You can probably remember the first time you watched a scary movie, your first horror movie – and that stomach-quenching, sweat-inducing, hair-raising feeling it gave you. When I think of the one that sent the good old-fashioned electric chills down my spine (and still does to this day no matter how many films I consume), my mind instantly lands on the eerie illuminated silhouette of a little girl sitting in front of a television set with her hands flat on the screen. I think of Poltergeist.
Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film revolves around the family and home of Steve and Diane Freeling played by JoBeth Williams (The Big Chill, Kramer vs. Kramer) and Craig T. Nelson (The Skulls, The Devils Advocate) and their children Dana, played by Dominique Dunn, Carol Anne played by Heather O’Rourke, and Robbie, played by Oliver Robbins. Strange supernatural occurrences progress into a relentless haunting. When the youngest of the Freeling children disappears into thin air, Steve and Diane, with the help from a seasoned medium and a few knowledgeable paranormal investigators, are forced to face their fears together as a unit in order to rescue her from the malevolent spirits of the undead.
Since it turns 36 years old today, I’ve decided to honor it by listing 36 reasons why it is such a great film, in no particular order.
“Now…hold onto yourselves.”
1. It’s a classic haunted house story.
Why are haunted houses so scary? It’s a pretty simple answer on the surface that can set roots down and dig deep. There is something terrifying about the defilement of your own home, your sanctuary, and that is exactly what happens to The Freeling Family and their home, sweet home. It’s worse when that defiling comes at the hands of an unknown, malevolent omnipresence. Because of all the reasons below, plus more, Poltergeist continues to hold rank as one of the most memorable haunted house films.
2. The main characters are extremely average.
Characters of a film, whether horror or not, should stand out in some shape, way, or form. Writing an original personality or sculpting a character to fit the ‘unique’ mold is not an easy task. What makes The Freeling Family so special? Nothing at all. The fact that they are a totally average, American family makes them ironically unique in the genre.
However, this nuclear family is relatable to most audiences. And if your audience identifies with the character, whatever is happening on-screen to the characters makes the audience feel like it’s happening to them. When we identify, we empathize, we make ourselves vulnerable to all the feelings and that includes fear. I don’t know about you, but I have zero desire to slide across the kitchen floor due to some magical unseen force, thank you.
3. It all takes place in suburbia.
Going hand-in-hand with characterization, the setting plays a major role in the quality and effectiveness of the film. Poltergeist’s haunting takes place, very purposefully, in a home of a neighborhood that you and I could easily find ourselves living in or already living in. Again, we can identify with The Freelings.
One random situation about Poltergeist that always stuck with me occurred in the end when Diane’s is trying to get back into her house to battle paranormal Beast once more for her children. She frantically tries to get back in the house – alerting the apprehensive, and no doubt frightened neighbors, begging them for help. It’s a very small detail, but unlike a lot of films where the inhabitants of surrounding houses all seem to disappear when our protagonists are in danger, The Freelings’ neighbors do what any normal people would do: check out what the hell is going on outside and then go back to being of no help at all. It adds realness to the setting. I mean, if I was running around half-dressed screaming into the dead of night my neighbors would come to help me out…or at least pretend to attempt to.
“You only moved the headstones!”
4. The motive behind the haunting is simple.
What ruins many supernatural stories is the inability to explain why the occurrence is happening in the first place. This is where filmmakers are thrown off and the story folds on itself becoming a convoluted mess. Poltergeist keeps it simple: the lovely suburban neighborhood is constructed on an Indian burial ground and the lazy, greedy contractors failed to remove the bodies. They moved the headstones, but that’s about as good sweeping dust under a rug. There is paranormal lore to back this situation up too! Well, this dust is pissed its sleeping ground is soiled by the living and retaliates by dragging your daughter into the realm of the dead to steal her life force. Next time, make a check list.
5. The ‘curse’ of Poltergeist.
Of all the conspiracies and oddities of Hollywood, the curse supposedly put on those who worked on Poltergeist is by far my favorite. There is far too much to discuss here so I will leave you to do the reading separately. It’s totally worth a Google, but I will tell you it ranges from the uncommon terminal illness of the star to random tragic deaths of crew members that are full of what could just be interesting coincidences or the workings of the dead. You decide. Either way, the speculation adds a hint of spookiness to Poltergeist that most films (I guess, thankfully) don’t have.
6. Tangina Barrons.
By the time the helpful medium shows up to save the day, the poor Freelings are at the end of their rope and we, as an audience, are too. For so many reasons the elderly woman is a huge sigh of relief for The Freelings, they now have some hope of saving their daughter with help from an experienced pro, and for us, we can breathe with the help of some comic relief provided by Tangina. Her unfazed demeanor and confidence in facing the menacing spirits is quick to calm everyone… before things get bad again. Yet still the sweet old lady pushes the family through as any strong matriarch would. Who you gonna call? Tangina.
