A Too-Close Reading of Poltergeist

"I believe in everything I can't see -- that's my problem." - Steven Spielberg


The intent of this post is to be a too-close reading of Poltergeist, one you can follow as you watch the film.

The films of Stanley Kubrick are obsessed over, endlessly interpreted, analyzed frame by frame...as the actually stable genius intended, as his films are fascinating enigmas in which every shot and prop and decision speaks volumes (even if one critic called him an "overrated production designer"). Kubrick is also one of Spielberg's idols.  He is a major reason Spielberg is a filmmaker, and even became the inheritor of Kubrick's unfinished work on A.I. and paid homage to his work in The Shining sequence in Ready Player One (and in elements of Poltergeist).

Therefore, Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper deserve the Kubrick treatment -- if only to see what was learned from the master. Or perhaps it isn't about them. Another idea is that if we look closely - perhaps too closely - we might be able to find Room 237 rabbit holes to fall into, *as if* it were a Stanley Kubrick film. Perhaps the director doesn't matter, just our focus, and this would happen if we look *too* closely at ANY film. But I think Spielberg (and Hooper) are purposefully giving us plenty of Easter Eggs to hunt for.

There is a bit of commentary on this film, in both books and blogs.  I will reference it where appropriate, but as far as I have read, my analysis goes deeper (or, rather, farther out). Whether you think I am "stretching" it is not the point, the point is whether the interpretation works. We're having fun.  The creators of this film made both conscious and unconscious choices, and I am looking for both.   The idea is that EVERYTHING is meaningful, every single choice -- and everything in a frame is a choice.

We open, after the roaring MGM lion (Art for the sake of Art!), to a black screen and the proud strains of the star spangled banner. "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Presents: A Tobe Hooper Film."  And we must pause right there, for we have already encountered controversy.


Steven Spielberg is credited with producing and co-writing Poltergeist -- however, due to Director's Guild restrictions on simultaneously directing E.T., he gave the directing task to Tobe Hooper -- known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Who was actually in charge on set is a matter of debate (a pro-Hooper twitter account, @Poltrg_Thoughts, endlessly debates the subject). Some of the actors, such as Zelda Rubinstein, claim their shoots were directed by Spielberg. Others claim Spielberg was involved with final touches, post production, and collaborated over on-set decisions, but that Hooper called the shots.

Straight in her Oscar winning performance in "Network" (1976)

At one point, the Grande Dame of the set, Academy Award Winner Beatrice Straight, stood up to the bickering directors and demanded that one take charge. Some say Spielberg backed off after this.

Chainsaw Scene from Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Much of this reading assumes purposeful inclusion of certain props in the mise-en-scene, and it appears that Spielberg had much to do with this. There are rumors that Hooper was abusing drugs on the set, and Spielberg had to unofficially step in.  There is also the theory that the studio suddenly realized they were financing a family horror film directed by the man who made "Chainsaw" and chose to emphasize Spielberg's role in the press materials.  Whatever happened, the end result is something of a mixed-masterpiece, one in which the ethereal light, love, and family of the Spielberg perspective battle with the abject horror and slow burn of the Hooper lens. Much like A.I.. which Spielberg took over from the departed Stanley Kubrick, Poltergeist is a mash-up of perspectives which clash in a fascinating way...it is a combative "collaboration" that created sparks instead of chaos, and with the authorship in doubt, we can go forward reading the text without a definite author, but also playfully looking for signs for each.  (Indeed, Spielberg's co-writers on the film went on to write the uneven sequel, directed by Brian Gibson, which includes a scene with a possessed chainsaw -- a rather honorary call-back to Hooper's influence on what is now mostly seen as a Spielberg production.)

And here we are: Poltergeist ( a German word meaning 'noisy ghosts'). The font is very 1982, in great neon capital letters, almost screaming at us. (This "neon" font is popular again in 2017-2018, actually, and you'll see it on a lot of streaming TV shows).

We cannot make out the opening image...it is pixelated. It turns out to be a close up of the real star of the film: a TV screen.
This is much like a director might do a close-up of a human face, to see "into the soul" of the eyes. The screen is displaying some sort of patriotic montage. The montage is very difficult to decipher. This is because it is a televised illusion of pixelated images, from a certain everyday distance we can make sense of them, but once inspected close up their reality disintegrates into meaninglessness.  This creation and destruction of meaning via the television is perhaps the central concern of the film.

The final image of the patriotic montage is at last recognizable: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Why, of all images, this one? There will be further analysis of this montage when it is played again later in the film, but for now we will concentrate on this photo. It is not only an American World War II propaganda photo (the story of which is told in Clint Eastwood's "Flags of our Fathers" -- another production thought up by Spielberg).  It is also one of -- if not the -- most reproduced photograph of all time.  Thus it is not simply a photograph of American bravery (or perhaps imperialism), it is representative of the power of photography itself to shape and represent reality.  Here it is, our collective reality of America, with these men braving bullets to hoist the symbol of this reality they are fighting for, here is America, as America wishes to be seen, in pictures, and we are comforted. And then...

...Star Spangled Static...bsshhhhhssssshhhhhhh...the broadcast has signed off.  TVs once did that, can you imagine?  It is an unsettling feeling -- with the American propaganda over, the viewer of static is no longer enclosed in the reality bubble of America, but is freed to explore the unknown. Try staring at static sometime, it's a bad trip.

