Sunday, January 16, 2011


Second title, and already a theme... Seriously, nobody grew up in the 1980s without being influenced by Steven Spielberg.

Of course, there's the old debate over whether or not POLTERGEIST is more of a Spielberg movie or more of a Tobe Hooper movie... John Muir has written (in his book Horror Films of the 1980s) that it's a Spielberg movie until Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein) announces "this house is clean"; after that the story veers off the rails into Hooper's more surrealistic head-space. This is a sound argument, but as I was watching the movie a few nights ago I kept thinking that POLTERGEIST is not quite so stylistically coherent.

First things first: POLTERGEIST is NOT a ghost story. The storytellers don't seem to know much of anything about the pseudo-scientific phenomenon known as poltergeist activity. Instead, this is a movie about aliens disguised as ghosts. It has all the child-like, other-worldly speculation of Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or Tobe Hooper's INVADERS FROM MARS, but ghosts - instead of aliens - are providing the loose justification for the wide array of strange images and events. Even if you genuinely believed in ghosts, POLTERGEIST is pretty tough to swallow. The best way to approach the film may be to try and watch it the way a child would.

I was about seven when I saw POLTERGEIST for the first time, and film affected me just as powerfully as JAWS. In some ways, even more so... because JAWS (like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) is about a family that's separated by monsters. In JAWS, Roy Scheider pursues the shark even though he could have easily stayed at home with his wife and kids. (I'm with Gil Scott-Heron on this one.) In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, Richard Dreyfus blatantly chooses aliens over his wife and son. In POLTERGEIST, however, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams do everything in their power to protect their children.

Of course, they're hopelessly outmatched... because the "poltergeist" in this movie can do anything and everything a 7-year-old's wandering mind can think of. Carol Anne's "TV People" not only stimulate hallucinations, rattle walls and move furniture... but they can also possess trees, conjure tornadoes, eject corpses from the ground, and turn an ordinary clothes closet into a magnetic Sarlac pit.

A few years ago I worked on a TV series about allegedly true ghost stories, and while I'm not going to suggest that everything in that show really happened, we did try to adhere to the popular theories about ghosts and demons that are espoused by paranormal experts. In POLTERGEIST, the only rule is that hauntings revolve around places (and can continue for years) while poltergeist activity revolves around people (and usually doesn't last very long). Based on the fact that a young girl has been ghost-napped, the experts in this film conclude that the family is dealing with poltergeist activity. Then, inexplicably, they start flip-flopping on whether or not it's a good idea for the lost girl (who has... what? dematerialized?) to "go into the light."

If memory serves, renowned ghost hunter and author Hans Holzer was the one who first claimed that poltergeist activity is the result of psychokinesis in pubescent girls (and occasionally boys). The thing is: Carol Anne, the little girl in POLTERGEIST, is pre-pubescent... and psychokinesis doesn't explain how she manages to disappear, via the family television set, into a parallel dimension... only to emerge days later from the living room ceiling like an aborted fetus from an alien spaceship. In several years of researching and talking to people about allegedly true experiences with ghosts and demons, no one even came close to telling me a whopper like this. (I wish they had, because we would have embraced it.) Reflecting on the film now, I'm reminded of Harlan Ellison's scathing review of BACK TO THE FUTURE, in which he lambasted the filmmakers for ignoring the most basic concepts of time travel. Paranormal investigators must feel the same way about POLTERGEIST.

Despite all of these problems, I can't be too hard on POLTERGEIST. This was a movie that really piqued my curiosity about death and the afterlife. I'm still captivated by the sequence in which Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) tells Robbie about "the other side." Their entire conversation takes place in the dark, in whispers. Robbie, contemplating the idea of ghosts for the first time, worries that maybe the house is haunted by a bully from his school who got hit by a car. (You'd think that a kid who had just been half-ingested by a tree would already have bigger fears than bullies from school... but I digress.) Dr. Lesh calmly reassures him with stories about a "beautiful white light," while John Williams's music swells. It's pretty simplistic stuff, but that's the beauty of the thing. This scene is a supernatural variation on the boat scene in JAWS... it pulls us into a realm where anything is possible, if only for a moment.

As a 7 or 8 year old kid, it wasn't at all difficult for me to believe in man-eating trees, killer clown dolls, or the possibility that a person's entire face could melt off. (I had nightmares for weeks about that one.) Likewise, it wasn't difficult for me to believe in that white light. The beauty and the terror associated with "the other side" were all mixed up in my imagination, and they were - for the duration of the film - much more real than the world around me. Even now, I can't watch POLTERGEIST without re-experiencing a little bit of that childhood awe. I've had the same experience when visiting locations associated with the film - the neighborhood in Agoura Hills that doubled as Cuesta Verde, and the house in Simi Valley where the Freelings beat the devil.

I also recently visited the cemetery in Westwood where Heather O'Rourke, the actress who played Carol Anne, and Dominique Dunne, the actress who played Carol Anne's older sister, are both buried. Dunne was murdered just a few short months after POLTERGEIST was released in 1982. O'Rouke died tragically a few years later, during the making of POLTERGEIST 3. She was only 12 years old, and her loss traumatized the cast and crew. (You can read more about the trials of the production here.) Real-life tragedy aside, POLTERGEIST 3 was a troubling film because it separated Carol Ann from the family that literally went to hell and back to protect her in POLTERGEIST 1 & 2. Apparently, the filmmakers didn't realize that those earlier films worked precisely because of the family dynamic. The love of the parents for their children proved powerful enough to overcome fear and even death... and that's what I took away from that first viewing of POLTERGEIST.

The Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in Westwood is home to quite a few actresses who died young - including Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Dorothy Stratten. I visited the cemetery on a Saturday morning, and the place was crawling with movie fans in search of their favorite stars. With so many famous people buried there, the cemetery - like POLTERGEIST - inspires more wonderment than fear or sadness. Since none of us really knows what's on "the other side," that seems completely appropriate to me.

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