Mind Blowing Movies: Poltergeist (1982), by Kirk Demarais

Mm200This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. -- Mark

Mind Blowing Movies: Poltergeist (1982), by Kirk Demarais

[Video Link] It's a shame that movie laughs and thrills don't have the staying power that terror has. It makes sense though, laughter and excitement aren't as crucial to survival as fear-based cinematic life lessons such as: never sleep with a clown at the foot of your bed.

As enticing as the trailer was, I never even considered asking my folks to let me watch Poltergeist (1982). The closest thing to a horror flick that I'd seen was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) starring Don Knotts, a film that firmly stamped my brain with an image of garden shears stuck in the neck of a lady's portrait that leaked real blood.

"Coming up next...Poltergeist." announced my friend Eric's television set. His TV wasn't like mine, it had a new, plastic box on top that unlocked a pricey service called Home Box Office. After the metallic HBO soared through space I found myself watching the opening credits. A rush of guilt prompted me to run to the kitchen phone where I called my mom. Back then I'd rather ask for permission than forgiveness.

I briefly stated my case, which concluded with, "It's rated PG so it can't be that bad." Unbelievably, she allowed me to proceed. It really is rated PG, I know because I double checked the TV guide right after I watched a man peel off his own face. But the gore alone wasn't the mind blower, what eventually got to me was the relatability of it all.

The specters weren't picking on lustful teenagers or Don Knotts, they were terrorizing a normal American family, specifically the kids! The on-screen details confirmed that this could happen to me. The victims were consumers of Chee-Tos, Pizza Hut, and Star Wars action figures, all things that would have charted on my personal list of life's little joys. I too had a younger, blonde, pajama-wearing sister, but not only that, my sister had the very same wicker headboard that Carol Anne clings to as the evil spirits attempt to suck her into the closet. The ghosts might as well have been haunting my house.

This realism was so convincing that for months my brain conducted nightly mental drills in an effort to prepare me for living tree attacks, and tumbles into corpse-filled swimming pools. When my parents stopped letting me invade their bed, I slept with the overhead light on. Eventually I was able to shake the paranoia by simply embracing the fact that ghosts aren't real. That was right about the time I saw The Day After, the made-for-TV movie that first introduced me to the concept of nuclear warfare. How I long for my ghost-fearing days.


  1. I do love, love, love Poltergeist. And, probably, for the same reason of “reality” that Kirk does. The mundane, everyday reality aspect, of course, is a hallmark of most Spielberg productions. Say what you will about his work, the man definitely has that touch for putting you into a believable “right now”.

  2. The clown under the bed scene  makes me scream every single time even though I have seen this movie eleventy billion times because we also had the Home Box Office.  And the maggot scene almost turned me into a vegetarian.

  3. My favorite thing in that movie is one of the simplest, well before things get scary:

    The mom pushes the chairs at the breakfast table back in, turns to put things away (with the camera tracking her), turns back and they’re pulled out again.  She pauses a moment, confused, pushes them in again, turns away to do something else, turns back again, and they’re all stacked in an elaborate arrangement on top of the table.

    It’s that sense of intrusion of the impossible or surreal into everyday life that’s conveyed there.  That’s more of a “Wow” to me than any face-peeling horror effects or dramatic monsters.  The smoothness and “naturalness” of the camera movement really helps convince that it’s one continuous shot and you’re just seeing what’s there.

    Actually that’s among my favorite shots of any movie.

    1. The chair stacking scene was one glorious single shot and was executed quickly and precisely by a whole passel of crew members just off camera…

  4. I was a daily press movie reviewer in 1982 … wrote a column where I reviewed “Poltergeist” and another movie about hidden worlds that came out at the same time, and brilliantly proved that “Poltergeist” was the superior effort of the two. And nobody since has gone to see “E.T.” Oh well. But I stand by it … P had superior acting, taut suspense, a clever script, many advantages. Three and a half stars easily.

    1. I agree!
      I know ET has all that pop-cultural cred and all, but Poltergeist is a far better movie. ET is, to me, an example of the worst side of Spielberg…That side where he gets sentimental and transparently manipulative.

  5. Heh.

    My roommate and I went to go see this in a sneak preview before its eventual release. I don’t remember how much we knew about it in advance; possibly nothing; just a chance to see an upcoming movie before it was released.

    It was effective, in that context.

    But, as we were leaving, just outside the theater, I saw a face that seemed vaguely familiar, and, as we walked by, I overheard the woman beside him saying “… this is Steven…” to someone in a suit. Judging from the audience reactions I saw, I suspect Spielberg was happy with that cut of the movie.