Of course with the recent success of Andy Muschietti’s IT and the iconic stature of Stephen King’s original film, when most people think of clowns their mind conjures up Pennywise. But those of you old school kids will think of the awful, possessed clown doll that taunts and then attacks Robbie, the middle child. It’s an iconic scene and may have well induced more Coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) in the masses since John Wayne Gacy.
8. Tangina’s Life After Death monologue.
To detail a little more about the realm of the immortal, Tangina explains the life after death theory to Diane and Steve. She tells them about the light we see when we die, how some move on, and some don’t. The way in which actress recites her lines, as delicately and lovingly as a mother tucking her children in to sleep at night, puts The Freelings and viewers at ease with the inevitable destination we all reach at some point. Her delivery is cathartic and honest. The mood shift that occurs when she adds the warning about the hate and rage of the Beast that surrounds them is almost palpable and puts us right back into a state of fear before following The Freelings to rescue Carol Anne from it. In my opinion, simultaneously the most comforting and unsettling monologue in all of cinema.
9. The third act’s third act.
Poltergeist succeeds so well where a majority of horror movies fall flat. The third act is powerful, quick, relevant, and scary. Diane retrieves Carol Anne from the dead, the house is clean, and the family settles down thinking everything will go back to normal. SIKE. The spirits are even more pissed and attack the family with more hate and gusto than ever before. It’s everything the ending of a horror movie should be and more. Poltergeist lets you know that the dead aren’t removed so easily, death is constant. That rug will be moved one day, so it’s best to get a vacuum.
As a little ‘a-ha!’ jab in the very end (the real end), The Freelings flee to a motel. Like a tired family returning from an amusement park, they slug inside only for Steve to wheel out the television. That family takes no chances. It’s another little detail that makes us laugh a little and after sitting through two hours of ghosts and beasts and the un-dead was very much needed. The Freelings’ good humor is the perfect end note. I wonder if they were able to actually sleep that night?
11. One-liners galore!
Mr. Spielberg knows how to write a line and Poltergeist is full of them. We still quote it to this day. Be it a clever one liner or some of the best dialogue in horror, Poltergeist is an expert piece filled with meaning and “many hearts”.
12. The mundane becomes monstrous.
Is a piece of raw meat scary? It is after you watch Poltergeist! This film takes normal, domestic things like trees, toys, the family pool, a lamp, furniture, and, especially, your television and turns them into terrorizing vessels of the dead’s biding. I’m still afraid I’m going to walk out of a room and walk back into it only to find the furniture all disheveled and randomly stacked up. Almost 90% of Poltergeist takes place in or around the Freeling property containing this ongoing ghostly assault within the one space a person is supposed to feel the most safe. The choices for scares are smart because they make the normal abnormal and the simple petrifying. The dead use the objects of The Freelings’ house to enact their revenge on them, a tactic like this is pretty personal and hits very close to home.
13. The visual effects were, well… effective.
I have no choice but to keep this point and then next short as they could be discussed at great length. Poltergeist was made during a time where visual effects either made or broke a movie. They hold up 36 years later or they don’t. Being the visual masterpiece that it is, both real or digitally enhanced, Poltergeist is one of those horror films that has masterful effects never once letting us doubt if what we’re seeing could be a reality or not. We live in a world where the less we are shown, the scarier the experience is, but Poltergeist puts everything right in front of eyes in plain sight, horrifying us all the same. It makes it possible for a full demon face to take up the framing of a closet, for a woman to be stuck the ceiling of her bedroom, for a man to feel his own flesh right off of his face, and for a children’s room to become a swirling circus of toys.
14. The imagery does the talking.
Poltergeist’s overall look is hands-down untouchable. The way the dark, ethereal, and realistic representations of the dead clash with the bright-colored, natural domestic elements of The Freeling home make it a visual experience for viewers. Everything from Carol Anne’s bright long blonde hair to the red nose of the possessed clown doll to the blind portal light are images that stay with us long after the credits roll.
15. The storyline doesn’t require analysis.
Nowadays films try so hard to be divisive and symbolic, but it is this yearning to be unique that is often the nail in the coffin for many. It could be that we, as a general audience, demand more from writers, directors, and producers, but the simplicity of the classics is understandably hard to master. Poltergeist is heavy in tone and does have all of those analytical elements behind it, but you do not have to be a literary scholar or well versed in Latin or Greek mythology to get its message. Whether you are in it for the scary haunted house story or wish to interpret the mechanics of the afterlife, Poltergeist is the perfect vessel for both.
16. There are lessons to be learned.
Horror films usually provide a lot of meaning, but fewer leave room for lesson interpretation. No elaboration needed: Don’t build any living quarters on burial grounds of any sort and when your time comes, go into the light.
directed written and produced by Steven Spielberg.
