This post is part of The Retro Set’s Friday column The Retro Set Horror Corner, hosted by Meaghan Clohessy
After a long year of waiting, another October is upon us, replete with its own filmic traditions. Some will carve pumpkins with Hocus Pocus playing in the background. Others will take part in drinking games centered on B-horror films, taking shots whenever pus shoots out of the eye of a dismembered zombie.
As for me, I’m something of a horror purist, indulging in a standard marathon of film viewings. For my first film, I chose a film that neatly incorporated the best elements of horror: manipulating fear, deconstruction of suburbia, and creepy children. I am of course referring to Tobe Hooper’s 1982 classic Poltergeist. This Stephen Spielberg penned production centers around the Freeling family who are visited by ghosts from an unseen dimension. When these ghosts claim the youngest child Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), it is up to Diane and Steve Freeling (JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson) to rescue her from the unseen demonic dimension. From commenting on suburban America to the downside of building houses on ancient burial grounds, this film is a thorough enjoyment. Thirty years on since its release, the film still finds a way to make audiences reach for their blankets.
Horror fanatics will remember Tobe Hooper as the director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film portrayed a terrifying realism through its grittiness and documentary style cinematography. Fans of this film were no doubt shocked going to see Poltergeist eight years later. Suddenly they have been transported from the decaying countryside to the sterile suburban landscape. The villains are not a family of murders, but malevolent forces with grounding in the fantastical. Not to mention the CGI that makes the film dated, even for the 1980s. So what changed? Two things: the support of a large studio (MGM) and the partnership with Stephen Spielberg. The combination blends Hooper and Spielberg’s directorial styles within the film. There are points where Spielberg’s influence is easier to see, particularly in the film’s suburban setting, family dynamic, and placing children at the center of conflict. The exposition builds tension in the film by allowing audience sympathy for the Freeling family. Exposition also creates vulnerability; like the Freelings, we are transfixed by the magical quality by the presence that has entered their home. It is reminiscent of Burke’s idea of the sublime, where we are enticed by what is considered dangerous. When the scares begin with Robbie (Oliver Robbins) getting attacked by the tree outside his window, it attacks the emotional psyche of both the Freeling family and the audience. This deception leaves audiences at the mercy of the growing horrors to continue for the rest of the film.
That being said, audiences cannot discount Hooper’s influence as director. Like in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper continues to manipulate irrational fears. In that film, he manipulated fears of isolation, realism, and the rural setting. Since audiences are tied to the Freeling children, particularly Robbie and Carol Anne, the fears in Poltergeist manifest in the imagination. For example, audiences relate to Robbie’s fear of the clown doll or of the tree. Once he establishes the fear, Hooper makes these fears literally come alive. These fears cannot be relieved by simple catharsis. Through making that connection to childhood, these fears tap into the audience psyche and are not so easily removed. Hooper revisits the theme of decay in this film. The best example is when a paranormal team visits the Freeling home in hopes to rescue Carol Anne from the beyond. While staying overnight, one of the cameramen goes to the bathroom, only to see his face peel in front of him. It starts as a simple tear, growing into whole chunks falling into the sink. Though the Claymation effects would make Sam Raimi jealous, it is no doubt one of the most horrific moments in the film. It’s not just psychological manipulation by an outside force, it’s also being unable to halt decay. Even while analyzing this scene, it’s difficult not to cringe. Lastly, Hooper allows nature to reclaim the manufactured identity of the American suburbs. In a society built upon by advertising and false cultural ideals, nature reclaims this land, more specifically those buried underneath the Freeling home. The suburbs symbolize a well-known tension of American culture: the urban v. the natural world. When the house collapses upon itself at the end of the film, it is clear that the natural world has won.
In case you need another Halloween tradition, perhaps it’s time to place Poltergeist on your list. There are very few movies that bring you back to the real origin of fear.