The Voice from the Void: American Spiritualism & Poltergeist
Published on June 12th, 2012 | by Hans Staats0
Speaking to a full house at The Alamo Ritz, Eric “Quint” Vespe, film critic and contributing editor at “Ain’t It Cool News,” paid tribute to Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s landmark American horror film “Poltergeist.” Vespe’s childhood memories of “Poltergeist,” I have discovered, are nearly identical to those of many of the audience members I have spoken to at the Summer of 1982 film series. There is a sense of cultural camaraderie here at The Ritz, a kind of cinéaste hive mind that is reminiscent, I would imagine, of the Cinémathèque Française under Henri Langlois.
Alamo’s dedication to the significance of film culture as a historical and experiential archive taps into not only my own childhood impressions of cinema, but also the wonder at cinema’s effect upon modernity at large, for example the culture of French film of the 1940s and ’50s. Langlois’s Cinémathèque attracted many of the directors now associated with European modernism: Robert Bresson, René Clément, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jacques Becker. And the directors that would form the French New Wave or la Nouvelle Vague (Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Roger Vadim, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Pierre Kast) followed in their footsteps. Who, I ask myself, is receiving their film education by attending the Summer of 1982 series at The Alamo Ritz?
In the age of digital cinema and media, the Summer of 1982 is a nostalgic look into the rearview mirror, a longing for the era of celluloid film and the now arcane, and much romanticized, practice of cult cinephilia. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Colson Whitehead writes about growing up on the Upper East Side in the 1970s. “Other kids played in Central Park,” Whitehead writes, they “participated in athletics, basked and what have you in the great outdoors. I preferred to lie on the living-room carpet, watching horror movies. . . . I dwelled in a backward age, full of darkness, before the VCR boom, before streaming and on-demand, before DVRs roamed the cable channels at night, scavenging content. Either a movie was on or it wasn’t.” Whitehead, the author of the recent literary zombie novel “Zone One,” describes his film education as a failure to distinguish “between good movies and bad movies. . . . This is what I understood about art: its very existence was credential enough. If it had posters and TV ads and contained within its frames actual human beings who had posed before cameras and mouthed words, it satisfied the definition of a movie, and that was enough for me.”
What I find most interesting about “Poltergeist,” and what Spielberg is so adept at capturing on film, is the sense of childlike wonder at the sight of horror, monstrosity, and “bad movies.” It is childhood, that most human experience, and the memory of late twentieth century genre film vis-à-vis television that, for me, is the overriding thematic concern of “Poltergeist.” It is what Jeffrey Sconce refers to as electronic presence or “haunted media,” the “sense of disembodied communion” that we as consumers and viewers experience in our everyday, and yet supernatural, encounters with electronic telecommunications (telegraphy, telephony, radio, television). Sconce writes, “Tales of imperious, animate, sentient, virtual, haunted, possessed, and otherwise ‘living’ media might seem at first no more than curious anecdotes at the fringes of American popular culture.” Yet the absurdity and anachronism of “spiritual technology,” or the “fascination with the discorporative,” is a key component of the virtual age that we live in today. The emancipating possibilities of our virtual lives “is in many ways simply an echo of this strange electronic logic, a collective fantasy of telepresence that allowed a nation to believe . . . that a little girl could talk to the dead over an invisible wire.”
The iconic image of seven-year-old Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) staring into the abyss of late night TV, conjuring a spirit world from the white fuzz, is ingrained within the cinematic and cultural experience of Vespe, Whitehead, Sconce, and the Children of 1982. Likewise, Carol Anne’s announcement to her family that “they’re heeeere” is a chilling commentary upon the suburban anxieties of America and the conservative “Reagan Revolution.” There is a disturbingly fine line in “Poltergeist” between humor and horror. On the one hand, we have Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus) taking aim at each other with their remote controls, frantically switching between the Los Angeles Rams football game and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” On the other hand, we have Diane Freeling’s (JoBeth Williams) terrifying descent into the unfinished cavity of the family swimming pool, surrounded by the unearthed caskets and skeletal remains of the Indian burial ground upon which the planned community of Cuesta Verde is constructed.
The fantastique, a genre within French literature and cinema that is part science fiction, part horror, and part fantasy, is defined by the intrusion of the supernatural into an otherwise realist narrative. Influenced in the nineteenth century by the Victorian Gothic (Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Maturin), German Romanticism (E.T.A. Hoffmann, Richard Wagner), and the American Romantic Movement (Edgar Allen Poe), the fantastique is a key element within “Poltergeist.” It is the pin that bursts the bubble of Cuesta Verde’s colonization of Native America and is a harbinger of the subprime mortgage crisis that we are all too familiar with today. “Poltergeist,” in short, is the Spirit(ualism) of America.