  6. Excellent choice. Saw it at 12 in the theater. Did not eat chicken for weeks after. I agree – the normal-ness of the family really helped make it more real for me watching the film. It contained all the classic childhood fears – creepy doll, thing in the closet, creepy tree outside, etc…  

    I enjoyed the mention of The Day After as well.  Thanks for this series! Enjoying it greatly. 

  7. Damn… didn’t mean for that to happen.  Anyway, I saw Poltergeist when I was in the 5th grade, and I still can’t believe that my mom took me to see it.  It took me a good two years before I could see static on the TV and not freak out.

  8. Have to chime in about the end where after they check into the motel, Craig T. Nelson shoves the TV out of the room!

  9. The setup and payoff of the scene counting seconds between lightning and thunder should be (and probably is) taught in film school.

    Oh, and the look on Nelson’s face when the researcher brags about a tiny movement recorded over hours, just before casually opening the door to show him the maelstrom of flying toys… perfect.

  10. The computer game wasn’t scary at all… 

    so I watched the movie on HBO even though I had/have a strong aversion to scary movies. Big mistake, except that while I covered my eyes and yelped here and there, and occasionally went to my happy place instead of seeing, I didn’t turn it off, some seriously good cinematography.

    I think I -had- to know what happened in the end as it was so damned engrossing.

    The next day I asked why the family wasn’t pleased with the existence of ghosts n shit, since it would at least indicate something after death. I find death way more serious when you remember the complete lack of evidence for anything after that.

  11. I remember my wife pranking her sister (who’s pretty jumpy to begin with) by telling her what a relief it was when the suspense finally ends after the “cleaner” exorcises the poltergeist. She nearly slapped my wife the next time we met.

  12. Geeze, the part where they are sliding across the kitchen floor and she describes the feeling of being pulled from the inside. Lord I was yelling at the screen in disbelief at the stupidity of adults (I was eight max).

    I agree, there are so many intimate moments that made this movie imprint my psyche.  Including where the daughter flips off the construction works as the Mom looks on and smiles. How nice to have a parent who is confident in their teen daughters ability to take care of herself. Quite different than any other horror film with a teenage girls in them, then or now!

  13. I’ve never even seen the film but the trailer made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.  Will have to watch it.

  14. I was 10 when this movie came out, probably 11 when I saw it on cable TV.  To say it frightened me would be like saying my dog was frightened by thunder.   That scene where the tree snatches up that kid (roughly my age) was replayed nightly for god knows how long.

    Here’s the funny part.  Somehow I ended up convincing myself that if I didn’t hear every word spoken to me, that I’d be snatched up by a poltergeist.  Every.  Word.  I didn’t want to take any chances — so basically any time someone said anything to me I said “what?”  No clue how long this went on for, but long enough for my mother to get my hearing tested.  Results?  He can hear just fine.   My parents still don’t know what this was all about.

  15. When I was a kid my Dad was in the Army. We would go to movies on Post and they would play the National Anthem before the show (no previews or commercials as the theaters were part of AAFES). At the Poltergeist showing they did NOT show the National Anthem as the movie STARTS with the National Anthem playing on a TV just before the station signs off. So the music swells and everybody in the audience stands at attention (this was a long time ago), then the camera pans back and we all realize it’s the movie and we sit back down. Then somebody realizes it’s still the National Anthem and we all stand back up until it’s over. A surreal and memorable moment of my youth.

    1. That’s an awesome story!

      I wonder who it was that decided not to play the normal recording – somebody had a good time with that :)

      Not really relevant, but in Thailand they still play the national anthem over a slideshow of the king before every movie – not just on army bases, I went to movies at a mall there – and everyone stands up for it.

  16. i love early spielberg. i mean, it’s not that i don’t like his movies later (i do), but there’s something about his first several that are just amazingly perfect. this is definitely one of them. E.T. is also one, as is jaws. they just capture those times for me so well. normal people doing their normal things, and suddenly their life goes batshit.

  17. If you, like me, want to watch the film now, it is not available on Netflix streaming but is available, for free (for Prime members), at Amazon.com.  (I am not affiliated with either service, but a Roku box replaced my t.v. two years ago, and I haven’t looked back since!)

  18. Very few horror movies do the trick and literally scare the beejeezus out of me. This is one of em! Extra rare when two of them are directed by the same man, this one being Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

    Although Tobe Hooper gets the credit as a director for this, the cast and crew insists their famous producer Steven Spielberg took control for the shoot, though his clause prevented him to.

  19. This movie will always hold a place in my heart because it provided the most terrifying and surreal moment I’ve ever experienced in my life.

    I was 14 years old, sitting on the living room couch by myself in front of an open window sometime after midnight on a summer night with the lights out watching it.

