Follow TV Tropes


Film / Poltergeist (1982)

Go To

If you are looking for a trope about mischievous ghost vandals, see Poltergeist.

"They're here..."
Carol Anne

Poltergeist (1982) is a horror film directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg chronicling the terrifying paranormal events that surround the Freelings, an ordinary suburban family, whose home is invaded by spirits that show a special interest in their five-year-old daughter, Carol Anne.

It was followed by two sequels and a reboot: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Poltergeist III (1988) and Poltergeist (2015).

The franchise is often said to be cursed, because several people associated with it, including stars Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke, died prematurely. "The Poltergeist Curse" has been the focus of an E! True Hollywood Story. The first film is also known for persistent rumors that Spielberg directed most of the movie.

A scene from the film was ranked #80 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments, and the Chicago Film Critics Association named it the 20th scariest film ever made.

Poltergeist provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Youthful Mother: If one does the math; Diane is 32 and Dana is 16. The novelization clarifies that Diane is actually Steven's second wife, and only Dana's stepmother. Robbie and Carol Anne are Diane's children.
  • Afraid of Clowns: Robbie Freeling is afraid of a clown doll in his room. His fear turns out to be justified, as the ghosts haunting the home later animate it and use it to try to strangle him.
  • All Just a Dream: One of the parapsychologists begins tearing his face off, only for reality to snap back, and everything's fine. He's the only one of the parapsychologists who does not return.
  • All There in the Manual: Spielberg gave James Kahn free rein on the novelization, leading to it having tons of backstory (including Tangina's battles with demons on the spirit plane, a spectral Southern Belle who protected Carol-Anne on the Other Side, an even more nightmarish sequence of Marty in the kitchen, and—perhaps most critically—a more thorough explanation of why the ghostly activity started now rather than when the family first moved into the house) that was never even hinted at in the film.
  • Antagonist Title: Poltergeist is not only the name of the work but also what the family battles against the whole time. It's also a One-Word Title.
  • "Back to Camera" Pose: The film's lobby poster depicts little Carol Anne with her back to the viewer while she puts her hands against a television screen (the old cathode-ray tube kind) that's full of static. Her caption is "They're here."
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • The film pulls out all the stops for a visually and emotionally dramatic climax once expert psychic Tangina Barrons steps in and successfully helps Diane and Steven retrieve Carol Anne from the other side, even proclaiming with contented authority that "this house is clean". The resulting denouement of the film then...continues, running past the point where a film with the rescue as a climax should have cut to credits. Indeed, the film had been quite far from pulling out all the stops, as more scares unpeel the remaining danger and the Beast makes one last cataclysmic push to steal Carol Anne, providing the film's true climax.
    • A microcosm of the larger switch features with the clown doll in the kids' room. It's a prominently creepy presence in the film that scares Robbie and seems ripe for possession and a big scare, but the doll doesn't get any grand payoff by the point of the climax where Tangina helps the Freelings retrieve Carol Anne, leaving it feeling like a Red Herring. Then it turns out we were baited twice— first to think the doll would get a big scare, and then to think it wouldn't. The first impression was correct—the doll gets screentime again, attacking in a memorable startle (that also falsely baits the viewer as to where it will pop up) to keep Robbie away from Carol Anne, all serving as the opening of the true climax and an event that announces that the trouble is far from over.
  • A Beast in Name and Nature: The sinister entity behind the haunting is referred to as "The Beast".
  • Big "WHY?!": Steve grabs his land-developer boss and screams at him for having relocated the headstones of the cemetery on which his haunted house was built, while leaving the bodies. His rant of accusation ends with a furious double example of this trope.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Freeling family has been through so much, clearly traumatized from their horror upon horror experience at their haunted house, which has been sucked into another plane of existence. However, it's implied Teague will be facing consequences for desecrating the graves. Meanwhile, although the whole thing has left them shaken up, at least the Freeling family have each other once more and have earned a peaceful night's reprieve at a Holiday Inn. And to lighten the mood, the movie ends with Steven unceremoniously pushing the television out of their motel room.
