Poltergeist is an American classic. The 1982 story of paranormal forces haunting a suburban family is a collaboration between two of horror’s most celebrated filmmakers, director Tobe Hooper and producer/writer Steven Spielberg. Forty years after its premiere, the film has permeated our culture and become one of the quintessential haunted house tales in cinematic history. Though often remembered for its ominous catch phrase, “They’re here…”, its evil clown, and its gruesome conclusion, Poltergeist is a film brimming with strong female characters.
Three women, Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams), Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), and Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), combine forces to rescue the family’s youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), who is trapped in a realm between the living and the dead. But the film’s title is slightly misleading. While poltergeist activity does terrorize the Freeling family, they are also haunted by a malevolent force known as the Beast, whose power stems from a foundation of greed and insidious corruption.
Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling are living the American Dream. They have a beautiful house in a burgeoning new suburb that they share with their three happy children, Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne. Steve is a successful real estate salesman responsible for filling half the homes in the neighborhood and they’re celebrating his accomplishments by installing a pool in the backyard. After a series of storms, the Freeling’s home is invaded by mischievous spirits who pull Carol Anne into an alternate dimension via a portal in her bedroom closet. Though still alive, she can only communicate through open channels on a TV. Steve enlists the help of Dr. Lesh, who brings in her team to study the paranormal phenomena. With scientific tools and recording technology, they discover a multitude of spirits stuck within the house. Dr. Lesh in turn seeks help from a powerful medium named Tangina, who guides them in freeing Carol Anne from the demonic figure lurking within the house.
Diane and Carol Anne Freeling are the first to embrace the supernatural phenomenon. In the film’s opening moments, Carol Ann sleepwalks downstairs and begins to talk to unseen spirits they will come to call the TV People through the static of an open channel. Diane first encounters the spirits through her dining room chairs. Mysteriously pulled out from the table, she turns her back for a moment only to find them artfully stacked on top of the table when she returns. Later that evening, Diane is thrilled to tell Steve about the paranormal patterns she’s found. She practically drags him from the driveway to a path she’s marked on the kitchen floor through which the spirits pull objects. She and Carol Anne have even experimented with traveling the pathway. Diane seems to thrive as the disturbances progress, practically glowing in contact with the spiritual energy. Even when desperate to find her missing daughter, she accepts the metaphysical realm with a wonder and fascination lost on her skeptical husband.
Steve is terrified of what is happening in his house. He sits on the floor in shocked silence as Diane explains being pulled by unseen hands and quickly grabs his daughter as she is projected across the tiles. Seeking to control the unexplainable, he forbids anyone from entering the room until he knows what’s going on. Seconds later, the tree outside Robbie’s window bursts in and drags the child out, the spirits seeming to mock his attempts to control their activity. As the story unfolds, Steve’s appearance deteriorates. His eyes bear dark rings, his smoking increases, and he resorts to telling his boss he has the flu, a lie his disheveled appearance fully supports. Struggling to maintain control, he is resistant to the paranormal activity and hesitant to accept Tangina’s advice. He emotionally withdraws from his family and seems to wear down further with each passing event.
Feeling helpless, Steve reaches out to Dr. Lesh, a psychologist who investigates paranormal phenomena as a hobby. She calls herself irresponsible for this devotion, but she is the bridge between the spiritual and the scientific. The bond she forms with Diane Freeling is essential to saving Carol Anne. Technicians Ryan (Richard Lawson) and Marty (Martin Casella) make up her team. It’s an inspiring system of female leadership that will be repeated throughout horror, most notably by Lin Shaye in the Insidious franchise. After observing the shocking level of poltergeist activity in the Freeling house, Dr. Lesh explains the difference between this type of disturbance and a traditional haunting. Poltergeist activity is usually associated with a living person, in this case Carol Anne, while a haunting revolves around a specific place. As the story unfolds, both types of disturbances will blend together and endanger the entire Freeling family.
