They’re Here: Poltergeist A Perfect Suburban Nightmare

The ‘haunted house’ movie is a staple of the horror genre. From The Uninvited and The Haunting to the more recent Insidious, each generation of horror fans can claim their own classic. For 80’s kids, Poltergeist was our haunted house classic. The 1982 movie brought together an impressive collection of talent. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed from a story penned by producer Steven Spielberg. Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen) scored the move. Given this talent, it’s not suprising that Poltergeist went on to become a box office and critical success.

Poltergeist Balanced Its Horror With Heart

To date, numerous sources have debated just how much creative control Tobe Hooper had over Poltergeist. I won’t bother re-hashing that discussion because, truth be told, I have no idea. Regardless of the stories, Poltergeist clearly balances Hooper’s penchant for intense horror with Spielberg’s more whimsical family touches. And Poltergeist is a better haunted house movie as a result of this fusion. Both likable and relatable, it’s easy to sympathize with the Freeling Family’s plight. Much of this relatability can be chalked up to the excellent casting. Both Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams invest their roles with a requisite ‘every-person’ conceit. Their fear and desperation for their children’s welfare feels real. To his credit, Hooper also wisely holds back the horror, allowing the audience to spend some time with the Freelings.

With regards to the horror itself, Hooper aptly balances jump scares with sustained tension and stakes. Poltergeist excels at pacing its jolts and family drama. Moreover, Hooper rarely leans on tired haunted house movie tropes. That is, Poltergeist boasts a wild inventiveness with its supernatural visuals. Though some of its special effects may be dated, Poltergeist’s supernatural ‘baddies’ hold up well. From tree monsters to cavernous closets, Poltergeist turns completely banal aspects of suburban life into nightmares.

Poltergeist Was Rated What?

For a lot of kids raised in the 1980’s, Poltergeist may have been their introduction to the horror genre. As the story goes, the Motion Picture Association of America initially tagged the haunted house movie with an R-rating. Hooper and Spielberg talked them down to a PG-rating. Yes, that’s right. Poltergeist was rated Parental Guidance in 1982. If kids weren’t traumatized by caskets and decomposed corpses popping up then the face-peeling scene probably did it. In spite of its occasional Spielberg-esque tone, Poltergeist is a horror movie through and through.

A lot of ‘kid-friendly’ movies released in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s would raise eyebrows today.

Much of the discrepancy between its rating and content can be attributed to the timing of its release. Following the dissolution of the Hays Code over the 1960’s, filmmakers proceeded to push boundaries. Movies like The Exorcist, Last Tango in Paris, and The Godfather railed against previous Hollywood taboos. The MPAA struggled to keep up with changing social norms and a new generation of auteur filmmakers. A lot of ‘kid-friendly’ movies released in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s would raise eyebrows today. Eventually, in 1984, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating in response to movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins. Fortunately for budding horror fans, Hooper and Spielberg released Poltergeist in the midst of that gap.

A Master’s Class In Suspense

Poltergeist remains a classic because it also understood that clever visuals alone don’t add up to a scary movie. Two scenes in particular demonstrate how the movie has managed to retain its power to terrify. At some point, most kids have been afraid of thunderstorms. When you’re a child, ordinary things become menacing in the dark. Hooper’s ‘tree monster’ scene brilliantly combines the simple act of counting down thunder with Goldsmith’s crescendoing score to produce one of the best haunted house scares filmed.

Poltergeist remains a classic because it also understood that clever visuals alone don’t add up to a scary movie.

Clowns may be scary, but that’s not why the second scene works so well. First, Hooper sets this scare up much earlier in the movie. You know it’s coming at some point. When Robbie Freeling pulls up the bed skirt and peers under each side of the bed, you definitely know what’s coming. But Hooper still sticks the jump scare perfectly, paying off what’s a meticulously developed scene. Subsequent horror movies have imitated the set-up with diminished results.

“You Only Moved The Headstones”

Poltergeist hasn’t remained a classic by accident. This haunted house film does a lot of things very well. Arguably, Poltergeist still resonates with audiences because it understands the things that frighten us the most. It turns the ordinary things that surround us into the things that fuel our nightsmares.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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