Friday, October 28, 2011

The Family Graveyard: Poltergeist

Poltergeist was released in 1982; Steven Spielberg wrote and produced the film that Tobe Hooper directed; it was nominated for three Academy Awards. Poltergeist is a symbolically intense film; I'm nervous just attempting it, so please be warned, I won't get to everything (as usual) but perhaps this discussion will draw your attention to something you haven't noticed before and those items I can't include here will come to your attention regardless of my inadequacy.
Until you realize when Steve Freeling (Craig Nelson) goes to the team at UC Irvine and reveals his age, his wife's age and the ages of the kids, you don't realize that Diane Freeling (Jo Beth Williams) was 16 when they had their first daughter, Dana (Dominque Dunne). This fact, delivered in an office interview is, quite simply, what the entire film is about: the ghosts in the family closet.
As the opening credits linger by, The Star Spangled Banner plays (recall, please, how at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, as they drove into the cemetery, an American flag was "framing" the scene). As the trumpets are blaring, the word POLTERGEIST comes on the screen at the refrain.There's not just a poltergeist in the Free(ling) family (who live in the land of the "free") but in this country, and it's the television that's the clue to what's going on. If you will recall, in my post Contagion: Bats and Pigs, I noted how director Steven Soderbergh employed "noise" and "blur": it's easy to get frustrated that you can't hear the dialogue, but he wants you to hear that you can't hear it so you know that more is being said than what is in the dialogue; he blurs images or parts of images, so you can see that you aren't going to see everything that's going on.
Carol Ann in her parents' bedroom; they have left the television on while they sleep, symbolically, and the static takes over the home.
This opening with the television images blurred and the static are being employed in the same way: we are not going to see everything but it's inside the static that "they" come. Note that Steve has fallen asleep in his comfy chair and the dog is grabbing some leftovers to snack on; this image pretty much sums up the role of television in America: while we are asleep, and there is static, we are picking up things that are feeding our animal appetites and this can happen exactly because we don't realize it. But children can. And they do. The dog travels throughout the house, the appetites going to each family member just as "the beast" will do later on (but we don't think about it when it's a lovable Golden Retriever). Carol Ann is the only one the Golden Retriever doesn't seem to find something to "snack on," and that's the reason why the beast wants her: he doesn't have her yet, but he does have all the others.
Diane about to put Carol Ann's bird Tweety in the toilet. What does the bird symbolize? The Holy Spirit (and the Spirit descended upon the Christ in the form of a dove... artists use any bird--almost--to symbolize the Holy Spirit). What's important is where the bird's name comes from: television. The cartoons Carol Ann watches forms and cements her understanding, or lack of, about religion. What caused the bird to die? How many swear words have been uttered by this point in the film? "Air pollution" from foul language might be the cause...
List of what was going on in 1981 and that comes across on the television: it's with the television that Carol Ann is "connecting with," not her parents (and that's why her hands are on the screen), and just because it says it's signing off, doesn't mean that it is: television invades our every moment, thought, word and gesture. (As the film goes back into credits, and the audience arrives at the credits for the screenwriters, the background image of the neighborhood is the dead tree in the center of everything: please note, that symbolizes "dead faith at the center of everything").
Just before this scene, the guy coming in through the back door was riding a bike up the street, carrying six packs of beer; the kids sent their remote control cars after him, causing him to wreck and crash in his groin. The scene reverses the traditional roles: it's usually the kids on the bike and the grown up in the car, the adults who are sexually active and the children who are not, but this sequence shows us a "different reality" and it's alcohol that's the great equalizer between adult and child. What is Dana eating? A pickle, and anyone who has read Edith Wharton's Ethan Fromm knows the symbols associated with the pickle, meaning, she's sexually active. The writers managed to get all this in a few seconds.
Robbie climbs a tree outside, of course, symbolic of the Cross, and this is his own endeavor to understand why things are the way they are and how things are and, from this vantage point, he sees the storm coming, he knows metaphorically what's about to break out because he's looking at it from the perspective of the Cross and knows, like Zacchaeus in the Book of Lukebut eat the family (as the poltergeist it symbolizes).
As I was looking something up regarding the film, I came across someone who asked the question why there is so much Star Wars merchandise in the film. Like Casey in Scream they have learned about life from the television and instead of having religious symbols in the home, they have Hollywood symbols in the home (please see Decoding the Decoding: Scream). There is also the very likely possibility that Star Wars is the theology of the home (note that a poster of Darth Vader hangs in the closet door wherein "lurks the beast") and this shallow understanding of God and heaven is re-enforced for the audience in the next scene when Steve is watching Spencer Tracey in the 1943 classic A Guy Named Joe which helped to establish that heaven is a mundane place and it's much better to be alive here on earth where you can really enjoy life.  Diane is smoking a joint. No wonder she closed the kids' bedroom door.
