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How POLTERGEIST and E.T. Kindle Childhood Fears

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I remember so much about closets. The one in my childhood bedroom—cavernous, endless—was a portal. A home to toys, clothes, items stuffed into corners to fool Mom’s eye. It was also a source of nightmares. That portal to other worlds? Sometimes they’re nightmares. As easy as a closet can beckon you, it can swallow you whole. Closets are a key figure in two movies from my childhood, both celebrating 40th anniversaries this summer: Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. And both films work to kindle our many childhood fears in very different ways.

In the former, a closet in a kid’s bedroom is quite literally a portal to a hellish dimension. It sucks little Carol Anne—who personifies blonde innocence—into its clutches. In E.T., a bedroom closet is a safe space. It’s where Elliot and his siblings hide their new alien friend from their mother. Adults can’t possibly understand this creature; they’ll only manipulate it. The closet is a space where imagination flourishes. But even in E.T., horror is just around the corner. For all of its childish wonder, it’s a film that terrified a generation, too.

Elliott rides his bike with E.T. in the front basket
Universal Pictures

That’s Steven Spielberg for you. The summer of 1982 was a big one for the famed filmmaker. Fresh off the heels of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he spearheaded both E.T. and Poltergeist. The latter he entrusted to director Tobe Hooper—though he conceived the story and co-wrote the screenplay—while the former is fully his picture. (Though, it should be said, women played a large role in E.T.‘s inception; Melissa Mathison wrote the screenplay and Kathleen Kennedy received her first producing credit for the film.)

Critically and financially, both were mega hits. Poltergeist made $77 million and was the highest-grossing horror film of the year. E.T., well… it’s hard to even express in today’s terms what a massive success it was. It earned $619 million at the box office in 1982 alone (that’s almost $2 billion when adjusted for inflation) and scored nine Academy Award nominations, taking home four. It was the highest-grossing film of all time for 11 years—until Jurassic Park, another Spielberg film, dethroned it in 1993. The films were omnipresent not just in 1982, but for decades to come. To this day, Poltergeist is a sleepover fixture, while E.T. continues to dazzle new generations. Both continue to frighten as well.

E.T. and the Social Horrors of the 1980s

It may sound silly to emphasize the horror aspect of E.T., but the film genuinely haunted large swaths of children. To this day, one of my childhood best friends won’t watch the movie; it scared her so much as a kid, the mere sight of an E.T. doll sends her into panic mode. But it’s not just the visceral fear the alien puppet conjures. In 2013, writer Kate Erbland called E.T. “the scariest movie ever made” in a piece for MTV, arguing that it’s less the frightening visuals and more the social elements that creep and linger.

“As a kid, it may have been the gapping maw of an admittedly adorable alien creature that struck fear in the hearts of many (or just me, thanks, stupid poster), but as an adult, Spielberg’s film still has more than enough to say (yes, in terrifying fashion) about the ability for things far out of our control to change our lives in unforeseen ways, and that’s about as scary as it gets.”

E.T. tells the story of a young boy named Elliott Taylor (Henry Thomas) living in a nondescript California suburb with his brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and mother Mary (Wallace). Their father recently left the family and though we never see him in the film, his absence is its own character. It’s in his terrible loneliness that Elliott is able to connect with E.T., the loveable alien he finds in his backyard. He learns to love and trust again; implicitly and innocently.

Three kids stare into a light with wonder
Universal Pictures

That the decay of the nuclear family is the backdrop of one of the most beloved films of all time is quietly revolutionary. But it also speaks to the cultural fears of the moment. In the 1980s, divorce was even more common than it is now. In fact, in 1981, when E.T. was in production, the national divorce rate was 53%—the highest it’s ever been. (In 2021, by contrast, the national divorce rate was 45%.) The fear of losing one’s family wasn’t irrational in 1982; in fact, it was more likely than not to happen.

The dissolution of the happy American family bleeds into other elements of E.T.‘s social horrors. The latchkey (and largely unaware) parenting style feels almost foreign when watching today. When Elliott stays home sick from school, his mom leaves him alone while she goes to work. She is so wrapped up in the emotional fallout of her separation that she doesn’t notice when E.T. stands in for Gertie at Halloween or the boys leave on hours-long bike rides in the middle of the day. In fact, outside of Mary, all adults are reduced to faceless authority figures in the movie, which is filmed from a child’s point of view. We only see the face of the “antagonist” Keys (Peter Coyote) after he reveals to Elliott that he, too, was visited by aliens as a child.

Arguably the scariest moment in E.T. comes when NASA learns that E.T. is in the Taylor household and quarantines it. There is something so absolutely haunting about that image of the spaceman entering the front door of the house. Seeing government authority desecrating the family’s safe space speaks to the fears of the Cold War era: the loss of personal autonomy and the totality of outside control.

