Aug 27, 2012

What can Poltergeist teach you about writing?

Poltergeist (1982) is one of the most effective horror movies ever made. It follows a series of supernatural events affecting the Freelings, a family that lives in the planned community of Cuesta Verde (“Green Coast”).

Whatever entity is responsible for these events, little Carol Anne Freeling seems to be the focus of its attention. Carol Anne is capable of communication with ‘the TV people’ — her vitality and innocence draw the spirits out. What begins as a number of apparently meaningless, daytime tricks turns into a full-blown terror campaign. It’s almost as if the entities wanted to demonstrate their harmlessness and gain the family’s trust.

The most violent explosions of supernatural energy occur at night: melting faces, man-eating trees, a troop of ghosts gliding down the staircase. The film’s climax takes place after dinnertime, plunging the Freeling family into a chaos of hairy spectral beasts, slimy closet tentacles and a cemetery’s worth of coffins. Cuesta Verde, as it turns out, was built over a graveyard and the denizens of the necropolis are none too pleased. Their headstones were moved, but not their remains.       

Why is the story of Poltergeist so sinister? What elements and techniques did Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg employ in their script just to mess with our minds?

1. They made familiar objects threatening

The TV. The spirits of the miserable dead first manifest through a nondescript object in the household, which is the family TV in the living room. What’s worse, they begin the methodical undoing of familial bliss by addressing and captivating the most vulnerable person in the household.

The old tree in the yard. Trees don’t move, they don’t seem to have any will of their own, and what’s more, they are benign. The old tree in Poltergeist comes to life and tries to eat Robbie Freeling, Carol Anne’s older brother.

Robbie’s clown. I’ve read somewhere that clowns make you uncomfortable for the same reasons that realistic androids do – they take you to the uncanny valley, that area of cognitive/emotional response where you feel repulsed by a human-like being that almost resembles you, but not enough to put you at ease. All you see is a violation of natural order, something along the lines of a talking corpse. When the clown comes to life and ensnares Robbie, dragging him under the bed, the scene is so grotesquely abhorrent, and yet so low-key, that your neurons don’t know which way to fire.   

2. They played on deep-rooted fears

Your first goal as a parent:
to ensure that your child grows up until he or she can take care of herself. What if your child suddenly vanished and you had no clue where she might be? What if Carol Anne slipped into the pool and drowned during a sleepwalking episode? Shouldn’t you be there, watching your child 24/7?
What if you failed?

Pictured: failing.

Shattering the illusion of safety in your own home.

First there’s the unsettling prospect of home invasion by entities you can’t see.

Then comes Carol Anne’s abduction, and the draining attempts to contact her.  

Carol Anne, played by Heather O'Rourke
Once Carol Anne is, shall we say, fished out of the ghost dimension in the Freeling home, Tangina, the height-challenged psychic, declares that the house is ‘clean.’ As it turns out, the spirits were just biding their time. They launch yet another assault on the Freelings just to get the little girl. Much hostility is centered on the mother, Diane Freeling, who’s knocked about in gravity-defying ways and confronted by the spectral hairy beast I already mentioned.

You can’t live in a place where you’re afraid all the time, stuck in survival mode. That’s why we invented architecture, and why walls and doors are so important to us. To find out that your safe bubble can be so easily pierced, that your nest can be taken over by a monstrous cuckoo… How can you ever feel safe again, knowing you have no defense against a relentless predator that wants your child?

Diane Freeling and Dr. Lesh, played by JoBeth Williams and Beatrice Straight, respectively

3. The themes:

The universe is chaotic and your pain is beneath notice

Darkness isn’t a soothing environment in Poltergeist. It gives birth to monsters and, worst of all, regurgitates the bodies of the furious dead. Poltergeist is concerned with objects, people and morals out of place: spirits talking through television and rearranging furniture in creative ways, interdimensional portals in bedroom closets, family homes over burial grounds.

Tangina, played by Zelda Rubinstein

Thunderclap and rain usher in the psychic storm that the Freelings will have to live in. A freak tornado nobody pays much attention to ends up resonating the artificial dream that is Cuesta Verde: the tragedy of the Freelings is local, contained, bizarre but not worth discussing publicly, except, perhaps, as fodder for That’s Incredible!

Money isn’t free, success is a cozy fiction, and your mistakes come back to bite you in the ass

At one point Steven Freeling remarks to a homebuyer couple that, in Cuesta Verde, the grass “grows greener on every side.” The movie goes out of its way to show you the opposite. In fact, the developers responsible for Cuesta Verde are playing a zero-sum game with people as pawns. Cuesta Verde residents buy a package deal, happiness + prosperity, but the only thing inside the package is another package, identical but smaller. A nesting doll made of promises no-one intends to keep.   

No wonder they built on top of a graveyard and left the bodies behind – unbridled capitalism is about surface, not essence. (Plus corpses don’t complain. Not in the natural order of things.) Steven, a willing participant in the developer’s success, is horrified when he learns the truth about Cuesta Verde. It seems that he, unlike his boss, holds on to a tenuous conception of sacredness and taboo.

Sweeping problems under the rug is a good way to stock up on dirt, of which there is plenty in Poltergeist. All that mud and rubble that dominate the climax aren’t there just for show. Our neglect of long-term values comes at a hefty price, and you can’t throw money at the past to make it go away.


1. Poltergeist also teaches you about wasted opportunities, or what I like to call ‘stuffing the turkey with sawdust.’
I’m talking about the teenage daughter, Dana Freeling. She’s redundant. Write her out of the script and you basically have the same movie. Her biggest contribution is an over-delivered “What’s happening?” toward the end of the film, which was put in so that she’d have something to say. We don’t really get to know who Dana is and it doesn’t seem to matter. She seems to be included to broaden the movie’s appeal, and for that reason alone. Maybe that made sense commercially, but the story doesn’t need her.

2. Spielberg said he wanted a ‘beatific’ child to play Carol Anne – little Heather O’Rourke (1975-1988) certainly fit the bill. Her untimely death preceded a canonization of sorts, which is not without irony. Poltergeist III, her last film, curried no favor with critics or moviegoers. O’Rourke’s never had a chance to play a string of bad roles like so many of her contemporaries, nor was she given time to choose a Hollywood-free life, the way Carrie “Newt” Henn did. 

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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