We zoom out. It is a SONY television -- perhaps product placement, perhaps a reference to the 80s fear of Japanese economic dominance, perhaps an ingenious combination of the two -- and we see what will turn out to be Craig T Nelson, who plays patriarch Steven Freeling (we'll get into the surname "Freeling" later), asleep on the chair in front of the TV screen, the flickering static of which creates an eerie strobe like effect in the dark living room. It appears to be in the wee hours of the morning.  Take note of the shelf above the golden retriever's back...there are a few golden trophies...what I would take as a sign of the father figure's bourgeois focus on material achievement and outward, societal success and, well, retrieving gold.


Ahh, the adorable  family dog is awake, and we shall now adopt the dog's (rather food-focused) perspective as we meet the vulnerable, sleeping family one by one.  The dog heads up the staircase, and as he does we make out in the bottom left corner rows of glasses, presumably for a bar in the family living room.  We note this.

Also, a note on the dog's name.  Later we hear it called "Ebuzz" or "E. Buzz."  This is a double reference: first, more obviously, to Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, the second person on the moon. (this will become important when we later explore the references in this film to Kubrick's filmography). The other, more esoteric, reference comes from Dan Akroyd, who was working with Spielberg on "1941." On SNL, Akroyd played an Art Critic named E Buzz Miller, which also serves as a hint to us to really inspect this film, to study and critique it, just as our "Art Critic" canine is watching. perhaps judging this family as an outsider/insider in the household.

The dog, now upstairs, enters another bedroom with ANOTHER television, this one turned off.  We note the toy van/construction vehicles by the television, a bit of foreshadowing. The dog now brings us to the matriarch (Also, since 2009, head of the SAG foundation), Jo Beth Williams' Diana Freeling, sprawled out on the bed -- sleeping alone, with her husband passed out downstairs.  (On the surface, the Freelings are a happy united family, but there are many clues that there is discord beneath the apparent harmony).

The original title was "Night Time," and leftovers of the eerie dichotomy between day and night are evident in the opening.

Now here I've circled our first two Clue Props.  First, on the left, appears to be some sort of figurine of a rainbow, an indication that we will be entering a world of fantasy, an "Oz," in which real issues shall be faced in the fantastical symbolic realm. On the right is our first heart, a motif that will run throughout the film.  Note that while Steven fell asleep downstairs near the bar, Diane sleeps soundly near the heart (...if I only had a heart...)...she is (one) heart of the film, and as will be revealed, where the power to prevail ultimately resides.

The dog fails to find food, and moves on. Next he comes to the eldest daughter, Dominique Dunne's Dana Freeling's, room.  Watch closely as the dog heads for Dana's door, you will see a figure in jeans and a red shirt walk passed the door crack! The house is already haunted...by the film's crew.

Notice that as the dog finds what he is looking for -- a bag of Lays potato chips -- Dana rolls away from the family pet, a sign of her character's teenage turning-away from her family throughout the film. See also her glaring black and white stripes, an initial sign of a major concern of the film: the duality of the phenomenal/spiritual world, and the battle between good and evil, seen and unseen, love and fear.

The dog eats some spilled chips on the carpet, and then heads into the two youngest children's room: Robbie and Carol-Anne.

First, to Robbie. Note the many signifiers placed around his bed: first, on the left, another indication of hidden family discord, a board game of "Family Feud." We also see a Star Wars poster and a figure of the wise, short, protective "Yoda" (perhaps a foreshadowing of the psychic played by Zelda Rubinstein?) as well as a large bust of Darth Vader, a glimpse of the evil to come, and also a hint of his own father's demons and darkness. Note, also, that right next to the Vader helmet is...an American football helmet, worn by men as they violently smash into each other, and are cheered on by crowds. These figures are arranged like icons, and indeed are what the boy probably worships: American sports and pop culture. Clearly, the boy loves Star Wars, which makes sense in 1982 for an 8 year old, and also, Spielberg loves his friend George Lucas, and likes to honor him in his films. On the far right we see what appears to be a night-light crescent moon, a symbol that becomes more important later in the film, and is closely and somewhat mysteriously associated with the Robbie character.  For now we can just note that instead of an actual moon shining through a window, we have an artificial one.

Now on to Carol Anne. Notice, first, her headboard...it is that of a pristine peacock, a widespread ancient symbol of immortality, renewal, Resurrection, and Christ. We are receiving hints that the soul of this child is special, in touch with the eternal realm.  And look, next to her bed, she has a heart too, only hers is lit up, a night light that fights off the dark, full of that "life force" that will be spoken of later.  This of course directly connects her with her mother, much as Robbie is associated with his "Dark Father."

Now the music gets a little twinkly and the camera moves in toward Carol Anne as she sits up awake. The next shot she slowly descends the staircase (descends from the heavenly realm) into the strobe-light static television realm in the living room.


Notice three things in this shot.  First, notice Carol Anne's light blue pajamas and blonde hair...she could very well be Alice following the white rabbit of the flashing TV static. And look to the left, at the living room bar...if we didn't associate it before, we see an unlit "Steven" neon sign among the bar glasses, as well as, above it, the word "Love."  It seems, quite possibly, that daddy is looking for love in all the wrong places.

