Passing the Buck: Poltergeist: Ghosts & Nostalgia
Upon re-watching Poltergeist as a 31-year-old woman, I find it a particularly strange and nostalgic experience. My adult mind had always retained the standard imagery and sequence in the film; the little girl speaking to the static in the television, the dead bodies in the swimming pool, the closet, the clowns. What it had not retained was the more mundane and bizarre moments in the film. The scenes that almost seem like throw away plot bits that, now, make the movie all the more endearing. This October, we re-watched Poltergeist with our 7-year-old, Fiona. It had been at least 4-6 years since I’d last seen it, and it was her first foray into “scary” movies. It made for a fun family night that we will probably never forget. The joy of watching her proudly indulging in her first horror film and the almost surreal quality of those forgotten moments in the film created the perfect warm cocoon of a movie experience to hold on to.
It’s strange and wonderful to have to actually explain old movie tricks to a 7-year-old whose entire life has been ruled by advanced and elegant computer generation that has taken movie making to an entirely alien place. As we watched Diane Freeling in the kitchen with Carole Anne, my husband, Caleb, said, “watch, Fiona, this is all one shot. They don’t stop the camera, watch what happens.”
The camera follows Diane, from the counter, to the sink, and as she turns back she screams when the chairs are stacked intricately on the kitchen table.
“That’s completely real. Real chairs, stacked on top of one another. Do you know how they did that?” he asks her. She makes some guesses but ultimately is stumped. Seven-year-olds, it turns out, really believe in magic.
“Bolts, and glue and things,” he says. “They had it ready behind that door, and when the camera turned away, some people came out, took away the chairs around the table, and put that stack of chairs, that was already nailed together, on top of the table.” Her eyes light up momentarily with discovery, but she nods and passes it off as though she probably knew that the whole time.
As Steve Freeling is walking up to the old/new cemetery with his boss I say, “Look at that, do you think that cemetery is really there when they stand by it?”
“No,” she says, “it doesn’t look real.”
“How do you think they put it there?” I ask.
“A computer?” She responds.
“Actually,” I explain, “it’s called matte painting. They would paint a piece of glass and put the camera behind it. Those men are just standing next to a fence and some sort of screen, probably. Isn’t that a beautiful painting?”
It was one of my favorite moments in the whole film. I had gallantly cast it off as a young adult, drunk on the realism of the virtual artistry I had begun to experience post Lord of the Rings, as old, dated effects. Yet now, here is this beautiful painting. The colors are soft and bright and the sun shines over this lovely cemetery on a hill kissed with pinks and greens and yellow and Steve looks out over it all and I can just imagine him thinking, “this is a beautiful place to rest,” just before his boss tells him, by the way, we’ve disrespected these people. We’ve moved the headstones and not the bodies.
That little moment, that little switch, was so devastating and beautiful. We’ve all experienced that moment when something we believed in reveals itself to have subverted the ethical code we thought it stood on. Sure, my daughter won’t appreciate that nuance for a very long time but she can appreciate the art of matte painting.
Between the high drama scenes with the inter-dimensional hole in the Freelings’ closet, I had also forgotten just how talk-heavy the film is. There are several long, dramatic dialogues in the film, which was something that we used to demand in film. Do you remember that? Intent and emotion was never communicated by gesture and motion, it was always dramatic monologues. A tradition stemming from the very beginnings of theater, movies took a long time to shake off this beloved trope. And you know what? That’s ok. I actually think it might be time for a revival of this narrative tool. They do it up big in Poltergeist. The medium gets a close up and the lights halo behind her in gold while she stares off camera left. “Some people just get lost on the way to the light,” she preaches with eyes, dewy as though she is going to cry. It is high drama at its finest. Ultimately, the speech holds little to no weight on the plot, except to instill a sense of adversarialism between Diane Freeling and the investigators, but god is it a beautiful Silver Age of Hollywood moment.
There are so many little details in the movie that place it firmly in time. Things that we had to explain to our daughter because she will never run into that kind of thing in her lifetime. Like remote sharing? It is rare for people my own age to remember that particular heartbreak. The long, laborious hours the investigators had to spend recording one instance of paranormal activity. And, of course, the awkward, inappropriate cat calling of an under aged girl in her own back yard. Don’t recall that one? I hadn’t either. Dana Freeling, the 15-year-old daughter is leaving for school when, in the back yard, the construction workers cat call her. They stand in a line whistling and vocally admiring her figure. Dana, in true, gratuitous, unrealistic fashion, obliges them with a nubile wiggle of appreciation before leaving for school.
As someone who, as a young woman, experienced this kind of behavior in men, it’s never something they are grateful for. This little kickback was almost hilarious in its blatant sexism and reminded me that this kind of thing was very common in the movies of my youth. In fact, as a girl I believed that was normalized and acceptable behavior. In truth, the moment adds nothing to Dana’s character, or the character of the construction workers as they hold absolutely no weight to the plot. They may have been written into the movie just for that scene they’re so unimportant. And yet, in the 80s and 90s we expected that kind of thing to be in every movie with a teenage girl in it. There was this strange and unsettling idea that we had to show how sexually appealing underage girls were with little scenes of “mild” sexual harassment.
Does this brief moment derail and destroy the value and cultural significance of Poltergeist? No. But equally so, it was unnecessary and inappropriate. I can happily say that this is no longer a movie trope, and for good reasons. How did I deal with it? I was able to look at my daughter, a fiercely independent little creature whose life goal right now is to grow up to be a Dragon, and tell her, “that kind of behavior isn’t ok, you know that, right? If someone does that to you, you have the right to tell them to stop, and you should definitely find a safe place to be.” With enough repetition, I hope someday, when she’s inevitably faced with these situations, she will be able to respond in a way that keeps her safe and happy.
The nostalgia and joy that comes from watching Poltergeist makes it so you almost expect it to be a mash-up of all the things we used to love, on par with modern favorites like Stranger Things. Then you remember, no, this is original, this is what Stranger Things is capturing. With the kind of fun and fantasy and time-period-specific throwbacks Poltergeist provides, it’s no wonder we find ourselves waxing nostalgic lately. Perhaps cinema is experiencing a joint mid-life crisis. Maybe, as a generation, we sat down and watched one of our favorite movies and thought, this needs to live forever. Because we’ve created a new generation of 80s and 90s aesthetic. Not everyone sits their young children down to watch the movies that shaped their childhood, but now the movies that will shape their childhoods evoke the movies that shaped ours. We have implanted our memories into new minds, and I don’t think that’s such a terrible crime.
Nostalgia is a dangerous drug. Too much and we can start talking about “kids these days” and decrying the kind of progress computers have brought to the art of movie making. However, as many of us decry and berate the current nostalgic trend in cinema, we should also celebrate it. It’s not new. When I was a teenager Hollywood went through a phase of making movies out of TV shows from the 60s and 70s and we survived. Original content continued to be generated, things went on as usual. There should be no hate over the love of a puffy down vest and a pair of high-tops.
Someday, when my daughter is sitting around with her friends, she will pull out her old, worn Blu-ray (an obsolete recording medium) copy of Poltergeist and say, “my mom and dad showed me this movie when I was 7 right before Halloween. My favorite part was that big spooky tree.” And they’ll watch it, and they’ll laugh, and she’ll be able to answer every question about how they were able to film those shots back then, during that dark time before computers had been the modus operandi.