I’m pretty sure Poltergeist is officially the first horror movie I ever watched. I must have seen it when it first came out on either HBO or Cinemax around ’83, and I know my dad watched it first and then let me watch it with him.
My love for this movie is as boundless as my nostalgia for my childhood. I know it’s not scary, that the special effects don’t hold up all that well, and that the story is sort of a mashup (is there a poltergeist? who is The Beast? are they trapped by The Beast or because the developer Only Moved The Headstones!!!!), but I don’t and never did care. I have been known to watch Poltergeist and then watch it again right then. Not only was it the first horror movie I ever saw, many years later it was the first movie I ever purchased on DVD.
I can remember people talking about the movie around the water fountain at school. Most people were impressed with the guy who thought he peeled his own face off and the bodies bursting out of the ground. For me, the best part is the whispered conversation in the living room between Robbie, Diane and the psychologist, leading up to the ghosts on the stairs. I love the simple, logical idea that they have been hanging around confused but that they need to just go into the light. I also love how you can see that one of them is wearing a ghostly hat. How perfect is it that they don’t know they’re dead, and they are so in denial that they still need to use energy to make it look like they’re wearing things like hats because polite society demanded hats when they were alive? It’s fascinating and sad, my favorite movie combo.
Besides being a good ol’ ghost story, Poltergeist is a perfect time capsule of the 80s. It’s got product placement of Pizza Hut, Jo Beth Williams looking like a housewife and hot at the same time, foul-mouthed kids, a giant remote control, a suburban neighborhood full of identical houses, parents smoking pot when the kids are in bed, the teenage daughter who won’t get off the (corded) phone, an E.T. doll, a grown man on a BMX bike, and, at the end, one of those badass old Holiday Inn signs. The TV stations even go off the air at night instead of simply stopping regular shows and putting on infomercials.
I definitely had a fascination with Heather O’Rourke because we were the same age. While most people associate Craig T. Nelson with the TV show Coach, to me he’s always Steven Freeling, the dad who used to have an open mind. Luckily for me, my dad did and does have one, and I remember him letting me ask me all kinds of questions about the nature of life, death, and the immortal soul after we watched the movie. Such as, if Carol Anne had gone into the light, would the family find a dead body somewhere? Seriously, who is The Beast (I’m not buying that the whole Reverend Kane thing was already planned at this point). What the hell was that white thing that appeared at the end of the hall looking like a witch’s head on an animal’s body, and what was the giant head that popped out of the kids’ closet? He couldn’t answer them; nobody can, but seeing it still takes me back to the time when I thought my dad knew the answers to everything.