Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist came out 40 years ago, and scared the bejeezus out of American kids. And the most shocking thing about this film, which turned on an entire generation to a love of horror movies, is that they rated it PG. No, not PG-13, which was two years away from being a thing. Just PG. Meaning any kid could walk with their friends to the local mall theater and buy a ticket. And the coveted PG meant parents figured it was safe for their kids to watch while they were busy not paying attention. And we watched it…a lot. For many of us Gen Xers, Poltergeist was our gateway into a love of horror, and also a fascination with paranormal research. But what made this one movie so special to us?
If you’ve never seen this classic film, here’s the long and short of it. Produced and written by Steven Spielberg, and directed by Texas Chainsaw Massacre legend Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist centered on the middle-class Freeling family. Mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), father Steven (Craig T. Nelson), and their three kids, teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne), Bobby (Oliver Robbins), and six-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). After moving into a new home in a California suburb, supernatural chaos ensues when inhabiting spirits take little Carol Anne into their nether realm. All via their old tube television set.
With the help of a team of university paranormal researchers and a sassy psychic, they confront the powerful evil dwelling in their home. Released on June 4, 1982 (the same day as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) Poltergeist was a rare horror blockbuster that crossed over (no pun intended) into the mainstream. And it changed the game, largely because of its family-friendly NPAA rating. By the end of 1982, Carol Anne’s creepy warning “they’re here” became a catchphrase. And for kids. seeing it was a rite of passage. It meant you were ready for more than just Scooby-Doo.
A Rare Horror Blockbuster
We’re not entirely sure how Poltergeist garnered only a PG rating. It might have just been the power of its producer/screenwriter, Steven Spielberg. Even back then, having three mega-blockbusters like Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders of the Lost Ark under his belt afforded him considerable power in Hollywood. True, in the film, there is no sexuality and very little cursing. No one even dies in it. (Spoilers?). But there is a very gory moment of a man hallucinating that he’s tearing off his face. How this somehow didn’t get the movie an R-rating is baffling. Nevertheless, due to the softer rating, Poltergeist wasn’t just a hit, it was a blockbuster.
The Haunted House Next Door
Although horror films had brought terror to our modern, mundane world with movies like Halloween and even Psycho, haunted houses were still largely the domain of old spooky manor homes like in The Haunting. Even the Amityville Horror house was older, giving it an old-timey vibe. But the home in Poltergeist changed all that. It looked like one of the many suburban sprawl homes popping up all over America in the 60s and 70s. There was nothing removing it from our own reality.
Even if you weren’t a California resident, the house still looked like one you or someone you knew lived in. All of this made the horror of Poltergeist even more real. And for kids especially, Poltergeist confirmed that the true terrors of the night were hiding right behind your Star Wars action figures and your Barbie Dreamhouse. To us, nothing could be scarier than that. And if you want to know where a generation’s clown phobia comes from? Don’t look to Pennywise. Look to little Robbie’s clown doll.
A Robust Afterlife
After a hugely successful theatrical run in the summer of 1982, Poltergeist’s afterlife, so to speak, benefitted from two brand new things: cable television, and video store rentals. If you were one of the lucky kids whose parents had an HBO or Showtime subscription back in the day, Poltergeist was almost on a loop the following summer. It felt like in 1983, the film was on once a day. And I probably watched it once a day too. If you weren’t a cable household, then it was likely a frequent rental from the local mom-and-pop video store. And again, as a PG-rated movie, as kids we could. Just like Carol Anne in the film, it was the TV that sucked us in.
Baby’s First Horror Movie
Poltergeist was like a gateway drug to horror. After experiencing this harrowing “horror in your own backyard” film, many of us wanted more. And the 80s was a golden age for the genre. We started seeking greater and greater thrills, and discovered more horror movies than we could know what to do with. Both older films like Carrie, The Shining, and The Omen, to movies that got started in the wake of Poltergeist, like the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and so many others. But despite their Hard-R ratings, most could not compete with the purity and perfection of Poltergeist. Something about Poltergeist clawed its way into our psyches the way some of those others didn’t. Maybe because it felt like it might happen to us, or someone we knew.
But Poltergeist did something else besides making Gen Xers love horror. Something which has had long-lasting effects on the media landscape to this day. It introduced an entire generation to the concept of paranormal research as a legit scientific study. In the film, Beatrice Straight played Dr. Tesh, who along with a team of investigators, investigated the Freeling home. They used cameras, microphones, and scientific equipment to try and study spiritual anomalies. Ghostbusters would do an irreverent take on this two years later. But in Poltergeist, they did not play it for laughs. It was earnest. And millions of kids, myself included, became obsessed with the concept of “ghost hunting.”
Flash forward to today. Ghost hunting shows are now a staple of television. Ghost Hunters was likely the first, but they were hardly the last. Sometimes, it feels like the Travel Channel only plays Ghost Adventures and not much else. And were you to ask many of these amateur ghost detectives what inspired them to do this, especially for entertainment purposes? I’d bet there’s a straight line from watching Poltergeist multiple times as a kid to hunting ghosts as adults.
The Legacy of Poltergeist
These days, debate rages around Poltergeist, for reasons both salacious and dull. Because of the untimely deaths of the actors who portrayed two of the Freeling kids, people believe there was a curse on the film. The other controversy is whether Steven Spielberg actually directed the film (shot at the same time and in the same neighborhood as E.T.) or if Tobe Hooper did. No one has ever definitively answered that question, but it also doesn’t really matter much who made it or who did not. What matters is the classic, nearly perfect final product. One that has stood the test of time for 40 years. And one that opened the door to a whole generation into the world of both fictional horror and a fascination with the paranormal.