Poltergeist (1982) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 26

by Jovial Jay

Cuesta Verde Estates: A nice place to live…for the dead.

The original Poltergeist film traumatized a generation of kids who were unprepared for the horror Steven Spielberg was about to unleash into their life.

Before Viewing

This trailer sets up an idyllic suburban community, as seen in other Spielberg films and then introduces the concept of horror into one family’s life. They check with the neighbors to see if they’ve had any disturbance like furniture getting sucked into the closet or electrical disturbances. Woah! What is going on here? Are you sure this is only rated PG?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween


Poltergeist title card.

After Viewing

In the Southern California neighborhood of Cuesta Verde Estates, the Freeling family lives their normal, average everyday lives. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) works for the developer of the planned community, while Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a stay at home mom for the three children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robbins), and young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). They are just like everybody else in the neighborhood, having minor disagreements with the neighbors and tucking their children in for bedtime. One night Carol Anne awakens in the middle of the night and begins to talk to the television, which is broadcasting static. A spectral hand emerges for her.

The next day Diane and Carol Anne discover a strange phenomenon in the kitchen that moves objects, and people, across the floor with no apparent physical connection. Steve and Diane check with their neighbor to make sure he hasn’t been having any “disturbances.” During a fierce thunderstorm that night, the creepy looking tree outside Robbie and Carol Anne’s window drags him outside and tries to eat him. Steve rescues the boy just before a small tornado rips through the backyard and tears the tree out. During this time, some force sucks all the objects in the kids bedroom into the closet, including Carol Anne, who cannot be found.

Steve visits the local University and meets with Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team, Marty (Martin Casella) and Ryan (Richard Lawson), a group of parapsychologists. They agree to come investigate the house and witness objects flying around the kids room by themselves. Dr. Lesh explains that they probably have a Poltergeist, a vengeful spirit linked to an individual, as opposed to a normal haunting. Diane is able to communicate with Carol Anne even though they cannot see her.


Do toy clowns freak you out too? You’ll love this one then.

Marty leaves the group after experiencing a steak crawling across the counter by itself and a vision of him ripping his face off in the bathroom mirror. The Freelings have Dana stay with a friend and they send Robbie off to stay with his grandparents. Mr. Teague (James Karen), Steve’s boss shows him the location on a hill of the new sub-division, offering him the best location as his #1 sales guy. Steve is curious about the cemetery, to which Teague replies that he will relocate, just as they did in Steve’s neighborhood.

Dr. Lesh calls in a spiritual medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) who is the real deal, to Steve’s surprise. She talks to the spirits with Carol Anne, instructing them to go into the light and warns the Freelings of “the beast” which is the entity keeping Carol Anne hostage. With Diane’s help, Tangina connects her to a rope and has her enter the closet in order to grab Carol Anne and get ejected from the other end of the portal. Tangina proclaims that the house is clean.

Having rescued their daughter, the family all return to the house and begin packing to move. Steve leaves to finish a few things at the office, while Diane tucks the kids in for bed. Suddenly she is dragged up the wall of her room and across the ceiling while a giant hell mouth opens in the kids closet. Robbie is attacked by his stuffed clown and Diane is locked outside during a rainstorm where skeletons and coffins bubble out of the partially built swimming pool. She manages to rescue Robbie and Carol Anne, as Steven and Dana arrive home. Steve confronts Mr. Teague that he only moved the gravestones and not the bodies as the house is sucked into itself. The family, battered and beaten both physically and emotionally, move into a room at the local Holiday Inn, pushing the television set out onto the walkway.

They’re here.” – Carol Anne


Marty was an early choice to star in Face/Off with Nicolas Cage.

Poltergeist is painted as the dark underbelly of suburban living, just as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was released one week later, showed the hope and optimism. While producer Steven Spielberg was busy directing E.T., he was also overseeing Tobe Hooper’s work on Poltergeist. Hooper was hired by Spielberg for his work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and his more recent film The Funhouse. And even though Spielberg didn’t direct this film, his style is all over it. Partially due to the story and screenplay credit (one of the few films he’s credited with) and also because of his presence on-set through much of the filming. There has been much debate over the years about how much of the film Hooper actually directed and how much Spielberg directed, with varying reports. Fans of Spielberg’s work will notice several scenes framed or filmed in his style, and if that’s not proof enough, his hands are literally in the scene where Marty pulls his face off. A hands-on producer for sure.

But Spielberg and Hooper aside, the real reason the film is still being talked about 40 years later is due to its chilling and frightening moments, more than other PG films of the time. Apparently that’s because Poltergeist originally received an R-rating, but Spielberg appealed the decision to have it reduced to PG. This was still two years prior to the creation of the PG-13 rating as a result of other Spielberg films, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Looking at the film with an R-rating in mind provides a little more understanding about the horrific moments. Movies about hauntings, such as The Amityville Horror, while chilling are not as scary as Poltergeist, which also levels up the anxiety in the film by having Carol Anne having been abducted by the spirits. Numerous parents let their kids go see this film at the time (mine included) due to the Spielberg name and the rating. Oh, how little did we all know!


What’s wrong with moving a cemetery to build houses? We’ve done it once before!

Many people have likened the abduction of Carol Anne to a Twilight Zone episode called “Little Girl Lost,” where a young girl falls through a portal in her wall into another dimension and must be rescued before the portal closes. This is not cited as a direct influence by screenwriters Michael Grais & Mark Victor, but the similarities are definitely there. The film is also purportedly based on two real-life incidents including a haunting in Seaford New York (on Long Island) in 1958 and a developer building a park over a cemetery in the late 1800s (see below). Taking these three stories and combining them with normal characters in a suburban environment, along with elements of other tales of the paranormal, created a film that shocked audiences in new and wonderful ways.

Poltergeist is also a film that has influenced haunted house and paranormal films since 1982. The idea of parapsychologists working at a University was seen a couple years later in the slightly scary and humorous Ghostbusters, while the scene with Diane getting tumbled around her room was an Influence for a similar moment in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nightmare also employed the gag of the heroine getting a grey streak in her hair as a result of the supernatural occurrences and fright she experienced, just as Diane gets at the end of this film. The film ultimately works due to the great special effects and horror elements that are set in a normal location. How many of these scenes scarred children (or adults) with moments like the creepy tree outside the window, or the stuffed clown coming to life? At this point, is it okay to say how Spielberg traumatized your childhood?


The diminutive (and bad ass) Tangina Barrons kicks those nasty ghosts right out of the house. Well, most of them anyway.

Assorted Musings

  • Cheesman Park in Denver, Colorado was actually built over the top of a cemetery where the developer moved only the headstones and not the graves.
  • Many people talk about a curse on the film (as with other horror properties, like The Amityville Horror or The Omen) due to the death of two of its young stars
    • Heather O’Rourke died in 1988 at age 12 during the filming of Poltergeist III
    • Dominique Dunne, sister to Griffin Dunne, was strangled by her boyfriend, and died on Nov. 4 1982 a few months after the release of this film
  • The film created a brief franchise with two sequels in 1986 and 1988, plus a remake in 2015, and a Showtime television series (Poltergeist: The Legacy) which lasted four seasons.
  • The Freelings dog, E. Buzz, is most likely named after the NASA astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.

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