Due to contractual obligations in regards to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg (Jaws) could not direct Poltergeist, but he did write and produce it. There is some speculation and commentary made about him directing the director, Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and the finished product all but has his signature on it. Poltergeist has that nostalgic, ordinary meets supernatural, expertly crafted feel to it. Whatever the controversy depends on, it’s obvious that Spielberg had more to do with this film than the writing. Whatever his involvement in Poltergeist, we are eternally grateful.
18. Diane and Steve Freeling are good parents.
The Freeling parents and their children appear to be a normal, solid unit and ironically in this genre that is exactly what they truly are. Aside from typical domestic problems, there is no deviation from the desirable white picket fence plan. What I like the most? They light up in their bedroom to relax and take the edge off. Just kidding! When it’s obvious that something is amiss in their house and that something has taken one of their children, Diane and Steve come to terms with the weird situation they’re in and are quick to get help, the right kind of help, with little to no skepticism. In a world of the irrational, Diane and Steve are soberly rational.
19. Diane Freeling is the real MVP.
I’m not a parent yet, but sacrificing yourself for your children is something I understand wholeheartedly. With that said, I always seem to find myself thinking ‘Nope’ every time Diane rushes right into the ghostly fires to get to Carol Anne and Robbie. She is quick to be the one to enter the closet portal, possibly the mouth of Hell, to get to her daughter, and in the end she relentlessly pushes through all the horrific forces thrown at her to rescue her children.
Steve is a good father and all, but it is always Diane physically and mentally stepping up to the plate to end this situation and keep her family safe. How do you react to your daughter telling you she talks to and sees the “TV people”? I’m sure parental love, especially that of a mother, is the most powerful feeling of all and we have it in us when we step into that role, but I might need some convincing and mental hype-up before someone tied a rope to my waist and sent me off into a world crawling with angry spirits to rescue anything. A shot of whiskey would help too.
20. The haunting is well-paced.
The progress of the spirits making themselves known sets the stage for this film and is realistically paced. When there are reports of disturbances, whether real or purely as hoaxes, it is common for the entity to seem friendly at first. That interaction slides into a little mischievous fun, with the spirits feeding off of our energy to become stronger. Once that happens the real haunting occurs and the spirits become hostile. It is a constant, linear build up. Poltergeist sticks to this evolution and is supremely successful in feeding off of our increasing fear as we take this journey with The Freelings, thankfully, over the course of two hours.
21. Poltergeist II and III are not that bad!
It’s relatively known that sequels and any installments following are expected to be less than sub-par in comparison to the original. Poltergeist is a heck of a tough act to follow, but Brian Gibson’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side is a worthy successor with a (in my opinion) meaner and more frightening villain: Reverend Kane, played expertly by Julian Beck. He is absolute nightmare fuel. The quality lessens with Gary Sherman’s Poltergeist III, taking the story to a more urban setting and introducing new characters, while keeping Heather O’Rourke for the ghost show to traumatize. Again, not as good enough original, but good watches in a lesser realm.
Fun fact: Poltergeist II was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects too!
22. The remake should be looked at as a form of flattery.
Gil Kenan’s (Monster House) 2015 remake of Poltergeist was pretty much a flop, but that really comes as no surprise. The classics of any genre should be left alone as there is an unattainable notoriety that comes with that status. We can always hope to enjoy them, but it’s never the same or better. The remake’s ultimate ‘meh’ quality is a true testament to all of the successful elements that made 1982’s Poltergeist an anomaly. Let sleeping spirits lie.
23. Ahhh! Real corpses!
The scene where Diane winds up in the pool trench in the backyard that has begun to fill with water and rotting corpses has a bit more going on that what we see on-screen. Though the visual effects are great, it seemed like someone thought going all-in as far as corpse props was the best way to produce the ultimate scare. Yes, those are real cadavers and skeletons. Production is expensive and the real thing was cheaper. I guess some projects require a little conservation? It’s another one of those Poltergeist fun facts and one that only a handful of films claim to have. This is rumored to be the reason behind ‘the curse’, which unfortunately and ironically proves this film broke its own lesson. Just don’t mess with the dead or their resting place.
24. It’s rated… PG?
Poltergeist is rated PG! Granted there was no official PG-13 rating at the time and it didn’t have enough violence to be considered Rated-R, it’s difficult to wrap your head around. I still wouldn’t be able to watch this alone in the middle of the afternoon and I’m almost 30 years old. Frozen and Shrek are rated-PG if that puts it in perspective for you. Why is this a good point? Nowadays, most films aim for an R-rating to be successful. Poltergeist terrified everyone, still does, and established itself as a classic all within the parameters of a PG-rating.
