SUMMER OF ’82: POLTERGEIST

Every now and then there comes a year when it seems that there are an inordinate number of really good films out in theaters. Is it the result of some sort of cultural zeitgeist or is it just mere coincidence? Who can say? But what can be known for sure is that the summer of 1982 was one of those magical movies times. On the 30th anniversary of that summer we will take a look back at some of the many movies that made that summer so memorable.

Poltergeist was the first horror movie I ever saw. It was almost the last one I ever saw too.

The film came out when I was eleven and, obviously, I didn’t see it in theaters when it came out, because my parents wouldn’t take me to see it. So, I did what many an American pre-teen did when they wanted to see a film that their parents didn’t want them to see–I waited until it came on HBO and saw it over a friends house whose mom was a little more lax in monitoring their child’s entertainment choices.

My memory has faded as to WHY I wanted to see the film, perhaps word of mouth amongst my classmates, maybe an advertisement. But what I do know is that a I swore off horror films for a good eight years after that. Even today, horror is not my first choice of film entertainment.

The film centers on the Freelings, a happy family living the good life in a suburban development in a town called Cuesta Verde. One day, funny things start happening. Their youngest, Carol Anne, starts hearing voices talking to her through the static on their family TV. Furniture moves of its own free will. Chairs are stacked by invisible hands onto kitchen tables. Fun stuff. But the fun soon ends when all Hell breaks loose as the ghosts turn evil and kidnap little Carol Anne over to the other side.

The film is co-produced, co-written and, some say, co-directed by Steven Spielberg (Tobe Hooper is listed as the director, but cast members have said that Spielberg was the one truly calling the shots). When we think of Spielberg today, we think of the stoicism of Saving Private Ryan or the emotional resonance of Schindler’s List or the sentimentality of E.T. (which was released just a week after this film in 1982), but we often forget that at one time, scares were Spielberg’s mileu.

Spielberg and company filled the film with a virtual laundry list of childhood fears. A gnarled tree outside your window that looked like an monster on a dark and stormy night? Check. A child’s toy that takes on a sinister appearance after the lights go off? Check. And can we make that toy look like a creepy clown? Absolutely. Check.

But there was one , real-life scare of a more serious nature that I can point to as the reason why this film affected me so. I was one of the last generations of children that were allowed to leave the house in the morning, play all day, and just come home at night without my parents caring too much. However, in the midst of my childhood, child abductions began to become more prevalent across the country. Almost overnight, right around the time this film came out, my parents’ attitudes changed. They would grill me as to where I was going, who I was going to be with, and how long I was going to be out. Every other day was a lecture on not talking to strangers and what to do if one wanted me to get in a car with them.

Today, we are living in a world of Amber Alerts and abductees telling their stories on the pages of People Magazine almost every other week, with an estranged parent more often than not being the kidnapper. But back then, “stranger danger” was something new and completely terrifying–to both kids and parents. And while Carol Anne was taken away by supernatural spirits by way of a mystical portal in her closet and not by being lured into a white van by the prospect of free candy, the results were the same: she was missing, her parents didn’t know exactly where she was, they didn’t know exactly who or what took her, and they had no definite way of getting her back. As a parent in the present day, I get chills just typing that. As a kid back then, it absolutely frightened me on a primal level. The plot point was a definite allegory to the real dangers that were on parents and children’s minds of the time.

While that allegory was disturbing on a subconscious level, there was a scene that was disturbing on a more viceral–and visual–level–the mirror scene:

Okay, looking at that clip now, with 30 years of film watching under my belt, I can say that it looks a bit…cheesy. I can tell it’s obviously a dummy head (although probably with a real human skull–more on that later) with latex flesh on it that is being torn off (by Spielberg himself, apparently. Yes, he was that “hands on”) intercut with dollops of strawberry jello being splattered into a white sink. But naive and innocent 11-year old Bill was more than willing to suspend disbelief and be completely revolted by that scene. Especially taking into consideration the scene that came before it. The jaded Bill would ask, “Isn’t a steak a bit heavy for a late night snack?” but the kid Bill’s brain was screaming “THE CHICKEN. HE HAD IN HIS MOUTH. HAD MAGGOTS IN IT!!!!!!! AAAAIIIIGGGGGHHHH!!!!!”

