Poltergeist 40 Years Later

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Ask any horror fan, journalist, or scholar, and there are a few undeniable classics within the genre, regardless of the time period. One of those undeniable classics is 1982’s Poltergeist, a film that first scared audience’s in theaters and then scared them for decades after with tales of the alleged curse on the film, among other controversies excellently detailed in Ivan Butka’s article, “The Curious Case of Poltergeist.” With Poltergeist recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, this felt like the perfect time to revisit the film and see how well it’s living up to its legendary status.

More Than a Ghost Story

What truly makes Poltergeist a terrifying film is that it scares the audience on two primal levels: a child abduction and paranormal activity in one’s own home. Films typically play on one of these tropes, but here, we got both running concurrently. And both are executed flawlessly, to be clear. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents lend the film a certain credibility with their strength of acting. You feel their fear and vulnerability. Their youngest daughter is missing and you can relate to their feelings. You’re able to project yourself into that situation. How would you feel if your young child has been taken from you? You know you’re so close to her—you can hear her—but because it’s paranormal in nature, you don’t know how to react. You don’t know the next move to make or what reaction you might get based on what you do next.

Heather O'Rourke sitting in front of static tv in Poltergeist

Great acting wasn’t the only reason we were so easily able to invest in this family and their terrifying predicament. Director Tobe Hooper and co-writer/producer Steven Spielberg wisely gave us an adequate amount of time to care about the Freeling family before we got into the action and scares. The film opens with a hook—that youngest daughter Carol Anne is being drawn to the static in the TV, but it’s merely a hook. Then we get world-building. We get time invested in this family so we can emotionally care about and identify with this family. The pacing of a horror film can be everything. The best films make us care before they make us scared and that’s exactly what Poltergeist did here.

After the initial hook, we move into a very Spielberg-ish opening, where suburbia is fetishized to some extent, with the kids playing with remote control cars on a no-outlet street and beautiful overhead shots paint the picture of a serene existence. Everything looks perfect. People look happy. We as an audience are lulled into this false sense of security that this neighborhood is idealistic, which is in direct opposition to director Tobe Hooper’s more socially conscious work. That difference in style and vision between Hooper and Spielberg has become the subject of much larger debates, but on an artistic level, it works. It adds to the terror. Spielberg’s vision pulls our guard down, and then Hopper scares the hell out of us. We’ll never know the truth of who actually directed a majority of the film and who should get what credit for Poltergeist, but we do know that the end result is a masterpiece and both men’s styles are well represented. I’m willing to chalk it up as art myself.

The Social Commentary of Poltergeist

The social commentary in Poltergeist has been well documented and analyzed over the years. We pay for greed. Watching the film in 2022, this social commentary took on a new meaning. Or perhaps a better way of phrasing it is that it spotlighted a lot of issues that we would still be discussing 40 years later.

The brilliance of the film’s commentary is that adding a moral to the story, didn’t diminish the horror of the film. The evil itself doesn’t have an explanation. Rather, the evil already existed, and human action gave it an opening. Hopper and Spielberg towed this line masterfully as nothing can reduce the impact of a horror film more than over-explanation. Here they avoided that pitfall and layered the narrative at the same time by pointing the finger back at the action of people for allowing this to happen in the story and giving us something additional to think about in the real world. Horror always feels more impactful when there’s an element of reality, and the repercussions of human greed are certainly relatable.

Diane stares down evil in Poltergeist

Pulling off social commentary isn’t easy. More often than not, it can feel like a message is being pounded into your head, and here, it wasn’t. The realization that the house was built on top of dead bodies came at a pivotal moment in the film when our minds and attention were being pulled in multiple directions and the underlying implications were left for us to fill in the blanks. That’s brilliant storytelling.

The Legacy of Poltergeist

In recent years, a lot of the focus on Poltergeist has been on the tragic deaths of Heather O’Rourke and Dominque Dunne, the two actresses that played the Freeling sisters, as well as the reported conflicts between Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg. This is understandable to a certain degree, but I would also argue that it takes away from how good this film truly is to a certain extent.

The film is a masterclass in telling a layered story with top-notch acting and direction. It’s emotional, terrifying, and makes you think after the credits roll. It holds up, the special effects included. It’s mostly a “less is more” type of film, allowing our imaginations to do the heavy lifting, but when it’s time to pull out the big guns, the supernatural foes are shown in a manner that does not pull us out of the story. Poltergeist plays on many genuine human fears (having a child abducted, clowns, the paranormal, not being able to protect your loved ones) and doesn’t call us to suspend our disbelief much at all. That’s a testament to a great horror film.

The film is truly a blending of different types of cinema—Hoopers vs Spielberg’s depictions of blissful suburban landscapes and imagination-inducing adventures. And they mesh really well, leaving the audience unbalanced at times in the best possible way. It’s art, make no mistake about it.

Carol Anne Freeling screams in Poltergeist
Cute little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist (1982)

40 years after the release of Poltergeist, I think it’s important to separate the off-the-screen tragedies and rumors from the film itself. It’s not my place or desire to comment on a “curse.” Two young women dying far too early that happened to be in the same, legendary film is a tragedy. I would rather honor their legacies by acknowledging their work in one of the best horror films of all time than trying to apply cause to murder and misdiagnosis.

As for the film itself, Poltergeist occupies a spot on the hypothetical Mount Rushmore of Horror. It set the standard for films that would follow in its footsteps, such as the Paranormal Activity series, The Conjuring franchise, and many, many more. 40 years later, the film holds up remarkably well, which is a feat in itself, considering all of the advancements over the last 40 years, cementing its place as an all-time classic horror film.

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Written by Andrew Grevas

25YL Media Founder

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