Stephen Spielberg’s Poltergeist: The gold standard of ghost stories

Happy Halloween! I’ve been thinking about why I love to be scared, why I love exploring and writing horror. Saturday night, my husband and I sat down and watched the original Poltergeist and I realized I had my answer.

As a child I kept a blanket over the black and white tub TV in my room, dreaming of the day that I wasn’t terrified to go to bed. As an adult I revisited my favorite scary movie as a child and realized why I no horror movies ever lived up to my expectations.

I had started with the best.

Poltergeist doesn’t bring the blood. It doesn’t hit the shocks like Halloween or Friday the 13. It doesn’t even delve into that deep, unsettling evil like Hellraiser.

Instead it relies on amazing storytelling to get under your skin and play on your worst fears, whether you are four or forty five.

If you haven’t watched it yet, seriously, wtf? But Spoilers and stuff.

It relies on classic, resounding themes, wrapped into a tight story.

The monster in the closet

I envy the people who didn’t fear their closet and under the bed at night when they were children. I still struggle with it from time to time. It’s a deep seated fear and it’s universal. What lingers in the dark? When you start into the blackness, is something else staring back at you? Is is a host of spirits that want your life force? Is it a dark entity that can pull you right out of this world?

Losing it all the at peak of your game

At the beginning of Poltergeist we see a family at the top. They have a beautiful house, a strong family connection. They’re building on their American Dream. They are so secure in their place that even as eerie things begin in the family, they are more curious than concerned. The family is more than willing to give it all away in order to get their daughter back and maintain the safety of their family, but while this is a quiet aspect of the film, it goes a long way in unsettling the audience.

Trusting the wrong person

Carol Anne, a sweet little girl full of fun and life. She has no reason to fear the TV people. She has no idea that they are trapping her and not just playmates. And father Steve is the top salesman at his company. He has all the confidence in the world that his boss, who has given him a house and a prosperous life, is a man of ethics when it comes to the neighborhoods he is developing.

It is this trust that gets everyone into trouble.

Being taken away from your parents

Another deep seated childhood fear, and Poltergeist not only plays on it with Carol Anne, but also Robbie, the older brother. When everything is going to hell, Robbie is sent away to Grandmas, unsure he will ever see his sister or his parents again.

Losing a child

Now we start to get to the heart of why this movie is so terrifying to me now, so many years after I first saw it. This theme is established from the very beginning, when mother Diane starts to panic about her daughter falling into their new swimming pool. And from there it only gets worse.

The character dynamic between Diane and Steven when Carol Anne goes missing is nothing less than perfect. Diane appears optimistic, holding it together for guests and her other children but the undercurrent of desperation rears its head when she is confronted with the idea that she may never get her daughter back. Steven on the other hand becomes a rock. Quiet, skeptical, unyeilding and completely sheltering his family. He is not offering anyone emotional support, but he will not stop rolling forward toward bringing his daughter back.

This aspect of the film resonated right into my very soul. What would I do if my child was in danger? Most parents agree, we would go to hell and back to keep our babies safe.

But, you know, we’d prefer not to have to…

Love Love love

 Poltergeist, more than being a horror film, is a portrait of a family we relate to and admire. The self involved teenage daughter, the neglected middle child, the sweet baby everyone dotes on, the parents who smoke a joint in bed when the kids go to sleep, these people are flawed, but their love is not.

The most intense scene of the film, that always gets my eyes misty, is when Diane and Steven stand at the threshold of the closet, preparing to bring their daughter back. Their psychic guide, Tangina is preparing to go in. Diane stops her and insists that as her mother, it is her job. Steven argues, “Let me go.”

Diane tells Steven that she needs him here. He needs to hold the rope. He needs to have her back, keep her safe while he makes this journey and the argument is over.

This is a portrait of marriage at it’s very best. He respects his wife’s strength and she respects his. Even though they have been fighting, even though there are power struggles, when it comes down to it they are partners and it is this exact dynamic that Speilberg makes the salvation of this family.


Chills just thinking about it.

Happy Halloween.



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