The Case of Poltergeist


So far, we have released two full episodes on the history of horror films! But, for now we are taking a break from all that research and study, to bring you an extra special episode about one scary movie in particular. If you listen to our show, you know that our co-host Adam is not exactly the biggest fan of horror. But, Adam graciously agreed to watch some movies that were a little scarier than what he’s used to. The first movie we showed Adam is the one we’re covering today: Poltergeist (1982). 

Poltergeist is the kind of movie that scaredy cats (like us) like to stay away from. Why? Well probably because of iconic lines like, “they’re hereeeee” and images like the young Carol Anne with her hands pressed against the white noise of a TV set. Even to us nearly forty years later, it still seems pretty terrifying. 

But like we’ve said before, horror movies seldom turn out to be as scary as we imagine, and Poltergeist was no exception. We thought this film would be a great step into horror for Adam, as it focuses less on ghosts, and more on the human characters (plus there isn’t a lot of gore or a high body count). So this week, we’re heading into Cuesta Verde to investigate the strange happenings at the Freeling house, and learn all about what scares us. 


  • The word Poltergeist is a combination of two German words. Poltern, which according to Merrium Webster, means “knocking,” and geist, which is the german word for ghost. The first known use of it as an English word was in 1848, which is a relatively short time ago. 
  • Strictly speaking, a poltergeist is any mischievous spirit that makes noise or moves objects. Poltergeists are not necessarily malicious, but they can be. According to legend, they have the ability to manipulate the physical world, and often use that to torment the living. On rare occasions, the ghosts are violent, and can have repetitive destructive behavior. 
  • Poltergeists are often said to be connected to one member of the family in particular. Usually they appear in households where adolescents are present, for whatever reason.


  • Isn’t it the worst when you go to the movies and see a trailer for a scary movie, only to find the words, “based on a true story”? Scary movies are fun and all, but let’s keep the scares in the movies, please!
  • Well, usually this is a bit of an exaggeration. “Based” is such a vague word, and it could mean any small part of the movie, like character names or locations that could be pulled from reality. There have been claims that Poltergeist was based on real events, whether it was a story about people building on cemeteries or hauntings. Throughout research, we found a few different stories that people swear were the basis of the film. We’re going to tell you one of them. 
  • In FEBRUARY of 1958 (Frightening February is real, guys!!) The Hermann family in Long Island, NY (7 miles from the Amityville Horror house) noticed some strange popping noises in their house. When they went to check, they found bottles throughout the home without their caps. One was a bottle of Holy Water that had been opened and spilled. At first, James Hermann thought it was a prank. But when similar instances occurred again and again, he got concerned. Eventually, he witnessed the objects moving on their own, and he called the police. 
  • As word got out about the strange disturbances, people everywhere were at a loss for what it could be. The police theorized that it was electrical disturbances, but it seemed unlikely. The strangest part was that the house was new, and the Hermanns were the first family to live there. Usually a haunted house is several decades old at least, with many different owners and a questionable history. Ghosts aren’t supposed to show up in shiny new homes built for young, happy families. 
  • Two weeks after the hauntings started, a priest came to bless the house. The disturbances continued, and the house got national attention. Eventually, a group of parapsychologists from Duke University visited the house to record the disturbances and interview the family. Their leader, Dr. JB Rhine, believed that it was the adolescents in the home that attracted the spirits. Shortly after, the hauntings ceased. Overall, there were about 70 documented disturbances over a month-long period. 
  • If you’re familiar with Poltergeist, then you can see how this story inspired the film. So let’s talk about it!


  • The Freelings are your average family in search of the American Dream. They have just moved into the brand new subdivision of Cuesta Verde: Where Dreams Come True. But just as the family settles in, they start to notice some strange disturbances, most notably through their TV. Though the family seems to accept the spirits at first (except for the father, Steve) things take a turn when a malevolent force pulls their youngest daughter into the spirit realm. Reeling from fear and frustration, the Freelings hire a group of parapsychologists and a medium to find a way to bring their baby girl home. 
    • It’s horror in the 1980’s, so this film really fits well with the popular concepts of the time. What dangers hide beneath a seemingly perfect life? And what price will we pay for neglecting others to achieve what we want? 