And Carol Anne settles right in front of the static.  Note it is on channel 12 -- this will come up again later in the film. "hellloooo," she greets, in the first word of the film. "What do you look like?" Now that's a question...Carol Anne can sense, somehow, that something is communicating through the static, but it is formless.  What, indeed, does spirit look like?  Is it spirit, or is it merely nothingness, the void?

"Talk louder I can't hear you!"  And this stirs her entire family awake, one by one.  "Hello, hello, I can't hear you!" We wonder, if she cannot hear them, or see them, how is she sensing them? Mom and the siblings come down the stairs, and the viewing audience all stare at the Freelings stare at Carol Anne starring at the TV screen static-slash-electric-abyss-of-meaninglessness. Everyone's clearly cranky.

Then Carol Anne starts to answer unheard questions..."yes...yes...I don't know...I don't know..." and then the iconic moment: a sort of shadow version of E.T.'s healing touch, here, the ominous attempt to touch the untouchable unknown.

The teaser ends, and we immediately cut to a daytime establishing shot of the suburb (Cuesta Verde...more on that later) with Jerry Goldsmith's perfectly "sweet" "Carol Anne's" theme sweeping us back to the safety of daytime suburban comfort. Ahh, there we are: a Steven Spielberg Production. We are in good hands. (The kids, though, are probably in danger...)

Casting director did a great job with the trees in this film.
We have a leisurely tour of the cookie cutter houses during the credits, we see a shot of the main road with only two cars  (is this place empty or what?), and throughout we are inundated with Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg:

Oh look, Tobe gets a little mention here, how gracious:


Note the pedestrians, dressed in red, white, and blue. Another clue that this subdivision is, in fact, an American microcosm...in case the opening anthem didn't make that clear. 

Now we follow a man in green start to bike down the streets.  We get a shot of the name of the subdivision: Cuesta Verde Estates. Those who know Spanish get the joke: it translates to "It Costs Green" -- probably a double reference to money and nature. Even less apparent is that the Spanish name points to the history of the land -- in that it was Mexican/Spanish territory, until American imperialist expansion acquired the territory. This is a running theme.

We follow the sweaty green man on his bike, carrying a 24 pack of beer. And then we have some weird slapstick. Backstory: on one of the first days of shooting, Spielberg had an idea, off the top of his head, to have these kids play with two remote control cars and knock a guy off his bicycle. This is part of the motif of showing us things which move via invisible forces (remote control), helping us to suspend our disbelief when things begin to move on their own in a more fantastical fashion.

Note the greeness of these opening shots however, the clearly just-recently planted trees, the vulnerability of the green guy on the bike...this subdivision is only recently established (green) as well as established by money (green).  We realize the roots are artificial and not yet deep, and it is not yet a strong community. The music is still sweet, but these kids, why, they're mean.

Let's look at this close up...there's a few things to notice.  First, we see the grown man on a kid's bike, driving somewhat reckelessly, one hand on the handle.  He's like an overgrown kid -- an adult abdicating responsibility.  Meanwhile, the kids have the cars, remote control, but cars nonetheless, and the car is about to knock him off the bike.  The kids have the power here, are stronger. Perhaps they also sense that the childish man is unnatural to the regular order. Also, the box of cans are twisted, separating the pack into two distinctly lit 12-pack sections. The number 12 is significant throughout the film, a truly rich and symbolic number, and we will get into it later.

Man-Child runs into the house with beer spraying all over, shouting "get her in focus boys, here I come".... he is both personifying the television as well as doing a little visual pun as he shoots beer all over teenage Dana inside the house..."here I come"....yes, it is disgusting. But also telling...his focus is not on the football, but the TV itself -- "get her in focus" -- and then metaphorically prematurely ejaculating for his excitement to watch TV.  The film references human excretions of all sorts. First he tries to enter the front door, but he can't.  His next line? "Open up! Ahh, shit." And he runs to the back door.
Notice her yellow robe, tying her to the soon to be dead "Tweety." The actress herself would be murdered a few months after the film's release.

And he enters the back door, essentially sodomizing the house at this point, where Dana is making her first of many sexual innuendos in the film.  Here, obviously, she has a pickle in her mouth.  Again, the focus on food...things that go in the body, things that come out...the disgusting side of material reality...the unclean.

Beer spraying all over the house, man child joins Steven and his buddies watching football in the living room:

We notice the guy in the green jersey, connecting with the green motif of this sequence, has the number 12...and not just one number 12, but TWO number 12s, paralleling the two 12-packs of beer just brought into the house, spraying all over the men.  Keep track of these 12s, they do mean something.

See how these men are in each other's company, but aren't necessarily bonding.  They are all focused on the television screen, where America's actual favorite pastime, football, is taking place. They whoop and holler like children or even apes. Stuck in the childish, green suburbia, they are yearning for a missing, aggressive, alive masculine energy, an energy they find in the football games...on television.

We cut to Diane upstairs making Robbie's bed, but the first thing we see is a closeup of Robbie's Star Wars themed sheet, with C-3PO pointing in a direction which turns out to be out his window (at the scary tree...).  In the Star Wars films, C-3PO helps persons understand the customs, habits, and etiquette of foreign cultures. He is hinting for us to view this ostensible "normal" suburban setting with an alien eye, an anthropological perspective, to notice how these people interact and what they value.

