Mention Poltergeist (1982) to any horror fan and the first thing out of their mouths is likely to be the undying rumour Steven Spielberg secretly directed it (therefore making the credited director, Tobe Hooper, some kind of marionette or patsy). This story circulated before the film’s release, with the DGA (Directors Guild of America) going so far as to investigate and the Jaws (1975) filmmaker issuing a clarification to the press, describing the pair’s working relationship as misinterpreted. (It was, but that’s a whole different conversation.)
Released in the US on June 4th, 1982, Poltergeist was a box office smash and became one of the most influential haunted-house shockers of modern times. If it isn’t the Spielberg-Hooper conspiracy theory aired, real-life tragedies surrounding key cast members might be discussed, typically with the insinuation added, that these films were ‘cursed’, having displeased the spirit world. Nothing that happened to the cast had anything to do with ghosts.
A few months after Poltergeist’s release, 22-year-old Dominique Dunne (who played the eldest Freeling child, Dana) was strangled in the driveway of her West Hollywood home by ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney. This horrific attack was so severe, it left Dunne in a coma. With no evidence of brain activity, the unbearable decision made to turn off the life-support machine. In 1985 Julian Beck, the acclaimed theatre director and sometime screen actor, died from stomach cancer during the making of Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986). Beck’s gaunt features and use of a sing-song southern lilt added memorably to his portrayal of the villain, Reverend Kane. In 1987, Will Sampson, the First Nations actor who appeared in The Other Side as shaman-exorcist, Taylor, passed away from health complications related to a heart and lungs transplant. Before the release of Poltergeist III, in February 1988, arguably most shocking of all, little Heather O’Rourke, who had by the third picture become the franchise’s Ellen Ripley-style central figure, died aged 12 from a bowel condition. Director Gary Sherman was forced by the MGM board to finish the three-quel in post-production and release it, with the cast and crew against doing so. O’Rourke’s death ended the series’ original cinematic run.
All the talk surrounding Poltergeist centres on the Hooper-Spielberg relationship, or the sad fates of cast members. One of the most influential horror films of the modern age, what rarely gets discussed is JoBeth Williams’ role as Diane Freeling. This young mother of three is one of cinema’s great unsung heroines, and it’s about time she got recognised and joined others in the pantheon of kickass heroines of the big screen. There’s nothing particularly cool or awesome about Diane Freeling, at a glance. In fact, on first appearances, she’s so ordinary as to be invisible … playing her role as what today would be called the ‘Soccer Mom’ stereotype. Looks deceive, however.
Tobe Hooper took a key part in the development of the Final Girl character in horror, co-writing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) with Kim Henkel, the origins of which can be found in the Grimm-penned fairy tales as much as urbanite fears of rural folk. Marilyn Burns’ Sally Hardesty is arguably the ultimate Final Girl. Her ordeal at the hands of the cannibal clan is intriguing as she doesn’t crumble, even though she’s freaked out big time. She finds an inner strength to save her own neck. Neither is there a sexual violence dynamic present in the movie. Sally is food. Their tormenting her is an ironic spin on playing with your food before you eat it. Taking a gander at Hooper’s wider filmography and we discover he doesn’t do damsels-in-distress in the usual form, and although Poltergeist was written by Spielberg, with Mark Victor and Michael Grais as co-writers, it fits in with other examples. The women in his films tend to have the resources and the mental courage to save their own behinds with little help from the menfolk.
