They’re heeeeeereeee! This 1982 film is definitely a classic (at least to me). When someone asks me which horror films are amongst my all-time favorites, Poltergeist is very near the top. It remains a seminal classic from my childhood; in fact, I wasn’t much older than the character Carol Anne when I began watching this film, so it has stayed with me even after all of these years.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about this film is the idea that THIS CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE; we’ve got the prototypical American suburban family–three kids, a nice house, a station wagon, and even a Golden Retriever in the yard. Here is the American dream realized–a hard working couple builds themselves up through hard work to the upper middle class, and through no fault of their own, their American dream is dashed. It seems fitting that this would be a common fear during the early 1980s as the country began to emerge from an economic crisis, so the fact that this family loses much of its material wealth–specifically, their home and much of the things inside of it–definitely reflects a very real fear for many Americans during that time.
This is one of the great things about horror films (or really horror in any medium). As author Junot Diaz said in a lecture that I attended, science fiction (and genres like it) allows us to explore very disturbing issues that are happening in real life without us having to actually talk about those issues, which are sometimes too difficult to face head-on. It allows us the leeway to explore our thoughts without having to confront them directly. He, of course, was talking about racial genocide, but the same principle applies to a variety of crises. In the case of this film, economic strife is the core issue. The forefront of ghosts and evil spirits terrorizing this family overshadows the real fear–loss of material property due to elements outside of one’s control. It discusses, under the surface, the shattering of the American dream, which for many, is the gain of material wealth and stability.
Not to mention of course the other issue of how that “American dream” of wealth and stability is reached–in this case, through the cost of violating the sanctity of those who came before (moving the headstones of the dead but leaving their bodies behind). Keep in mind that our history as Americans is based upon one group of people destroying and violating many other groups of people in order to build itself up. This film deals with that underlying issue in the American subconscious–yes, you have reached the American dream, but at what cost?
Like most horror films, the root of fear for the family in Poltergeist lies in humanity’s coming face to face with forces that it cannot comprehend, and thus, cannot overcome.