  • In horror terms, Poltergeist is a classic. It was the highest grossing horror film of 1982, a year that was VERY good for movies. Although Steven Spielberg didn’t direct the film, he was a major influence as its producer. He was already a household name with Jaws, and having his name on the project likely incentivised people to see it. 
  • Steven Spielberg created the story for Poltergeist, and wrote the screenplay along with Michael Gras and Mark Victor.
    • Apparently Stephen King was approached about writing the screenplay, but no agreement was reached.
  • The film was directed by Tobe Hooper, the incredible director that brought us the harrowing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and several sequels..
  • Poltergeist was produced by Frank Marshall and Stephen Spielberg who was also directing ET at the time (talk about a legend). Although he stepped back and let Tobe Hooper take the helm, many people that were on set of the production described Spielberg’s involvement as being like a shadow director because of all the input and control he would have over scenes.
    • Despite this, Spielberg has always credited Tobe Hooper as the film’s solo director. He even wrote a letter to Tobe, apologizing for the way others misinterpreted their working relationship.
  • Music
    • Celebrated film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Check out our Knowing The Scores Episode HERE where we talk about him and other great composers!) gave Poltergeist it’s chilling score. He used string and wind instruments throughout the soundtrack, along with music boxes to bring in that creepy haunting vibe.
      • One of the best film composers of the 20th century, Goldsmith was great at creating a mood.
    • The film begins with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” which further pushes the strained relationship between a fancy new suburban neighborhood and the (spoiler) underlying graves of those that came before.


  • If you want to take a break from the CGI of today, Poltergeist is a breath of fresh air. The film is filled with a charming mix of practical and digital effects, with some hand-drawn animation as well (something we’ll likely never see in movies today). 
    • Poltergeist impressively utilized practical effects in almost every scene. This helped define the look of the horror film, as many scary films today still use practical effects in their aesthetic. 
  • The effects were done with Industrial Light and Magic, the VFX company founded by George Lucas, and used heavily by major film studios. We’re gonna talk about some of the biggest effects made for the movie! 
    • The outside of the Freeling house was a new build in California. But, scenes inside the house took place on a soundstage. The crew built entire rooms that rotated, along with practical horrors like the monstrous tree that attacks Robbie Freeling. 
    • The light in Poltergeist is a character in and of itself. Effects artists wanted it to feel like it was living and breathing, and that it had its own personality. They used tricks like little squares of mirrors, strobes, fish tanks of water, and 4 large wind machines to direct and choreograph the light in major scenes. One such scene is when the mother is about to enter the “closet” to try to save her youngest, Carol Anne.
    • One of the most iconic scenes in the film is the encounter with the stacked chairs in the kitchen. The camera follows Diane (JoBeth Williams) for seven seconds, as she steps away from the table and back again, only to find all the chairs stacked. It’s a creepy scene, and sets a wonderful tone for the rest of the movie. 
      • The crew built another set of chairs to look like they were stacked, and when the camera was focused on Diane, they ran in and just swapped the chairs around the table with the stacked chairs. It was a continuous shot, and done in one take! It’s amazing what you don’t see beyond the camera in a movie
    • There’s a scene in Carol Anne’s bedroom, where objects are flying around and making noise. It took ILM nine months to perfect. The team used an optical printer which has a projector on it that will project previous footage while filming new. The tricky part was that if one of the shots projected was not perfect, the team would have to begin all over again. It had dozens of items flying through and the head of the visual effects, Richard Edlund, described it as the most difficult sequence that he had ever contributed to.
    • Another classic scene (and one of our favorites) involves one of the paranormal investigators as he encounters some spiritual activity in the kitchen. After he places a steak on the counter, it comes to life, being ripped apart and inching along the counter like a worm. There was actually a puppeteer with his hand under the steak, and wires pulling it along. He then runs to the mirror over a sink, and we watch his reflection as he pulls apart his own face! This was done with prosthetics, and the hands pulling his face were actually Steven Spielberg’s hands! 
      • This scene is heavily referenced in Casper, another Spielberg production over a decade later.
    • After the family retrieves Carol Anne from the spirit realm, the poltergeist comes back for one final huge scare, trying to pull her back in. This final attempt manifests as an enormous esophagus that begins to try to consume the family into it. This esophagus did not exist in the bedroom space but was instead constructed as a miniature that was composited into the scene!
    • At the very end of the film, the Poltergeist implodes the house. ILM had this to say about the making of that scene.
      • “Eventually, a number of techniques operating in unison were devised to achieve the effect. This included rigging the detailed model with steel cables that extended into a funnel-like construction and setting up a vacuum system to capture any dust and fragments not pulled through by the cables. It was all shot with a high-speed camera and done in one take. The actors shot their part on a blue screen set and the optical department worked on rotoscoping the shot and putting it all together using the Anderson Optical Printer.”
  • Among all the effects in Poltergeist, there’s one that gets the most scrutiny: the use of real skeletons. In the final act, Diane Freeling falls into the unfinished swimming pool in the backyard of their home. Suddenly, a corpse surfaces, providing one of the biggest jump scares in the film. Over the course of the scene, several other corpses rise from the graves below the home, leading to the classic realization: “You moved the headstones but you left the bodies!” 
    • JoBeth Williams was hesitant to shoot the scene, because she didn’t want to be in a pool of water while there was so much electrical equipment on the set. To make her feel more comfortable, Steven Spielberg reportedly jumped in the pool and stayed in during the scene, to show her that he was willing to put himself in the same situation. (Good directors don’t ask actors to do things they themselves wouldn’t do.) 
    • Williams later said she did not know that the skeletons were real, which made the scene much more terrifying to think about, and many have speculated that the use of the skeletons led to the so-called “Poltergeist curse” which we will talk about here shortly.
      • One idea behind the curse is that the film’s message seems to contradict the use of the skeletons. The Freelings are being tormented by souls of those they have disrespected by living on their graves. Some think that point came back to haunt the actors.
    • The truth is, using a real human skeleton is cheaper than building a fake one, at least in 1982. Films have been using real human remains since the beginning, in classic films like “Frankenstein,” and “House on Haunted Hill.” So, using them in this film did not set any kind of precedent. Does it raise moral questions? Of course. 
      • In the Shudder series, “Cursed Films,” Craig Reardon, who was the special effects and make-up supervisor on the film, expressed how common the practice was. When explaining why they did it, he said, “wake up and smell the budget.”