Since this was my first horror film, it was the one I judged all other horror films against, sight unseen. My pre-teen mind figured that all horror films must be as scary as this one. And since Poltergeist shook me to my very core, I decided to avoid all other horror films at all costs. While my classmates in high school were enjoying the heck out of Jason and Freddy, I was watching Back to the Future or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for the 20th time.  I’d only watch horror under duress (I think I saw 20 minutes of Jason Takes Manhattan at a party once, only because I was too much of a wimp to ask them to turn it off). Yes, I missed out on a lot of “great” horror flicks during the 80s, but I don’t think my life has suffered.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on another aspect of the film that shows how other people were affected by it–its legacy. I’m not talking about the horrible line of sub-standard sequels, but rather “The Poltergeist Curse.”

The legend has it that the production became cursed due to the fact that real skeletons were used in the climax where the coffins are bursting out of the ground  (Jo Beth Williams seems to confirm this at the 2:00 mark of this video). It’s an ironic twist on the plot of the film, which was a film based house being cursed by desecrating the dead by being built over a cemetary would be cursed by desecrating the dead by using them as props. However, some tragic real-life events have been used as proof of said curse, notably the deaths of four cast members before the end of the franchise–two tragically too young.

Will Sampson, who played Taylor in Poltergeist II: The Other Side died a little more than a year after that film was released due to post-surgery complications and Julian Beck, who played Henry Kane in the same film died of stomach cancer right after filming his role. These deaths are hard to chalk up to the curse due to Sampson not having good odds of surviving the surgery in the first place and Beck being diagnosed with cancer before being cast. However, the remaining two deaths add to the macabre talk of a curse.

Dominique Dunne had spun her role in Poltergeist into a role on the TV series V. She was rehearsing scenes for the miniseries with another actor at her home when she was interrupted by her ex-boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney.  Dunne went outside to talk to Sweeney. The talk turned to an argument, which ended with Sweeney choking the actress. He strangled her for over three minutes, resulting in her brain death. Sweeney served less than four years for his crime, changed his name to John Maura, and moved out of the Los Angeles area. Last report had him working as a chef in Northern California.

Heather O’Rourke was the only actor other than Zelda Rubinstein to appear in all three of the Poltergeist films. However, O’Rourke was diagnosed with what doctors thought was Crohn’s Disease. Her illness distorted her features a bit in the third movie but once production wrapped on Poltergeist III, her disease appeared to go into remission. Unfortunately, as the film was going through post-production, O’Rourke collapsed in her home. She was rushed to the hospital, but was pronounced dead. Her autopsy showed that she suffered not from Crohn’s Disease, but Intestinal Stenosis, a narrowing of the intestine that caused a blockage in O’Rourke, which brought on a septic shock induced heart attack. During post-production, a body double had to be used to shoot a new ending for the film, in case you were wondering why you couldn’t see Carol Anne’s face during the climax.

While Dunne and O’Rourke’s deaths were tragic because they were both so young when they died (Dunne was 22, O’Rourke had just turned twelve), it less likely that a curse caused their demise than what actually did–a possessive ex-boyfriend and a horrible misdiagnosis. Although, while the actresses only shared the screen for one film, they ended up spending eternity together, as both are interred in The Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

But the persistence of the curse shows the profound effect the film has had on viewers. As for me, I have eased up with my no horror movie rule.  Seeing Silence of the Lambs helped (it might not qualify as a horror film to you, but it does to me). And I have become quite a fan of the zombie flick. But I still shudder when I think of Poltergeist. Brrrr.

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About William Gatevackes 1934 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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