25. The focus is on fear, real and imagined.
Though the plot is relatively simple, should you want to do any sort of analysis on Poltergeist, you’ll find that one of the major focuses of the plot is fear – that of the parents and that of the children. A parent’s worst fear is losing their children and being helpless. Children are afraid of monsters in the closet and thunderstorms. The universal fear we all have in common: dying. This film ties them altogether. Poltergeist is a gem that represents the motifs of fears well without getting too detailed… or too depressing.
26. There’s only one fatality and it doesn’t need more than that.
27. The score.
Jerry Goldsmith’s praised soundtrack is a medley of childlike whimsy, gradual intensity, and grandeur eeriness. It is an experience all its own, clearly stating the tone of Poltergeist’s purity, drama, and horror. I could only listen to it on YouTube for a few minutes while writing this.
28. Poltergeist trivia!
Like the production curse, Poltergeist is full of fun facts and trivia! If you’re anything like me and love to gather up these little bits of information, I would Google this as well. Again, there is far too much to included here, but it’s one of those older films that has all the interesting bits and pieces to it. Did You know Drew Barrymore (Scream) was considered for the part of Carol Anne, but Spielberg cast her to E.T. Instead?
29. Nods from the Academy.
Nominations include Best Original Music Score, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Editing. Obviously.
30. The problem is not an easy one to fix…
How do you get rid of the dead? You really can’t in a way. Tangina explains that they are always there, always around us, because the souls refuse to move on. The only thing we can do is guide them to the light and help transition their souls to the other side. Even she could not fix the whole problem in the end. Since the issue remains, we’re ultimately left uneasy which is how one should feel at the end of any good horror film.
31. You are scared from the beginning!
The first spook comes at around 3 minutes into the film. Spielberg wasted no time in hooking the audience. Starting off with a (star spangled) bang and then transitioning to the normal daily routine of The Freelings is a shock to our system and leaves us begging for more.
32. It influences modern horror filmmakers.
If you’re a fan of James Wan you may notice some similarities between his high-grossing horror installments and Poltergeist. The second and only other time I can remember being terrified by a film was when I saw Insidious in theaters. I consumed horror movies throughout my youth rendering myself desensitized pretty quickly. I saw Insidious reluctantly with a few friends thinking it seemed like a B-horror movie. When the credits rolled and that harrowing fiddle began to play I knew I was about to watch something different, but something familiar at the same time. Like the semi-adult I was, Insidious was like a mature version of Poltergeist. All of the elements, some of them listed here, were resurrected and enhanced.
Before The Conjuring, Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and all the haunted house films that fall in between, Poltergeist created a paranormal language all its own lending it to film innovators of today and most assuredly in the future.
33. It makes death okay, so we’re okay with it.
Circling back to Tangina’s monologue and even that of Dr. Lesh, the explanation of the afterlife, though unnerving, is somewhat consoling. If you believe in life after death this film should resonate with you. It gives reason to the mysterious evils of the natural world allowing us to cope with what we now understand. Poltergeist is not just here to shock and scare us, it’s a finger on the pulse of death.
34. Jump scare rebounds like a champ!
Hooper and Spielberg mastered the art of building suspense. Executing the jump scare, and then fluidly moving forward – giving Poltergeist that perfect amount of dread and activity. The scares are not cheap, but rather keep the plot moving and our asses on the edge of our seat.
35. It’s technically a techno horror.
At the time ghosts in film were known for moving objects around or were shown as eerie apparitions. Poltergeist, as far as I know, I saw one of the films that broke through the technology barrier and introduced paranormal communication to us in a new way. While nostalgic, it was a very modern move and hit close to home. How many of us own a television? How easy would it be for that static to turn sinister? We can only be thankful we don’t have cable sign-offs anymore.
36. Dominique Dunne taught me how to flip people off.
I attended Catholic School for almost all of my academic years (a place that ironically produces more gore hounds and metal heads than any other existing institution), so we can say I was naive in my early years. I knew what giving someone ‘the finger’ meant, somewhat, but when I watched the scene of the beautiful Dominique Dunne giving the catcalling construction workers the big ‘up yours’ gesture, I knew that whatever it meant, I wanted to do it one day. I asked my dad what it meant and he, of course, mislead me to believe it was a secret way to tell people ‘f*** off’. Well, when little Charlie starts bugging me during Private Reading (don’t interrupt me during Private Reading time, the rule still applies today), I gave him a piece of my mind with the new gesture I learned from the cool girl in Poltergeist. It was the first time I landed myself a detention, certainly was not the last, but I’ll always remember it.
With all this said, I have to give the reason I hate to saying when I recommend any film or need to back up its quality: It’s just good movie. If you’re experiencing it for the first time or taking a trip down memory lane, Poltergeist is sure to be a positive experience for you. If not, revisit this list. If you think I couldn’t come up with more you are dead wrong.