Poltergeist has always been one of my favourite horror movies. I don’t know exactly when I first saw it, but I have very early memories of the iconic “They’re heeere” scene. I sometimes go years without seeing it, but every time I return to it, I fall in love with the Freelings all over again. Even when it’s been long enough that I forget the small details, what most stands out in my mind is my admiration for the family dynamic, and the relationship between Steve and Diane.
Recently, I was listening to the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You. In this particular episode, titled “Why Didn’t You Believe Her?,” the hosts discuss and analyze the all-too-familiar horror trope of not believing a female character when she says something isn’t right. They likened this movie-phenomenon to the sad reality that women, so often, are simply not believed in our everyday lives. What immediately came to mind, though, was a scene in Poltergeist, in which Diane realizes there’s a ghost (or force) in her house. What was so striking to me about that scene was the ease with which she accepted this paranormal event as truth, and the subsequent ease with which she convinces her husband. This got me wondering if the film was as progressive as I remembered it being: Did he believe her? So, I decided to return to Poltergeist in the social/political atmosphere of 2018, to see if it holds up under scrutiny. In my opinion, it absolutely does.
The Freelings are happily settled in a Suburban paradise when a malevolent force takes over their home and steals their youngest child, Carol Anne. The family seeks help from Paranormal experts, and with professional guidance, Diane executes a heroic rescue of Carol Anne. As they are getting ready to pack up and put the nightmare behind them, the poltergeist makes one more attack. Though Diane is able to fight it off, the force destroys their house, sucking it into the ground below. We learn that the trouble was caused by the suburb (and their house, in particular) having been built atop a cemetery, without even the decency of moving the bodies. Disgusted, Steve and his family make a harrowing escape to a motel, where we assume they will be staying indefinitely.
There is a lot to unpack in this film, but the main things I want to explore are: the family dynamic / Steve and Diane’s relationship; the portrayal of women and men; and the treatments of Carol Anne’s rescue and the final escape.
The Family Dynamic, and Steve and Diane
Poltergeist is a Steven Spielberg picture disguised as a Tobe Hooper picture. I say this because everything from the music, to the ambience, to the mise-en-scene feels more like E.T. than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Why? Because Spielberg wrote and produced the film, but due to a clause in his E.T. contract, was unable to direct it. He signed Hooper to the role, but judging from the final product, he maintained creative control.
The movie opens with a typical Suburban Sunday. Diane is doing housework while Steve watches the game with the guys and the kids are all off doing their own things. This opening is a bit of a ruse though, as we soon learn the family is not necessarily boring, typical or choking on gender norms. That night, we witness Steve and Diane spending actual quality time together, smoking a joint and laughing. Not bad for a couple that, if you do the math, had their first kid at 16. When they get interrupted by their son who is afraid of storms, it’s Steve who takes him back to bed and comforts him. And when that doesn’t work – family sleepover in mom and dad’s room. Though their daughter, Carol Anne, seems to have no objection to the thunder, she seems happy to jump on the opportunity for a night in mom and dad’s bed. It’s all quite sweet, until they wake up to Carol-Anne staring at a snowy TV screen, pronouncing, “They’re here.” Shivers.
As the plot progresses, Diane quickly realizes something paranormal is in the house. She checks in with Carol-Anne: is it the TV people? Can she see them? Diane immediately trusts her daughter’s instincts and is willing to listen to her. Better yet, once she does a little investigating, she’s eager to share her findings with Steve who, although confused and frightened, never questions her. That’s it. They have a ghost. Onto Act II. Quick and easy and delightfully refreshing.
The Portrayal of Women and Men
The gender roles in this film are not particularly rigid, and a quick look at how women and men are portrayed reveals an impressive level of gender equality for 1982.
Diane doesn’t appear to have a career, but she also doesn’t seem to be a sad housewife. She would have been 16 when she and Steve had their first child, Dana, and it seems like he built a successful career before they decided to grow their family with two more children. That seems reasonable. She seems happy and well adjusted, so I see nothing to criticize. She’s also the film’s hero, but more about that later.
