Think of the locations that haunted your worst nightmares growing up, and they were likely the things of shadowy forests, Gothic castles, and European villages haunted by one creature or ghoul or another. But as E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) seemed so close to home by recreating the neighborhoods that so closely resemble the ones we were growing up in, POLTERGEIST (also 1982, with a complex production backstory that forever links one film to the other and vice versa) appeared to take that same visual familiarity and imbue it with terrifying images that rapidly reappropriated the look and feel of Spielberg’s family sci-fi film setting and created in it one of the most effective horror films of the 1980s.
And to what glorious effect – be reminded that POLTERGEIST is rated PG. Watching it as a child, I found that the film was peppered with so many elements of my own young life: action figures scattered around the bedroom wherever their last space battle left them; overturned Hot Wheels cars on the floor, capable of wounding you if you step on them with a bare foot; the anonymous baby dolls, teddy bears, and more, each one abandoned like an orphan because of the sheer number of them. And it was these nostalgic details of the film that seemed to openly invite the terror into my home – because the film fooled me like it likely fooled many – because Poltergeist teaches you that if it can happen in that home, then it can happen in your home. It could even happen in my home. That’s the effect of horror. And watching the film even today, one wouldn’t know that the film dodged the bullet of an R rating.
The film operates through a deceit that lulls the audience into a false sense of security by asking moviegoers to walk the same living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms as the Freeling family – but quite suddenly, those warm, safe spaces of the home are occupied with suspicion and then dread and then finally unadulterated horror. By the time this film concludes, there’s been no respite for the hauntings that threatened to destroy the Freeling family from the inside out. The only escape comes in the form of a retreat to a local motel – the most impersonal home imaginable (and yet still thematically in keeping with the carbon copy approach to the home already established by the cookie cutter neighborhood in the film). The only way, then, to protect yourself from a fate similar to that of the Freelings is to truly separate yourself from the one ingredient that appears to bind most families. It certainly bound my family together on more than one memorable occasion: the television set. Film at 11.