories of times past gathered like cobwebs and hung in the corners if its rooms. The happenings that created the most tragic of memories are the ones that doomed the house and gave it a character of its own. Oh how I love when that happens; when a house in a story is described so well that it is almost portrayed as a character. The source of the haunting is mysterious; it is not only embedded into the walls; it is also enmeshed in the character of the family unit itself. It’s also a product of the unique time and place in history. All these factors are inseparable when arriving at the haunting’s source.
The story that I am reviewing now is nothing at all like what I have just described. There is nothing Gothic about it. There is no mansion that has lingered throughout history, the dwelling is brand spanking new. It is not far off in the countryside, it’s right smack dab in the middle of suburbia with many houses of similar design surrounding it. The house itself possesses no unique charm, haunting or otherwise. Remove the ghosts and it’s just a simple boring modern structure. And I could not savor this story night after night, for it’s a movie for Christsake! Best I could do was watch it multiple times, and I have done that, over the course of thirty-eight years. My last viewing was a couple of weeks ago. Watched in on Netflix. Finally, I decided, finally it is time to write about this. This review is long overdue. A haunted house story that is the total opposite of what I like. And I loved every minute of it! Let’s talk about Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film Poltergeist.
My Experience With Poltergeist. Oh, and the Plot and Stuff
All of that contrast in the above section. I did that for a reason, not just to haphazardly populate the page with random words for the sake of adding length to the review. My reviews are too long anyway. But this is going to be another long one, so strap yourself in because there is so much I want to say. Like with The Little Stranger, there were so many tangled thoughts I had about this film, and I needed time to untangle them. And I waited five long years! That’s how long I have been writing about haunted houses of film and literature.
This film is a trailblazer. The very fact that it strays from Gothic norms and incorporates all kinds of modern themes separates itself from those haunted house films that came before it. Of course, the special effects are a big part of this, but its modern flair goes beyond that even. I’m referring to the setting, style, story and props.
For the record, I first saw this film in the theater in 1982. I believe my mom took me to see it. I was eleven-years-old. Was I scared out of my wits? Did I shit in my little boy Underoos? No and no. Even back then, haunted house films intrigued me more than they scared me. Yes, it’s a scary film but for me, ghosts of the page and screen don’t unsettle me. Rather they fill me with a warm kind of creepy-fuzziness. I’m weird that way.
Do I really have to go into the plot? I mean, isn’t the story by now ingrained into everyone’s head, as familiar as Star Wars, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, and Little Red Riding Hood?
Fine, here’s a brief plot:
Sung to the tune of The Brady Bunch
Here’s the story, of a lovely family
Mom and Dad raising three very lovely broods
The youngest had hair of gold, like no other
It’s time to change our moods.
It’s the story of Carol Anne
The youngest and creepiest of the three
The ghosts took her to another dimension
Her voice heard on TV
So they called up all these special people
They would return her to mom and her spouse
But then these corpses came up from under
That’s when they knew to flee the haunted house
The haunted house, the haunted house, that’s when they knew to flee
The haunted house! (Da da da da da da da!)
Got it? Family. Lovey-dovey. TV static. Ghosts. Ghostly arm coming through TV Screen. Ghosts attack. Tree almost eats boy. Girl sucked into closet. Disappears. Her voice is heard through the TV. Paranormal specialists come. The children’s room is a whirlwind of poltergeist activity. Toys and shit flying all around the room. Specialists stumped. Call in the “specialest” specialist of all. A Little Person. A Lady. She calms the room down. Discovers a pathway that leads to the realm of the light (you know, where the soul departs into after death). Carol Anne is in there, next to the light. Mother goes in after her. Rescues her. Yay! The End. Not! House is still haunted. Corpses are unearthed and start sprouting all over the place. As it turns out, the house was built over a cemetery. Dad works in the real-estate biz. The whole complex was built by Dad’s company. Dad’s boss had lied about removing the bodies before beginning development. Dad yells at boss. Moral of the story? Don’t ever be afraid to tell off your boss. Oh, and get the fuck out of the haunted house when you have finally had enough. And that’s what are family finally does. Now – The End.
Director and Producer
The talented Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist. Hooper was no stranger to horror. Before Poltergeist he helmed films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Fun House, two great films (Many will say Fun House sucked, but they are wrong.) Hooper passed away in 2017. May he rest in peace.
But I want to focus on Steven Spielberg, Executive Producer of Poltergeist, and one of several of the film’s writers. I’m guessing you’ve heard of him. He certainly has a knack for resurrecting film themes of the past and clothing them in modernity, doesn’t he? Raiders of the Lost Ark is such an example. This film was made to replicate the serial films of the 1930’s and 40’s which were shown in several short segments. Always ending with a cliffhanger, the viewer had to return to the theater the following week to see how their hero escaped. Well “Raiders” was cliffhanger after cliffhanger throughout the whole movie. How about Jurassic Park? Let’s bring those dinosaurs into the modern age. Sure, dinosaurs made their impact on films in the sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 60s, but now we have the “science” for doing so, involving advancements in DNA technology.