When we meet The Freelings at the beginning of Poltergeist, we find them living in an aspirational new-build neighbourhood. The father, Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), is a realtor and, we learn, his agency’s top salesman. You get the impression he could sell a haunted house to ghosts (very much putting the mort in mortgage). In one scene, he boasts his company offers potential buyers the opportunity to remodel their homes how they see fit, because of lax code violations. You want a jacuzzi in your living room? Go right ahead! What they don’t put in the brochure: they built the Cuesta Verde estate on an old graveyard. Steve wasn’t privy to that particular info. His boss hints at underhand business practice, and later on he puts two and two together. They moved the headstones, but not the corpses resting beneath. Ruh-roh…
So, when the Freelings are introduced, they’re the definitive apple pie American family: mom, pop and three kids: Dana, Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and little Carol Anne. Dad is the main breadwinner, mom keeps a clean house and supervises her youngest -pre-school daughter, while the other kids go off to school. They’re living a swell life, no real issues plaguing them, bar electrical interference with TV remote controls, meaning a neighbour can switch television channels from the other house. This bit of garden fence antagonism during a ball game is as annoying as life can get in the California ‘burbs. They’re far away from the big city with all its social problems.
The Freelings have got the extra dough to build themselves a swimming pool out back. It’s construction on this status symbol of suburbia which literally unleashes hell onto the Freelings. We also find out Steve and Diane were likely ex-hippies who left behind the counter-culture revolution of their youth and sold out to the Yankee dollar for a stab at the American dream. The kind of couple still smoking the odd doobie now and again, these days it’s about as edgy and non-conformist as they get. The film never pokes fun at the Freelings, it more finds subtle humour in the consumerist setup and the fact a company in capitalist America has zero problem building a planned community over sacred ground. Freeling’s boss in one scene says, ‘well, at least it wasn’t an Indian burial ground,’ like it’s the best excuse in the world. At least we didn’t culturally desecrate Native American land.
You’d expect in life, as in movies, once a family is confronted with an obstacle, the father of the house takes charge, or at least attempts to. That doesn’t happen in Poltergeist. Steve Freeling is often completely at a loss. He follows others. He isn’t a take-charge guy. Diane Freeling, however, is more open-minded about the ghostly incidents and ultimately it is she who emerges as the film’s true hero, the one who rallies to save her kids when the spirits attack for the second – and final time – Poltergeist using a double climax with a lull in between, luring us – and the Freelings – into a false sense of security. The structure of the family doesn’t follow classic ‘Dad knows best’ lines at all … it leans more towards working-class matriarchy, with Steve readily deferring to Diane or at least listening to what she has to say. It isn’t ‘failed masculinity™’ going on here or a portrait of somebody shirking their familial responsibilities – that’s what makes it unusual and interesting as a portrayal of a modern American family. There’s a refreshing likeability and a core strength coming from the mother that sees them through and the father uses his position as a salesman to get to the truth. In other words, Steve, unlike a lot of men, especially middle-class men, doesn’t pretend to have any answers to what’s occurring.
We first see Diane during the opening sequence making Robbie’s bed. As well as being a typical mother’s daily chore, it arguably misdirects us and our expectations: Steve is downstairs watching football with his bros, while the mother does the housework. The Star Wars bedspread and Star Wars toys not only reflects the era, but producer Spielberg’s friendship with George Lucas. It was an ingenious way to promote toys and merchandise as well as pay homage to the Star Wars creator. It would have appeared seriously odd for Robbie not to have anything Star Wars related in his bedroom. (It’s how Spielberg got away with being so shameless). In this opener, Diane notices Carol Anne’s bird, Tweetie, has died. She cusses and attempts to flush the pet down the toilet, a rather unceremonious funeral, but Carol Anne walks in and gasps. They bury the bird in the garden with required solemnity, only for the youngest Freeling to hilariously switch from sad to over it in a flash, piping up, ‘Can I have a goldfish now?’
The first half hour of Poltergeist is full of lovely bits of home life and comedy. When the kids are frightened by a storm, Steve and Diane assure their offspring there’s nothing to worry about. This is followed by a cut in which Robbie and Carol Anne are sleeping in their parents’ bed. These scenes are warm and charming, rooted in everyday life, as are breakfast scenes of the kids bickering. This slow-burn 30 minutes is pivotal because the film only really succeeds if we care about the fate of the family and go along for ghost train ride. There are other moments which ground Diane, too. Her catching a worker (played by Lou Perryman) stealing coffee and food from the kitchen or the construction workers ogling her teenage daughter as she leaves for school. She’s proud of Dana when she flips the sleazy boors the finger.