    The scene where the mother goes to close the window and two eyes pop up out of nowhere had just played.   I had a creepy feeling that I was being watched and turned to look out the window to reassure myself… and there were two glowing eyes staring back at me.

    I was frozen stiff with terror for a good thirty seconds before I heard a quiet “meow” and I realized it was just my damn cat wanting in.

    1.  That sounds more like a scene from “The Amityville Horror” when they first spy the eyes of Jodie the pig.

  20. I saw this movie when I was 10 years old.  It was the first movie that I attended only with a friend at the movie theater.  Although my parents had seen it, they let me go because they are friends with two of the screenwriters of the movie(the two not named Spielberg).  I was so scared that I had to leave the theater to wait in the lobby two times – I definitely remember the face peeling scene being one that I needed to leave for, but I can’t remember the other.  Some teenage girl who worked at the theater befriended me and sat with me while I gained my wits enough to go back into the theater.  She was a very kind soul.  I don’t think I’ve been anywhere near as scared during a movie since then.

  21. Oh, gosh. The clown. I was about 13 and I was absolutely terrified. To this day I’m often convinced that there is something under my bed.

    I’ve seen the film many times, yet have never watched the face scene. Closed my eyes the first time because I saw it coming, and never opened them at that scene again. 

  22. I remember vividly the corpses coming out of the ground at the end – which scared the ever lovin’ shit out of me. You all at one time or another have probably heard about the alleged “curse” of this film. I often blew it off…until I read that the corpse props in the film…weren’t. Apparently, they were real cadavers. Eww…to say the least.

    “The (curse) rumor is often fueled by the fact that real cadavers were used as props in various scenes of Poltergeist” 

    “Other times prop guys get really lazy and instead of making fake dead bodies, they just used real corpses. Frankly, even that’s not too weird, nor is it the only example of a real skeleton in a film. But, what is really crazy is that the prop guys used gory cadavers in Poltergeist and didn’t tell anyone, particularly the actress who filmed with them in a swimming pool.”

    1. It’s very hard to believe, since actual human remains become a bona fide hazmat scenario. You can’t legally transport them without a license.

      EDIT: In some cursory research, it appears that real skeletons were used. Which is very different than moldering bodies.

      1. Well yeah, that’s why it read “real skeletons” – no, I would see the obvious issues with using rotten bodies to make a movie. I’m sure the adding rotted flesh was prop embellishment. But that doesn’t change that fact that read cadavers were in fact used.

  23. I live about 100 yards from a Native American cemetery.  Never had any spectral problems.  Gets a bit trafficky when there’s a funeral, though.

  24. My dad took me to see it, we both screamed A LOT, pretty sure I spent about ten minutes of the movie sitting on the floor of the theater hiding behind the chairs in front of me peeking through the arm rests, loved every minute of if

  25. Saw the movie at age 16 in a little theater in Bridgeton, Maine.  I was a huge movie/special effects fan and love anything make by Spielberg or George Lucas.  The thing I remember most was towards the end when their about to enter the room to rescue the little girl.  Zelda Rubenstein gives her speech and says, “Now, open the door,” and every head in the audience started to disappear as people scrunched down in their seats in fear. I loved the scene with the chairs, too.

    It took me a while to remember that the actress who played the little girl died when she was only 12.  And that the actress who played the older sister was murdered soon after the movie came out.

  26. For some reason the scene that always stuck out with me, and continues to give me the chills to this day, is when the mother is trying to climb her way out of the ‘pool’. This is a mother who, as most others would be, is in militant “mom mode,” frantically searching for her lost daughter on the thought that she might have fallen into the gaping hole in their yard. The skeletons/cadavers were great and definitely horrific, but the most amazing scene is when her neighbor miraculously reaches down to help her out of the muddy trap that she’s found herself in. Keep in mind ,earlier in the movie it is plainly shown that mom and dad do not get along with their obnoxious neighbors. That,combined with the already implied isolation of suburbia, creates a unique moment in the movie when the situation becomes a Human situation, not an individual family’s. His helping hand in response to her hysteria is the perfect positive/negative human moment. The barriers between neighbors were struck down instantly, the two opposing teams have now bonded and we realize, if only for a second, that people are people and we are all just trying to make our way out whatever crisis might befall us or our families. This may all seem really pedantic or something, but it has been with me for years and years. Anybody else feeling me on this??

  27. Actually,ghosts ARE real, they just cannot do much,& are normally so easily ignored, that few of us even notice them on the rare occasions that they do manifest.
    (What they REALLY are,I have no idea,but I & apparently others have ‘seen’ them…) 

  28. I clearly remember seeing (and loving) Jurassic Park in the theater when it came out; I was about 7 or 8.

    After that, I vaguely remember my mom suggesting that I watch Poltergeist when it came on TV. I know I didn’t get through the whole thing. Pretty sure I didn’t watch any horror movies after that until I caught part of The Thing on TV a couple years later, and then once again didn’t watch any horror movies until fairly late in high school!

