The horror genre is now packed with haunted house movies, many of which feature a small child being a bit creepy while they are haunted by something from the other side. But when Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) came out just as the ‘80s was kicking off, the family vs haunted house sub-genre was significantly lighter. In fact, you can feel the influence that Poltergeist had on many family-focussed haunting movies that came later such as Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013).
One thing which Poltergeist proved was key to this type of horror movie was that the family involved, including the children, have to be likable. You have to care about every single member of the family, you have to be invested in their relationships, and you have to believe in the way they work together as a family unit. If you’re looking for an example of why this is so central to the story and the way the audience relates to the film, you only have to look at the Poltergeist (2015) remake, which completely misses this core element with a family that is a lot harder to gel with.
The truth is, Tobe Hooper struck gold with the Freeling family in Poltergeist, who are one of the most likable, sensible, and believable horror movie families across every subgenre. And at the center of the family are father Steven Freeling and mother Diane Freeling. Even though it’s younger children Robbie and Carol Anne who suffer the most of the direct haunting activity, the emotional core of the story lies with the parents, and what happens after Carol Anne disappears.
“[…] Tobe Hooper struck gold with the Freeling family […], who are one of the most likable, sensible, and believable horror movie families across every subgenre.”
One of the things I love so much about Poltergeist is how well it balances the fears of children versus the fears of adults. I loved watching this movie as a kid because the clown, the tree, and the closet portal were terrifying to me. However, as an adult, and a parent, Poltergeist hits differently. While the iconic moments still hit the scary beats perfectly, I find myself relating more with Steven and Diane as they deal with the grief and fear around losing a child and trying to ensure the safety of the rest of their family at the same time.
Unlike a lot of horror couples, Diane and Steven are very much in love. There are no underlying issues in their relationship, they agree on how to parent their children, and enjoy spending time as both a family and as a couple. One of the most important scenes featuring only Diane and Steven gives an incredible insight into the couples’ relationship and ensures that the audience loves them and is on their side right from the get-go.
This scene features Diane and Steven in bed after tucking the children in for the night. They lounge on the bed, discussing the events of the day in their pajamas while smoking weed and watching late-night TV. Serious chats about Carol Anne and her recent strange behavior and the risk of the newly-built swimming pool end up transforming into Steven reenacting a dive much to Diane’s hilarity. There’s an ease to their relationship, and from this scene alone we know that even when times get tough, as they do as the movie continues, the Freeling parents will always work as one cohesive unit. When a storm leads to Carol Anne and Robbie joining their parents in bed, the Freeling family bed is stuffed with family members, comfort, and love. In fact, Diane and Steven are such a power couple, it’s hard to talk about Diane completely on her own, so Steven will be getting a lot of love in this article too.
Diane is the first one to start experiencing strange things in the house at the same level as Carol Anne’s interaction with the TV people when the kitchen furniture starts moving around. With everyone else at school and work, Diane and Carol Anne share this spooky encounter without interference from the rest of the family. She uses this moment to question her daughter about the TV people, which so far Carole Anne hasn’t been able to fully explain, partly due to her young age and partly due to the weirdness of the whole situation.
Diane doesn’t instill fear in her young daughter, claim not to believe her, or brush it off as childhood mischief like many horror parents do, often leaving the child to deal with the scary thing all by themself. Instead, she believes her daughter straight away, and not only that, Diane is genuinely curious about this force in her family’s home. She and Carol Anne spend the rest of the day experimenting with the strange presence, trying to assess what it means for her family.
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She presents her findings to her husband straight away, not fearing his judgment or disbelief, but already knowing that he will believe and support her in her new discovery. This is another thing that is rare with horror movies where wives and mothers are typically the first to suspect something supernatural is going on. Usually, the first hints of activity are written off as female hysteria or over-worrying mothers, with the action really needing to kick up a gear before the husband is brought on side. But Diane has no worries about sharing with her husband, and neither she should, as he believes her right away, even if neither of them is quite sure what is actually going on in the Freeling home.
“Unlike a lot of horror couples, Diane and Steven are very much in love.”
Usually, these types of movies see one parent going through the mill in order to save their children, and in Poltergeist that task falls to Diane. Spiritual medium Tangina and the Freeling parents decide the best course of action is to send someone through the portal in Carol Anne and Robbie’s bedroom, hoping they will be able to lead Carol Anne out through the other end in the living room ceiling. Tangina offers to go through, but Diane knows that her child won’t come to someone she doesn’t know.
With Carol Anne stuck in the gloopy netherworld between the walls and dimensions of their house, Diane knows that Carol Anne will be looking for comfort and safety, and therefore, it has to be Diane that goes through to save her. Steve is there to support Diane all the way and even offers to go in his place, but Diane says he’s the only person able to pull her and Carol Anne back to safety, and so he plays a key, if less dangerous role, by remaining in this reality. This is another example of the Freeling parents working well together in order to get the job done.
We never see what the other side is like, as we never follow Diane through the portal. Instead, we’re left to imagine the horrors that Carol Anne and Diane have had to face being stuck in that world with the Beast and the rest of the restless spirits. Basically, Diane has no idea what she’s getting herself into, but she doesn’t think twice about diving in after her daughter. Whatever Diane’s experience is on the other side, she earns herself a gray streak in her hair as a reminder of her time in another dimension.
