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Raised in Fear: POLTERGEIST and the Culture of Forgetting

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by Jed Mayer
April 4, 2013 12:14 PM
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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.

There has been much dispute about who actually did what in the making of Poltergeist, with suggestions that Tobe Hooper’s title of director was only nominal, and that producer and co-screenwriter Spielberg was the driving creative force behind the scenes. Certainly the film would seem to have little in common with Hooper’s harrowing classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): the grainy texture and ruthless violence of that film are worlds away from the lavish visual spectacles that unfold amidst the comfortable middle class settings of Poltergeist. Nevertheless, Hooper’s direction and co-authorship may be felt in the sense of menace and threat manifested from the beyond, an otherworldly place revealed to be firmly rooted in the very earth beneath the concrete and sheetrock of Cuestra Verde. 

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.

The film’s totem of forgetting is the television, and the Freelings are avid worshippers. There is one in every room of the Freelings’ home, and when Carol Anne talks with “the TV People” she raises her hands to the screen as if she were one of the apes bowing before the black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Freelings are a good family who seem to have gone slightly astray, their lives detached from the larger world outside and from the history buried beneath their feet. At night Steve and Diane (JoBeth Williams) wind down by smoking pot and watching reruns of The Twilight Zone. Tellingly, Steve is absently reading Reagan: The Man, the President, the sanctimonious biography of a public figure uniquely successful in promoting a sanitized version of progress in which American capitalism redeems the nightmares of history. While the Freelings do not commit any crimes, they are complicit in an American culture of forgetting that allows people to be bulldozed for the making of a brighter future.
After Carol Anne is abducted to the plane of the TV People, she is urged, “don’t go into the light.” In the narrative, the light represents the afterlife, but it might also suggest that light of forgetfulness that shines fitfully from the television screens glowing throughout the house. It also seems to shine brightly on Cuestra Verde itself: in several scenes the characters remark on how beautiful and sunny the weather is while horrors run rampant in the Freelings’ home. It is a world in which distractions make it easy to lose one’s way. The film is abundant with product placements, and the children’s room is covered with tie-in products from Star Wars, Alien, and other movies: like its main characters, Poltergeist is complicit in the culture it seems to condemn. Yet while the psychic investigators suggest that the children’s product-filled closet is the “heart of the house,” dwarfish medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) prophetically replies, “This house has many hearts.” 

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.

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