Calling POLTERGEIST an impactful film would be a bit of an understatement. It was ever-present for myself – and a huge portion of surrounding generations – and if you want to talk about a movie shaping lives, well, this is a big one.
One of the most celebrated aspects of this 80s horror film is the way it exploited our existing fears. Clowns, trees, letting down your loved ones, losing a child – these are the ideas that POLTERGEIST plants, and allows to blossom into something much more terrifying than a Gothic mansion or a Wolfman. But with these relatable suburban horrors came certain coping mechanisms, and I can confidentially say that Craig T. Nelson taught me how to tell if a storm is nearing, or fading away.
POLTERGEIST showed me I could take control of something I feared: thunder and lightning. That tidbit was what I carried with me through most of my young adulthood – how to count, and, to a lesser extent, not to build your house atop a half-relocated cemetery. Watching it as an adult, the viewer’s alignment easily slips from Robbie to the elder Freelings. Williams and Nelson are the perfect celluloid parents, and as well as with counting along with lightning strikes, POLTERGEIST showed me family. Perhaps not a perfect one, but a loving one.
The lack of perfection, and the presence of believable reactions, is what makes the characterizations in the film work so well. Rather than keep the kids around to take part in Carol Anne’s rescue, they are sent away. Granted, they are back home again for the film’s climax, but by that point the objective isn’t to solve anything – it’s to get out of the house.
There is a level of involvement, a willingness to piggyback Robbie back to his room, that is coupled with an autonomy often missing from portrayals of parents; they frequently get relegated to Mom and Dad, never existing outside those descriptors. Steven and Diane smoke pot, read books, goof around, and have kids. It’s one of their roles, but it doesn’t define them.
POLTERGEIST planted that seed in me. Diane is Carol Anne’s mom, but she’s also an imperfect women who’s in over her head sipping booze and commiserating with a paranormal expert. She and Steven aren’t infallible, and the film never tries to convince us they are. It’s OK to get caught dropping a pet in the toilet, or to let your too-old kids pile into bed with you. This movie that prays on our fears lets us know that it’s not the act of moving your family onto a burial site that matters, it’s how you handle it.
That, and to never forget the dog.