  • Black Comedy Pet Death: Tweety's death is an omen, but it has a funny portrayal as well. Diane discovers Tweeety dead in his cage and is caught by Carol Anne while trying to discreetly flush him down the toilet without her knowing. Caught in an awkward spot, Diane concedes to a burial for Tweety which Dana and Robbie interrupt to mock it, and even though Carol Anne gives a sincere and sweet funeral, she gets over it very quickly to ask Diane for a goldfish.
  • Bloody Horror:
    • There's the scene where Marty hallucinates ripping his face off in the bathroom, and dripping blood and flesh into the sink.
    • There's another scene nearing the end of the film, after rescuing the daughter the mother and the daughter come out of the ghost's world, and they're both coated with blood-tinted globs of mucus.
    • Robbie has some blood on his face from the tree attack, seen more clearly following Carol Anne's disappearance, which is alarmingly gruesome to see on a child.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Diane's neighbors help pull her from her pool, but when she starts screaming hysterically for them to help her children inside, the wife instantly becomes emotionally adamant that her husband not help Diane. They just abandon her as she runs inside.
  • Canary in a Coal Mine: Invoked with the very bird itself— Carol Anne's pet canary Tweety is discovered dead in his cage by Diane, an odd misfortune that in hindsight becomes visible as the first sign of the ghostly influence that will wreak havoc on the Freelings.
  • Collapsing Lair: The Beast fails to take any of the family back to the other side, so it settles for taking the house instead. The entire house collapses and disappears into the Other Dimension, folding in on itself as it gets sucked into the portal. note 
  • Cool Gate: The entity, known as the Beast creates one in Carol Anne's closet, with the exit in the living room ceiling.
  • Creator Cameo: The hands that rip off Marty's face in the bathroom belong to Steven Spielberg. The effect was created with a wax-and-latex bust of the actor, but since there was only one model, the actor was reluctant to start ripping it apart, so Spielberg did it for him.
  • Creepy Child: Carol Anne has her moments. Witness her sing-song "Theeeeeeyyyyy're heeeeerrreee!" after some ghosts try to reach for her through the TV screen and her parents wake up to see her sitting in front of the TV.
  • Creepy Doll: The clown doll was a bit unsettling before it started grabbing kids, too. Robbie already is scared of it before it attacks him, and tries to cover it with a jacket.
  • Cutting Corners: The realtor had to move a cemetery to develop his neighborhood, and did so... or rather, because it was too expensive, just moved the headstones and kept the corpses right where they were, probably hoping someone didn't dig deep enough to run into one of them.
  • Dissonant Serenity: After Carol Anne is taken, Steven becomes emotionally catatonic, speaking entirely in monotone, in a kind of Heroic BSoD.
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Although we don't follow her there, Carol Anne's sojourn on the Other Side may qualify, particularly as she doesn't seem to remember much of what happened to her. Plus, the way her closet tried to drag her back again matches the "rabbit hole" imagery...if it's a carnivorous rabbit with an extradimensional esophagus, that is.
  • Drugs Are Good: Diane and Steven are shown smoking a marijuana cigarette together and having a great time.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Beast. The one truly responsible for the supernatural terrors. Whatever it is, calling it a ghost is extremely reductive. It can warp space and matter as it pleases - including, but not limited to: tearing open portals between the human realm and the ghost realm; and give life to inanimate objects. Though it seems to have its limits. It also has the power to induce horrifying hallucinations on human victims and hold numerous innocent souls captive; as well as doesn’t have a single physical appearance, but a handful of them.
  • Electromagnetic Ghosts: When Marty takes a picture of a flickering light, he said that it was electrical and tells the Freelings that they can smell the charge.
    • In this picture, orbs appear on camera screens, but a ghost of a woman couldn't.
    • The ghostly orbs and the glowing ghost can be shown on three video screens with three different filters on three different television sets. When you take a closer look, it shows the ghosts' faces and bodies.
