Poltergeist begins with the national anthem, once played by television networks late at night before they ended their daily broadcasts. The montage of patriotic images that regularly accompanied these sign-offs is made strange in this film through extreme close-up shots depicting a grotesquely pixilated television screen, projecting fragmented images of Romanesque columns and military statues commemorating unidentifiable wars. The screen then fills with hissing static, from which emerges another ritual of the dead that threatens to devour the Freeling family and their community. Poltergeist is a film about the repressed traumas and anxieties underlying the American dream, a point further emphasized when we learn that Cuestra Verde, the planned community in southern California where the story takes place, was founded in the year of our nation’s bicentennial. The Freelings are the “first family” of this housing development, and as such are made to bear the burden of the community’s collective guilt.
1976 also happens to be the year my own family moved from the decaying farmhouse where my father grew up into a brand new faux-Tudor that my parents picked out of a magazine. We told ourselves stories about this move as if it were the realization of our family’s dreams, and the newness, size, and privacy of the house’s setting were the material manifestation of those dreams. Though we were one of the first families to move into this new housing development, we could dimly perceive other residents through the screen of trees surrounding our backyard. Later, when my sister and I tried to make friends with some of the local kids, we found them to be hostile to outsiders: in just a few months, cliques had formed and solidified into tribal antagonisms. By the time my parents divorced and sold the house some ten years later, our dog had shown up dead on our front steps and our healthy and surprisingly reliable cat disappeared, never to be seen again. My mother looks back on this as the happiest period of our lives. Like the Freelings, I have learned that happiness is often maintained through selective acts of forgetting.
A comparison of Hooper’s two great films reveal them to share a common preoccupation with place, particularly in terms of the ways Americans seek to repress the past in the name of progress. The serial murdering family that haunts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is made up of unemployed cattlemen, put out of work by the industrialized slaughterhouses and feedlots of modern agriculture. The bloodbath that unfolds in the film may be read as the grisly revenge taken by workers dismissed as casually as the animals they were once paid to slaughter. In Poltergeist, the planners of Cuestra Verde built its homes on the site of an old cemetery. As they move to expand the community into the surrounding hills, they plan to do the same with another burial site, a plan that shocks Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), who says to his boss: “Oh you're kidding. Oh come on. That's sacreligious, isn't it?” to which his boss glibly replies: “Oh, don't worry about it. After all, it's not ancient tribal burial ground. It's just people.”
To compare it with another film about an American haunting, Poltergeist offers a curious inversion of the genocidal logic underlying The Shining, whose horrors emerge from the Indian burial grounds that lie under the Overlook Hotel. Both stories concern the ways in which we overlook the past, but in Poltergeist the American ritual of forgetting has become more pervasive. While the builders of the Overlook Hotel had to fend off various Native American attacks during its construction, no one complained about the disinterment of the cemetery’s dead until Steve Freeling spoke up. Ancient tribal burial grounds are an alien concept to rationally planned communities: we no longer honor the household gods but simply build on top of them at our convenience.
Like the Freelings, I watched a lot of Twilight Zone episodes while growing up in my suburban home. One episode has always haunted me, and it seems like a kind of DNA sample from which Poltergeist might have been cloned. In “Little Girl Lost,” a family suddenly loses their daughter to another dimension: they seek everywhere but can only hear her disembodied voice through various points in the house that seem to intersect with the alien plane. In the period my mother remembers as the happiest in our family’s life, we all spent a great deal of time watching reruns in separate rooms, cut off from one another and from the surrounding neighborhood. Any one of us could have disappeared, like the cat who never came back, and I am embarrassed to think how long it might have taken for one of us to notice. The monstrous threats posed in horror films are often unconsciously desired visitations that serve to transform the individuals and unite the families who face them. But there is another kind of horror, one that is almost too subtle for the camera’s lens, in which families and friends disappear while we look into the light and slowly forget.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.