‘Poltergeist’: Home Sweet Hell

It’s that time of year when people start watching their favorite Halloween movies. At the top of my list is any kind of film involving a haunted place and its terrified occupants. Poltergeist, a movie I can practically recite verbatim, tops the list. While it isn’t the first film to be made about a family driven out of their house by malevolent spirits, Poltergeist is a classic along with similar films like The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, and The Changeling.

What makes the film so good is that it was one of the first to defy horror film clichés. The story doesn’t take place in a traditional dark, old house in New England, but in a suburban tract house in sunny California.

When the Freeling family moves in to Cuesta Verde Estates, father Steve (played by Craig T. Nelson), and stay-at-home mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), are living the typical American dream. They have a new house, live in a safe neighborhood, are financially successful, and have three healthy kids: 15-year-old Dana (Dominique Dunne), seven-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and five-year-old Carole Anne (Heather O’Rourke).

Nothing seems amiss until little Carole Anne starts speaking to the television after the late night news ends at midnight and static fills the screen.

Soon after, wonderfully creepy things begin to unfurl in the house like E. Buzz, the family dog, growling at a mysterious stain on the bedroom wall; kitchen chairs stacking themselves neatly atop one another in an split second, and a hulking tree breaking through Robbie and Carol Anne’s bedroom window and snatching Robbie out of bed while Carole Anne is sucked into the closet and into thin air. Meanwhile a creepy clown doll sits at the end of Robbie’s bed and just… grins.

A team of “ghost busters”, headed by Dr. Lesh (played by a wide-eyed, nervous Beatrice Straight), is called in to investigate. With their EMF detectors and EVP recorders, they camp out at the house look into the problem. This brings to mind the current rage of TV shows featuring paranormal investigative teams like Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, and the cast of Paranormal State.

When I discovered and became a fan of Poltergeist, I found that a book, written by James Kahn, accompanied the film. Originally a medical specialist, Kahn turned to writing novels and eventually wrote a novelization of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi around the same time he wrote the Poltergeist book. A year later he wrote a novelization of Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, and later became a writer for Melrose Place and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Kahn adapted his Poltergeist novel from the screenplay, written by Steven Spielberg, who also produced the film. Ironically, when I started reading the book as a kid, it was in the room I shared with my sister, surrounded by her collection of clown dolls.

Kahn’s version of Poltergeist is a rare example of a book written after a movie is released, which results in a riveting read. The book has the same premise as the movie, but Kahn adds some wonderfully creepy accompaniments.

For example, there is a scene that further involves the famous clown doll. In the book, during his birthday party, Robbie is in the midst of a treasure hunt his mother has set up. He follows one of her clues that leads him to the grill out in the back yard. As he puts his hand into it, searching for a another hint, something bites him. When he investigates, he finds the clown doll “grinning devilishly, a little too broadly… This didn’t make sense… the clown had been up in the bedroom just before the party; Robbie had seen it there; he was certain. Sitting right up in the rocking chair. Now it grinned at him from a funny angle, caught between two bricks.

Finally, Dr. Lesh calls in a medium to investigate the case. Tangina Barrens (played Zelda Rubinstein in the movie), is one of the most superb aspects of the film, but gets minimal screen time. The unforgettable scene when she coaxes the trapped spirits on “the other side” to go to the light is a mainstay in horror movie pop culture:

“Cross over, children. All are welcome. Go into the light! There is peace and serenity in the light.”

Her presence is expanded in Kahn’s version. The reader is brought into her dark world of night terrors in which she becomes entangled with the spirit world. In the book she is not asked by Dr. Lesh to help the Freelings, but instead leads Lesh and her team to the Freelings house during a lucid dream about Carol Anne.

In the dreams she has involving Carole Anne, she sees a flame spirit, a tree spirit, and hundreds of lost souls, including Carole Anne. She also senses something darker in the murky space, something she calls “The Beast”. She later learns its true name is “gHala”. Tangina can tap into the beast’s poisonous thoughts and ends up battling him on the other side in series of ethereal and absorbing scenes.

While these scenes add wonderful dimension to what we already have in the film, they would have been hard to shoot. Hooper’s film is beautifully shot and its special effects were ahead of their time, keeping the story’s integrity in place. The film won a BAFTA Award and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

JoBeth Williams disclosed during an episode of VH1’s I Love the 80s that during filming, real human skeletons were used while shooting the swimming pool scene because they were cheaper than manufacturing them.

Some say that the use of human remains led to the supposed curse of the film trilogy. Four of the cast members died in the six years between the release of the first film and the release of the third. Two of those who died prematurely were from the first film: Dominique Dunne, who played Dana, was strangled to death in 1982 at the age of 22 by a jealous boyfriend; and in 1988 Heather O’Roarke, who played Carole Anne, died at the age of 12 from complications of Crohn’s disease.

In the sequel, Poltergeist II, Julian Beck who played Kane, died of stomach cancer in 1985; and Will Sampson, who played Taylor the Medicine Man, died of kidney failure in 1987. Zelda Rubenstein died at 76 earlier this year from seemingly natural causes.

In addition to the creepy things that happened to those who worked on the film, Kahn told People Magazine that as he was writing the book, right after he wrote the line, “Lightning ripped open the sky”, the building he was sitting in was struck my lightning and all the arcade games inside turned on and began to play by themselves. (“Poltergeist”, Casaforte, 10 January 2010).

With its impressive special effects, fantastic acting, and wonderful writing, Poltergeist continues as a classic haunted house film, and its book accompaniment is worthy in its own right as a nail-biting, spellbinding read.