Initially amused and intrigued by the ghostly activity in her home, Diane’s instincts as a mother and fierce protector of her brood kick into gear as the movie lurches into ever-more dangerous territory and the clear and present danger is heightened. Diane is open to the ghost team investigating and munchkin medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), poking psychic her nose around. It is when Steve is being interviewed by the team, we learn something crucial and super-intriguing about Diane. Steve gives the ages of everybody in the house. We learn Diane is 32. Dana is 16. Do the math.
Diane was a teenage mother, but is Steve the father? It’s never really cleared up or mentioned again, so there’s no way of knowing. It’s fascinating because it gives Diane Freeling a really unusual backstory. Dominique Dunne obviously didn’t appear in the sequel and neither does the character. There were plans to explain she was away at college, but they were dropped. The sequel sucks and undoes a lot of good stuff laid down by the Hooper movie, anyway. Bar Julian Beck’s presence, the follow-up is a rather stupid continuation which starts to blame both Diane and Carol Anne for the ghostly happenings because they possess psychic abilities. Talk about victim-blaming.
The experiences endured by the Freelings brings them closer together as a family. It might sound dopey in a world that indulges in cynicism, but their love for each other is what makes them overcome, with Diane Freeling front and centre of the action. She’s the one who ventures into the gateway accessed through the closet door to retrieve Carol Anne from the clutches of The Beast, but more importantly, she’s there again to save Robbie and Carol Anne when the ghosts return with a vengeance for the film’s second terrifying climax.
Diane takes a bath, thinking all is well. Steve is at the office confronting his employer. Robbie and Carol Anne are playing in the bedroom they share. She exchanges a few words and kisses them goodnight. When everybody is ready for bed, the ghosts return. Diane is attacked and ends up dancing on the ceiling like she’s living the Lionel Ritchie song. Having pulled herself free, she makes for the kids’ bedroom. The closet has erupted again with spectral lights and slimy tentacles, but the bedroom door is locked. Diane is then confronted by a giant demon with spider-like legs and a skeleton-style face (Tangina refers to this evil entity as The Beast), which attempts to frighten her off like a guard dog. She screams ‘Don’t touch my babies!’ and is thrown down the stairs. When she goes outside to get help from her neighbours, nobody answers. It’s then she falls into the swimming pool and skeletons rise up from the water. All this and she doesn’t crumble and run off. Her resilience is amazing. She’s a mother who won’t take shit from anybody, living or deceased. She’s pulled out of the pool by neighbours (who’ve finally turned up) and she says, ‘I’ve got to get them.’ She pleads with the male neighbour for assistance, but none is forthcoming. He seems befuddled and doesn’t act because he’s unable to appreciate or connect to her experience of terror in the moment. It’s as if his attitude is: the Freelings are acting like lunatics and lowering the tone of the neighbourhood.
Running back into the house, shouting ‘Get away from my babies!’, Diane is on the landing when the corridor weirdly elongates, warping time and space. Limping, scared, but steadfast, Diane’s tired hop turns into a full-on desperate sprint to the bedroom and she manages to pull Robbie and Carol Anne from the jaws of death and to safety. Steve and Dana return to the house at this exact moment, allowing the Freelings to flee into the night, where they find safety at a local motel. We are so often focused on the ‘strong woman’ in action cinema or the final girl in horror flicks, a character like Diane Freeling can slip our attention. Likely there are others that need reassessing and celebrating. She isn’t alone as an example. Poltergeist is a big-budget summer blockbuster, sure, but that doesn’t mean it avoids subtext or doesn’t have anything valuable to say about life and people. The film pays homage to the inner resolve and profound love mothers have for the kids, recognising their extraordinary qualities are always relied upon in times of deep crisis. In Diane Freeling we see Final Girl become Final Mom, self-preservation is transformed into selflessness.