Welcome to Written in BLOOD! This monthly series will take a look at the long-lost novelizations of some of horror’s finest films! Sometimes these novelizations stay very true to the final product, and sometimes they go completely and absolutely bonkers! Either way, we will examine the details and the subplots written in these books that add to the stories we already know and love.
I’ve been doing this article for a little while now, so I usually have a pretty good idea what I’m going to get out of a horror novelization. I’m either going to laugh my ass off (I’m still looking at you, Jaws: The Revenge), I learn something new about the characters, or I will be blessed with a new point of view of some of my favorite movies. What I never expected when I picked up the novelization of 1982’s Poltergeist, however, is to be terrified beyond my wildest nightmares.
“[….] this novelization is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.”
Yes, you read that correctly. It’s terrifying. I promise that I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this novelization is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. The movie itself, while it’s an absolute classic and a nearly perfect film, never really gave me the spookies. I never understood why that is, seeing as it ticks all the boxes of my nightmare recipe (clowns, closets, creepy trees, dads who read books about Ronald Reagan, etc), but it never hit me as hard as it hit other horror fans.
After picking up this incredible book by James Kahn, it all clicked. The reason I didn’t feel the fear when I saw the film is because I left wanting so much more. I wanted more scares, more lore, more explanation for the things happening to the Freeling family. The film never truly delved into the nightmare world and the devilish creatures that tried to claim Carol Anne as their own. Sure, we got a glimpse of the bony, spider-like creature keeping Diane from her children’s room. We also got a giant spooky face hollerin’ at Steve when he let go of the rope even though he promised that he would never let go of the rope (Steve with that Big Rose Energy). What I wanted was for Hooper to open the door and show us the monsters that resided in the darkness at the end of the closet/vaginal canal.
Like I mentioned before, Poltergeist is an almost perfect film. It’s truly great. Spielberg and Hooper gifted us with an all-time classic tale. That being said, the novelization added so much to the overall experience of the story. Here are a few examples of how the book differed from the film and expanded the horror of the story:
Don’t get me wrong, the clown doll in the film is scary enough. I think the prop department visited the Warren’s Occult Museum to pick it up. I’m not sure what parent would ever buy that for their child, but it was the 80’s. Things were just different back then.
In the film, the clown is almost an innocent bystander until the very end when all hell breaks loose. It scares Robbie enough for the boy to put a Chewie jacket over its face, but it doesn’t take any action against the family until the chokehold at the end. In the book, the clown is a much more menacing creature. Unlike in the film, the clown does not get sucked into the closet with Carol Anne. In fact, it’s the only thing left in the room when the dust settles. Everything is swirling around the room, but the clown never moves. It sits there, almost mocking the frantic cries of the Freeling family as they search for their little girl.
When we see the Freeling’s gathering at the beginning of the film, it’s just another Sunday in the neighborhood. In the book, they are getting together with dozens of other people to celebrate Robbie’s birthday. During the party (which sounds like a real rager, btw), Diane hides prizes and “treasures” for the kids to find. As the little hellions rush through the yard and house, Robbie checks a small pile of bricks next to the grill. You see, each kid was given a clue and his states that it’s beside the, well, grill. As he looks through the pile, something unusual happens:
He went to the cloth over the bricks, peeled it back, poked around between the gritty cinderblocks until… wait… yes, over there, wedged in amongst those three—with the excitement of impending triumph, he reached into the little cove, put his hand around the object… and jumped back with a yelp. Something had bitten him.
… He peered back into the dark collection of upright bricks at the obscure thing— whatever it was. There… did it move?…
It was the clown doll.
The evil doll took a little nibble of poor Robbie on page 21. Twenty-one! It takes until well into the final act of the film for the nightmare clown to make us afraid. In the novel, he is always on our mind. He seems to move by himself. His face changes into a sinister sneer. He seems to be watching, all the time. It gives the reader an ominous feeling knowing that, even when nothing else is happening in the house, that clown is still in there watching, and waiting. As we can see from the previous passage, he is not restricted to the confines of Carol Anne and Robbie’s room. He could be anywhere, at any time, and let me tell you—that’s the worst type of clown.
The Realm of Darkness and Pain
As I mentioned before, I wanted something more from the world Carol Anne was taken to. We get some vague descriptions in the film, and we see some lights and top hats coming down the stairs, but that’s about it. Through the magic of the written word, I got my wish. In the book, Tangina plays a much bigger role earlier in the story. You see, she is the one, through her psychic trances, who finds the Freelings and offers to help. Steve doesn’t seek out the help of the doctors, it is they who are following Tangina as she looks for the source of her visions. These visions are spectacular, too. Kahn takes us step-by-step through the darkness that has swallowed Carol Anne and describes, with amazing detail, the beings that dwell within that black void.
These visions play out like a bad trip, with fire-demons, tree-monsters, and flirtingly pesky dark holes. This might sound corny, and at times it is, but what these beings are is a distraction. Something to take the eye away from what is lurking beneath. The demons in this realm are literally playing with Carol Anne. They are picking her up and letting her dance on their arms and limbs. As the little girl falls to the ground, Tangina senses something watching from the edges of the mist.
And under it all, something evil. The sense of evil made Tangina recoil, made her soul shrivel. She went around its fetid presence, trying to see it, trying not to see it.
This evil being is The Beast, and it is the force trying to keep the souls of the departed from crossing over into the light. We hear mention of this creature in the film, but it takes physical form much earlier in the book. When Marty, the young assistant to Dr. Lesh who has some trouble keeping the skin on his face, retreats to the bathroom after seeing the ghostly mists coming down the stairs, he begins to change.
His hands begin to melt in front of his very eyes. They melt slowly, the skin pooling on the tile floor of the bathroom. His limbs start to elongate, making it seem like his elbows are raised over his head. He places his knuckles on the floor and hunches over to fit inside the small room.
Something else begins to change, as well. He starts to feel… powerful:
He heard the seam of his pants rip down the back. He smiled again. A well of saliva brimmed over his lower lip, drooled in a long string down to the floor, collected there in a pool. He bent his head down and licked the spittle off the floor. That was easy, for his neck had become longer… and his jaws protruded a bit, in a kind of snout.
During Marty’s metamorphosis, the ghostly figure of a woman is descending the stairs. Just like in the film, the entire group is mesmerized by her beauty. She gently enters the living room and she seems to be surrounded by points of light. As she stands before the group of amazed living souls in front of her, something begins to change:
Then, as they watched, she paused: the ephemeral blue-green mist that formed her seemed to congeal; her head enlarged, her eyes grew blacker; lips pulled back in a demon snarl; arms rose up—and, as they watched, it seemed that something beastly welled within her, started to emerge…
… The murky image of the woman shifted shape within the darkness, horribly transformed: two bright glowing spots appeared, then pulled back: they were eyes. Eyes in the center of a lightless, shapeless head—shapeless, but vile. Gradually the head resolved itself until it could be dimly seen, though still the shape was difficult to gauge. For it was the grinning face of rank chaos, horror incarnate. Madness embodied.
And beyond it, in the background, its shadow: the shadow of The Beast.
This is the horror content that I felt was lacking in the film version of Poltergeist. Although we do see some creatures later in the movie, I wanted to see what was underneath those hideous monsters. The thing working them like a puppet: The Beast.
Everything I have mentioned in this article takes place in the first half of the book. There are other differences in the back-half, but to go into them would be too spoilery for this article and I don’t feel like getting yelled at online. That being said, this book is jam-packed with horror and lore, and every fan of the film needs to track down a copy for themselves
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