This article was originally published on the Spooky Southcoast Web site, but was recently lost when we redid some of our format. As I was reading Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend, whose author Dr. June Pulliam will appear on the show August 27th, and after listening to so much nostalgia based on the new Ghostbusters movie, I thought back to the impact this movie had on me and decided to repost this…
Like many people my age, my ideas about the paranormal were formed from the movies of the 1970s and 1980s. I remember being left in the library for hours on end and gravitating to the books of ghost and UFO stories, but there was something in the easy access visual medium of those movies that stuck with me. I can more easily remember the glowing eyes and red room of Amityville Horror and the spinning head of the Exorcist than I can the lessons of Hans Holzer and Brad Steiger. There was something exclusive and esoteric about those books, but the movies were for us all, lessons taught crouching behind the sofa while my parents watched HBO or staying up late in my sisters’ room watching the late version of The Movie Loft on 38. They formed what I knew ghosts were and whet my appetite for shows like In Search of and Sightings. Those were the reinforcement, but cinema was my hook.
If the general public knows what they know about serial killers from Psycho and Silence of the Lambs and what they know about sharks from Jaws, I learned everything I know about noisy ghosts from 1983’s Poltergeist. I was about to watch it at the tender age of 9 (when it came out on HBO) because it was only PG, and for that same reason I was able to frighten a room full of teenagers thirty years later by showing it to my class on the last day of school. In the age of Paranormal Activity and shows like Ghost Hunters you would think they would have been yawning, but that was not the case. They were literally on the edge of their seats, jumping at the right moments and covering their eyes from time to time.
The movie holds up, but does its ideas on the paranormal, especially what it tells us about poltergeists.
This week, as we welcome in poltergeist authority Geoff Holder, I reflect back on what I learned from the flick I have seen more time than just about any other movie. If you take into account we really don’t know much about any kind of paranormal activity, that there is no straightforward ideas we can cast our anchor on, there are some general ideas brought about by the movie that spit in the face of modern ideas about poltergeists. I ask you to ignore the other movies in the series (an idea that will passionately fought about by Tim Weisberg) and understand that as we have developed more of a social exploration of the topic, we have dissected different aspects of hauntings to try and classify things.
None of what I say takes away the impact of the movie for me. I still cringe thinking about certain parts and embrace the idea of the curse (that’s another post altogether) while watching every single time I see it is on.
Poltergeists are the spirits of people and can act together to haunt people
One of the fundamental ideas put forward by the original movie is that the activity in the house is due to the people still buried underneath the house. Their spirits have been disturbed and disrespected, and they together decide to exact revenge on the humans living above them. I know the idea changes as the movies progress, but as a stand alone work of art, Poltergeist teaches us that the spirits form some sort of union and collectively decide to strike. There would seem to be some overpowering spirit that acts as the shop steward in this, but this idea has no real place in the paranormal world we know now. While this may be more the direction of demonic spirits, it would seem most ghosts, even if they are existing in the same space, have very little interaction with each other, especially if there was no connection to the people in life. There are some notable exceptions to this, but for the most part strangers in life, dying at different times, don’t act together.
That point can be argued, but when you then think about what poltergeist spirits mean to most people today, the movie misses the mark dramatically. Most people don’t even think of these spirits as people but rather telekinetic energy of the living who suffer some sort of trauma in the house. The activity is almost always the work of one spirit that focuses the activity on one member of the family, although everyone in the house is disturbed by what is going on. That disruption can create something very real with its own personality, but the personality usually reflects the id part of the person who created it, doing the things the helpless can’t. Things can get as physical as they do in the movies, one of the things that separate poltergeists from other types of hauntings, but this points to them being more the product of usable energy than spiritual energy. Ghosts can impact the physical world, especially electronics, but they don’t strike out with the same force as poltergeists.
Poltergeists, and ghosts in general, can abduct children and bring them to the ether of the spirit world
This may be the most disturbing moment of the movie and the one my parents often sited when I was being bad a child or they wanted me stay in line. If you don’t clean your room, the ghosts might come and take you away (I’d expand on that, but that psychological damage is for my personal journal). This idea feels ridiculous now; great cinema, but more artistic license than supernatural moment, but it was a real fear for people when they saw this movie. There have been example of time slips or stories of potential parallel universe bumps, and many people who have Near Death Experiences talk about being brought over to the other side for moments before deciding to come back. That is not what happens in the movie. They take Carolann from her bedroom hold her hostage in the veil, and confuse her into thinking she is playing with children until she is rescued by her father.
There are stories of people, mainly children, being taken from their homes, but most of these fall more into the urban legends we come across in the paranormal world. Ghosts, even poltergeists, have been caught in lies, and again there are many of these kinds of tales when it comes to the demonic, but the whole thing seems like something I read in my collection of Irish folklore, and even they only carry their children into the fairy realm.
Poltergeists can be photographed or can be talked to using the television
The most memorial moment of the movie, the catchphrase that survives the series, might be its most seminal lie. This one might the one uncomfortable for some people, and in that way we really need to understand that there is no formal classification of spirits and no set characteristics of any single part of the paranormal. That being said, there are some accepted classifications of spirits and set characteristics of the paranormal. Poltergeists can tear a room apart and throw people across the room, but they are not thought of as having any aspect of themselves presented in a corporal way to the people they haunt. Maybe you can capture a smear of energy, but not couples walking calmly down the stairs. This is even more strongly a media creation if you accept the idea that they are the energy of the living.
Most reports of poltergeist activity reflects a very remedial form of communication. There are a series of knocks for basic answers to questions. They are not known for leaving EVPs or written messages, and you never hear of that kind of spirit having a long conversation with someone. These things all exist in other forms of ghosts, and are the touchstone moments in many of our paranormal lives. In this situation though, the ghost just would not talk that way.