Poltergeist (1982): Too Much TV is Bad For You

Watching the Tobe Hooper classic again today, I was struck again about how “anti-television” the film is. The family in the film are your typical middle to upper level income family. They have a television in every room and they all watch the ‘boob tube’ until they fall asleep and the stations stop broadcasting.

*Remember the old days before 24/7 TV?*

The littlest child in the family, five year old Carol Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke), is mesmerised by the static that transmits when a TV channel goes ‘off the air’. Towards the beginning of the film, before the family discover the ‘poltergeist’ that will plague them and their house, Carol Anne is watching the ‘mini’ TV in the kitchen. Face right up to the telly, she’s watching the static. Mom as she passes by says, “Dear you’ll hurt your eyes, don’t watch that.” She then turns the channel so that Carol Anne can watch a ‘proper’ program. A war film.

The film begins with the US National Anthem playing as the station that dad has fallen asleep in front of goes off the air. Static and flashing light from the flickering TV screen dominates the scene. The family dog roams around the house snacking on the bits of food that the family have left scattered about.

Carol Anne wakes up and goes downstairs to the family set that dad has fallen asleep in front of. Sitting right up on top of the static filled flickering screen she begins to talk to it. “I can’t hear you,” She says twice before ‘answering questions’ that are apparently coming from the static transmitting TV.

The rest of the family wake up and the conversation is cut short.

Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams respectively) are a ‘modern’ couple. They are smoking pot while they simultaneously read, watch TV and discuss Carol Anne’s little conversation with the static filled screen.

The arrival of a storm ends with both the younger children sleeping with Mom and Dad. Son Robbie (Oliver Robins) sleeps soundly between his two parents. But Carol Anne is again drawn to the TV’s static filled screen and in the film’s most often repeated line says, “They’re here.” Light shoots out of the television and enters the wall over the sleeping occupants of the bed.

At  the beginning of the film Steve and few cronies are watching football on the family set. Next door neighbour Marty has a remote control television that is on the same frequency as Steve’s. The TV’s channel starts changing from the football game to Mr Rogers. Marty and Steve indulge in a battle of remote’s.

Carole Anne refers to the ‘ghosts’ as the” TV people.”  Later in the film when the ‘ghost-busting’ team film some of the spectral visitors and tell the couple that they will have to publicise their findings. Steve says, “As long as it’s not with 60 Minutes.” Debbie then chimes in with, “Or with Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”  Two very popular American television programs of the time.

The family communicate with Carol Anne through the television in most of the film. And at the end of the film when they flee their house for the relative safety of the local Holiday Inn, Steve removes the hotel room television and puts it unceremoniously on the balcony outside.

The Freelings represent the ‘Hollywood’ ideal of the average American family. Dad has a successful job selling houses for the very estate that they live on. Mom is a ‘stay-at-home’ mother who looks after the youngest Carol Anne. Robbie is the highly imaginative ‘middle child’ and Dana is the oldest. Dana (played by the late Dominique Dunne, who was tragically murdered by her boyfriend just five months after the films release) is a confident teenager who skillfully handles the amorous  attentions of the men who are putting in the family swimming pool.

They even have a few pets. One of which, Tweety the canary, dies at the start of the film only to be replaced with two goldfish. Another favourite line from the film occurs when Diane, upon discovering the dead canary, says, “Damn it Tweety couldn’t you have picked a school day?” The family’s other pet is the snacking dog we met at the start of the film.

Of course being Hollywood’s representation of the ‘all American family’ they love their televisions.

Tobe Hooper (who really never made anything else this good apart from his delightfully scary Texas Chainsaw Massacre) does a great job on this film. Unfortunately because it was written by Steven Spielberg, and produced by him as well, it seems more like a Spielberg film. I kept expecting E.T. and company to appear at any moment at the beginning of the film. The film’s soundtrack is also very ‘Spielberg-ish.’

Some of the special effects are a bit dated and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this film doesn’t get marked for re-imaging in the near future. But despite the apparent ageing of the CG, the film still works. The ‘child eating tree’ still manages to scare quite nicely and that damn clown; the type of toy that a well meaning (or cruel) relative gives children that is guaranteed to creep the kid out for years.

The rotting food, the bathroom mirror and the swimming pool scenes still work brilliantly and don’t require too much suspension of disbelief.

It was only upon viewing the film today that I realised that the, not-so subliminal,  message seemed to be that TV is bad for you. Or rather too much TV is bad for you. Too much in that you sit in front of the glass teat until you fall asleep and the stations all go off the air. This obviously gives any ghostly occupants of the house an entrance into our world.

Of course that was the old days, before twenty-four hour telly. I suppose that if ghosts and ghoulies what to find an entrance into our world via the TV nowadays, they’ll have to wait for a long commercial break.

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