Poltergeist, Reaganomics, and the Loss of Hope

Poltergeist similarly reaps the fears of 1980s America despite its PG rating. The story follows the Freeling family: father Steve (Craig T. Nelson), mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), eldest daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), middle son Robbie (Oliver Robbins), and youngest Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Steve is a successful real estate developer and the family lives in one of his projects, a California planned community called Cuesta Verde. Life is rosy until the family starts construction on a swimming pool in the backyard. The act awakens the spirits of people whose graves were desecrated and moved during Cuesta Verde’s construction. This disruption paves the way for a terrible, demonic beast to snatch Carol Anne (via her closet) during a thunderstorm one night and feed on her angelic light in another dimension.

Carol Anne put her hand towards ghostly tv poltergeist
MGM

Prior to this event, we get to know the Freelings rather well. Mom and Dad are ex-hippies who smoke pot in bed while studying up on Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reaganomics—or the neoliberal economic policies normalized in the 1980s—are everywhere in Poltergeist. The Freelings are cogs in the capitalist machine, a middle-class family padding the pockets of the mega-wealthy and besetting the working poor. They abandoned their looser lifestyle (at one point, we learn that Diane is 32 and Dana is 16; the Freelings clearly didn’t take the traditional path to their suburban oasis) to buy into the myth of the American dream.

Poltergeist is the inverse of E.T. in that way; the latter is about a family finding hope after divorce, the former about a family losing hope when they choose to assimilate. The dream of the suburbs and the nightmare. By movie’s end, the Freelings have paid the price for their naivety. Though they retain Carol Anne from the realm of the unknown, they lose their home, their dreams, and their trust in the systems meant to protect them.

Childhood Nightmares Spring to Life

Poltergeist isn’t merely an exploration of social horrors. The film is also downright scary in a traditional sense. It seems designed to terrorize children, specifically. In the 2017 HBO documentary Spielberg, the filmmaker said of Poltergeist: “Everything scared me when I was a kid. Everything. I had a tree out my window that was terrifying. It was just terrifying. I was filled with so much fear that I needed to exorcise some of that.”

That tree is a character in the film. It stands right outside Robbie’s bedroom window, leering over him, taunting him with demonic branches and shadows. (When I was a child, I also had a large tree outside of my bedroom window that scared me just the same.) In real life, trees are just trees. But in Poltergeist, the tree comes to life and pulls Robbie from his bed—a distraction while the closet eats Carol Anne.

carol anne screams in bed with a creepy clown poltergeist childhood fear e.t.
MGM

Spielberg and Hooper put other childhood fears to the test in the film. Robbie’s toy clown comes to life and strangles him. The family home changes shape and dimension, manipulating familiarity. TVs are a communication device between the living and dead. A swimming pool is full of rotting corpses. Midnight snacks turn to maggots that eat flesh.

(It should be noted that Poltergeist was also a source of real-life terror. The “Poltergeist curse” is well-known to film fans, referencing a number of onset and behind-the-scenes incidents that plagued both the first film and its two sequels. Notably, two of Freeling children’s actors—Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke—died during filming of the trilogy. Dunne was murdered by her boyfriend shortly after the film’s release in 1982 and O’Rourke died from intestinal stenosis in 1988.)

E.T. also uses nightmare logic to stoke fear. The astronaut infiltration isn’t just scary in what it represents. It’s quite literally scary. Kids grow up dreaming of walking on the moon. But here, their aspirational figures are monsters, there to harm and take away. The plastic tunnels they erect in the home are similar to Poltergeist in that they transform the familiar, making it sterile and dangerous.

space suit wearing man stands at a woman's front door in E.T. film
Universal Pictures

When E.T. is sick, he turns a ghostly white. We watch the life drain out of him. It’s terrifying as a child to see the physicality of death, what it does to a body. For many of us, our first brush with loss is the death of a pet. E.T.’s “death” (though temporary) mimics that sensation. We see this helpless creature wither away, unable to communicate its pain. Though the film eventually softens this blow by resurrecting E.T. and sending him home, that awareness lingers in our minds. We are never quite the same.

The Fears That Linger for a Lifetime

It’s remarkable what Spielberg and his collaborators were able to conjure in the summer of 1982. Poltergeist came out exactly one week before E.T. To think of these two remarkable, lasting films in cinemas at the same time is almost dreamlike. And both live on to this day, not just in their actuality, but in the media they’ve come to inspire. We wouldn’t have Stranger Things without the one-two punch of E.T. and Poltergeist. Both are directly referenced in the text and present in the characters, aesthetics, and storylines.

E.T. stands under a light facing sideways childhood fear poltergeist
Universal Pictures

I’m not sure what kids fear these days. The world is so different. Horror is everywhere. In the classroom, in the home; social media brings awareness to global terrors that were mere whispers in the 1980s, when wars were waged in shadows and nuclear threat was theoretical.

The fear in Poltergeist and E.T. is far more innocent. But it’s important, too. Like the best art, these films hold keys to the past. Secrets and wonder and thrills and agony and bliss. Like the closets where Carol Anne and Elliott learn of brand-new worlds, they are portals to a past that will never be again but that will always live on, hungry for new blood.

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Jun 3 2022
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