This Ghostly Hobby
Neal Block on dual authorship in Poltergeist

During the stretch in 1982 when Steven Spielberg was in production on E.T. for Universal, he was under contractual obligation not to direct any other films. Poltergeist, which would become one of the defining horror works of its period, was a pet project of Spielberg’s that he brought to MGM during the first pinnacle of his career. Following Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. , it completed a loose trilogy of suburbia, a landscape Spielberg would revisit in subsequent films. As writer, producer, and uncredited editor, Spielberg hired horror director Tobe Hooper to helm what was essentially his film. Impressed with the visceral and eviscerating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper’s only exceptional theatrical film to date, Spielberg rescued the man from a future of Psychotronic Video Guide footnotes and brought him to the world of glossy studio productions.

Throughout the intervening decades, Spielberg and Hooper have remained quiet on the details and structure of their partnership. The making of Poltergeist has become a sort of mythic collaboration, a piece of Hollywood apocrypha still debated. Some fans assert that Hooper’s direction was entirely his own, that Spielberg gave him creative control over shots, scenes, and actors. Though some contest, the consensus is that Spielberg kept his hired hand on a short leash, and was almost constantly present on set. Producer Frank Marshall claims that Spielberg would swoop in and get behind the camera during moments when he felt Hooper was making bad choices.

Aside from being a fun bit of trivia or fodder for online message boards, the controversy over Poltergeist’s authorship is a central question to understanding the film; each director brought something personal to the production. When Poltergeist was being shot, Spielberg had already developed a sense of his own art and philosophy. It was scattered, and not fully focused (and still may not be), but Spielberg was on his way to becoming this generation’s great Hollywood chronicler of middle-class values, fears, dreams, and faults. Spielberg took his camera into the home and showed us what our life was like in Reagan’s America. Hooper, on the other hand, had fashioned himself as something that could be retrospectively called the anti-Spielberg with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, thrusting middle-class teenagers into a horrifying world they had never been equipped to deal with. Where Spielberg forced his audiences to swallow an idealistic image of the American family (loving parents and attentive, imaginative children), Hooper relished in perverting all that, setting his own version of the middle-class family unit at the dinner table—a sad group of decrepit cannibals gnawing away at itself. Both men seemed bent on exposing the same deep fears of comfortable living: Spielberg carefully constructed his ideas around the introduction of an unknown and ultimately harmless Other; Hooper crystallized suburban fears into a murderous, cannibalistic demon.

So what did Spielberg see in Hooper’s work that he thought would translate well onto his haunted house story? Poltergeist, which documents a family’s struggle with an unfriendly spirit that has taken up residence in their home, was Spielberg’s most overt portrait of the disruption lurking at the heart of seemingly comfortable domesticity. Perhaps Spielberg thought that Hooper would be an easy kid to boss around, a novice so enraptured with the novelty of the high-budget Hollywood production that he’d listen to whatever Spielberg said. But there’s no doubt that Massacre was a different breed of horror film, one that the general public had not been exposed to, and Spielberg could invoke it to his advantage.

The result was an impressive fusion of disparate styles, a film whose successes outrun its failures. And there were failures: B-grade horror flourishes like that human face being torn apart into a mess of fat and blood (which seems like a Hooper mistake, except for the fact that it’s Spielberg’s actual hand doing the tearing) and the pat “it’s built over a burial ground” revelation that sucked much of the mystery out of the film (evidently a screenwriter’s, a.k.a. Spielberg’s, mistake). But Poltergeist has an undeniable energy that makes it still powerful and frightening today, and that owes more to Spielberg than it does to Hooper. The vividly drawn family unit—pot-smoking parents, liberal but respectful teenager, bickering but loving younger boy and girl—is entirely Spielberg’s; judging by his other films, Hooper wasn’t quite so adept at such realistically drawn characters. They are Spielberg’s vision of normalcy, and it’s his burden to test them. How much of the unknown world must one family internalize before it falls apart?

What really distinguishes Poltergeist as a formidable entry into Spielberg’s oeuvre, more than Hooper’s, is how, decades on, the film is a part of the collective memory of a certain generation of moviegoers. The same can be said of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that film is recollected as a series of standalone images, of shocks, of Leatherface lurching down the street, awkwardly swinging his oversized weapon. The way that Poltergeist lingers in the mind is different—the passing of years restructures the film into a wholly personal collage of experiences. Spielberg has a grip on childhood; he makes movies for kids that are more than just movies for kids. E.T., aside from being a perfect two-hour Reese’s Pieces commercial, was, for a lot of current thirtysomethings, an introduction to the kind of profound and unforgiving sadness the world can offer. And Poltergeist, for many, is the definition of “fear,” boiled down to two words uttered by a little girl: “They’re here.”

