Poltergeist: My First Horror

I am only 5 years old, running aimlessly around the neighborhood cul de sac like any 5-year-old would do.

Poltergeist is playing, Poltergeist is playing!” yells Deedoo, my next door neighbor who’s one year younger than me. 

I have no idea what “Poltergeist” is. Is it a tv show maybe having something to do with Star Wars because Deedoo knows that’s my thing? Is it a cartoon?

I come to find out quickly that it is a movie, and it’s already starting on the big screen (a 50-inch Sony Videoscope projector) inside my neighbor’s house, and it’s the mid-80s, and I’m about to be so terrified that I cry. Deedoo’s mom will tell Deedoo’s a-hole older brothers to turn off the movie. They won’t, and I keep watching through my fingers and tears. I just have to keep watching through the freaking clown under the bed scene, the tree with hand branches that grab that poor boy, and that guy who pulls his face apart in front of the bathroom mirror.

I mean, if little Deedoo is still watching, how can I not? 

I was a marked man (boy). I understood then and for the rest of my life that “horror” was to be uneasy, and the discomfort was exactly the point. It was manufactured fear to be enjoyed or loathed, and enjoying it meant to dwell in the dark parts of life, or worse – the imagination. 

Being scared meant growing up a bit, and I was okay with that. Poltergeist (1982) officially initiated me into the horror movie fan club. I am still a proud member today.

Last year and 30 something years since my first viewing with Deedoo (his real name was Bradley, by the way, but we never called him that), I found myself at a re-screening of this classic 80s horror gem at the Denver Sie FilmCenter. I was shocked by how much it held up horrifically and nostalgically. Fellow movie nerds and I reveled in its myth, both on the screen and behind the scenes:

Did they really use real skeletons in the infamous muddy pool scene?

Did Steven Spielberg really step back and “produce” Poltergeist while he was preparing E.T. in a nearby neighborhood, or did he take over the camera and push contractual “director” Tobe Hooper to the side for most of the filming?

What’s with the PG rating? I understand I was only five when I first saw this thriller about a family being terrorized by a poltergeist (German for “supernatural being that causes physical disturbances in a house”), but any thriller about a family being terrorized should probably skim around PG-13 territory! (The cash grabbing, extremely inferior remake of 2015 did.)

Lastly, how can anyone live in the house where the movie was shot?

A month ago, my wife and I visited my best friend and his wife in LA, and we decided to make an excursion to the iconic Simi Valley household where all the madness took place. It looks peaceful now, but there’s no way I would step in there without a good spiritual cleansing first. Credit to my friend’s wife who played Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie film score in the background while we took *quick* pictures.

According to production designer, Jim Spencer, “Steven (Spielberg) liked the house because it was at the end of the road. It was a two story Valley-type mock Tudor and it just fit everything. The neighborhood [was what] we call ‘Spielbergia,’ where E.T. and a couple of his other films were shot. He always wanted to be in normal residential areas.” (https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/making-of-poltergeist-original-film-120040571057.html)

“Normal” is the key word for this movie. Poltergeist works seamlessly as a horror trope because it captures a normal family, living in a normal neighborhood, dealing with something most abnormal.

Craig T. Nelson is my dad’s Hollywood doppelganger, and his reactions to the hauntings that plague his family and home are natural, making the movie all too real. We ride this thing out more with him than the other family members, and when he discovers that the damned house was built on a cemetery where only the gravestones were moved, we’re kinda upset like he is. He’s an all-American, football-loving dad, and the supernatural affliction he has to deal with is a real pain in the ass.

I still find the eroding tree with the hand-shaped branches creepy, the clown under the bed is a memory scar, and the facial flesh pealing is just wrong. In fact, none of these things are “right” in a typical suburban neighborhood.

And, it wasn’t right that Deedoo lured me into a world of horror in our typical suburban neighborhood.

But, I couldn’t be any happier because of it.

On October 26th, I host my annual “Horror Night” at my house. On the menu: Wings, pumpkin ale, butterscotch cauldron, and Poltergeist (1982).

“They’re heeeeeeeeeeeere.”  

19 thoughts on “Poltergeist: My First Horror

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      1. I always thought until recently that Spielberg had directed that movie, because it seemed to contain his signature film-making attributes. I know he was the producer and all, but still it’s just so Spielberg-esque.
        That suburb feels in a strange sense part of my childhood because of the impact ET and Poltergeist had on me and my family. Your post was a lovely trip down memory lane.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s a fascinating myth that has been more disproven as of late – https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DubwQI9UcAE_mHv?format=jpg&name=small. However, I’m sure Steven had some influence and advice. And, I agree: my childhood neighborhood and innocence was so similar that I felt like I was in the family. “Close Encounters” has a similar atmosphere. I highly recommend finding Simi Valley if you find yourself in LA. It’s got Spielberg Hollywood movie written all over it!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks for adding that quote to clarify Steven’s level of participation. Yes, Close Encounters has some of that atmosphere and was a favourite of my fathers, but it took me a little while to get the gist for all its love. A bit like Kubrick’s 2001. Thanks for the recommendation about Simi Valley. If I ever get to the US I’ll definitely look it up.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh, your horror night sounds incredibly fun! I loved the way you told this story, I too experienced horror and became a fan at a very young age! This movie is a great choice, and I still get chills when I see the shadows of tree limbs dance across a wall.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Btw, I’m Reely Bernie’s mom, and I was the one who posted “Where was YOUR mother…” just being silly about my parental skills :).. Sorry, Bernie, no wonder you didn’t want a clown for your birthday theme that year. 🤡

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this movie when it came out…My son watched it (his second horror movie) at 9 and it still worked. I still watch it from time to time. What happened with a few of the cast in real life was really scary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally! A whole other blog could be written about the cast accidents and deaths that happened during and after this movie. So sad and creepy at the same time. Nothing can ever replace my “first horror.” Glad you appreciate it too! Best, as always!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this Bernie! I was way too chicken to ever see this movie… I may just give it a try! The Hallmark holiday movies start on nov first so I can get back to happy movies quickly! Love katio

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love you, Katio! I still cherish Halloween with you (and Peyton Manning) two years ago at your place. And, I agree: After October, it’s all about the Hallmark Channel and feelings of joy! xoxo

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