This is the part where the immaturity of the parents really effects the kids' ability to grow-up to be adults. As Diane describes her childhood sleepwalking, note that her father had her checked for hickeys; Steve inflating and deflating his stomach in and out, "Before, after, before, after," actually prophesies how he is before the poltergeist and what he will be like afterwards. But the item of importance is Carol Ann. We see Dana talking on the phone in her bed, and this whole time, Carol Ann has had a phone with her in her bed.
The white phone she's holding indicates she's picking up Dana's bad habits who has picked up her mother's bad habits.
When Robbie and Carol Ann have moved into mom and dad's room to spend the night, the Star Spangled Banner plays once more, with images of Washington flashing by. Remember, in the previous sequence, as Diane was smoking a joint, Steve was pretending to read, Regan, the President and the Man, and in 1981, just a year before this film, Reagan had been shot in the chest. The assassination of a president is part of what Washington stands for at this time (but it you look at a timeline of the events of 1981 you'll see a number of disturbing things, including the first five homosexual men who would be diagnosed with AIDS).
Dana flipping off the workers making cat calls at her. Watching her from the kitchen window, her mother Diane just smiles, probably a chip off the old block. This is the reason Dana isn't really involved with any of the supernatural things going on in the house, the beast all ready has her and doesn't want to draw attention to it, but he has to get Carol Ann.
What I believe is happening in Poltergesit when "the beast" takes Carol Ann is not that they are trying to save her, but that Carol Ann is saving her family.
If it were not for the events that take place involving the disturbing supernatural nature of things, the Freeling family would never enter into a deeper awareness about what their lives mean. For example, before Robbie is attacked by the tree (the symbol of false religion because it's on the other side of the glass which symbolizes reflection and no one in the family knows what true religion is but Carol Ann it appears) the name "Jesus Christ" exists only to be taken in vain; when Diane sees Robbi being sucked in that tree, she says, "My God," which could be taking the Lord's name in vain, but I believe it's a prayer in this circumstance because of what's happening.
Given our previous postings, when Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) tells the Freelings to tell Carol Ann to stay away from the light, we know what that light is: the light that appears to be the "real life," the fun and joy that seems to come easily to others while Christians seem to be toiling on their own Way of the Cross. Carol Ann is being tempted, like her sister Dana and their mother, towards the easy going life, and Dr. Lesh knows it.
The paranormal investigation team from UC Irvine.
The assistant who has a bite taken out of him, is the one who himself is always taking a bite out of something. First he's eating Cheetos, then he goes to the kitchen--the ultimate symbol of the appetites in the home--and then he takes a chicken leg as he prepares to fry a steak. (When Diane was showing Steve how Carol Ann was going to scoot across the floor, what was Carol Ann complaining about? Her mom wasn't going to cook dinner, and Diane replied that they would go to Pizza Hut for dinner. This succinctly summarizes Diane's parenting philosophy: give them whatever. Carol Ann intuitively knows dinner at home is best but Diane doesn't). The meat rotting and the chicken leg suddenly having maggots all over it is actually a very helpful form of addiction-breaking advice from the beast. When he himself starts rotting and turning inside-out, we have a clear picture of how something as simple as our appetites can utterly destroy our soul.
This is what the appetites look like.
This is the part where the unmoved graves are introduced. We've all seen the great ending where the skeletons are rising up out of the hole dug for the swimming pool in the middle of the rain storm, and know that the company developing the properties moved the headstones but they didn't move the graves. The president of the company tells Steve that no one has complained about living on a graveyard since 1976; what happened in 1976? America turned 200 years old. This references directly the founding of the country with Steve and Diane's founding of their family, and any of the wrongs committed would have to be answered for.
All their hope resides in her knowledge of the beast.
"Her life force, it is very strong...." Where have we heard this before? In discussions about Renfield, and now, spirits are trying to take Carol Ann's strong life force. Why is it so strong? It's not weakened by appetites, like those of her family and the tech assistant who would have eaten the moving, rotting steak. She goes on to say that the spirits keeping Carol Ann bound are attracted to her light, even though the real light has come to them but they refuse to go to it... This would be like someone someone who has talent suddenly being turned into a mega-star by the press, and instead of worshiping the God who blessed that person with those talents, the person is worshiped. Carol Ann, in her innocence, is actually being perverted by the beast to keep others from God. But what is also happening, is the spectral forces that she's supposed to lead to the light, is her own family, wandering hither and thither about the world, but not getting onto their own tasks of getting to God.