Diane is singing a song we might not recognize: "When it's time to relax, one beer stands clear..." What is this?  Why, it's a (now) vintage Miller Lite beer ad jingle.  Diane is literally humming an advertising jingle that has been drummed into her brian...via television. What's important here is the connection between the men, passively accepting the norms of their culture in their enthusiasm for televised football, and Diane, also passively accepting the "reality" conveyed through the television. Also, notice the evil knobby tree out the window that C-3PO was pointing to.

Diane trips on some toy roller skates. "Dammit" she mutters. She looks straight ahead...something is wrong..."Tweetie? Ohhhh."

Tweetie is dead. "Ohhh" Diane mourns. "Oh shit -- Tweetie, couldn't you have waited for a school day?"  Diane does not want to have her 5 year old daughter face death. Also, we should pay attention to the choice of pet: it is a caged bird that dies, and only after death is the bird removed from the cage...much like the "soul" is said to be caged by the physical body. In a film about the material/spiritual dichotomy, this metaphor makes sense.

Now we have a rather odd sequence.  The men yelling at the football game on TV are brought silent when the channel suddenly flips to "Mister Rodgers" saying "please won't you be, please won't you be..." and we finish in our heads "our neighbor"... as one man mutters, hilariously, "who the hell is this guy?" And flips the channel back. And it goes back again to Mister Rogers. We wonder...are these ghosts? "I apologize" Steven says "My neighbor is on the same remote."

Steven goes outside to confront his neighbor.  "Hi Ben, we got a good football game going on here." Ben doesn't care,"my kids want to watch Mister Rodgers." "I don't care what you're watching Ben, just show a little mercy with that thing," and the two neighbors proceed to enter a remote war, pointing them like weapons, changing each other's television sets, a parody of Cold War remote controlled  missile launches, the battle of ideologies of American football dog eat dog and Soviet Mister Rodger's neighborly communist ideal. We also note that while the adult men are watching other adult men tackle each other over a ball, the kids desire to watch a kind, genteel, civilized gentlemen sing about the virtues of community.  What sort of messages are televisions sending us?

 In between the two yards we see a buck laying on the grass, and it isn't clear if it is real or fake. Perhaps he represents "nature" squeezed between human plots of land, pushed out of their natural environments. And men who once hunted in the forests now point television remotes at each other, shooting invisible frequencies into electronic boxes. We notice the fences between the houses are tall and opaque...there isn't really a community here at all. What the hell kind of place is this?  Put your C-3PO hat on.

We are perhaps "relieved" by the fact that it wasn't a haunting, just the neighbor's remote control, but there is a method here: in focusing on the power of the remote, we become aware of the material  power of invisible forces.  We realize we already believe in the unseen's ability to affect our life on earth.  And we experience, again, the battle of control between the television and the characters...just like the men loving football, and Diane humming commercials, the TV is asserting it's power, verging on mind control.

Now here is a great shot.  "Oh shit" Diane attempts to dispose of the adorable dead yellow Tweetie bird in the cuddly-soft yellow sanitized suburban bathroom with a lovely feminine touch...this is the daintiest disposal of a dead thing I've ever seen.  The earthly reality of death is simply flushed away, like shit.  Of course, she is walked in on (Carol Anne has a habit of walking in on sex and death alike) by her daughter, adorably dressed in a blood-red jumper for her loss of innocence moment. Note the red, white, and blue of the character's clothes, which parallels the green "12" jersey worn by the football fan downstairs, a subtle connection between patriotism and fan loyalty.

In a sense, the dead yellow Tweetie foreshadows the "death" of blonde little Carol-Anne...with her gasp, Carol-Anne does not merely learn about death...she becomes prescient to the fact of her own death in this moment. In addition, Diane's decision to treat Tweetie like trash without a proper buriel forshadow's what we will learn about Cuesta Verde Estates - that, infamously, gravestones were moved to build the homes, but not the bodies.

Outside, Robbie is climbing the scary tree C-3PO was pointing to, outside his window.  He is in red, white, and blue, and, of course, donning a number "12." The tree, in contrast to the newly planted greenery seen earlier, is tall, old, and rather dead. This tree has roots deep into the soil,  but they are apparently dead...the tree stands regardless, like....a corpse, shooting out of the ground.  Compared to the baby trees in the front yards, this tree stands for something different, more ancient and forgotten, it knows the dark stories of the past and seeks to share its secrets. Robbie is fascinated by the dead tree in a parallel way to Carol-Anne's fascination with the television.  Indeed, just as Carol-Anne is losing her innocence about death, Robbie is climbing a sort-of Tree of Knowledge, from the summit of which he will see beyond the reality bubble of the suburban neighborhood, becoming a sort of Shaman of suburban sprawal.

We are back with Diane and Carol-Anne, and Diane is following Carol-Anne's desire to follow the proper burial rites for Tweetie - the rites Diane was going to ignore by flushing the bird away.