And then there’s Poltergeist, Spielberg’s contribution to the haunted house genre. He has established a modern foundation in which to erect a more contemporary abode of horrors. In what ways has he done this? Let’s examine these ways.
The Evolution of The Haunted House.
Think of the classic haunted house tale, the earliest days of haunted house literature. Most likely, the house belongs to a well-to-do family. Different generations are born and raised in the same house. The house is old. It has its own history. Many scandals have taken place underneath its roof. If the walls could talk! (Perhaps in some cases, they can!) Examples of such haunted house stories include The Fall of the House of Usher or The House of Seven Gables.
Years later, with the creation of the middle class, the affairs of the noble class and their legacies were just not on the forefront of the minds of the masses. People could not so easily relate to the concept of serial successions of generations living within the same gargantuan hall. Thus, the manors that once “housed” families that are long gone were now portrayed as abandoned structures. But their doors were always open to visitors who wanted to spend a few nights in a rumored haunted house. Think of books and films such as The Haunting of Hill House/The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House/Hell House, and The House on Haunted Hill.
Soon, books and films about haunted houses began to reflect the challenges of the middle-class homeowner. Gary Hendrix in his book Paperbacks from Hell – The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction has a chapter dedicated to haunted house novels, a chapter that he names Real Estate Nightmares. The focus of haunted house stories in these works is not on a group of visitors staying at some unknown and unfamiliar mansion. Nor is the emphasis on an ancient family dwelling in an equally ancient mansion. Rather, these works tell the story of an average middle-class family that moves into a large (but not gargantuan) house, only to realize that it is haunted. Hendrix argues that the surge in popularity of such books in the 70’s and 80s is no accident. From my review of this book, I share this paragraph:
In true form, Hendrix ties the haunted house paperback phenomenon to the economic issues of the 1970s. High interest rates, inflation, the dawning of the suburbs, the cash-strapped and their search for the best home that they could afford. According to him, these are the reasons “the haunted-house novel reached critical mass.
And I share this from the same review:
he singles our Burnt Offerings as being a first when it comes to the economics of home purchases and the whole buyer beware motif. I…had never thought about this. “Hell” and “Hill” House were gargantuan Gothic mansions that had visiting characters investigating the spooky happenings within. The characters of Burnt Offerings leased and lived in the deadly place. They invested their money in it. Therefore, they were trapped.
Burnt Offerings (Robert Marasco) is one of my favorite haunted house novels! Other novels that fit into this category are The House Next Door (Anne Rivers Siddons) and The Amityville Horror (Jay Anson). Poltergeist also fits into this is grouping. True, it is a film, not a novel (unless one was made based on the movie), but it deals with that average home-owner struggling to find peace in their new house of horrors. But I argue that Poltergeist takes this concept even further. Let’s explore this.
With the exception of The House Next Door, the haunted houses in the books/films that I have mentioned in the preceding paragraph are still in rather isolated places. I guess Amityville is technically a suburb, but it still seems to be somewhat remote. And, these houses are rather large, perhaps of a classical architectural design. (Colonial?) The house is Poltergeist is of the cookie-cutter type of design and is surrounded by hundreds of other houses that look very similar. It’s right smack dab in the middle of modern-suburbia! There is nothing special about it. It’s the house of a suburban family of the early 80s’. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first (or at least one of the first) time/s that such a place finds its way into haunted house lore.
There is more. If you’ve read the post immediately preceding this one (Review of Sarah Walter’s “The Little Stranger.”), then you know about the concept that I call “Agents of the Scare.” Here are some examples from that article:
“In all haunted houses, there are objects and structural components of a house that are downright creepy. Maybe it’s the swaying chandelier. Or the specter that traipses down the curving stairwell, adding to the unpleasantness of each stair tread. How about the wall hanging portrait with the moving eyes? That locked room? Te revolving bookcase? The piano that plays by itself?
I go on to point out that the book features rather unique agents of scare, particular to very old manors. A call tube that links a voice to different floors, a servant’s bell. The author makes use of these things in very creepy ways. Poltergeist too has unique agents of the scare. Uniquely modern! There is a creepy clown doll. Yeah yeah, not so unique. But, when the poltergeist takes over the children’s bedroom and toys are spinning around in a whirlwind of paranormal frenzy, which toy pauses for the camera in mid-air? An old-fashioned doll? Not! It’s the Incredible Hulk Mego action figure riding a horse!