  • Craig T. Nelson as the father figure Steve Freeling
    • Craig is known for the tv show Coach, and the movies The Incredibles and The Family Stone.
  • JoBeth Williams as Dianne Freeling
    • JoBeth has had many small roles on tv shows and has also been in movies like The Big Chill and Kramer vs. Kramer.
  • Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, the leader of the Paranormal investigators that arrive
    • Beatrice was mostly a skilled Broadway actress but also appeared in some television shows and some movies. A few movies were Network(1976), Power(1986), and Two of a Kind(1983.)
  • Dominique Dunne  as Dana Freeling the eldest daughter of the three children
    • Dominique had small parts in a few things, most notably the tv shows Hart to Hart, Breaking Away, and Hill Street Blues.
  • Oliver Robins as Robbie Freeling, the middle child
    • Oliver only appeared as an actor in a few things before moving behind the camera. He was in Airplane II: The Sequel and Man Overboard. 
  • Heather O’Rourke as the angelic Carol Anne Freeling, the youngest daughter who ends up being taken by the spiritual forces
    • Heather was not in very many things but she did appear in all three Poltergeist movies and the show Happy Days.
    • Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role, but was cast in ET instead. Spielberg discovered Heather O’Rourke while she was visiting the MGM set one day, and brought her in for some screen tests before offering her the role. 
  • Michael McManus as the neighbor Ben Tuthill
    • Michael was in some shows like Night Court and the 1989 Baywatch. He was also in movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux and The Kentucky Fried Movie.
  • Virginia Kiser as Mrs. Tuthill
    • Virginia has been in tv shows like Days of Our Lives, Dallas, and Max Headroom. She has been in movies such as Dreamscape, Space Raiders, and Death Play.
  • Martin Casella as Marty, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
    • His character has the famous scene where he pulls his face off in the Bathroom mirror. He has been in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop 2, and Heart Like a Wheel.
  • Richard Lawson as Ryan, one of Dr. Lesh’s assistants
    • Richard has had parts in many things, most notably in the movies How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Streets of Fire, and For Colored Girls.
  • Zelda Rubenstein as Tangina, the medium
    • Zelda was a character actress that was in things like Southland Tales, Guilty as Charged, and Teen Witch.
    • She landed the role after auditioning several times, and did her scenes over the course of a few days. She claimed to be psychic in real life, which also helped her win the role.
    • One of her most important lines was “Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.”
      • This concept appeared in other horror, notably Ghostbusters just a few years later, and also a very special episode of AYAOTD.
  • James Karen as Mr. Teague who was responsible for moving the cemetery.
    • James has been in several things including The Return of the Living Dead, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Mulholland Drive.
  • And Dirk Blocker as Jeff Shaw, the unfortunate guy who while riding a bike carrying a big case of beer drops probably about half of it. You may recognize him now as Hitchcock in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
    • Obviously a pivotal scene that we needed to mention.