Here we see a cigar box used as the yellow coffin for the yellow bird.  We notice, in particular, that it is a "King Edward" cigar box.  Who was King Edward? Well, one King Edward was the British monarch who abdicated the throne in order to marry the divorce Wallis Simpson.  And this cues us to notice something else, namely, the widespread adult abdication of responsibilities (ancient responsibilities) of rites and initiations.  The men are acting like children while the children are serious, controlled, and purposeful, and sensitive to the  realm of the unseen. Diane would rather hide death from her daughter than educate her about the state of nature. Her daughter, of course, has an instinctual sense to enforce the ancient burial rites.

Not only is it "King Edward" it is King Edward Imperial.  Like Star Wars and the opening credits, we are getting hints of a motif of Empire...not just an American Empire, perpetuated via television, but the never-ending idea of Empire, perpetuated by a series of Superpowers, of which America is the latest.

Mother and Child place the birdie, a red rose, a napkin, a photo of Robbie and Carol-Anne (note how Dana is already 'out of the picture'), and licorice ("in case he's hungry") in the box. The first irony, which her siblings will mock her for later, is that Carol-Anne thinks the dead bird still has the needs of the living (A very Egyptian thing to do), including food. The double irony is that, as the child-consuming Poltergeist will makes evident, she may be correct!

Robbie is up in the tree, and we see, from his perspective, the approaching storm.Robbie is afraid of nature, as will be demonstrated later.  He is watching his fear approach.  He is watching the sky.

  1. Meanwhile, immediately following, Carol-Anne is laying Tweetie to rest in the soft earth. Notice that Tweetie even has a grave marker, a wood cross made of Popsicle sticks.   

The shot of the sky, then Robbie's tree, then followed by the shot of the earth lends symbolic energy to the Popsicle stick cross: it becomes an axis mundi "a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet." At the Axis Mundi, travel is possible between the higher and lower realms. The Popsicle cross represents this point of intersection, which will later to be literally found within the house itself, if not actually in the person of Carol-Anne.  Through the symbolic sequence of images of sky and earth, with Robbie and Carol-Anne unwittingly working together to create the Axis Mundi, the director (or editor) has prepared the way for spirits to enter the material world.  Here they come...

Axis Mundi symbol 


As Carol-Anne buries Tweetie, she says her bedtime prayer, continuing her metaphor between sleep and death: "And now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep..." cynical Dana interrupts "Oh brother!"..."If I shall die before I wake..."

Dana, again munching on a phallic object, whispers "It did."  The audience, of course, probably agrees, silently, with Dana. But as we shall see, at least by the rules of this film, death may just be a sleep after all, and the childish intuition is perhaps not naive as it appears.
The group looks up at Robbie in the tree, again connecting Earth and Sky for the axis mundi. Robbie asks if "after it rots we can dig it up and see the bones," which, of course, is exactly what Spielberg/Hooper is going to show you for the rest of the film. The dog immediately begins digging up Tweetie...another foreshadow that the dead shall rise. Carol Anne smiles: "Can we get a fish now?"  Note the colors, still red white and blue, but see how Dana's red is faded, dirtied...her innocence was lost long ago. Also notice the "golden" ball in the frame. The frame shows the tree almost clawing around the family; we are being warned.

Establishing shot of the house, presumably that night. Notice the two lamps guarding the entrance. The first implication is that they are the "eyes" of the haunted house.  Another is that these are threshold guardians, which guard the way to enlightenment, they represent the fears the spiritual pilgrim must overcome to advance to the higher realm. The Lions guarding the knowledge of the New York Public library are a decent example...inspired by guardians of Buddhist temples.

Lightning flashes, and we see that Carol-Anne has, indeed, received her fish.  Look...there are two...and they are gold fish, like the golden yellow tweetie bird, the golden retriever, the gold over the rainbow on Diane's nightstand, and Carol-Anne's golden hair. What could this all mean?  We also note that Carol-Anne is obviously over-feeding the fish, she assumes that they must eat as much as all the gluttons in her own home, and as her mother will note later: this could create monsters.

The clown in the 2015 remake: notice the
American symbolism is missing
First we shall address the clown.  The clown is covered with the stripes and stars of the American flag...the clown could not be more draped in the symbol of America. As a manifestation of the Beast, we eventually discover he is used as a distraction so that the REAL focus, Carol-Anne, will be left vulnerable. The clown, an ancient shape-shifter, trickster, agent of chaos, dressed in the garments of the nation (honestly, is foreshadows the eventuality of President Trump), is an entertainer with sly intent. The clown is the distraction of entertainment produced by the Beast, in particular focus in this film obviously being American Television (notice how its placement at the end of Robbie's bed parallel's the TV's placement at the end of his parents' bed)...meanwhile the Beast itself is after something else, namely, the golden haired Carol-Anne...or, perhaps, just the gold (that's what commercial ads want anyway...).  We will explore this further later.

Now look at the left edge of the frame.  There is a frog with a crown, an obvious reference to the story of the Frog Prince. Joseph Campbell notes the frog represents the unconscious, which appears frightening at first, as repressed fears and desires, but once it is assimilated into consciousness, creates the total psyche, and a spiritually evolved individual.  In the Brothers' Grimm telling of the tale, the little girl (princess) has a golden ball which she carries constantly. She accidentally tosses it into a deep pond. As she cries, a frog offers to retrieve the ball...but only if the princess will love the frog, share her food and her bed (her life force...).   She refuses at first, but once she relents, she finds the frog in her bed transformed on the third night into a handsome prince. And so forth. As we shall see, the ugly Beast shall desire to take the golden-haired Carol-Anne for itself, attracted to her life force and earthly vitality -- and it all began with the "kiss" of her hand on the TV screen.