Monster Squad, "There's a monster in the closet."
Why is it the child who knows what the grown ups don't?
In Monster Squad, Eugene tells his daddy that there's a monster in his closet and the dad humors his son, when of course, there is a monster in the closet, it's the mummy. Symbolically, this means that their family has some dark, ancient sin locked away in their own closet, and Eugene knows it intuitively, but his parents won't acknowledge it; this is the real "noise" and the "blurs" which--like Soderberg and Spielberg--we employ every day in our own lives to keep others from seeing and keep others from hearing. But children can because they haven't learned that "double-talk" of adulthood, they still know what the truth is. When Tangina tells them to clear their minds because the beast knows what they are afraid of, she's referring to the things they keep "locked up in Carol Ann's closet" which is their own young, troubled relationship when they were teenagers, and they don't want that to "come out into the open," so they keep a lock on it.
On Steve's end, the rope symbolizes the umbilical cord, his love for Diane and Carol Ann "feeding them" in this time of trial. On the other end, Dr. Lesh is a "leash," giving them the discipline they need to get through and Ryan is the "rye" (wheat) the Bread of Life to help them get through to the other end.
Why is it that Diane goes?
There are reasons for her to go, but the truth is, the mother is not only the giver of the physical life, but the spiritual life as well, and the scene so clearly invoking the "birthing process" means to establish that Diane has to give birth to Carol Ann again so that she will have the spiritual life that won't be weakened--and ultimately destroyed by sin. It's Steve's own weakness caused by sin which causes him to not be able to trust and that brings the beast out. Because Diane has responded, her strength compensates and she's able to save Carol Ann but only after they have been "baptized." The breath of air they so desperately need to take in order to LIVE is the Breath of Life given by the Holy Spirit, just as it was first given to Adam. Because Diane has been cleansed of her "fall from grace," she has preserved Carol Ann from making the mistake that she did, so Tangina can pronounce, "This house is clean."
Carol Ann, after the ordeal, matches her doll. She doesn't remember anything.
Then they move.
As Diane tells Dana that they are spending the night at the Holiday Inn, Dana says, I remember that place, and it's obvious, once more, that Dana is a "lost cause." Waiting for Steve to get home, Robbie and Carol Ann get ready to go to bed as Diane is dying the Bride of Frankenstein gray streaks in her hair (symbolic that something has died in her, and this is the first step of wisdom, but Dana encouraged her to color it so she is....). Robbie, getting ready for bed, sees the strange face of his clown doll and attempts (for the second time in the film) to cover it with his red jacket. Robbie and Carol Ann had been fighting over toys earlier, as if nothing had happened, so what we really have to determine is, the house wasn't cleaned after all: even one speck of sin is sufficient to allow the demons back in, and they put up a really good fight.
Why are clowns so spooky? Because they're not supposed to be, but make-up used to "make-up" a clown can be deceiving, and it's that potential of deception which casts doubt on the motivations of the toy. There is also the element of abuse: toys are supposed to be played with, not play with the children like they are toys, and Robbie and Carol Ann are supposed to love each other, not fight as if they never met. So there is an element of "reflectiveness" which this spooky toy clown provides, as if he is a reflection of Robbie who is "robbing" Carol Ann of the security and protection she needs.
 As the beast launches its second attack and the animated clown takes down Robbie, Diane, blow drying her hair, doesn't hear the commotion in the next room; she's literally blowing "hot air," instead of the Breath of Life which her and Carol Ann both received (she makes an act of vanity instead of clinging to her hard won wisdom). Why does the clown drag Robbie under the bed? The bed in the Old Testament was a prophetic device for the Cross: as Christ would lay down upon the Cross and be crucified, so the Patriarchs would "suffer upon their couches," and the same metaphors are used in the Song of Songs. Having been absent from his sister's rescue, the suffering which Robbie is trying to escape (by pretending everything is normal) is "dragging him under."
The reason there has to be a  "scary monster" in horror films is because it's an accurate reflection of what the soul of the main character looks like. She's seeing this because it's her, and that's why demons are so powerful: they show the horror of what you have become, but you don't realize it's you (because if we did, we would also realize that we have the power to change it, but the beasts don't want us to know that, they want us powerless). The reason Steve saw the "beast" he saw when he tries to pull Diane and Carol Ann out too soon earlier in the film is because that's what Steve was when Diane was only 16, a sexual beast, like the wolf man.