  • ET and Poltergeist both came out in June of 1982, and it was dubbed, “the summer of Spielberg.” Spielberg originally offered ET to Tobe Hooper, and he turned it down for the unwritten Poltergeist script instead (obviously more his speed). 
  • In 1982, PG-13 didn’t exist. So Poltergeist was almost an R-rated film, but the filmmakers were able to make a case for a PG rating, since there are no fatalities (except Tweetie the bird) and because the film lacks excessive gore or bad language. This way, the movie could run alongside ET. Imagine going to the theatre and seeing these two classics at once! 
  • Craig T Nelson isn’t the only Pixar connection with Poltergeist. The Toy Story films make many pop culture references, and one of them is directly from Poltergeist! In the beginning of the film, Craig T Nelson’s character is watching TV, as the broadcast ends with the national anthem. He has fallen asleep eating snacks, and the dog licks his fingers. In Toy Story 2, Al falls asleep watching TV and eating snacks as well, and Woody’s horse Bullseye licks his fingers while he sleeps! Both scenes use the star-spangled banner.
  • Around 34 minutes in, there’s a weird cut in the film that’s impossible to miss. It goes from Diane speaking in mid-sentence to the couple standing on the porch of their neighbor’s house. What is a horrible, crude cut like that doing in this movie? 
    • Well, Carol Anne is promised Pizza Hut earlier in the movie, and a stressed Steve (Craig T Nelson) says, “I hate Pizza Hut!” likely because he would prefer to focus on the unseen force moving his family around the kitchen, than dinner plans. Pizza Hut was not happy with the line, but they found out late in the game. So the solution was that cut.
    • The cut is frankly jarring, and a splotch on an otherwise great film. We wish they could release the original and just cut the word “Hut” from the audio, or ADR a different line. Anything would be better than several minutes cut from the film, that likely contributed to it in an artistic way. 
    • Here is the cut scene dialog.
      • DIANE You can’t believe the feeling.
      • STEVE What’s the gag? There a magnet back there? He looks behind the door in the dining room. Nothing. Steve just stands for a long moment in hapless silence, then… I hate Pizza Hut! Where’s supper? I don’ t understand, Diane. What the hell’s going on around here? Steve sidesteps the chalk marks, removing himself from the active area.
      • DIANE I figured I’d never explain it to you. So I showed you instead, but don’t ask me how or what. Just help me figure out what to do.
      • STEVE You mean there’s no gimmick?
      • DIANE Not from inside the house. Maybe Tuthill got himself a super remote from the Radio Shack. Carol Anne adjusts her helmet and sits inside her launch circle. Diane and Steve are having the discussion across the room and aren’t aware of her.
      • STEVE Maybe the shakeup and this thing…relate.
      • DIANE No shit.
      • CAROL ANNE Daddy, look at me!! They turn but it’s too late. Carol Anne shoots across the room faster than before, and with no one to catch her.
      • ANGLE-KITCHEN WALL At a sickening speed her helmet smashes into the wall. Diane SCREAMS Steve runs over. An eight-inch hole in the wall and the cracked plastic on the helmet testify to the force of impact. Carol Anne is dazed but unhurt.
      • CAROL ANNE You promised pizza.


  • If we’re gonna talk about Poltergeist, we have to talk about the mythology of the Poltergeist curse. Although this episode only focuses on the first Poltergeist film, the curse is something that covered all three Poltergeist movies.
  • On the set of the first film, there was a malfunction with one of the practical effects. In the scene where Robbie (Oliver Robbins) was strangled by the creepy toy clown, he called out that he couldn’t breathe. Filmmakers thought he was improvising until they noticed his face change colors, and Spielberg sprinted to him to stop it. Robbins was ultimately okay, but the incident is one of the first that people mention when they consider if the film is cursed.  
  • In October of 1982, only a few months after the release of the first Poltergeist film, Dominique Dunne, who played Dana, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, and placed on life support. The 22-year-old actress never recovered. 
  • Over the course of the second and third films, there were the deaths of actors Will Sampson and Julian Beck, both of which had known conditions that contributed to their deaths.
  • But what really solidified the myth in movie-lovers’ imaginations, was the untimely death of Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne. Before the release of the third film, the 12-year-old died suddenly of an undetected bowel defect, which caused her body to go into septic shock. 
    • Gary Sherman, director of the third film, did not want to finish the movie after Heather’s death. Unfortunately, he was contractually obligated to finish the movie, and they used a body double for Heather. He said it was the creepiest thing he had ever done, and he felt like releasing the film was disrespectful to Heather and her family.

Poltergeist is an iconic member of the 80’s horror family. It terrified a generation of kids, as it tapped into the fears they knew best: creepy clowns, terrifying trees, and closet monsters. The film showed audiences that anyone, even a non-believing happy family in a new home, could become the victims of a horror film. It played on the ideas that horror films had been building for decades: forces from beyond the grave, and hidden dangers lurking in seemingly idyllic places. 

How did Poltergeist become an instant classic? It’s simple: it knew what scared us


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