Her teenaged daughter, Dana, is an interesting character. She’s not portrayed as a raging hormonal teenager, which is nice. We get the idea that she’s sexually active when she smiles, fondly “remembering” the motel her family will be staying at. To this, Diane looks surprised and raises her voice a little, but there’s not a big to-do made about it. Dana is not shamed for her sexuality, which in an 80s horror movie is kind of mind-blowing. And, when Dana is harassed by contractors building the Freelings’ pool (they aggressively cat-call her, and it’s really not cool!), she doesn’t take it. Instead, she flips them off and walks away, looking quite pleased with herself. Diane, who is watching the exchange through the window, also looks pleased with Dana. Though, she really should have at least fired these men who were sexually harassing her 16-year old… sigh.
Then, there are the Poltergeist experts. Not one, but two – and both are women (one even has two male assistants). Women in powerful roles, I like it.
Steve is great. He’s an affectionate father, a supportive husband who treats his wife as an equal, and a hard-worker. Climbing to the top doesn’t compromise who he is either; when he realizes what his firm has done (building on the cemetery), he makes a moral call and lays into his boss. I don’t get the impression he’s going back to that job.
There aren’t really any other men in significant roles in this film. We get glimpses of Steve’s friends, boss and a neighbour, who all serve to highlight Steve’s better qualities. For the most part, the other men inhabit stereotypical spaces such as the beer-guzzling sports fan and the immoral corporate-ladder climber. Then there’s the contractors who think it’s okay to make passes at a a teenager, and steal food through a window – Diane REALLY should have fired these guys!
So, yes, all in all the movie could have done better with the men; but Steve is a big win, so I’ll take it.
Carol Anne’s Rescue and the Final Battle
Carol Anne’s rescue uses birth imagery so well. When the Freelings are told that they will have to go into the poltergeist-dimension (I guess that’s what it is), there’s no question about who will do it. It will be Diane.
One of my favourite moments is when Steve and Diane are asked by Tangina (the expert) which parent is the disciplinary, and neither want to take on the title. Diane says Steve does the punishing, to which he says “that’s not fair!” He’s then forced to make threats to Carol Anne in an attempt to position her where they need her to be to execute the rescue. He gingerly tells her she better listen, but Tangina insists he has to be more forceful and threaten to spank her. He hates this! But after a little resistance, he settles for “mom and I will spank you.”
Once they get that over with, it’s time for Diane to go in. Steve ties a rope around her waist and promises never to let go. They share a kiss, and she heads into the dimension. The rope is clearly meant to signify the umbilical cord, held by Steve – the only active role a father can really have in a delivery room. You can feel his devotion and helplessness as he watches his wife disappear. Only she can do this. And she does.
When Steve pulls Diane back into our world, she is clutching Carol Anne. They land in the bathtub, covered in red goo that looks suspiciously like placenta, blood and other bodily fluids. Both Diane and Carol Anne are silent, eyes shut. Steve panics, not knowing what to do. He goes to their side and begs for them to wake up. And they do. We see Diane holding Carol Anne on her chest, and Steve beside the tub, holding her hand. If that’s not a birth story, I don’t know what is. I thought is was poignant and well done. It was even a little emotional.
Once the big rescue has taken place, and Diane has saved the day, Steve is determined to pack up and get out. He’s traumatized – more so than Diane who seems happy enough to just put it behind her. While Steve closes up his affairs at the office, the family tries to get through one last quiet evening in the house. But, no such luck. The poltergeist returns for Carol Anne, but Diane is having none of it. Using strength and will, Diane fights her way to her children’s room and executes a SECOND rescue, this time with no Steve holding her rope. Not to mention, this time she saves Carol Anne and Robbie, who is caught in the cross-fire.
Steve and Dana get home just in time to shuffle the family into the car and make a final escape as their house gets sucked into oblivion. They make it safely to the motel and it’s a somewhat happy ending… until 1986, Poltergeist II.
I still love this film. Watching it through the “Why Didn’t You listen to Her?” lens, only made made me appreciate it more. No film is perfect, but there’s something to be said for throwing on an old fave and realizing it’s not as problematic as you might have expected. Because, the older I get, the tougher nostalgia gets; having to pull the wool over my eyes, just to keep enjoying the things I once loved. Yeah, I’m looking at you Disney.
I give Poltergeist a steadfast 4/5