In case we failed to make the American Trickster Clown connection earlier, as we pan over we see that Robbie is reading a Captain America comic. Also, we can make out a second heart by Carol Anne's bed, also lit, second-hand, by lamp below it.  Also note that the two children, whose Sky and Earth activities earlier in the day created the intersection of the Axis Mundi, have their beds perpendicular to each other.

In case you thought the crossed beds, axis mundi/tree connection was a stretch - look what happens next:

...Yes, the tree makes a cross above both children's beds. Now we watch realms collide.

 The tree is clearly anthropomorphic, and even parallels the "evil" TIE fighter on the window sill.

There's even a perspective shot from the tree, as if (AS IF!) the tree is also starring back at Robbie.

Now watch what happens when mom walks in...suddenly, there is a heart balloon as Robbie's window, literally facing the Evil Tree in the window where there wasn't one before.  Does this symbolize the magic of mother's love, protecting the children from the evil, at least while she is present?

That balloon was definitely not in the room earlier. Also, look at the poster now revealed: "Alien,"connecting both to "Star Wars" and thus Robbie's interest in Outer Space in general, as well as to Spielberg's alien fascination...but serving as a darker version of the as-of-1982 Spielberg's still wondrous focus on alien contact. Another connection, artist H.R Giger designed the creature in "Alien" and will also be called upon, last minute, to design a manifestation of the Beast in Poltergeist II. There are other odd connections...director Ridley Scott's debut feature was "The Duelists," while Spielberg's was "Duel," again referencing the ongoing duality motif in "Poltergeist." And Scott himself also connects "Alien" to Hooper, by calling his film a "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" of science fiction.  Here, our director/producer pair is playing the game of inter-textual references, honoring their influences, and playing with the interconnected bubble-world of film.

Mother-Diane first warns Carol-Anne (Look at that...Di-ane...a second Anne, a double) that she is overfeeding the fish, warning: "you know what happens when you overfeed goldfish? They grow up to be...Sharks Sharks Sharks!"

Here, Spielberg is making a reference to his blockbuster horror film "Jaws," implying the horror shall return again.  But the context is a Mother tucking in her child with obvious love -- note the heart included in the shot -- giving us a clue that Mother has shark-like power too, when necessary to protect her loved ones.

Mother says goodnight, turns off the light, and we adopt Carol-Anne's perspective as she watches her fish, seemingly watching her, apparently innocent...not yet sharks, but in the context of her mother's warning, ominous...how is it that our own actions create sharks/monsters? Carol-Anne asks for fish, her parents provide immediately...what are the consequences of such spoiling? And overfeeding...is it our greed that grows the monster, creates the ruthless shark? Is Spielberg/Hooper critiquing...80s Yuppie culture? Of course they are.  Everyone critiqued Yuppie culture.

Mother-Diane goes to Robbie ("Mom there's a big storm heading this way..." - the Sprawl Shaman knows the future). Indeed there is.

Here we get a close up of Robbie's bedroom icons.  On his "Star Wars" poster we see George Lucas's name in the credits, Spielberg literally giving "credit" to his dear friend for some of his influence. Now we see the football helmet is that of the then LA Rams. Look at that spiraling horn, almost emerging from Robbie's head in the shot.  In one sense, it is referring to Robbie himself as a goat/ram...prone to sure-footed climbing (as in climbing the Evil Tree). Such a goat is also a reference to the God Pan (Peter Pan...), a bit of a trickster (like the clown). On top of this, a female goat, Amalthea, nurtured the God Zeus, and we get the word "nanny" from goats...and notice how we get this shot as Robbie' mother nurtures him. But what really matters here is the Horn itself, an ancient occult symbol that the Christian church later associated with the devil.  But a Horn connects the physical world to the divine, sort of like the antennae on a television, and in this context, serves to emphasize Robbie's role in creating the Axis Mundi with his sister.

"Lights out" says mother, and Carol-Anne screams "closet light closet light!"  - a bit of foreshadowing of the bright, otherworldly lights to eventually emerge from the closet, and also an acknowledgment that Carol-Anne can feel the unsettled energy in that particular closet.

As mother turns on the closet light (she is a bringer of love, light, and protection, after all), we see, for the first time, a Darth Vader poster near the closet (matching the bust near Robbie's bed). Interestingly, "Darth Vader" is said to be a take off the German "Dark Father" -- perhaps a reference to the children's father, caught up in the dirty business of greed in selling homes at Cuesta Verde Estates. We can note how Vader and the Clown play the role of monstrous threshold guardians to the closet, which will later become the portal to the Other Side -- or the hidden, repressed unconscious.

The family says goodnight as mother leaves the closet door open a crack.  As she leaves, we again are given a shot of her face near the "magic" heart balloon, and our unconscious knows to be afraid as her protection leaves the room.  We focus on the doorknob as the door is pulled shut.  It is foreboding.

