Artwork by David “Vyle” Levy
“They’re here…” Our hairs rise at that singsong call of the child co-opted by demons. More than three decades later those words and this film still terrify. The 1982, Steven Spielberg movie, Poltergeist, suggests that a destructive presence lurks outside the realm of human psychology and therefore beyond our capacities to intervene. The Freeling family: Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (Jobeth Williams) and their three children: Carole Anne, Dana and Robbie are powerless once the poltergeist slips through their television set and stakes claim on Carole Anne (Heather O’Rourke).
Might it be that this film shows the unconscious at work, turning emotions into nightmarish images that make them easier to interact with?
When we meet the “Free-lings” they are, as their name suggests, free. They live in a nice home in the quiet sunny suburbs. They are beautiful and loving without being corny or conceited. They are, one might say, enviable. The angelic five-year-old, Carole Anne, with silky blonde hair and big blue eyes is perhaps the most enviable. And so the film begins when she, like any good fairy tale victim, is innocently lured by the dark. Rather than disguised as a grandmother or young woman picking apples, the monster makes contact through a television set; the modern playing ground for the youth. Carole Anne tells the television snow her age and engages in an intriguing get-to-know you game.
Next come the paranormal events, when mom is actually disarmed at how the foreign agent restacks the kitchen chairs and makes a slide in the linoleum for the family to ride. These benign gestures prime the family for attack. Exploiting the Freelings when they are most vulnerable – at bedtime when they are separated and children feel unprotected by their parents – the poltergeist abducts Carole Anne.
It is explained to us by the medium, Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein), why Carole Anne was chosen. The displaced dead, rejecting the loss of their lives, cling to this free-ling child. “They’re attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves: her life force. …Something they desperately desire but can’t have anymore.” But there’s more at work here. There is also a demonic force that keeps Carole Ann close and pretends to be a child. Behind the mask is, Tangina explains, “So much rage, so much betrayal. I’ve never sensed anything like it. It lies to her. …it is the beast.”
The rage and envy that hold the family hostage are depicted here and in scores of children’s fairy tales for a reason. These forces terrify us. Envy frightens us as adults because even though our adult mind can think about it, our child mind could not. We carry with us into adulthood an impression of something horrific that was beyond comprehension. How many gifted, attractive, trusting children are cruelly (i.e. willfully) demoralized by adults? What about subtler versions of attack on a child’s enviable innocence and capacity for life? Most adults as we age envy the young, of course to varying degrees. The very young, though they may not fully understand, feel when they are viewed through a hungry, envious lens.
Visual images of the poltergeist “beast” are consistent with the child’s experience. From the sucking vaginal-like canal with a reaching umbilical cord that Carole Anne and Robbie cling to bed posts and door knobs to resist being pulled into, to the tree that for an instant swallows Robbie until Dad yanks him out, to the ultimate, super-human sized, haggard, skeletal creature with thin, blowing white hair, the poltergeist looks like exaggerated aspects of the envious other. The skeletal creature is life’s shell. Ancient and starving, it is fiercely determined to fill up its hollowness by robbing Carole Anne from her safe and happy family.
When destructive envy comes from caregivers, it is especially threatening to children. To adapt psychologically, children unconsciously treat it as a disembodied force. It’s not mom, or dad, or grandma, or auntie, or older brother, or the old maid next door, it’s a monster that could get me when someone I trust isn’t taking care of me. This is one of the reasons nighttime is frightening to children. It’s when they are alone and split-off aspects of a threatening adult’s psychology creep back into the child’s awareness.
These mentally immature representations of aspects of adults we encounter as children are in my view the origin of the demonic presence that haunts innocents in films like Poltergeist. Not able to know it as part of the human realm because to do so would make us feel unsafe in the world as we grow, we unconsciously locate destructive envy outside of our world, freeing us to continue to believe in the complete goodness of those on whom we are dependent for survival.