One thing that I appreciate about both Diane and Stephen is how sensible they are as parents facing a horrifying situation. Their oldest daughter, Dana, is allowed to leave the house and stay with friends when she finds the situation far too stressful and upsetting for her to participate in for too long. When it comes time for Diane to travel through the portal to try and rescue Carol Anne, Robbie is sent away to stay with his grandmother to prevent him from being scared, or emotionally scarred if something goes wrong along the way.
Even once Carol Anne is returned and Tangina quite prematurely claims the house is clean, the Freelings decide to move house almost instantly, knowing that their children would never feel safe in that house again. Even the final gag of the film where the family ends up in a motel and Steve wheels the TV outside shows that the Freelings are keen to avoid any danger to their family. Diane and Steven’s first thoughts are always of their children, and of trying to provide a safe and comfortable life for them.
On their last night in the house, when Steven has to go into his real estate office to sort some things out before they leave, Diane is left alone in the packed-up house with Carol Anne and Robbie. While they do think the threat of the Beast is gone, they’re still keen to put this house behind them and find a happier family home.
“[…] Diane has no idea what she’s getting herself into, but she doesn’t think twice about diving in after her daughter”
Previously, the Beast has been subtle in his approach, trying to distract the rest of the family while he snatches Carol Anne for himself. However, after being so close to having Carol Anne for good, and perhaps knowing that the family is leaving the home, the Beast’s second assault on the Freeling family is much less subtle.
With Carol Anne and Robbie in bed, the Beast attacks Diane as she emerges from the bath after trying to dye her hair and rid herself of the gray steak and the last reminder of her ordeal. The Beast throws Diane up the walls and over the ceiling, while the portal in the children’s closet reopens, threatening to suck Robbie and Carol Anne through to the other side.
Once again, it’s up to Diane to take the Beast on face-to-face when he manifests outside the children’s bedroom door, preventing Diane from entering. In trying to seek help from her neighbors, Diane ends up falling into the family’s half-built swimming pool and discovering that the cemetery their house was built on still lurks underground as bodies start to pop up from the mud beneath her. This scene is terrifying for Diane, obviously due to the fact she is taking a late-night dip with a bunch of rotting corpses, but also because she is unable to get back to her children. The panic she’s experiencing is no doubt related to her situation and that of her kids, knowing that if she’s trapped for too long, or if something bad happens to her, she will no doubt lose her two youngest to the Beast forever.
Diane’s neighbors do eventually show up to help up, but after hearing the commotion from upstairs, including Robbie and Carol Anne screaming, they decide to think of their own safety first, and refuse to follow Diane into the house. For Diane, it doesn’t matter how scared she is, she has no choice but to head back inside, and hope that the house will let her reach the children this time.
Time and again Diane is faced with terrifying and incomprehensible sights, and yet she never stops fighting to get her children to safety and ensure that the Beast doesn’t get what he wants. While the Beast may have been attracted to Carol Anne’s lifeforce since she was born in the house, he clearly didn’t account for the power Diane and Steven have compared to the Beast when they work together as one cohesive parenting unit.
As I mentioned above, the only reason the Beast is able to take Carole Anne in the first place is that he distracts the rest of the family. By having Robbie snatched by the terrifying tree outside, the Beast knows that Diane, Steven, and Dana will be distracted by the horror unfolding in the garden, and believing Carol Anne is safe in her bed, they don’t start to worry about her until after Robbie is rescued. When Carol Anne goes missing, Diane’s first thought is that she’s fallen into the half-constructed swimming pool, a fear which she mentions to Steven earlier in the movie. Her thoughts are of very real-world threats, rather than paranormal fears at this stage, even after the tree attack. Again, searching for her in the pool wastes valuable time, and it takes them a long time to figure out what has actually happened to Carol Anne.
“Not only is Diane willing to take on the monsters head-on to keep her children safe, but the calm and collected way she deals with Carol Anne being stuck in another dimension is just breathtaking.”
However, the second time around, the Beast cannot use these tricks on Diane. She’s already wise to his evil ways, and so the battle has to be more head-on if he has any chance of winning. And even then, it seems he underestimates the lengths that Diane is willing to go to for her children. And now she knows something paranormal is going on, she’s not going to let herself be distracted or held back by the tricks and scares the Beast throws at her.
Not only is Diane willing to take on the monsters head-on to keep her children safe, but the calm and collected way she deals with Carol Anne being stuck in another dimension is just breathtaking. Even then, her thoughts are of keeping Carol Anne calm, ensuring she feels safe, and trying to create a new sense of normality for her other two children in the midst of this terrible situation. They try to keep the house feeling as normal as possible while also reaching out for professional help, knowing that it’s probably their only chance of getting Carol Anne back.
Massive credit goes to Diane for being one of the most kickass mothers in horror, but there’s no denying the amazing power that she and Steven have when they work together as a team. The Freeling parents are a perfect example of why you should believe your children, support your spouse, and work together against the monsters rather than letting them tear you apart.
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