Poltergeist is a 1982 American supernatural horror film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, and Beatrice Straight. Steven Spielberg wrote and produced the film, but a clause in his contract prevented him from directing another movie while he made E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Therefore, Hooper was selected to direct based upon his work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
First conceived as a dark horror sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind entitled Night Skies, when Spielberg approached Hooper to direct, Hooper was less keen on the sci-fi elements and suggested the idea of a ghost story. Spielberg and Hooper would then go on to collaborate on the first treatment for the film. It is the first and most successful entry in the Poltergeist film series. Set in a California suburb, the plot focuses on a family whose home is invaded by malevolent ghosts that abduct the family’s younger daughter.
Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on June 4, 1982, the film was a major critical and commercial success, becoming the eighth-highest-grossing film of 1982. Years since its release, the film has been recognized as a classic within the horror genre and has gained a cult following, despite the fact that the basic story (minus the Indian burial ground and related ghosts) is the same as The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost,” written by Richard Matheson. Aside from being nominated for three Academy Awards, the movie was named by the Chicago Film Critics Association as the 20th-scariest film ever made, and the scene of the clown attack was ranked as #80 on Bravo‘s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The film also appeared at #84 on American Film Institute‘s 100 Years…100 Thrills, a list of America’s most heart-pounding movies.
Steven and Diane Freeling live a quiet life in an Orange County, California planned community called Cuesta Verde, where Steven is a successful real estate developer and Diane looks after their children Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne. Carol Anne awakens one night and begins conversing with the family’s television set, which is displaying static following a sign-off. The following night, while the Freelings sleep, Carol Anne fixates on the television set as it transmits static again. Suddenly, a ghostly white hand emerges from the television, followed by a violent earthquake.
As the shaking subsides, Carol Anne announces “They’re here….”
Bizarre events occur the following day: a drinking glass of milk spontaneously breaks, silverware bends and furniture moves of its own accord. The phenomena seem benign at first, but quickly begin to intensify. That night, a gnarled backyard tree comes alive and grabs Robbie through the bedroom window. While Steven rescues Robbie, Carol Anne is sucked through a portal in her closet. The Freelings realize she has been taken when they hear her voice emanating from the television set that is tuned to an empty channel.
A group of parapsychologists from UC Irvine—Dr. Lesh, Ryan, and Marty—come to the Freeling house to investigate and determine that the Freelings are experiencing a poltergeist intrusion. They discover that the disturbances involve more than just one ghost. Steven also finds out in an exchange with his boss, Lewis Teague, that Cuesta Verde is built where a cemetery was once located.
After Dana and Robbie are sent away for their safety, Lesh and Ryan call in Tangina Barrons, a spiritual medium. Tangina states that the ghosts inhabiting the house are lingering in a different “sphere of consciousness” and are not at rest. Attracted to Carol Anne’s life force, these spirits are distracted from the real “light” that has come for them. Tangina then adds that there is also a dark presence she refers to as the “Beast”, who has Carol Anne under restraint in an effort to use her life force to prevent other spirits from crossing over.
The assembled group discovers that the entrance to the other dimension is through the children’s bedroom closet, while the exit is through the living room ceiling. As the group attempts to rescue Carol Anne, Diane passes through the entrance tied by a rope that has been threaded through both portals. Diane manages to retrieve Carol Anne, and they both drop to the floor from the ceiling, unconscious and covered in ectoplasmic residue. As they recover, Tangina proclaims afterward that the house is now “clean”.
Shortly thereafter, the Freelings begin the process of moving elsewhere by packing up their belongings. During their last night in the house, Steven leaves for the office in order to quit his job and Dana goes on a date, leaving Diane, Robbie, and Carol Anne alone in the house. The “Beast” then ambushes Diane and the children, aiming for a second kidnapping by attempting to restrain Robbie and Diane. Robbie is attacked by a clown doll in his bedroom, and Diane is attacked by an unseen force that moves her up the wall and over the ceiling in her room. The unseen force drives Diane to the backyard dragging her into the swimming pool. Skeletons surround her as she tries to swim to escape, but she manages to climb out of the pool and make her way back into the house. She rescues the children, and they eventually escape to the outside only to discover coffins and rotting corpses erupting out from the ground in their yard and throughout the neighborhood.
As Steven and Dana return home to the mayhem, Steven confronts Teague after realizing that rather than relocating the cemetery for the development of Cuesta Verde, Teague merely had the headstones moved and the bodies left behind. The Freelings flee Cuesta Verde while the house implodes into the portal, to the astonishment of onlookers. The family checks into a hotel for the night, and Steven rolls the television outside into the walkway.
- Craig T. Nelson as Steven Freeling
- JoBeth Williams as Diane Freeling
- Dominique Dunne as Dana Freeling
- Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling
- Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne Freeling
- Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons
- Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh
- Richard Lawson as Ryan
- Martin Casella as Marty
- James Karen as Mr. Teague
- Michael McManus as Ben Tuthill
- Virginia Kiser as Mrs. Tuthill
A clause in his contract with Universal Studios prevented Spielberg from directing any other film while preparing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Time and Newsweek tagged the summer of 1982 “The Spielberg Summer” because E.T. and Poltergeist were released a week apart in June. As such a marketable name, some began to question Spielberg’s role during production. Suggestions that Spielberg had greater directorial influence than the credits suggest were aided by his comments:
Tobe isn’t … a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of collaboration.
Poltergeist was awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, losing that award to Spielberg’s other summer hit, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
The music for Poltergeist was written by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith. He wrote several themes for the score including the lullaby “Carol Anne’s Theme” to represent blissful suburban life and the young female protagonist, an elegant semi-religious melody for dealings of the souls caught between worlds, and several dissonant, atonal blasts during moments of terror.
After being unreleased for nearly 15 years, Goldsmith’s score received its first soundtrack album release on March 4, 1997 by Rhino Movie Music as Poltergeist: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. A two-disc soundtrack album later followed on December 9, 2010 by Film Score Monthly featuring additional source and alternate material. The 2010 release also included previously unreleased tracks from Goldsmith’s score to The Prize (1963). The following track list is based on the 2010 album release.
There is an alternate version of “Carol Anne’s theme” which has lyrics. That version is unofficially titled “Bless this House” (which is a line from the chorus). It was not featured in the film, but was part of the original album.
Poltergeist was released theatrically by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on June 4, 1982. The film was a commercial success and grossed $76,606,280 in the United States, making it the highest-grossing horror film of 1982 and eighth overall for the year.