    The Thing is now one of my favorites. I love the really well-done psychological horror films like these. I finally watched Poltergeist again a couple years ago. Didn’t really creep me out, but I did think it was a great film. I think I need to watch it again – in a theater maybe, or with someone who gets really creeped out at horror films. I think films like this are greatly enhanced by watching it with an audience (as a couple of the stories in the comments here attest to).

    1. The Thing (Carpenter’s version) is one of the very few almost-perfect films in the world.  Every time I watch it I am amazed.  Everything about it runs like a well-oiled machine.

  29. I think I’m posting the sole voice of dissent. I saw this movie when I was 21, and I absolutely hated it.

    I’d gone expecting Tobe Hooper, but what I got was Tobe Hooper channeling  Steven Spielberg. I’d seen “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I was 14 — after a steady diet of Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Basil Rathbone, etc. — and I’d adored it. What I got was a blue-tinged (why was 
    Spielberg so enamored of blue?) F/X extravaganza. I’d seen “The Exorcist” was it was new, I’d seen “Psycho” before I was 11, what was supposed to be scary about this?

    Anyway, I left the cinema feeling cheated and bewildered, and I still feel that way.

  30. One unusually muggy spring evening, the kind where you can smell the thunderstorm from miles aways, I was flying on a handmade, glossy-painted wooden swing at my younger cousins’ place.  Perhaps it would have been better to leave it natural wood, since the slick paint repelled me like some kind of experimental, kidphobic surface from the JPL.  I landed on my rump, temporally stunned but fundamentally unhurt, after it slid from beneath me at the apex of my forward glide.  I must’ve tumbled backward, because I had just inhaled a head-clearing breath when the 2×8 seat connected with the back of my head and everything went black.

    I remember riding home, full dark having come on with some very distant lightning promising rain.  I was quiet and my head hurt.  My mom, a nurse, was worried about a concussion but I apparently has satisfied the clarity test and we made no trip the ER that night.  Instead, we made it home in time for the Sunday Night Movie: Poltergeist.

    I made it to Carol Anne’s TV entrapment before I lost it: I was overcome with that sick, sinking feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong, and your parents are going to find out.

    Exactly like the OP describes, the next two months were an absolute, paranoid hell.  Everything seemed sinister, and for reasons I cannot explain, the light at sunset seemed particularly terrible.  It was one of those situations where you can be happily playing handball or running about the neighborhood, and then *remember* the Bad Thing.  Suddenly, your stomach lurches and everything goes dim.

    I don’t remember how or why the fear faded away, but it did.  It would be years before I could watch this film again, and I eventually came to love it.  But some residue of that awful time is still hanging around down deep.  For me, this was truly a mind-blowing film.

    1. You should expand your comment into a short essay – the vivid imagery is wonderfully evocative.

  31. I never saw the film until about ten years ago.  I had just come back from living in Africa, so I and my old pal Miss Rheba flew to Vegas for a getaway/reacquaintance with All Things Tacky American.  We got into our hotel room, and Poltergeist was just coming on.  As it was midafternoon and we had nothing better to, why not?

    Even the TV cut is plenty disturbing (no memory of face-peeling, though – this was a TBS or its ilk, not a premium cable, showing).  Craig Nelson pushes the TV out of the motel room, credits run, and We head.  Feeling especially classy, we decide to use a coupon to dine at Planet Hollywood.  We sit down, and Miss Rheba doesn’t say much, but after a few minutes, just quietly points up.  There, hanging on the wall, glaring at me – is that damn clown.  If it hadn’t been in a glass case, I probably would have had a stroke.

    Never had the nerve to see it again…

  32. What I like about the movie is the realistic approach in which everyday normal people, whose biggest concern up until then was climbing their way out of middle class, are slowly forced to confront a reality that goes beyond their wildest comprehension —a reality they can’t escape of because it’s right where they live.

    Oh, and the scene where Carol Anne is watching the TV by herself? it still makes me jump off my seat.


  33. I remember sitting near the back of a nice, first-run theater in Century City and watching this movie for the first time.   I was absolutely gobsmacked.

    When the lights came up, and people started to leave…I got up, walked down to the 10-row or so…and sat through it again!

    I think that was the first time I’ve ever done that (before or since?)… 

  34. My favorite moment in the whole movie is at the end when they are trying to escape in the car and Steven fumbles with the car keys on the driveway while the wife and kids shriek.

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