20/07/2016

Poltergeist - The T.V People Are Coming For Your Kids!

Thoughts On: Poltergeist (1982)


Ghosts reach out to a family through their television set, eventually ensnaring one of their children.


This is one of my favourite horror films of all time. Not only is it a perfect narrative with rich subtext, but it has great characterisation, pacing and is heartwarmingly comedic. That's a strange thing to say about a horror film, but it's true. The best way to describe this film is to say it's a family horror movie. It has the veneer of an Exorcist, The Shining or even more recent films such as the Conjuring or Paranormal Activity, but the heart of something like E.T, Hook or Close Encounters. And that's more than understandable because Spielberg of course produced this film, and it's in no way surprising that the man who made Jaws had something to do with this. But, to take a step back a moment, it's quite obvious that this film is a heavy influence on the cinema of today. (Again, Spielberg and Jaws anyone?). It perfectly set the tone for the current state of horror. What's fashionable in horror today is the paranormal.

          

There's a tonne more I, and I'm sure you, can mention here, but the link between these films and Poltergeist isn't simply ghosts. Ghosts are popular because they allow cheap filmmaking. There isn't a monster you have design, build, create on a computer. But, more than this, they allow two things. They allow deep commentary and great characterisation. Mama is an ok example of the former with a narrative around memory and death being constructed to comment on ownership and children. The The Babadook, however, is a brilliant example of commentary - something I'll have to talk about sometime soon. As for characterisation... well... you don't get many horror films with good characterisation. Nonetheless, you can see a half-assed attempted of this with Paranormal Activity. The formula and emotional structuring of the films in the series mimics that seen in Poltergeist. They start with meeting the family, trying to be relatable, implying strange happenings that escalate, often dissipating before rising for a final act. This is a general formula of many genre films though. Where we see the specific influence of Poltergeist is through the emotional structuring. It's the use of families and children in horror films. Family is a huge theme in almost all of Spielberg's films. This is where the root of his comedy is found and is where the film's heart lies. This is what Kubrick couldn't do with The Shining, just like Friedkin couldn't with The Exorcist, Carpenter with Halloween. However, horror films use family, or they use teens to suggest fragility (not weakness, but something to be lost - stakes) and a sense of identification through characterisation. Poltergeist is a perfect example of how to do this. It doesn't have the atmosphere or tension of any films just mentioned, but because the characters are all so strong it doesn't really need to. We care enough about them to have even minimal danger naturally mushroom into tension. This is why Poltergeist is not only one of my favourite films, but an important horror, if not directly to the genre, definitely to anyone watching movies wanting to learning something. It teaches us all a way of having art also be something entertaining, emotionally investing. And I think that's what film is about - and what makes cinema the greatest and most accessible art form. It's entertainment coupled with higher art.

So, whilst what is entertaining about this film is obvious to anyone who's seen it, the 'higher art', its intricacies, subtext, metaphors and so on present within, can go unnoticed. To get started, this film is about parental responsibility in respect to T.V. It's core philosophy comes with an idea of intelligence and imagination. Before getting into the film's narrative, it's important to pick out peripheral writers' devices. These are elements of a film meant to explain or present a narrative in a way that is somewhat tangential to its core. If you look at The Matrix, a film about free will, destiny and technology, you can exemplify this type of element best with the romance. Yes, there is some relevancy to Trinity loving Neo, with emotions and blah-blah-blah giving reason for free will, but, it's just another one of these moves:


Cute, aphoristic, but, meh. The same kinda goes for the action in The Matrix. It's just not really necessary to discussing the core themes, but, at the same, not damaging at all to the film itself. With Poltergeist these elements are in the Indian burial ground jargon and ghost hunting. Both are a trope of the film, a way of socially affirming moral ideas tantamount to love in Interstellar. With the Indian burial grounds, it's simply saying: desecrating graves is bad, don't do it. But, not an awful lot more than that. There is a smidgen of something more though, and it's a reference with...


... no, not just smoking... ahem... plants, but ancient wisdom or simply the past. This is a segue into a core idea of the film. However, because what's the fun in writing a fluid essay? A quick interjection. This box:


And the one in Diane's hands...


... quite similar, no? They're not the same one, but possibly had the same use. Why this is relevant comes to the scene where Carol's bird dies and she says the box smells bad ("Tweety doesn't like that smell, put a flower with 'em"). Maybe it still smells of weed??? Which is a underhand joke, but quite brilliant. This plays into something we can come to later, but, back on track we get. Ancient wisdom and ancient burial grounds. It's implied that the ghosts attack the Freeling household because it's situated on a burial ground. That's our tangible, easy-fix way into showing freaky things, real skeletons and paranormal terror. But, juxtapose this with the fact that they come out of the T.V and you get a lot of questions you can only grip with metaphorical analysis. Paranormal electrical excitations and different spheres of consciousness only perceivable through gadgets, wires and meters is not at all scientific, leaving the insinuation that T.V could be capable of being a portal of sorts as nothing more than fantasy and a writers' convenience. However, take a step back and juxtapose the new with the old, modern technology with ancient custom, and you quite simply get an allegorical means of reflecting on the society of today. The opening scene makes this most clear. We start with the American national anthem, symbols of national heroism, pride and honour and then Steve passed out in his armchair. The American dream, no? Further this with the football game on T.V and the anarchy around that, and, yeah, American dream.


