by Stacey Osbeck
This may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when television stations just sort of ran out of TV. The national anthem would play and the screen would turn to snow.
Poltergeist opens in the midst of such a moment. An instrumental ‘Star Spangled Banner’ marks the end of the evening’s programs while a close up of the TV, so extreme it renders the images indiscernible, fills the field of vision. The long hold creates an eerie tone. Something is happening, but we’re too close to see it.
Static wakes little blonde Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) from her slumber. The preschooler comes downstairs to the harsh TV flicker filling the room. She sits before the screen and converses with something, someone on the other side.
Carol Anne, along with her parents Steve and Diane (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), brother Robbie (Oliver Robins), and teenage sister Dana (Dominique Dunne), live an idyllic suburban life in a neighborhood and home that look suspiciously like E.T.’s. (I’m not the only one who thought this. As I began typing the question into Google it auto completed. For the record: different houses, different neighborhoods.)
Dad and his pals enjoy a rowdy good time watching the big game. When the screen inexplicably flips to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Steve uses the clicker to get back to football. The children’s program pops up again and he apologizes that his neighbor’s remote is on the same frequency. Calling across the side yard, Steve tries to reason with to the man next door, who unfortunately takes the occasion of his kids wanting to watch Mister Rogers to behave completely unneighborly. A clicker war ensues, a funny exchange with each man changing the other’s channel. The levity slyly masks the forewarning about the TV set and its vulnerability to outside influences.
In the 80s, Poltergeist became a slumber party staple, a horror supernatural flick that delivered a real scare, but was also PG. The irony, of course, was that we watched a movie about the horrors TV can bring, on a television set and had to then sleep with it in the room. We discussed this in our jammies in the dark, staring at the just turned off glow of the screen.
Strange things start happening at the Freeling house. Strange turns to scary and scary turns to horrifying as the ghosts, using the children's’ closet as a portal, take Carol Anne. The family can now only speak to her through the black and white scattered screen of the television. Without anywhere else to turn to save their little girl, a paranormal group is brought in. However, after one night in the house, they realize they’re out of their depths and call in the expert, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein). With a height of 4’3” and a southern drawl that drips from her tongue like honey, Tangina brings a wallop of personality along with a genuine hope that she can actually fix this situation and get their daughter back.
An air of secrecy still hovers around the film. Did Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame, actually direct Poltergeist? Or did a mystery man, under contract to not direct any other pictures while in preproduction on his film about a kid, an alien pal and their mutual love of Reese’s Pieces, simply use Hooper as an on-set prop? [We here at Moviejawn think that the most important signifier of a director is “one who points”. Please see the following two images of Tobe looking like a goober while the mystery man points at stuff. - Ed.]
Then there’s the Poltergeist curse, deaths of cast members from different installments. Among them Dominique Dunne who played the older sister, strangled to death by an abusive boyfriend, and the young star Heather O’Rourke tragically dead at twelve before Poltergeist III hit theaters.
Even without the off-screen speculations the film has spun, it endures the test of time because it doesn’t tap into our deepest darkest fears. It exploits our day-to-day anxieties, those reoccurring suburban terrors that we continue to brush aside: the foreboding tree outside the bedroom window, a child falling into the backyard swimming pool, maybe picking at a spot on your face will cause it to all fall apart in your hands, the monster in the closet.
Beyond fear, Poltergeist also plays into audiences’ collective hope that if real trouble burdened a household the family would pull together. For the Freelings, and little Carol Anne, it does seem even though a sassy medium and fancy equipment can help, nothing quite compares to the power of family.