Now we are upstairs, in Steve and Diane's room.  On television (Channel 3 now, instead of 12), a Spielberg favorite film, MGM's "A Guy Named Joe," is playing (which he will later re-make into "Always"). The dialogue on tv: "I'm either dead or I'm crazy," "Well you're not crazy, Pete"  "I'm dead?"  "Yeah"  "You mean I'm..."  and Pete touches himself, confused by his material form. "You mean this is for good?"  "You betchya!" Here we are watching human "spirits" (at least in the film-in-the-film) on television, where Carol-Anne communicates with the "TV-People."

Diane is on the bed smoking a doobie, like the 60s flower child she apparently once was.  She is reading about "somna-ambulance" or sleepwalking, concerned about her daughter. She notes that Carol Anne not only slept-walked the night before, but the whole previous week, plus Diane herself when she was 10 (further connecting mother and daughter in their connection to the visionary, spiritual dream world...).  Steven asks his wife to take care of the pot (which is held, interestingly enough, in the King Edward cigar box...and is another reference to the abdication of responsibility). Meanwhile, Steven picks up his biography of the President: Say No To Drugs himself: Ronald Reagan (a parallel to his son, reading about "Captain America").  Here we have a direct reference to Reaganite "Yuppie" culture, reaching for the "gold" (note their headboard), yet conflicted with their 60s-hippie-free-love past.

In the upper left hand corner, we see the corner of what will later reveal to be ANOTHER heart-shaped balloon (associated with Diane). We also notice that Steven is right up close to the television, while Diane is further away from its nefarious influence (which is, of course, the influence of Entertainment/America/Capitalism itself. Notice also how Steven can't bring his eyes off the television, even while "reading" -- shifting his attention from one form of propaganda to another.  He is immersed!

Also, perhaps now Robbie's Star Wars bedroom gains another association: Reagan's Star Wars missile defense, a then-contemporary issue that reminds us of the ever constant threat of unimaginable horror in the 'real' world.

Diane tells a sleepwalking story from her youth, where she walked four blocks into "some guy's car," and he drove all the way to work before discovering her. When she woke up she screamed, people came running, cops took the guy downtown, and her father has her inspected for bruises and hickies.  She laughs...now its a joke...at the time, it was clearly traumatic. It is an odd story, oddly told, influenced by the pot. One thinks of mythological kidnapping myths, Persephone in the underworld.

Then Diane's face changes. "Oh shit, Steven" and worries that Carol-Anne will sleepwalk right into the pool (indeed, this is foreshadowing). Steven downplays her fear, saying it is a 3-meter diving board, and he playfully "Jumps" off the board on the bed.

Notice the shadow of the lamps, creating a "three pointed star" much like the Mercedes logo, (the car Hitler drove)... a star-logo meant to represent Gottleib Daimler's ambition for "universal motorization on land, sea, and air" (my my those pets again...Tweetie the caged bird unable to fly (just like Steven, here), Buzz the artificially soft earth-digging dog, and the goldfish in the artificial sea...all trapped in a facsimile of a natural habitat, a sort of suburbs for pets...)  The shadows also resemble, perhaps more obviously, UFOs, a clear reference to the Spielberg filmography, a hint that the "supernatural" and the "alien" may not be as distinct as many presume. 

After jumping, Steven playfully looks in mirror, pushing out and pulling in his stomach: "Look at this honey, before, after, before, after," mimicking the television weight loss infomercials of the time.  Again, Steven is (brainwashed?) by the influence of television, which even dominates his sense of humor. He is also foreshadowing his coming physical change after the abduction of his daughter, after which he will become gaunt and pale.  Also notice the painting of the Mermaids - liminal beings, who navigate between the realms of the sea and the earth, also with their red-golden hair, paralleling the two goldfish next to Carol Anne's bed.

Meanwhile, Robbie can't sleep. The camera close-up shot gives us a few clues we haven't seen before...in particular, the board game CLUE!  Also, by robbie's head, we now see a Rubik's cube, a double reference: first, that we do, in fact, have a puzzle to decode on the film, and second, such a puzzle was inspired by...Spielberg's idol Stanley Kubrick!  We might even call it...a Kubrick's Cube...

Meanwhile, Carol-Anne is staring at her goldfish...we even get a close-up... perhaps she is imagining her mother's warning that overfed fish turn into sharks. We wonder if the Mermaids in her parent's room may in fact be deadly Sirens.

  Back to Robbie...and look! The Krubick's Cube is gone!  It is basically playing with us: are we paying attention?  And the cube itself, a symbol of material reason since the Greeks, is acting quite unreasonably.  Reason itself is about to lose its meaning.

Now Robbie looks again at the terrifying clown. He creates a "gun" with his hand -- the classic American response to fear -- and pretends to shoot it.

After attempting to "shoot" the clown, Robbie (closing his eyes...see no evil) puts a Star Wars jacket on the clown, replacing it with an image of Chewbaca...ironically a "monster" replacing a children's toy to overcome fear. Why Chewbaca? First, his nickname is "Chewie"...another reference to eating, and a foreshadow of the Evil Tree's attempt to "eat" Robbie. Second, Chewie is a Native species to his planet, and protects Han Solo after Han refused to kill him.  Here he echoes Native Americans, and American's far different treatment from Solo's. In addition, since Robbie "worships" the myth of Star Wars, placing Chewie's face on the clown is like placing a religious icon on the object of fear, the way some use religion to face the fear of death. We also see Bert, of Bert and Ernie, notably voiced by Frank Oz, in case we forgot we were entering the realm of fantasy.