This all means that the shown attitude towards T.V aren't really the best human attributes. We like (we liked) to sit in front of a box and bathe in mediocre and meaningless entertainment for no other reason than to fill time. The obvious question to the zombified family, programmed by television, to the slob binge watching all the Netflix, just all of it, is: is there not something better you could be doing? The answer is yes. Of course. This is more important with kids. Playing outside, getting exercise, learning about the world and so on are all things you don't really do that well sat in front of T.V. The progression of technology has undeniably made us all smarter, but how much can you really learn from a late night show, Jimmy Fallon interviewing the cast of The Avengers? Ehhh... not much. T.V is primarily about consumption. Yes, you can learn the fundamentals of baking, how various points systems work, a plethora off oddly specific factoids from T.V, but we learn these things almost as a side-effect of waiting for a lava cake to ooze, that 17th tier to topple, a car to crash, a guy break a leg, someone to die, develop brain damage, points be racked up, a geek say smart things you can't fathom.

The relevancy of this to Poltergeist is quite simple. Parents and teachers should teach children, not T.V. Now, bring back the weed. No, I haven't got something incredibly profound to say, but this...


... isn't a very mature image. The parents, whilst not very naive, aren't incredibly grown up in this film. We can come back to the dead bird to see this. Just before she's caught dangling the dead canary over the toilet bowl Diane asks why it couldn't have died during a school day. This is obviously so she wouldn't have to have the discussion on death with her kid. This is understandable as she is young, and death is a tough subject, but the implimence is that Diane would prefer Carol live in an imaginary world, one where you make up the rules, where death isn't always a thing, let alone something that matters that much. This kind of sounds like the world of T.V, no? You could say I'm reaching here, but is death and television not something that has already been established as the two driving forces of the film? The metaphor of ghosts coming out of the T.V can then be translated to the idea that television does feed the mind, not healthy stuff, junk food. It only does this however, because it wants to consume us. The media industry as a whole is much like a farmer, us a bunch of pigs or chickens. It feeds us and feeds us and feeds us, then takes us for all we've got in the slaughter house. The thing is though, the slaughter house is merely the monthly cable bill. Consumerism begets consumerism - it's the capitalist cycle we live in. The only way out of this is to turn off the T.V, get rid of the Netflix account, throw it all out of you must...


... and live with the truth, in the real world for just a little while. This is why death and family are so important to this film's narrative message. It's essentially all about a family growing together. Not only do the parents mature, but so do the children. And that there is the film's end taken care of, it's not just a lasting joke, but the lesson given. How this message is translated though is very important - and is done in two simple ways. Staying with death and ghosts, both light and wind are used to metaphorically discuss character growth. It's the white light that represents both death and T.V in this film which makes the bird's passing all the more poignant. Despite almost immediately asking for a goldfish after the 'service' Carol might have been left with an existential question of life and her inevitable end. This could mark her journey toward adulthood. The other children alike are on this journey too with the Dana being on the phone all time, possibly to boyfriends. and Robbie trying to get over personal fears of the dark and freaky toys. All children are in pivotal stages of their lives leaving Diane and Steve with a huge weight on their shoulders. They don't want to lose their children to the television set. Essentially, they don't want T.V to take over their jobs as parents. So, light is many things in this regard, but it's primarily death and knowledge. Death is a narrative preset that, as said, allows us to have ghosts and skeletons. But, enlightenment is the crux of this film. It all comes down to a minute event of a dead pet being buried in an ex-pot-box. It's surreal, quite funny, but that's the core physical conflict of this film. So, with the two parents trying to steer their children away from the light at the end of the tunnel that is T.V, a cold wind blows. Wind of course represents change, giving solid evidence toward this film being about maturity, turning this iconic scene...


... into an image of the house enduring a storm of adolescence, puberty and parental anxiety. Wind, light and death and that's the film in a nutshell. There's more details to be found in the film though, but I'll leave them up to you. The main takeaway in the end though has got to be that this isn't a film completely against media, T.V and the modern way of living.

This all comes back to the very top of the essay and why this is a great film. Yes, it's entertaining, but it also has something to say in an intellectual and interesting way. In this respect, the film can't be condemning media, T.V and even cinema completely because it understands the importance of entertainment. Just like with film, learning shouldn't be a task, it should be fun. The same goes for parenting and life. Moderation is key. It's not letting T.V consume you, not letting the intellectual side of media be a by-product of the glam, absurdity, sex and violence. Let it consume you and you just might end up tearing yourself apart...


Before you go, this post is apart of the Receptacle Series. To find out why I wrote about this film, please check out on the blog for free...


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