This 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.