Once Dr. Lesh realizes the unprecedented extent of the paranormal activity, and after Marty receives a nasty bite while trying to enter the closet, she brings in outside help. Tangina is a powerful medium and clairvoyant, able to sense activity in the alternate dimension and pinpoint where Carol Anne is within the house. She explains that the spirits are confused by the child’s powerful life force. Born in the house, Carol Anne exudes a light similar to that through which they need to pass to reach the next dimension. They are attracted to her, but also frustrated and angry in their confusion. Though they cause pain and destruction, they are simply the unhappy spirits of people trying to make sense of their new state of existence. Tangina also identifies the existence of another being, the Beast, a malevolent force feeding on this chaos and holding Carol Anne prisoner. It is the haunting attached to the house, taking advantage of the poltergeist activity the child attracts.
Tangina’s plan involves going into the closet portal to find Carol Anne then exiting with the child through a separate portal in the living room ceiling. Diane ties a rope around her waist and enters the portal with Steve holding the other end and swearing never to let go. Midway through this search and rescue mission, Tangina begins calling to the spirits that haunt the house, guiding them into the light. Her plan is to “clean” the house by helping them pass into the afterlife while Diane finds Carol Anne and brings her back out. But Steve panics and begins to pull on the rope, prompting the Beast to retaliate. A giant skull roars through the closet doorway causing Steve to drop the rope in terror. Luckily Dr. Lesh and Ryan are holding the other end in the living room. They pull Diane through the exit portal cradling Carol Anne in her arms.
Tangina leaves the reunited parents with their child and proudly declares that the house is now clean. This has long been a bone of contention among many viewers who point out that due to the film’s terrifying conclusion, the Freeling’s house is anything but. Days later, the Beast reappears. On their last night in the house a new fleshy portal appears in the closet and attempts to suck in both Robbie and Carol Anne. Spectral monsters torment Diana and try to prevent her from saving her children. As she falls into the muddy backyard pool, decomposing corpses begin to emerge from the ground. It turns out the housing development company, Steve’s employers, relocated a cemetery to build the new neighborhood. Hoping to save money, they moved the headstones, but not the bodies that lay below. The corpses are the earthly remains of the TV People, prevented from moving on by the bustling life disturbing their final resting place. Their caskets jut through the floorboards of the house, their skeletons spilling out into Diane’s path of escape.
This is the work of the Beast and the source of the haunting. Tangina has cleared the house of the spirits causing the poltergeist disturbances, but their bodies remain. Perhaps this corruption is what the Beast was drawn to all along. Unaware of the cemetery’s former location, Tangina cannot be held responsible for the greedy actions of the company. Steve is actually the face of this corruption. Though he was also unaware of the bodies when he moved his family into the home, this disregard for the transition between life and death aligns with his attempts to control the paranormal phenomena. While Diane Freeling is in the closet portal searching for Carol Anne, Tangina reminds Steve not to pull until she gives him the cue. In a moment of panic, he ignores her instructions causing the Beast to show its face. Perhaps if he had followed the plan, Tangina would have vanquished the Beast as well as the restless spirits. But nothing Tangina does within the house can change the fact of its awful foundations. The source of corruption lies underneath its floorboards, not within its walls.
A funeral for the family’s pet bird Tweety in early scenes foreshadows the film’s horrific conclusion. Diane Freeling plans to flush away the tiny body, but Carol Anne demands they show more respect. She asks her mother to throw a funeral for Tweety, placing his body in a cigar box along with a picture of the family and comforts for his journey to the afterlife. The women of the family, Dana, Diane, and Carole Anne, bury him in the backyard garden while Robbie climbs a tree and Steve squabbles with his neighbor over control of the TV. Later scenes show the box disturbed by the construction of a pool, a giant digger ripping it out of its burial plot. The treatment of Tweety’s earthly remains is a microcosm for the differing approaches to life and death the Freelings show throughout the film. Sensitive Carol Anne is drawn to the spirits while Robbie wants to stay away. Steve is oblivious to what is going on in his own home while Diane comforts her grieving child. It is the women of Poltergeist who are the story’s true heroes. By embracing spirituality and the mysteries of what lies beyond, they are able to overcome the controlling Beast and save the next generation of the living.