    • The parapsychologists use an EMF detector equipment to detect the paranormal activities in the house, but when it beeps, a ghostly glowing woman appears on top of the staircase.
  • Endless Corridor: Diane comes across one of these in their home supposedly caused by poltergeist activity warping the laws of physics or hallucination. Diane "dispels" it by breaking into a sprint. It's a Vertigo Effect.
  • Ethereal White Dress: In the behind-the-scenes picture, Paula Paulson can be shown wearing a white wig, a white gown and a white body suit to resemble a ghost while on wires.
  • Everybody Lives: Despite being a horror/thriller film, there are no murders or fatalities depicted in the film (well, except for Tweetie).
  • Evil Desires Innocence: Reverend Cain was drawn to Carol-Anne as the radiant light of her innocence allowed him to easily dominate and control the other restless spirits in his sphere of influence.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: In an early scene, the Freelings' dog freaks out and starts barking at the ceiling, but Diane doesn't see anything unusual when she looks. At this point neither does the audience, so this counts as a downplayed example.
  • Evil Is Visceral: Carol Anne's closet turning into a squidgy, pink, mucous throat-esophagus sort of thing with a tentacle reaching out to grab her and pull her in.
  • Extreme Mêlée Revenge: The clown comes to life, sneaks up on Robbie and attempts to suffocate him. Robbie overcomes the clown, throws it on the bed, and tears it apart, screaming, "I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!"
  • Fan Disservice: Diane spending the last act of the film just in a baseball jersey and panties when she's being terrorised by the spirits, at one point nearly being raped by them.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • After the immortal statement of, "They're here!", we see a bulldozer tearing up ground for the pool. As it does, it digs up the cigar box Tweetie was buried in, previewing the reveal of what the development is built on and the eventual paranormal resurfacing of the human caskets and corpses below.
    • Tweety being a canary that suddenly dies of no known cause is a thematic piece of foreshadowing— he is a figurative canary in a coal mine; the weakest link whose death portends a danger that others should be aware of before it gets them too.
    • Carol Anne yells, "Closet light! Closet light!" The following night, her closet is full of brightness.
    • When Diane and Steve first try to contact Carol Anne, a bundle of dusty jewelry appears. Its owners put in an appearance later.
    • The cemetery Steve and Teague are talking in front of has a tree identical to the one that tried to eat Robbie; a subtle clue that the Freeling house was built over a cemetery.
    • A hiccup occurs during the rescue of Carol Anne—Steven pulls the rope to the Other Side too early out of fear and ends up briefly pulling out the Beast before Diane and Carol Anne are saved. This indicates that one of the objectives— getting all of the spirits to pass on, is mostly successful, but incomplete even though Carol Anne was saved, and indeed, the Beast, the one remaining spirit, returns to exert its influence shortly after, leading to the destruction of the house and the near loss of Carol Anne for good.
  • Friendly Ghost:
    • The ghosts in the movie. While they went from exploding glass to bending utensils like forks and spoons to stacking chairs, they can be shown gliding down the staircase after Carol Anne's abduction.
    • The ghostly-looking figure gliding down the staircase along with the orbs that represent the ghosts.
  • Go into the Light: Tangina tries to convince the ghosts to do this, while having Diane warn her daughter to stay away.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Carol Anne has long golden hair and she is very kind and innocent with a pure heart (she's actually specifically targeted by the evil spirits because of her pureness).
  • Happily Married: Diane and Steven are a loving couple. Their relationship never comes into conflict.
  • Haunted Technology: A variation. The TV itself isn't haunted per se, but it serves as a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
  • Hearing Voices: Carol Anne first hears the ghosts whispering to her through television static in the television set.
  • Helium Speech: Tangina has a very high voice, to the point that it sounds artificial, all the time. It is the actress' normal voice though.
