While many people have been sucked into a good television show from time to time, it’s far more unlikely to be sucked into the actual TV set. Carol Anne, however, was the rare exception – an angelic little girl caught up in the strange goings on of a house filled to the brim with spirits – some benign and others terrifying. The plight of her and her frightened family made the 1982 Steven Spielberg film Poltergeist one of the most beloved and highest-grossing horror films of all time.
Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) live in a Southern California neighborhood, the Questa Verde estates, with their children, Dana (Dominique Dunne,) Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke.) One evening, the slumbering family is awakened by an earthquake, and subsequently finds that Carol Anne is having a nonchalant conversation with the TV set. Most unsettling is the fact that the rest of the family isn’t able to hear the voices that she hears, only the white noise that emanates from a station that has concluded its broadcasting for the day (remember back to a time before infomercials.) Soon after, Carol Anne eerily announces to the family, “They’re heeere!”
And, indeed, they are. Strange occurrences begin to happen at the breakfast table the next morning. A glass breaks inexplicably and Robbie finds that his silverware has become horribly deformed. After the two older kids head off to school and dad goes to work, things become even stranger. While Diane briefly has her back turned, the chairs in the dining area take on a mind of their own, restacking themselves in an impossible balancing act. In fact, she discovers that objects placed on certain sections of the floor move on their own. When Steven returns, she reenacts the occurrences with a chair, then with their daughter – much to his amazement. He, in turn, announces that the kitchen is off limits until he can figure out what is going on.
Later in the evening, a looming thunderstorm has Robby frightened, especially towards the menacing tree outside his window, not to mention the sinister clown staring at him across the room. Dad calms his son’s fear down for the time being (by teaching him how to gauge the distance of a thunderstorm with a counting game) but it isn’t long before the tree decides to pull the lad from his bed and try to eat him. While fighting to remove Robby from the masticating foliage, the family suddenly realizes that Carol Anne is missing. A house-wide (and pool-wide) search is conducted but she is nowhere to be found until, at last, Robbie hears his sister’s voice coming from inside the television. Completely out of their league in dealing with these ghostly antics, the family realizes that it might be time to call in some experts in the paranormal.
When Dr. Lesh, Ryan, and Marty arrive from the local university, they boast of their expertise, and then are promptly left with their jaws dangling when they witness what this house has to offer. In Carol Anne’s room, objects fly through the air and mercilessly taunt the scientists. A steak crawls across the kitchen counter unassisted. And while washing up, one of the scientists hallucinates that he is peeling his face from his skull. The researchers realize that they need a specialist, a hired gun. Enter Tangina Barrons (the wonderful Zelda Rubinstein), a diminutive clairvoyant woman who can sense Carol Anne’s presence in the house. That’s the good news. The bad new is that she also senses that one of the spirits is evil (The Beast) and is holding the girl against her will. Desperate measures will need to be taken.
In what would become one of iconic director Steven Spielberg’s first major successes, Poltergeist proved that it was still possible to make a wonderfully scary movie in which nobody dies and nobody gets seriously hurt. He relied on a cast of relatively unknown actors to give the impression of a seemingly normal family and utilized a number of special effects that were quite remarkable for the time. One particular effect was a little more realistic than the cast realized during filming, as all of the skeletons seen in the swimming pool are real. Whether or not the spirits of these remains had an effect on the film is up for debate. Oliver Robbins, who played eight-year old Robbie was almost killed in the scene where the evil clown tries to strangle him. While Spielberg thought the tyke was showing some outstanding thespian skills, he really was being choked and nobody happened to notice until he started turning blue. More tragically, his two movie siblings actually did die after making the film. Dominique Dunne’s boyfriend strangled her shortly after the film was released. A few years later, after making two sequels to Poltergeist, the charming Heather O’Rourke died from a rare intestinal disorder. This has led some to speculate that the spirit world wasn’t too pleased with the premise of the film.
And yet, audiences certainly were. Poltergeist, which was made at the same time as E.T. and released a week before, did very well at the box office, bringing in over $76 million. These two films (along with another thriller that starred a menacing shark) would make Spielberg a household name. Utilizing a wonderful combination of humor and terror, Spielberg took film audiences to a place that looked remarkably like their own home and suggested that trees, clowns and televisions could turn wicked in heartbeat. It would also leave everyone pondering just what, exactly, might be buried under their own homes.
If Poltergeist left you fearful of clowns, swimming pools and television sets, we would love to hear your recollections in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this unforgettable horror film.