Ghost stories are a popular genre of film, and over the last few decade they’ve begun to come back into popularity, with stories of families being haunted by sinister spirits and having to call upon help from ghost hunters being a plot used in big franchises like The Conjuring and Insidious. But one of the first films to do this, and to become a big hit, is Poltergeist, which has just turned forty years old.
Telling the story of the Freeling family, the film introduces us to this average American family living in a new housing estate in California. The father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson) works for the company building the new community, and got to move into one of the very first houses along with his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams), his teenage daughter Dana (Dominique Dunne), and two young children Robbie (Oliver Robins) and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Strange events begin to happen around the house, such as furniture moving on its own, and the television acting strangely, hinting at something sinister in the home with them.
The small events begin to build, and the benign haunting soon starts to turn sinister, with a tree coming to life and attacking the sleeping children. When the family try to flee the home, Carol Anne is pulled into a portal inside the closet, vanishing. The family search for the girl, but find no trace for her apart from her voice, which comes through the television. The family are forced to call upon a paranormal expert and her team in order to try and save their daughter.
The plot for Poltergeist is one that is fairly familiar, because it’s one that’s been used a lot since Poltergeist came out four decades ago. And considering how well received the film was it’s no surprise that it’s been emulated time and time again over the years. However, the film wasn’t always what it ended up being, as it began life as something very different.
Poltergeist was not originally supposed to be a film about ghosts, instead it was envisioned as a horror sequel to Steven Spielberg‘s 1977 sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, titled ‘Night Skies’. The script told the story of a family farm being terrorised by a group of alien visitors, and would lean much more heavily into the horror elements than science fiction. Whilst MGM loved the idea, and wanted to make it, Spielberg would eventually change his mind about the project, and would shift towards a story about a more friendly alien visitor, creating E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial instead. However, he had agreed to help produce a horror film for the studio.
Instead of directing the film himself, which he was unable to do as he was working on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,he recommended that horror director Tobe Hooper helm the project instead. Whilst Hooper was happy to make a horror film with Spielberg, he was less excited by the science fiction side, and suggested turning the film into a ghost story. Bringing in writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor, the film was reworked into the story that fans know and love.
And people did love Poltergeist, as it became an instant hit upon its release in cinemas. The movie made $78 million in the United States alone, making it the highest grossing horror film that year, beating out films like The Thing. Whilst some horror films, like The Thing, were met with a poor reception and built their following in the subsequent years, Poltergeist was given rave reviews as soon as it was released, with publications such as The New York Times giving it high praise and promoting it to its readers. The movie would go on to be nominated for a number of awards, including Oscars, and eventually won a number of Saturn Awards and BAFTAs.
However, not everything was great for Poltergeist, as soon after the film was released there was talk that Tobe Hooper was not the true director of the film, with some claiming that Spielberg, the producer, was more of a co-director. Some claims even said that he was the ‘real’ director of the movie and Hooper was merely a presence on set. These claims would go on to dog the film for decades, with cast and crew frequently being asked about it in interviews even to this day.
Another thing that ‘haunts’ the film, and that I feel almost can’t be ignored when talking about Poltergeist is the film’s ‘curse’. There have been claims that the film is a cursed production thanks in part to one of the key scenes making use of real human skeletons in place of plastic ones because it was cheaper. The idea of the curse was continued when four actors connected to the film and its sequels died. Julian Beck, who appeared in the sequel, passed away from stomach cancer shortly after working on Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Will Sampson, who also appeared in the sequel, died during a heart-lung transplant procedure after being sick for a while.
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But the most tragic stories centre on the two Freeling daughters. Dominique Dunne, who played Dana, was tragically murdered by a former partner at her Hollywood home in November of 1982, just a few months after the film’s release; which is the reason why Dana would not appear in the sequels, as the studio did not want to recast the character. Heather O’Rourke, who plays the young Carol Anne was the only member of the Freeling family to appear in all three films, but sadly passed away a few months before the third film’s release due to suffering a cardiac arrest following emergency bowel surgery, dying at the age of just twelve. Due to these tragedies, the film, and the series in general, was seen as cursed, and there have been many articles written about it, as well as documentary television specials.
Despite these tragic connections, Poltergeist has remained a classic of horror cinema, and is beloved by many fans of the genre and casual viewers alike. It has had a huge impact upon horror, changing the way that haunted house stories have been told ever since, inspiring other stories in the decades since it was first released. Whatever you believe about the curse, or the directorial rumours, it can’t be denied that Poltergeist is deserving of its iconic status.
Poltergeist was released in the UK on 16th September 1982.