Meanwhile, the beast has found Diane on her bed and literally starts humping her; why? She's letting Dana be humped at that very moment (Dana had gone on a date and was remembering the Holiday Inn earlier, remember? Diane is now paying for letting her daughter be promiscuous). Why does she crawl up the ceiling? Most mothers would be crawling up the ceiling if they even suspected what Diane knows Dana to be doing and Diane doesn't care, so the beast is literally showing her the proper way she should be behaving. Robbie stats fighting with the toy clown the way he might fight with Carol Ann. Meanwhile, Diane and Robbie are so consumed with their battles, they don't notice that the closet door is opening back up again....
Literally in the pool of death and with the colored shirt that the skeleton is wearing, there is no reason to not understand that "dead man" as her husband Steve. There isn't any symbolic difference between this sequence and the ones in Carnival of Souls and Nights of Cabiria.
The reason she falls into the swimming pool, which is also the muddy pit, is the same reason that Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls falls in: it's a fall from grace, and that's why horror films terrify us so much, it makes us genuinely see the horror of what we ourselves do and cover with blurry images and the noise of justifying it (please see Being-Unto-Death: Carnival of Souls). The second time she falls in is, literally, this second encounter with the beast that is going on at that very moment: she slipped on the mud of instead of standing on solid ground (Christian teaching and doctrine) and so she didn't understand what happened the first go, so she has to learn the lesson again (all the different skeletons are the different people effected by her sin; I would be able to make a stronger case for this had I the time to post on An American Werewolf in London, but that will have to wait). Think I'm wrong on this? What does she use to start climbing up the side of the pool? The air machine which reflects back on the air/breath that her and Carol Ann needed when they "came out" the first time.
Test shot of the "crawling up the wall" sequence.
I'm really sorry, I had no intention of making a post this long. Oh, well... you can skip around...
The really long hallway is a great image, because this is the type of moment which Christians are (supposedly) constantly preparing for: the running of the race (this will be important in The Exorcist). Diane hasn't been preparing, so that's why this trial now seems so overwhelming (remember, "Deep calling on deep," and she doesn't have the deep faith to meet the deep challenge). Because her love for her children is strong, that offers fuel for the Holy Spirit and she's able to meet the challenge.
A very young Spielberg directing Nelson.
But now, we're facing a monster that's.... a giant mouth. It's much like Return of the Jedi in 1983 when Luke and Hans are going to be thrown into the desert mouth giant monster... in Poltergeist, it symbolizes one thing: the family's lingering appetites, and that's enough to permit all this evil back in. We don't realize that the allowance of even our slightest sins, is an invitation to greater sins and all the beast needs to make our souls his home. But we also aren't prepared for the incredible outpouring of Grace that God desires to give us, when we only ask for it. "God, help me!" Diane screams, trying to pull Robbie and Carol Ann out of the room, and she's given the strength to save them from the demon, and this is a miracle: not only that she asked, but that she was able to respond to God's grace.
A parent reaching out to her kids.
The coffins coming up are, literally, of the old, and I think this goes back to earlier, the invoking of the year 1976 when the United States turned 200, and the "old skeletons" still in the closet which hadn't been properly retired (I just don't have room to write about it here, maybe a book someday). What's so funny (and Spielberg really is a funny guy) at that moment, Dana pulls up in a red sports car (remember, red is the appetites) and gets out; this is the first time in the film that her hair has been pulled back, and it clearly shows that she has hickeys... so we know what she's been doing. As they drive away, Steve utters a famous phrase from the Old Testament, "Don't look back," invoking the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (and even another Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy tells Marian, "Don't look at it, close your eyes and don't look!").
Holiday Inn in the background.
At the end, the family hasn't just made it to a safer location, they have made it to a plane of genuine conversion, saved by Carol Ann's ordeal. The sign "Holiday Inn" reflects not just a hotel--a symbol of a temporary dwelling for the soul (this will be important in The Shining)--but also a place of transition. Similarly, Holiday Inn is not only a hotel, it's also a movie (remember they were watching A Guy Named Joe earlier) and a new way of life. Lingering on the threshold, Steve accepts, for the sake of his family, that he is making  a transition; when he puts the television outside their room, he's made the hardest step: the first.

Next posts will be The Shining, Carrie, The Exorcist and The Philosophy of Evil, in that order, one a day!