Nearly 3 Decades Later, Where Does Poltergeist Stand Among Hollywood Horror?

Twenty-nine years ago this weekend, a little thriller named Poltergeist opened in theaters. Co-written and produced (and unofficially co-directed) by Steven Spielberg -- whose other 1982 effort, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, would grab summer by the balls a week later and not let go for months -- the film made an enduring catchphrase of "They're heeeeere," spawned rumors of a fatal curse, pushed the PG rating to its bloodiest, grossest extremes, and laid the groundwork for two sequels and and an imminent remake. But does it hold up?

Are you kidding? Not only does it hold up, but nearly three decades on there remains a case to be made for Poltergeist as the scariest mainstream horror film ever released. You've got your Exorcist, you've got your Shining, you've got your Blair Witch Project, fine. But what separates Poltergeist is the way it confronts audiences with specific physical fears -- hauntings, abductions, infestations, borderline sexual abuse, disfigurement -- in a PG context. It thus became a kind of nightmare bedrock for a generation of parents and children alike, not least of all for its tale of a mother who sacrifices nearly everything for the safe rescue of her daughter from "the Beast" tormenting their home. More than possession, more than psychosis, Poltergeist's emphasis on an unseeable, unknowable enemy -- manifest in everything from televisions to killer clowns to hungry trees -- put us on level terrain with the accursed Freeling family. Who was to say what's lingering in our pools, our closets, our (gulp) meat?

In fact, I first saw Poltergeist on regular broadcast TV when I was 8 or 9. It might have been the first horror film I ever watched, a distinction no doubt helped along by a combination of its lax rating, box-office success and the Spielberg imprimatur. It would be years before I really dug into its legend: the premature deaths of castmates Heather O'Rourke (from cardiac arrest due to septic shock at age 12) and Dominique Dunne (strangled by a jealous ex-boyfriend at age 22); the fraught power dynamics between nominal director Tobe Hooper and the hands-on Spielberg; the use of real human skeletons in its climactic pool showdown. (Actress JoBeth Williams was less worried about the skeletons groping her than electrocution from lights falling into the pool; to help reassure her, Spielberg joined Williams in the water.) At that age, I just wanted to know how the hell they did this:

It would be years still before I revisited Poltergeist in its original theatrical cut, which, let's face it, is horrifying. Sure, there's the goofy haunted room with all its floating, swirling toys and fluttering books and orange vinyl LP's, and there's a steady diet of cheeseball dialogue and overacting throughout. But it's ultimately sincere in its attempt to show you this family under duress, prompting a sympathy that compounds the terror elements. And again, it works because this could be your son's clown doll attacking him in bed, or your wife molested and thrown around your bedroom by a wraith, or your swimming pool loaded with corpses, or your house imploding into some alternate dimension -- in other words, the ending:

Or -- God help us -- that could be your steak crawling on the kitchen counter, or your face-shredding bathroom hallucination (I couldn't even watch this whole scene again; your mileage may vary):

Poltergeist is essentially Spielberg by way of Cronenberg, a counterargument to the genre standard that one gets the fate that one deserves. Here, just trying to do their best in the Reagan-era middle class, the Freelings must reckon with a fate someone else deserves (in this case, the avaricious real estate boss played by James Karen). Factors completely out of their control nearly cost them their family. The psychic toll, meanwhile, is incalculable. How will they reckon with the prospect that the ground they walk on is littered with souls, or that nature and the paranormal would conspire in an attempt to literally consume them alive? Moreover, how do we walk away from Poltergeist without the same reckoning? What's working with us, what's working against us? What don't I see that is living in my walls, beneath my floor, in my food? Do I not worry about it because I don't believe it, or because I've made subconscious peace with this presence?

This is the takeaway from almost 30 years of Poltergeist, which deserves better than to be subject to a remake by MGM and director Vadim Perelman -- a lost cause in an era already saturated with underwhelming Poltergeist knockoffs and where an R rating surely awaits. To the extent the original worked as a haunted-house thriller, it managed its popular profile thanks to the fluke of its PG and a filmmaker with the instincts to shake the literal foundations of the suburban idyll he'd irrevocably exalt just a week later in E.T. But ultimately, the reality is that it just can't be made better. Or scarier. Or funnier. Or be more exquisitely cast. To quote the film's indelible psychic Tangina Barrons, "This house is clean." Artistically, anyway, she's right. Let's keep it that way.