Robbie hurries to his bed and keeps looking at Chewie's face over the clown. There is a shot of the Evil Tree, observing the scene. Then we cut to Diane and Steven's bedroom, where Diane is still smoking her doobie.  Here, Steven is making silly voices, and then, in a parallel to Diane's "shark-eating" of Carol-Anne, he goes in to "eat" Diane, playfully. Robbie then appears in the doorway, "the storm is coming closer."

Diane immediately straightens up and puts out her pot.  Steven puts on his glasses and says, in a deep voice, "Hey partner." The parents return from their childish play to a -- what now appears -- to be a false role-playing of their parental identities.  In effect, our subconscious is scared...parents are supposed to be in charge, make us feel safe...here we see the truth that parents are just bigger children, who know about as much as we do.  Maybe less.

As Robbie walks toward the bed, notice Snoopy near the TV, with the little tweetie bird in front of him (barely visible).  The Tweetie's name?  Woodstock, another reference to Diane (and possibly
Steve's) largely abandoned hippie-free-love past.  Even the Reagan book is in the shot...the present era that "killed" tweetie/woodstock.

Here's an interesting shot, as Robbie enters his parents's bed, we again see Diane's red balloon heart of protective love. We also wonder, why is Steven's lamp covered by the red shirt, beside's as an attempt of mood-light? Perhaps his light of being, his life force, is dimmed...dimmed by his role in the world, how he makes his living, symbolized by his button-down shirt.

But look again at the parents' golden headboard...we see the ram horn again, from the helmet in Robbie's room...indeed, each parent has their own occult horn of divine entrance (it will indeed be right above these golden horns that the spirits enter the house from the television through the hole in the wall).

Steven hoists Robbie on his back, like a horse/workhorse, and says, playfully, "I'm the wind, you're the feather," as he carries him back to his room.  What does this mean?  Probably many things.  But it certainly highlights who is to blame for the attack of the spirits: it is Steven's actions as salesman/developer that is putting his family in danger.  Steven is the wind, Robbie is the feather, along for the ride.

Couuld it be a reference to the painting of the Seagulls (circled) - perhaps a reference to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a popular New Age-style novella fable from the 70s, about a seagull who is disatisfied with the material seagull life, and yearns for something higher (we think of Robbie climbing the Axis Mundi tree). Like Poltergeist, that story touches upon higher planes of existence, with a lesson about the power of love.

 In Robbie's room, dad joins his son in bed as Robbie tells him he doesn't like the tree. Steven explains "it's an old tree" from "before my company built the neighborhood."  Robbie doesn't like its arms, and then whispers "it knows I live here doesn't it?" "It knows everything about us, Rob." Carol-Ann is shown listening to their conversation, on a play phone (another device which operates via invisible forces, this one forshadowing the communication between planes which will take place later). Carol-Ann rings the bell and holds up the phone - "Daddy, It's for You." Like with the TV, she can here voices no one else can. He tells her to take a message. Ultimately, this story is a message intended for Steven - he is the one at fault, as his family suffers.

As Dad leaves and says goodnight, we see - just like when Mom said goodnight - a Heart balloon which wasn't there before, symbolizing the protective power of a parent's love.  He says goodnight to teenage Dana, who is also on the phone - a real phone - and he tells her to get off. Everyone is talking to the unseen, it seems.

In Robbie and Carol-Ann's room, Robbie is counting the thunder, like his dad taught him. It seems to be moving away. We then get an ominious shot of the lightning striking the tree, and we jump to a shot of both kids in bed between their parents, with the National Anthem playing on the TV at the end of the bed ("bombs bursting in air" during a thunderstorm), the sign-off for the night. Next to Diane, we see the book she was reading earlier - it is by spiritually attuned psychologist, Carl Jung. It's hard to read in the frame, but a search of Jung's books reveals it is "Man and his Symbols" - the last book he attempted before his death. What treasure - it appears our search for symbols is invited by the filmmakers.

The camera cranes up as the Anthem concludes, and we move to the television, showing us the symbols of the United States of America, the protective bubble of meaning for the parents, who provide the same for their children. We zoom closer to the TV, the statue of Lincoln, the father of the country and we see it is on channel 3 and the time is...2:37.

No doubt, this is a reference to Room 237 from The Shining, a film Spielberg has clearly been influenced by. The haunted center of the Hotel in the film with similar subtext about the bloody buried history of American haunting the present. In The Shining, 237 is a place, in Poltergeist, a time.

As the TV turns to static, we hear "whispering voices" and watch Carol-Ann crawl toward the TV (notice the golden horns from the bedframe echoing the Rams Horns from Robbie's football helmet - they are both receivers). Carol-Ann watches some spiritual miasma shoot out of the TV and enter the wall above the bed, as a little house-quake shakes the family awake and she utters her famous line: "They're here."

END OF PART TWO--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Note: hands that pull at Carol Ann from TV screen echo hands of the Tree that pulls Robbie out the window.


  1. Hi, really liked this...but does it end after "part 2?" Is there more coming?


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