Why does Poltergeist linger in the mind longer than other horror films of that period? Halloween was more cerebral, A Nightmare on Elm Street more overtly frightening. But Poltergeist hit home especially hard because it targeted a younger audience, and gave children (considerably younger than the teenagers populating Crystal Lake and Haddonfield) characters they could relate to. For boys, Robbie Freeling was us—the maniacal clown doll perched upon his chair was the same unwanted, menacing toy that we all had hidden somewhere in our rooms, out of plain sight. Girls had two characters to associate with: cherubic five-year-old Carol Anne and above-it-all teen Dana, played by Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne, respectively (both the victims of sad deaths in the 1980s). While Halloween, Elm Street, and the Friday the 13th films used teenagers as knife fodder, Poltergeist showed prepubescents that bad things could happen to them, too. Poltergeist’s barrage of terrifying images—a bedroom closet turned into a soul-sucking void, a swimming pool refashioned as a floating-skeleton depository, a tree animated into a vicious child-swallowing beast, a clown doll strangling its owner, coffins popping up from manicured front lawns like whack-a-moles from hell—are mainly associated with or spring from childhood fears. (Poltergeist was one of the films, along with two other Spielberg titles—the grotesque, parent-terrorizing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, which he produced—that led the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating; despite drug use, cursing, and gore, it was given a PG.)

Poltergeist, basically, is a horror film that’s both more and less than a horror film. Slasher movies are easy to digest and forget; their structures are all generally the same. Poltergeist provides two things: duration and a sense of safety. Before things become violent in the Freeling house, we’re treated to a leisurely glimpse into this family’s everyday. By positioning the poltergeist’s initial manifestations as comic relief, Spielberg allows us to get comfortable with it. Even though we sense the danger, like the family we try to rationalize it. Spielberg’s focus on routine (breakfast table, remote control cars zooming down suburban streets) forces us to identify with his characters, so that Carol Anne’s disappearance resonates.

The partnership between Spielberg and Hooper works best when the latter’s keen sense of the morbid blends with and helps elucidate the former’s delight in introducing larger-than-life obstacles into the mundane worlds of his characters (particularly to his children). When, during one stormy evening, the large, groaning tree reaches through Robbie’s window and grabs the boy in its branches, Spielberg is there to dictate how the boy reacts and Hooper is there to escalate the violence. Robbie cowers in bed, fearful of the menacing oak outside. Counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, those seconds growing ever fewer, Robbie literally constructs the sequence’s suspense tactics onscreen. Then the tree bursts into this comfortable nest of suburbia, bringing a mess of rain and leaves and blood—Hooper has arrived. Could Hooper have made this film without the guidance of Spielberg? Probably not.

Could Spielberg have made this film without the assistance of Hooper? Probably, but the end result might have lacked the gut punch Hooper delivers with such ease. (They have worked together since—Hooper directed an episode of the Sci-Fi Network’s Spielberg-produced miniseries, Taken.) The balance of power, the assignment of fault or praise to one or the other denigrates what was an important collaboration in eighties American film. Many viewers remember Poltergeist both for how it made them feel the first time they watched it, and the way it became a part of their childhoods, especially after repeated viewings. Spielberg’s depiction of middle-class anxiety—the fear of encroaching economic turmoil, of a breakdown in family communication, of an end to the Boomer-era self-delusions of infinite stability regardless of social change—created a new subset of nightmares. Poltergeist felt real, not only for its characters but also for its snapshot of suburban sprawl, its depiction of familial togetherness. Thirty years later, this reality has changed, the relationships have changed, the fears have become more tangible and the anxiety much greater, but the memories of Poltergeist are still fresh and the film feels relevant. Chalk that up to Spielberg’s strong understanding of his audience and the society in which they (and he) live.

Kid Stuff
Michael Koresky on Poltergeist’s family fears

Hailing from the same era as so many pieces of cultural phenomena that defined a generation, Poltergeist stands apart from the Star Wars, Alien, and Indiana Jones pictures for its singular generic makeup. It’s a creaky haunted house picture reconfigured as a special-effects roller coaster ride, nestled with Spielbergian family values, set in prefab suburbia, rigged up with state-of-the-art blue-screen, miniature, and prosthetic work. It’s also thoroughly aware of its own placement in the blockbuster cosmos: Robbie, middle-child and only boy of the Freeling clan, terrorized by malevolent kid-eating trees and diabolically grinning clown dolls, packs his bedroom with memorabilia—Darth Vader figurines, sci-fi posters, and a jacket emblazoned with that latter-day Wolf Man, Chewbacca. As evidenced by the establishing shots of the house, with its Southern California architecture and steep driveway, E.T.’s Elliott probably lives just up the street; but it’s more than location that unites the families—Robbie and Elliott seem to have the same toy collection as well.

Considering all its tyke trappings, it’s not surprising that Poltergeist was the first horror movie for many kids now in their twenties and thirties. Famously rated PG (which, along with other Spielberg products made to terrorize tots, helped establish the PG-13), the movie is something like a particularly gruesome Little Golden Book; it could be subtitled “My First Horror Movie.” Of course the things that we’re often drawn to as kids are the spookiest: Poltergeist is remarkably adept, so many years later, at sending shivers up the spine (those putrid skeletons popping up from underground in the family pool; that persistent stuffed circus freak) as well as causing stomach discomfort (a man, with the aid of Spielberg’s own two off-screen hands, rips his own face off in pulpy chunks in front of a bathroom mirror). What makes Poltergeist so oddly accessible to the young mind is its firm placement in the everyday goings-on of an average family. That domestic verisimilitude is also what makes it haunting to the adult mind—the protectors are just as vulnerable as those little ones who require protection, and their (our) fragile world, heretofore perturbed only by dead canaries and malfunctioning remote controls, could evaporate at any minute.