  • I Know What You Fear: Tangina warns the Freelings that the Beast can sense their fears and exploit them to keep them from saving Carol Anne, which has already been seen clearly with Robbie being attacked by the tree he was scared of and will be seen again later in the true climax with Robbie being attacked again by his other fear—the clown doll we've seen make him uneasy earlier without a scary payoff.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Played for Laughs. Diane and Dr Lesh initially bond over a bottle of booze to de-stress from the supernatural events. A later scene then shows Diane turning the bottle upside down to reveal she's drunk everything herself.
  • Imaginary Friend: The Freelings first think Carol Anne has imaginary friends when they notice her talking to "people" on a TV that's on a static channel. Subverted when it turns out the "TV people" really are ghosts, and real.
  • Indian Burial Ground: Early in the movie it's briefly mentioned that an Indian burial ground is nearby Cuesta Verde. Later it turns out that's not related to the hauntings; the real source of that is that Steve's neighborhood was built on top of an improperly relocated Christian cemetery (the bodies are still there).
    Steve: You son of a bitch! You moved the headstones but you left the bodies, didn't you? You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES!! WHY?! WHY??!!
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Carol Anne has blue eyes and, as explicitly stated in the movie, is especially pure and innocent.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The opening theme is a sweet theme sounding like a nursery theme. Soon after the opening scene the movie turns to horror.
  • I See Dead People: Carol Anne can see and hear ghosts and communicate with them, initially through the TV set, later everywhere in the house.
  • Last Note Nightmare: The ending theme starts out with children singing... And then, at the very end of the end credits, disturbing laughter is heard.
  • Light Is Not Good: The light is good; it's just not good for things that don't need to go there, like the living.
  • Locked into Strangeness: After rescuing Carol Anne from the Other Side, Diane develops a white streak of hair at each temple. She is reluctant to dye the streaks back, speculating to her older daughter that they look "punk".
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Carol Anne's long blonde hair is iconic and she's definitely a girly girl.
  • Mama Bear: Diane is willing to go through absolute hell to keep her children safe.
    Diane: NO! NOT MY BABIES!!!
  • Missing Child: A variant; the crux of the film is that Carol Anne is abducted by supernatural forces, but tragically, they can still communicate with her. Steven and Diane spend most of the movie utterly horrified and broken because they can hear their daughter suffering at something's hands, and there's nothing they can do to save her.
  • Monster Clown: A clown doll turns evil and attacks Robbie, but this is just the ghosts' distraction in order to kidnap Carol Anne.
  • Mood Whiplash: From a horrific scene of exploding raw steak, maggoty chicken and Marty tearing his own face off (he's hallucinating), we segue into a near-mystical manifestation of gracefully-glowing light. Justified when it's revealed that there's an insanely-malign ghost sharing the house with a bunch of inoffensive/trapped ones.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The demon who is the main antagonist is first referred to as only "The Beast".
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Poltergeist was filmed in 1982 but a poster for the 1988 Superbowl hangs on the childrens' bedroom wall. Notable for being Harsher in Hindsight as the movie's main child actress, Heather O’Rourke got sick and died on the day of the 1988 Superbowl.
  • No-Tell Motel: The motel the family heads to at the end of the film has a reputation for being used to fool around, seeing how Dana chuckles, saying "I know that place..." when Diane mentions it.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The spiritual "other side" is never depicted, and the point of view remains in the human plane for the entirety of the film, making Carol Anne feel more tragically removed from the rest of the cast and audience when she's taken and making her feel more imperiled when we don't get to see what she's surrounded by or in danger from. The same goes for the rescue. We only see the portals and not what Diane braves while getting her daughter.
  • Novelization: A novelization was written by James Kahn, adapted from the film's original screenplay. The copyright is 1982 by Amblin' Enterprises, Inc. It was printed in the United States through Warner Books, with the first printing in May 1982. While the film focuses mainly on the Freeling family, much of the book leans toward the relationship between Tangina and Dr. Lesh away from the family. The novel also expands upon many scenes that took place in the film, such as the Freelings' living room being visited by night by outer-dimensional entities of fire and shadows, and an extended version of the kitchen scene in which Marty watches the steak crawl across a countertop. In the book, Marty is frozen in place and is skeletonized by spiders and rats. There are also additional elements not in the film, such as Robbie's mysterious discovery of the clown doll in the yard during his birthday party, and a benevolent spirit, "The Waiting Woman", who protects Carol Anne in the spirit world.