  • Tommy Marx says:

    I could not agree with you more. I recently watched this on Netflix, and I was gratefully surprised that it was just as good as I remembered. For me, the worst part was the fake ending. Up until that point, I was thoroughly enjoying the movie, but I was so glad when she got her daughter back. And then suddenly you realize the movie hasn't ended. There's still ten or fifteen minutes of "holy shit!" that makes the rest of the movie seem pale in comparison.
    Some of the special effects have aged (especially the face shredding scene), but I cannot think of a way a remake could improve or even come close to the original. This is one of the greats, like the original Halloween.
    Excellent post!

  • VinciSmetana says:

    Here, here.
    And that chair scene ... whoa ... that was one carefully orchestrated quick change. I'm going to say there was one person a chair. Two or three of them were hiding down below Carol Ann where cupboards should be. And one person came in with a glued together version that they managed to set down perfectly lightning fast. While the camera is off of that area, it sounds like the audio track changes. They probably looped in the audio of a take with Jobeth Williams kneeling down to the cupboards with complete silence in the background.
    That's just my guess.

  • Dimo says:

    Yeah, this is one of the best horror films made in my lifetime. I miss the days when Spielberg had real movie balls.

  • The WInchester says:

    This film freaked me out so much when I was a youthful lad, that I've honestly been too petrified to revisit it for fear that it will continue to scare the crap out of me.
    In fact, just these clips alone has confirmed my suspicion, and now I'll be going to sleep tonight with the lights on.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Thanks! That coda got me, too, the first time. It still kinda does, actually -- I dread the clown scene, all the more so after I realized Robbie is tearing the stuffing out of the damn thing. He is eviscerating a toy. Unbelievably dark stuff.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Sorry about that! I'll try to commemorate something a little less maggoty/skeleton-y next time, I swear.

  • Strawberry Pain says:

    Until you reminded me of the chair scene, I hadn't realized how much "The Sixth Sense" borrowed from that.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    True enough. Ultimately, the most amazing thing about that scene is its economy. Spielberg gets two great, successive scares out of one set-up: That medium shot behind Diane. Carol Anne reaches up from out of the frame for the first, then, like 40 seconds later, he's got the chairs rearranged.
    It's all kind of owing to the jungle-gym scene in The Birds, but still. Very, very effective, and very, very efficient.

  • Hollyfeld says:

    I really hope that this film *never* gets remade.
    If Poltergeist needs anything, it would be a nice blu-ray with commentary, a retrospective featuring the cast and a behind the scenes making of. I know there are likely numerous reasons why those features will never happen, but it would be nice if they did at some point.
    Oh, and - JoBeth Williams was a totally hot mom back in the day 😉

  • jg says:

    My husband was on the set dressing crew for Poltergeist and he was one of the ones making the chair change happen. It's basically just as you guessed -- several guys hiding just out of camera range, and the tabletop chair combo is all bolted together. So simple, yet so scarily effective!

  • David Hollingsworth says:

    This was one of the real horror films, and the idea of the haunted house element in the middle of suburbia was one of the great storylines in horror film. I just watched it two days ago, and it still scares the crap out of me.
    Who knew that a PG rated film could be so daring?

  • Thank you for this! I always figured it was just a swift changeover, but still, it's SO swift... I can't imagine how they got it down to a matter of seconds.

  • jg says:

    Just asked my husband if he wanted to add anything and he said that when that guy with the glasses starts tearing apart his face in the mirror -- at the point in the scene where you can tell that they've switched to a model head, that's actually Spielberg's hands tearing at it. (I just rewatched the clip above and you can definitely tell that the hands are different from the actor's.)
    Hubby's other factoid: He asked Spielberg one day why the dog's name was E. Buzz, and was told it was named after a Dan Aykroyd character on SNL.

  • Amazing! Thanks a million, this is such a treat!

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