The best and most effect “agent of the scare” is the television. Not so modern anymore, I get it. But had there ever been a more creepier television set before? I say no. And the way it signed off at the end of the night. Wow! See kids, (those under, say 40 maybe) once upon a time, broadcasting shut down at around midnight. Before this happened, channels displayed various pictures, maybe nature scenes, maybe urban landmarks, all with the National Anthem playing in the background. A second or two after that last note the noise of static came while the picture on the screen turned into a jumble of flickering black and white. Like in the movie, many families fell asleep at their TVs before this nightly event occurred. Looking back, the finality of the event, and the way a clear image turned to scribbles, well, all this was kind of creepy. But it took a movie, Poltergeist, to really bring this creepy effect home. Ghosts began communicating to little Carol Anne through the white noise of static. Then when Carol Anne disappears in the house and her voice turns up inside the white noise…wow! What a creative way to take a uniquely contemporary situation and turn it into a prop of a modern-day suburban haunted house. (Hey! Don’t laugh, this was modern back in 1982!)
There are other props and storylines that I believe were used in the film with a conscious effort to separate it from haunted house films in the past. The kids’ room was decorated with posters and toys that were currently trending in pop culture. Star Wars paraphernalia is all over the place. At one point in the film, next-door neighbors realize that their TV remotes inadvertently work on each other’s televisions. Change the channel in House A and you wind up changing the channel in House B. Finally, the father of the family is seen reading the book Reagan – the Man, The President! Can’t get anymore modern than that! (Hey! Again, I mean “modern” for that particular time.) This locks the event of the films securely in the 1980s!
Oh yeah, there are the Spielberg special effects at work. Phantoms of light parade across the screen. So much in the way of light and flashes! So innovative for the time. I do believe this was at least one of the first times such state-of-the art effects were used in a haunted house film. It still holds up today in my opinion.
Is it my imagination that note horror movies in the 80’s were more colorful and flamboyant than those of the 60s and 70s? Perhaps even a bit more comedic? Poltergeist certainly was more colorful and flamboyant. I don’t know about the comedic part. Anyway from the ancient manor to a cookie-cutter suburban unit, haunted houses have come a long way, baby!
A House Destroyed – Different Interpretations of Such an Event when Contrasting a Gothic House to a Modern House.
Ooops! I gave away a spoiler. In the end, the Poltergeist house is destroyed. The destruction of the haunted house at the story’s end has been a common way to close a haunted house tale. It has happened in The Fall of the House of Usher. It has happened in The Shining (the book at least). Hell, it’s happened in The Castle of Otranto, which is credited as the first Gothic novel ever! I argue the significance of the destruction of the Poltergeist house differs vastly from its predecessors. I’ll explain.
Often in my reviews, I state how much I love the concept of a haunted house that either has its own conscience or at least stands for something larger than its structure. Such a haunted house, I often say, “is more than the sum of its ghosts.” The Poltergeist house is not, I repeat, NOT such a house. Remove the ghosts that might temporarily haunt it and the house just goes on with its boring old self. To get technical, it’s not the house that draws in the ghosts or poltergeists that haunt the family in this film. It’s the fact that the house was built over a graveyard and the ghosts seek out a living person to attach themselves to in order to stay behind here on earth instead of going into the light. (They attach themselves to little Carol Anne. In the sequels, the supernatural forces follow the family to new places.) So at the film’s end, when the house implodes (I guess that’s what happens to it), the supernatural beings are in effect saying, “Get the fuck out of our way, house!” The house itself means nothing to them.
In the other works, when the house is destroyed, a whole lot more dies with it. Maybe it’s a family legacy, or a kingdom, or an age. It’s an entity itself that departs from the earth when the walls go crumbling down, or when the whole structure goes KAPLOOOOIE and blows up.
Poltergeist – A Cursed Film?
Oh geez, do I really want to go here? Well I already did so I guess I will continue. Some people say the film is cursed due to the off-screen tragedies that followed in the wake of the film. Actress Dominique Dunne played the older sister. Unfortunately, she was murdered by an abusive boyfriend in the same year. And poor Heather O’Rourke, the little girl actress that played Carol Anne – she died of bowel obstruction in 1987. Several other cast members that were in the Poltergeist sequels met with untimely deaths as well. See this link for more info.
Ah but I don’t believe in curses. Just a lot of coincidental tragedy. But the film is noted for this so I thought I would mention it. And so I did. Next –
Um, I really don’t have a “next”. This is the end of the article. Although the film does not fit my criteria for a what makes a haunted house great, it is still a great haunted house film. The stuff of modernity was used in all the right ways. Poltergeist is a groundbreaking achievement!