  • Offscreen Reality Warp: The spirits demonstrate their talent at chair stacking during a brief period when the camera is not on them.
  • Ominous Television: The TV is presented as a conduit for the malevolent spirits that haunt the home, Carol Anne mesmerized by it as the hauntings grow malignant and her parents being able to hear her voice through it.
  • One-Word Title: Also an Antagonist Title.
  • Otherworldly Visits Youngest First: Carol Anne Freeling is the first to encounter the mysterious presence in their new home. But events move swiftly to reveal that the poltergeists are quite real, especially after Carol Anne is abducted by the spirits.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The "angry at the living" type.
  • Our Wormholes Are Different: The wormhole in Carol Anne's closet is like the nexus of the anomalies around the house. Near the end, the portal grows violent and sucks in the entire home.
  • Peek-a-Boo Corpse: Diane is assaulted by corpses in the unfinished backyard pool. Later on, the entire family had to escape from a house where corpses in coffins were literally popping themselves up out of the floor and blocking their way. One even tossed itself onto the windshield of their departing car for good measure. And those skeletons were real.
  • Poltergeist: The film is about a haunting by the dead of an improperly relocated cemetery.
  • Prematurely Grey-Haired: Diane goes grey after her traumatic journey to the other side to save Carol Anne, and is in the process of dying it brown again when the real horror climax of the film begins.
  • Quieting the Unquiet Dead: The medium Tangina coaxes all but one of the ghosts haunting the Freeling's house to pass into the light and the next plane of existence in their after-life journey.
  • Really Gets Around: Dana talks on the phone late at night, knows all about the local No-Tell Motel and exits the car of her boyfriend with hickeys on her neck.
  • Red Herring: When characters mention there's an Indian burial ground near the Freelings' house, the viewer (and probably the characters themselves, In Universe) would think that that would be the source of the ghostly disturbances. Turns out it's not responsible, just an indicator of what the realtor company's attitude towards sacred ground.
  • Rescued from the Underworld: Carol Anne is kidnapped by the ghosts and taken to the astral plane where they are trapped.
  • Roaring Rampageof Revenge: The climax of the movie fittingly titled, Night of the Beast. Angered by the innocent ghostly souls (and Carol Anne) being freed from its clutches, the Beast makes a final effort to terrorize, harm, and ensnare the Freeling family. It results in their home imploding and being sucked into the ghost dimension along with causing havoc throughout the house’s block.
  • Rule of Funny: Steve's Donald Duck impression ends with a sound akin to a balloon deflating or a machine running down, though it's obvious that Craig T. Nelson isn't actually making this noise.
  • Say My Name: CAROL ANNE! Her name is very frequently called or shouted.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The first twenty minutes of this film are very light-hearted, like when Steve and his neighbor are dueling with their remotes. After Carol Ann utters "They're here..." the film becomes considerably darker. The neighbors later reappear in a scene where Steven and Diane go to ask them if they experience any "disturbances" too (to which the neighbors look at them like they're crazy, and which is played for laughs). Once the film turns really dark, the neighbors aren't shown or mentioned again. They actually reappear to rescue Diane from the pool corpses, but then it is very brief and they've completely lost their comedic tendencies.
  • Shout-Out:
    • While Diane and Steven are in bed, we see they are watching A Guy Named Joe. This is a movie from 1943 where a dead Air Force pilot comes back to Earth as a ghost to pass his knowledge onto an up and coming rookie. Spielberg would go on to remake this film later in his career under the title Always.
    • The children's room is littered with Star Wars toys, a Bert and Ernie poster and, for some reason, an Alien poster. Given that there is no chance that a kindergartener like Carol Anne would ever be allowed to watch “Alien”…
    • The family's yellow canary was called Tweety, obviously after Tweety Bird of The Looney Tunes.
