I saw this again recently for the first time in years. Somewhat written off nowadays as a horror film for kids (can anyone else think of another horror film where nobody actually dies?) I was surprised to find myself reading some interesting subtext into the film as I watched. Although, with Spielberg’s subsequent development as a ‘serious’ film-maker in the interim, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Poltergeist contains some intriguing social commentary relating to the Reagan era.
Of course, back in 1982, there was controversy over the uneasy collaboration of Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper. Nominally the producer of the film, Spielberg also gets credit as the main writer, and the consensus of the time was that Poltergeist reflected Spielberg’s thematic concerns more than Hooper’s. However, I would suggest that the mix is richer than previously thought, and that Poltergeist is a more complex amalgam of Hooper and Spielberg than it has been credited as being.
Hooper generally takes credit for the socio-political allegory in his films. “"I can't help but be a part of the times.” Hooper is quoted as saying. “I just think that film, for the serious filmmaker, is an osmosis of the times. That's usually what I tap for my resources: I look around at what's happening politically and economically. I don't know, it's all over me anyway. I'm totally absorbed in things like CNN."
Spielberg has shown a more general anxiety about war, genocide and the cold war ethos. These anxieties have revealed themselves repeatedly in his films, like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and War of The Worlds. There is that chilling sequence in the otherwise lacklustre Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where Jones happens upon a deserted white picket fenced American town (very much like the one in Poltergeist) and comes to realise it is a testing site for the atom bomb. That sense of destruction of an idealised American way of life by malignant socio-political forces (a common Hooper theme) - and with it, the collapse of the family home (a particular fear of Spielberg’s) seems to lie at the heart of Poltergeist.
The American family in Poltergeist are not threatened from within as they are in another excellent horror film from 1982, Amityville II: The Possession, where the destructive forces (anger, hatred, sexual repression) are shown to be arising from the nature of family life itself. In Poltergeist, the family is portrayed as loving and caring, and shows no signs of dysfunction, but it is gradually broken apart by outside forces. This makes it no less a subversive horror film, because the malignant forces are suggested, allegorically, to be the dominant cultural ones of the Reagan years: corporate greed, a disregard for liberalism and a return to the horrors of cold war ideology and the nuclear threat.
In Poltergeist, the family live in a suburban tract housing development where the father, Steven, is a realtor. It is gradually revealed that the homes are built on a burial ground. Paranormal activity ensues, and the family’s youngest child, Carol Anne is abducted by the spirits and taken to another realm. The parents, played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, are portrayed as liberals, baby-boomers, like Hooper and Spielberg. They are children of the ‘60s. In an early sequence we see Diane (Williams) smoking ‘pot’ in bed while Steven reads a biography of Ronald Reagan. This seems to set the allegorical mode of the film a la Hooper. Indeed the camera – which tracks in front of Steven to reveal the book that he is reading - is overly emphatic - another Hooper trait. Later in the film, when Diane presents to Steven the mysterious invisible forces in her kitchen, she asks Steven to ‘reach back to when you had an open mind’, a wryly humorous comment on the surface but underneath it emphasises the themes of the film: the inculcation of right-wing ideology and with it a return to cold war thinking.
Interestingly – and many critics have picked up on this – the television is portrayed in Poltergeist as the point of entry into the family home for the malignant forces. The apparatus by which the Reagan ideology is instilled into the American family. The film opens with the final fragmenting images before ‘sign-off’ (in the days before 24/7 TV), of the Lincoln Memorial and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, accompanied by the Star Spangled Banner. These patriotic images are given a sinister edge by the static that follows them – the sense that something is lurking within the television set. Later in the film, ghosts of the dead march through the living room in procession witnessed by the family and recorded by the paranormal investigators. They seem to be marching in protest. Later we realise it is against the desecration of their burial ground, their memory. Lest they be forgotten. The next generation, as embodied by the family’s children, including Carol Anne, is in danger of forgetting (or never knowing) the truth of war (including Cold War) and are the most in danger of the malignant forces, of being inculcated by Reaganite patriotism and anti-Soviet propaganda. In Poltergeist then, television is treated with suspicion by the end of the film, when Steven removes the TV set from the motel that the family move into after finally fleeing the house. (Interestingly Spielberg was to return to this theme of patriotism vs. the truth as embodied by the flag raising at Iwo Jima when he produced Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood.)
In some ways, the title Poltergeist is somewhat of a misnomer. Poltergeist activity, it is said, generally centres on teenage occupants in the household (as it does, say, in The Exorcist). In Poltergeist, the teenage girl, Dana, is a nominal character. The abduction of Carol Anne occurs, it seems, as a way for Spielberg and Hooper to reaffirm the strength of the family in saving her from the malignant forces, namely ‘The Beast’. The Beast threatens to unleash the dead (i.e. the horrors of the past) onto the living, harnessing not only the media (the television set) but also corporate greed into the bargain. One of the most gratifying parts of Poltergeist is Steven’s final confrontation with his boss, Lewis Teague, (James Karen) whose greed has resulted in the desecration of the burial ground on which Steven’s house is built. While Steven turns his back on Teague, and all he represents, in favour of his family, the hapless corporate executive is left to witness the consequences of his actions as the whole development is destroyed by The Beast and his legions. It is a scene echoed almost exactly in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Glass Skull where Jones, standing literally on the dawn of the atomic age, is dwarfed by the awe-inspiring atomic mushroom cloud and all the horrors it implies.
Poltergeist’s conclusions are clear. To save one’s family, it was necessary to reject the Reaganite ideology, and back in 1982, that meant leaving the TV set outside the front door.