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Film / Poltergeist (1982)

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"They're here..."
Carol Anne

Poltergeist (1982) is a horror movie 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.

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.

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


If you are looking for a trope about mischievous ghost vandals, you can see it under Poltergeist

Poltergeist provides examples of:

  • 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.
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  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: The skeletons used in the film are real human skeletons. At the time of filming, it was a lot more affordable to use real ones than to fabricate them by hand. Science classes across the US also used actual human skeletons for the same reason. As costs of fabrication have drastically reduced in the decades since, modern audiences may find the use of real skeletons to be unwholesome or even taboo.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bloody Horror:
    • There's the scene where Marty hallucinates ripping his face off in the bathroom, and dripping blood 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 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: Played With, the Freeling's pet canary dies as if to signify a harmful presence is coming over the house. From here, the situation goes downhill before the home becomes properly haunted.
  • Collapsing Lair: The ghosts fail to take any of the family back to the other side, so they settle for taking the house instead. The entire house collapses and disappears into the Other Dimension. 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 digged 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.
  • The Doll Episode: A large clown doll figures prominently in one scare scene.
  • 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.
  • 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 "dispells" 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.
  • 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.
  • Everybody Lives: Despite being a horror/thriller film, there are no murders or fatalities depicted in the film.
  • 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!"
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Happily Married: Diane and Steven are a loving couple. Their relationship never comes into conflict.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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!!!
  • 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.
  • Monster Clown: A clown doll turns evil and attacks Robbie, but this is just the ghosts' distraction in order to kidnap Carol Anne.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • One-Word Title: Also an Antagonist Title.
  • Orphean Rescue: Carol Anne is kidnapped by the ghosts and taken to the astral plane where they are trapped.
  • 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 haunting by the dead of an improperly relocated cemetery.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Carol Anne's hair reaches at least down to her waist, sometimes it appears even longer.
  • 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 tell 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.
  • 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.
    • The family's yellow canary was called Tweety, obviously after Tweety Bird of The Looney Tunes.
  • Skunk Stripe: After going to the Other Side to rescue Carol Anne, Diane, who's naturally brown-haired, has a streak of white hair at her temples.
  • Snowy Screen of Death: The spirits first communicate with Carol Anne through an untuned television set.
  • 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 psychic'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...
  • 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", an episode of The Twilight Zone.


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