  • The Soulsaver: The psychic Tangina helps a group of friendly yet lonely ghosts (lost souls) trapped in the astral plane go into the Light.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The film inexplicably begins with "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing over the credits; our confusion is resolved when we realize it's a TV station playing the national anthem before ending their broadcast for the evening.
  • Suburban Gothic: A family living in a new planned community in California is terrorized by a poltergeist. It turns out that the neighborhood was built on top of an old cemetery and only the headstones were moved prior to construction.
  • Tear Off Your Face: The psychiatrist's assistant, Marty, hallucinates that he pulls off his own face.
  • Tempting Fate: After getting back Carol Anne from the Other Side, Tangina exclaims confidently "This house is clean," thinking that with Carol Anne back on the physical plane, the poltergeist's link to the house was severed. Nope - it was regrouping... and it was pissed...
  • Tertiary Sexual Characteristics: Carol Anne's very feminine frilly blue pajamas trimmed with satin ribbons.
  • Third Act Stupidity: Steven and Diane Freeling act with reasonable intelligence throughout most of the movie—not perfectly, but then they didn't have an idea that it could be so dangerous. However, after managing to rescue Carol Anne from a demonic ghost, they decide that Diane, Robbie and Carol Anne will stay in the house overnight. Not only that, but they let Robbie and Carol Anne stay alone in the same room that Carol Anne was originally stolen from. Would you take that kind of risk with your kids? In fairness, Tangina HAD said that the house was "clean". Little did she know...
    • Some time had passed since then and they were packing up to move out, it may have been months since the last haunting and they got complacent not thinking it could start right back up again.
  • Trash the Set: One of the most iconic examples in cinema. Near the end, as part of the Beast’s act of vengeance against the Freelings. The entire Freeling home implodes and gets sucked into a portal to the ghost realm.
  • True Blue Femininity: Carol Anne's pajamas are blue and very feminine.
  • Unfinished Business: The reason why ghosts are lonely.
    Dr. Lesh: They're so alone. So alone.
  • Vertigo Effect: A notable version of this happens during the ghost's assault on the family at the end of the film. Diane gets thrown out of the house at one point and then battles her way back in to save her children. As she's running down the hallway to the children's bedroom, a Vertigo Effect begins which soon turns into a full-blown special effect in which the hallway itself starts becoming stretched and distorted. The more she runs, the longer the hallway becomes and the further away she gets from her children's bedroom door. She eventually catches up to it by running at full speed.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The inspiration for the story of the movie comes from an actual occurrence in Denver, Colorado. In the late 1800s, when Denver was expanding, there was a graveyard where the city government wanted to put in a grand city park like the one that New York city built and that cities across the country sought to emulate; Central Park. The city put out notices for bids to relocate the cemetery and decided to go with the lowest bidder. About a third of the way into the project the contractor realized that he had seriously underbid the job and, long story short, started moving just the headstones. He completed the job and the city started building the slated structure, and were actually getting close to finishing, when one of the contractor's employees spilled the beans. The contractor was arrested but the damage was done. The city, not being able to afford to tear down the building and dig up the cemetery again, left it as it was and just finished the project, leaving the unmarked graves as they were. The park is named Cheesman Park, and the graves sit under the Greek Pavilion on the east end of the park and extend south to 8th Avenue.
  • When Trees Attack: The tree near the Freelings' house turns evil and its branches go through the kid's window to take and attack Robbie.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: To "Little Girl Lost" and its adaptation in The Twilight Zone (1959).
  • Youngest Child Wins: Carol Anne is the youngest in the Freeling family, and the only child born in the house. So she has supernatural powers, and can communicate with the dead.


Video Example(s):


The Endless Hallway

In Diane's exhausted state, her children's bedroom door first appears to be miles away, then never seems to get any closer.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / VertigoEffect

Media sources: