How ‘Poltergeist’ Taught Us to Fear Technology
The Steven Spielberg-shepherded 1982 cult classic is getting the remake treatment, and its anti-tech message is even more relevant today.
Utter the word “Poltergeist” around people of a certain age and it will induce Proustian flashbacks to the film’s signature sight: that of a cherubic young girl making contact with the undead via a television screen, a fantastical encounter that leads the kid, blond-haired Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), to famously proclaim, “They’re heeere.” It’s a moment of lasting power, unforgettable to anyone who grew up during the ’80s. And it’s one that remains piercingly relevant today, much like the rest of the film, which—33 years later—retains its status as the first mainstream Hollywood horror effort to fully tap into our dawning technophobia.
Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist gets the remake treatment this Friday courtesy of Monster House and City of Ember director Gil Kenan, who has seemingly hewed rather closely to his source material, about a California family whose house is infested with angry spirits that abduct their youngest daughter.
And in 2015, the idea that our gadgets and devices might be causing as much harm as good is all-too-familiar to anyone who spends their days and nights staring at a computer or smartphone screen. Anxieties about the potentially negative consequences of our gizmos have also been consistent fodder for horror cinema over the past two decades, from The Ring’s TV ghouls, to Pulse’s societal-disconnect ghosts, to Feardotcom’s Internet evil, to this past month’s Unfriended and its Skype-filtered online dangers. Be it malevolent websites or cellphone phantoms, these films prey upon an overarching concern that the technological apparatuses designed to bring us closer together are, in fact, tearing us apart—and in just about every case, they can claim 1982’s Poltergeist as their de facto father.
Credit that prescience to Steven Spielberg, who not only produced Poltergeist and came up with (and co-wrote) its story, but also was rumored to have co-directed it as well, to the point that he had to pen a public letter of apology to official director Hooper in order to steer clear of possible Director’s Guild of America trouble. However, whether he was the man in charge on set or merely a hands-on adviser during production, Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the finished product. From its expert widescreen panoramas of normalcy and insanity, to its warm-hearted, warts-and-all portrait of the nuclear family in the form of the Freelings—a clan of five who live in Cuesta Verde, a planned Cali community built by the same company for which dad Steven (Craig T. Nelson) works—the film feels like a kindred spirit to Spielberg’s ’80s oeuvre, including E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, which amazingly opened in theaters just one week later.
Hooper’s tale begins with the National Anthem cascading over blurry TV shapes that are soon revealed to be patriotic images of the Lincoln Memorial and the White House (among others), played by TV networks as a veritable “signoff” when broadcasting stops for the night. Immediately transforming what should be comforting pro-U.S.A. sights into something distorted and ominous, Hooper’s introductory shot pulls back from the now static-y TV and to a middle-of-the-night bedroom drenched in menacing flickering light, where a family dog is soon followed from room to room as it tries to wake its human compatriots. The pooch only succeeds when it reaches Carol Anne, who rises from bed, heads downstairs and, in thrall to the TV (and the voices she seems to be hearing from it), puts her hand on the screen as the rest of her relatives, now awake and watching this strange performance, stare in unsettled confusion.
The trailer for 1982's "Poltergeist."
Marked by visuals that speak to American family unity under siege by the TV, Poltergeist’s opening sets the stage for its ensuing credit sequence, in which happy-go-lucky snapshots of middle-class life (kids on bikes and messing around with radio-controlled cars) include those of Steven and his friends gathering around the television to watch an afternoon football game. That communal gathering is interrupted by a neighbor’s kid, who—using a remote control on the same frequency as Steven’s—repeatedly changes the channel to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. A humorous vignette, it’s another confirmation of the TV as both the unifying force in modern life, and a source of community conflict. And it subtly paves the way for what soon becomes an all-out nightmare for the Freelings once Carol Anne, seduced by the specters she hears (and sees, via a protruding hand and burst of light) in the TV, is shortly thereafter sucked away into her bedroom closet by the domicile’s poltergeist, and reappears only as a voice emanating from the fuzzy set.
Poltergeist is rooted in the idea of the TV as a source of disruption in the family, which in this case is presented in a fundamentally conservative form (note that Nelson’s paterfamilias is presented as a pot-smoking goof who now reads Reagan: The Man, The President). By actually stealing a child, the TV comes to be the epicenter of disorder and chaos for the Freelings. Moreover, what climactically saves Carol Anne, as well as helps reestablish the family’s cohesiveness, is not the paranormal-recording doodads of the research team brought in to help with the crisis, but instead the aid of a grandmotherly sage (Zelda Rubinstein’s mystic Tangina Barrons), who helps guide mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) to enter into the dark dimension and bring back Carol Anne—which she does in a scene of gooey, amniotic fluid-like rebirth that symbolically implies that the family can only be reborn by, literally and figuratively, exiting its TV-media womb.
Although Poltergeist is a film rich with other undercurrents (specifically, of white America’s exploitative relationship to its Native American ancestry, and to the “other”), it’s this technophobic strain that continues to be its legacy, even though its two subsequent sequels (1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, 1988’s Poltergeist III) opt for more conventional, and far less interesting, supernatural-demon-cult-boogeymen storylines. Aesthetically defined by flickering cathode-ray light, Hooper’s original imagines the Reagan-era family being fractured by technology, and suggests that the response to this attack is for members to assume traditional roles—as when Tangina, in order to draw Carol Anne away from the Poltergeist’s “light,” tells Steven to act like a stern, spanking-loving disciplinarian, and for Diane to behave like a comforting nurturer.
The fact that these tactics prove successful underlines Spielberg and Hooper’s old-fashioned notions about domestic dynamics, which are reaffirmed at the film’s conclusion when the TV-loving Poltergeist out-and-out consumes the house, but the Freelings escape, intact and stronger than before. Closing on a comedic note of Steven wheeling a TV set out of the clan’s temporary motel room residence, Poltergeist ultimately plays as a dire warning about the perils of technological infiltration into, and domination of, our individual and collective lives. Of course, its solution (reject the future, embrace the past!) was not subsequently adopted by the culture at large, as anyone reading this article on an iPhone or Surface tablet surely knows. Yet as evidenced by its legion of imitators, be it The Ring series, the Insidious franchise (Chapter 3 comes out on June 5), or Kenan’s new remake, its technophobic terror continues to make it perhaps the most prescient horror show of the era—a haunted house thriller that understands the dangerous allure of the glowing screen, and the way in which its seductive power can, if consumed too obsessively, blind us to what’s truly important.