Halloween is next week. But while I had it on my mind, I decided to revisit 1982’s Poltergeist…a horror film that I loved as a kid and haven’t seen in over 15 years.
Upon revisit, it didn’t hold up as well as I had hoped.
Nevertheless, I noticed a few themes and given the time of the year, I thought “fuck it…I’ll go ahead and discuss the thematic and symbolic underpinnings of Poltergeist.”
All good horror films are analogous to the real world.
And right from the film’s beginning, we’re presented with a powerful image: heroic scenes from America’s history presented on a television screen with the Star-Spangled Banner proudly playing. Suddenly the images cut to static where we are introduced to a modern sleeping family. One could be easily mislead from watching the opening shot…at least I was confused when I first watched it. “Is this a horror movie?” I thought. Then the images abruptly stop. Of course, that was the way how television stations operated before infomercials. But there’s another way that we could look at this opening scene, and it’s a theme that runs throughout the movie: American values suddenly being “shut out”, notably by television, which causes the decline in American families.
Not only do families suffer from television, but so do neighborly relations. This is most evident when Craig T. Nelson gets into a remote control war with his next door neighbor, which appears to be a continuous source of contention.
Both Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams are presented as products of the 1960s. Williams still stashes weed and tries to appeal to her husband’s former “open-mindedness” when getting excited about the supernatural occurrences when they first started happening. Nelson doesn’t share his wife’s 60s-style optimism for these events. He appears to be growing more “conservative” in nature, with reading Ronald Reagan’s biography while his wife smoked weed as an example. Nevertheless, they’re presented as naïve parents, unaware of the deterioration of their family with their older daughter spending significant portions of her time disconnected from everyone else, middle son buried in pop-culture (From what I recall, he is never shown with friends, and is sometimes ignored by his parents), and younger daughter (Carol Ann) becoming obsessed with television.
Carol Ann’s obsession sometimes draws attention from family members, but is mostly ignored. In a rather humorous scene, with Carol Ann’s eyes fixated on a static television screen, Williams becomes concerned for her daughter’s eyes and changes the channel to a presumably violent war film. The joke being that she is more concerned with her children standing too close to the TV over the content that they’re watching. In fact, Williams seems to show absolutely no concern for the content that her children are consuming as their 8-year-old son has a poster of the film Alien. But eventually, Carol Ann’s “obsession” overtakes her as she is dragged into this supernatural world that was unleashed through the bedroom TV.
It should be noted that in this very scene, JoBeth Williams’ primary concern is misplaced: when they’re unable to locate Carol Ann, her immediate worry is that she fell into the unfinished pool. Both times when Williams mentions her concerns about the dangers that the pool can present to her children, these grievances can be interpreted as being somewhat laughable to the audience. In fact the pool never presents a danger to anyone in the film, except to Williams herself in the final act.
In order to retrieve their daughter, Nelson approaches experts in the paranormal. The leader of this team, played by Beatrice Straight, later reveals that she’s a psychologist that’s following her own weird obsession. But after one terrifying night, Straight realizes that she’s incapable of “reaching out” to Carol Ann on her own and needs to bring in help.
In comes the medium Tangina Barrons (played by Zelda Rubinstein), a seemingly old-fashioned southern lady, to restore order. Despite Straight reassuring the family that Barrons has “cleaned many houses”, Nelson remains mockingly skeptical. This skepticism might appear odd considering all the other supernatural crap going on, but perhaps this might reveal something about Nelson’s character: coming from the hippie generation, he rejects the old-fashioned methods of this medium. This is especially apparent when Barrons orders Nelson to tell Carol Ann that he’ll spank her if she doesn’t respond to his calls, and he reluctantly complies. He is also offended when it’s implied that Carol Ann might be more terrified of him than her mother. Yet these tactics work, and by affirming the love for their daughter, they are able to draw Carol Ann out of this supernatural world, prompting Barrons to infamously say “this house is clean”.
The last act sees this supernatural force coming back with a vengeance, with the family quickly leaving the home which subsequently gets destroyed. With the family reunited, they stop at a hotel and Nelson pushes out the television set…the thing that introduced demons that nearly tore his family apart.
It’s easy to see the symbolism.
While Poltergeist is an obvious Steven Spielberg-led production, filled with all the usual trappings that mostly define his films…what this film is thematically is much less “scary” or “paranormal”. It’s actually a story about a deceptively dysfunctional family that loses a daughter, but by reaffirming their love for her, she is returned and the family becomes restored.
But what’s also explored is the loss of American values (although not very clearly I might add). It also offers what I see as a subtle criticism of baby-boomer parenting. Nelson appears to be too overworked, and Williams too concerned with things that don’t matter to be providing their children with the parenting they need. As a result, television and pop-culture take over their kid’s lives and/or they become disconnected with the family as a whole (which might explain why Dominique Dunne’s character feels so underdeveloped). This makes the children susceptible to evil forces in the world…which eventually ended up taking Carol Ann.