After the film’s foreboding opening, in which angelic five-year-old Carol Anne perches in front of the TV late at night, talking to its black-and-white fuzz after the station has signed off, Spielberg’s script takes a generous amount of time to establish the humorous, reassuringly normal interactions of its various family members. The parents are vividly drawn boomers: dad Steven, a former-hippie-turned-real-estate agent, is trying to find his inner conservative (he’s seen reading a Reagan biography, its red-white-and-blue cover in full camera view), and live-at-home mom Diane is juggling three kids and housework with her once active 1970s open mind (she smokes pot when the children are in bed and hides the stash when they come in to complain they can’t sleep). As for the kids, there’s eternally pissed teenager Dana; timid, yet brashly masculine eight-year-old Robbie; and of course, impressionable Carol Anne, who will be swept away into the otherworld, through the spiritual conduit of the TV.

A joint production between Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper—see above for details on this renowned “collaboration” which resulted in much confusion on set and in the press over who had creative control over the film—Poltergeist is always considered, easily, an odd mix of Spielbergian sentimentality and Hooper-esque gore and grime (the assumptions about A.I. ’s Kubrick-Spielberg split echoed this years later). If only it were that simple: Spielberg’s always had a skill for scaring the living shit out of viewers, and even his onscreen characters, particularly endangered kids, as in Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and Jurassic Park. Trying to track what is Hooper’s and what is Spielberg’s is less fruitful than acknowledging that the joint effort forced both filmmakers to do something just a little different: it’s Spielberg’s first full-throttle scare machine (Jaws stops being a carnivalesque freak-out once it hits the open-sea), and it’s Hooper's most character-driven, satisfying emotional narrative.

Poltergeist’s screenplay devolves into a lot of tantalizing mumbo jumbo about the “light” and crossing over, but its concerns with the spirit world often seem to take a back seat to its primary power as a sound and light show; it’s the one film where Spielberg’s need to flood everything with backlighting actually has a narrative context. No doubt, Poltergeist is touching, and its literal rebirth narrative—in which a mother must reclaim her daughter and push back through a goopy ectoplasmic birth canal into our world, i.e. the living room—gives the haunted house genre some metaphorical heft; but it’s most memorable as a gallery of beasties and eye-popping wonders (that four-legged skeleton monster, resting on its haunches was achieved through old-fashioned means: a model in a water tank). More than anything, it’s the sheer awe with which the film views the spirit world that makes it not just scary, but transcendent. When the ghosts first invade, their intentions seeming rather harmless—they simply move some furniture around and break some glasses. Diane embraces the intrusion with childish delight, jumping up and down and clapping her hands. She even sets up floor diagrams in the kitchen to demonstrate the trajectory of the otherworldly power for her baffled husband and tired kids.

Such glee is short-lived. It’s all fun and games till somebody loses a child . . . These early scenes constitute contemporary cinema’s most refreshing emotional twist on the haunted house genre. Diane shows an eagerness to commune with something outside of her domestic everyday that implicitly connects to memories of her carefree, flower-child youth. (“Think back into our past when you used to have an open mind, remember that? Just try to use that for the next couple of seconds,” she pleads to her husband before she introduces him to the self-motivated chair in the kitchen.) The forces prove malevolent; for Diane this is a slap in the face, a representation of seventies hope transitioning to eighties disillusionment.

The film’s punchline, of Steven silently banishing a TV-on-wheels from the Holiday Inn motel room to which the family has escaped would seem to identify the narrative as, finally, a hyperbolic cautionary tale: i.e., too much boob tube rots your kids’ brains. Yet Poltergeist is saved from being a footnote in the long history of science-fiction and horror stories that scapegoat technology for society’s ills (remember 2000’s J-horror beauty Pulse, about evil spirits flooding the Internet?) by refusing to punish any of its characters, not even the vaguely negligent parents, whose occasional lapses in judgment—Diane allowing Carol Anne to press her face up against a TV showing a violent war film, and later forgetting to feed the hungry child; Steven and Diane’s aforementioned pot haze—are framed as charming holdovers of a bohemian past. In fact, it’s the affection Spielberg and Hooper have for these characters that makes Poltergeist such a remarkably humane ghost story. There are no lambs to the slaughter here, just a family fumbling towards catharsis. There is exhilaration as well as terror: few horror moments are more upsetting or rousing than when a weary Diane quietly, politely opens her children’s bedroom door—the locus of terror—only to have an ear-pounding, otherworldly shriek flood the soundtrack, before she quickly pulls the door shut and the film returns to silence. It reveals the thrill we get in daring to penetrate the other side. What’s scariest is that we want to go through that door.