It’s pretty much accepted that 1982’s Poltergeist was a Spielberg film despite the official directing credit going to Tobe Hooper. Google the words ‘Spielberg’, ‘fingerprints’ and the name of the film and you’ll soon get an idea of the consensus. With its focus on familial bonds (particularly the parent/child relationship), the disruption to domestic life, and numerous stylistic flourishes that feel very ‘Spielbergian’, Poltergeist has sparked numerous debates over its authorship.
I watched Poltergeist on VHS in the lounge room of my mother’s hairdresser. Mum would travel out to a farmhouse not far from town, which her hairdresser presumably rented. More than an appointment it was a social outing for her. She would have her hair done and they would sit in the kitchen, drink coffee and chat for hours. I must have had the day off school for whatever reason and got dragged along. I was not looking forward to an afternoon of boredom, stuck out at the farmhouse far from my beloved books and games. As it turned out my mother’s hairdresser was being visited for a few days by her two brothers, a couple of friendly ratbags who took great delight in sitting me in front of the TV the moment the two women retired to the kitchen.
‘Watch this with us,’ one said.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Poltergeist. It’s really scary. You’ll love it.’
I had a vague suspicion I was being babysat, and presumed that the film wouldn’t be a ‘scary’ as the brothers were claiming. Still, I sat down. As the opening credits rolled, I saw the name Steven Spielberg appear as ‘producer’. At eight, I didn’t know what a producer was, but I was already acutely aware of Spielberg as a director. His name, after all, appeared at the beginning of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T. (1982). These three films had already made profound impressions upon my young mind. Seeing his name attached to the film was enough to raise my expectations and earn my undiverted interest. Watching it, it never occurred to me that Poltergeist was anything but a Spielberg film. At the age of eight, I had no idea who Tobe Hooper was (I don’t even remember seeing his credit at the beginning of the film the first time I saw it). To me it felt like E.T. with its similar emphasis on the children’s point of view. It felt like Raiders (faces melting off, supernatural forces, John Williams). In fact, this viewing experience probably sparked my long enduring confusion about what a producer actually did.
Did the hairdresser’s brothers realise how disapproving my mother would be of me watching such a film? Maybe. My impression now is that they sensed in me a need to experience something dangerous and taboo. Perhaps they remembered the strangling cord of their own mother’s apron strings and felt empathy for me. Or perhaps they simply understood what I now do; that all little boys love ghosts and gremlins and slimy things with pointy teeth. I can only speculate about their motivations. Everything about that day must necessarily be recalled through a discoloured filter some twenty-eight years thick. Only the film remains crystal clear, and the occasional distracting fear that my mother would wind up her afternoon visit before the film ended, walk into the room, and put an abrupt end to the whole show. If you’ve read my article on Apocalypse Now (1979), you’ll recognise a pattern here. My childhood was littered with taboo viewing experiences. I watched Aliens (1988) through a crack in the door of a friend’s parents lounge room, terrified of being caught. I had to stand up for the entire movie and not sneeze, cough, or breathe too loudly.
It was totally worth it, by the way.
But Poltergeist, yes, I can’t remember exactly the point at which I became bound in its spell. It wasn’t far in. The early kitchen scenes were eerie and memorable. Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) playfully putting her daughter Carol (Heather O’Rourke) on the paranormal ‘hotspot’ where she would be pulled across the floor by supernatural forces filled me with dread the first time I saw it, and I didn’t even know what lay ahead. The ‘rearrangement’ of the kitchen chairs, cleverly done with a single take in the pre-digital filmmaking era, is still one of the most skilful and spooky tricks ever pulled off in front of a camera. It’s an old school trick, but has a perfectly unsettling effect on me, even now.
As a kid I would adamantly deny getting nightmares from films. This was a deliberate tact to ensure that my parents would be less inclined to prevent me from watching scary films. My immunity to nightmares was a commonly accepted point of fact in our family by the time I was ten. Well Mum and Dad, Poltergeist gave me nightmares. I’ll admit it. The tree attempting to eat the little boy (who, quite understandably, squealed like a little girl) scared the shit out of me. For the next six months I lived in abject terror of the apple tree outside my bedroom window (though it was barely big enough to swallow a cat). And the clown! Everyone of my generation attributes their fear of clowns (we all fear them) to Stephen King’s novel It (1985) and its subsequent TV miniseries. Yet Robbie Freeling’s toy clown was the most insidious, horrific creation I ever hoped to see in fiction (or in life for that matter). Even before it sprang ghoulishly to life (with its endlessly extending strangling arms) it was terrifying. God! What crazy person dreamt up such a thing? How did child actor Oliver Robins ever manage to sleep again?
Perhaps Poltergeist left me with nightmares because the film concludes without the evil force being identified, let alone defeated. The family flees in fear as their family home is violently sucked into a mysterious other dimension. That’s no kind of ending for an eight year old. I wanted the evil ghosts to…um…die.
Before the film was over my mother emerged from the kitchen to announce she was ready to leave, but quickly became entranced by the film.
‘What’s this?’ she asked uneasily.
‘Oh it’s called Poltergeist,’ I enthused.
‘It’s really great!’ Bless my little heart, I was having such a good time.
‘I don’t know if you should be watching this,’ she said.
Perhaps she shot a look at the brothers. A look that was slightly admonishing. I don’t know for sure because I was determined to suck as much of this film in before I was dragged away. Luckily for me, the brothers were quite prepared for this contingency.
‘Too late,’ one said with a distinctly laid back air.
‘It’s nearly over. It’s got about five minutes left,’ the other told her.
This was a lie. As I recall the film went for at least another half hour. Mum had another coffee with her hairdresser. And another. Periodically she would come in and say, ‘I thought it was nearly over.’ The brothers kept buying me time. I got watch all of Poltergeist because of those two insightful and rebellious young men who saw fit to make a decision regarding what some kid they’d never met before could or could not watch. Those two elder strangers went to uncommon lengths to ensure I watched that film. They risked the ire of my mother, as well as taking a chance on any potentially adverse psychological effects the film might have had on me at such a tender age. I can only make wild guesses as to why they did that.
And be eternally grateful.