Poltergeist: A Tale of Childhood Trauma

Poltergeist: A Tale of Childhood Trauma

Film article by: Witney Seibold


            I had a lot of nightmares as a kid. My dad tells me a story of when I was not yet three years old, how I would wail in the middle of the night that beasts and monsters were slithering around under my bedcovers with me. I didn’t get a proper night’s sleep for a long time. My dad, bless him, advised that the next time I see a monster, that I simply chase it away. Miraculously, this worked. He claims that I called out one night, and announced proudly that a monster was sitting on my toe, but that I had chased it away. I was too young to remember any of this, but I trust it is true.

            Perhaps it was my childhood experience with monsters that kept drawing me back to them as I aged.

            While my elementary school classmates were doodling houses and trees and fighter jets, I was doodling monsters. When my friends and I would play make-believe, monsters always became involved somehow.  Not friendly monsters like the Purple People Eater, or Frankenstein’s monster when he was being gentle, but really horrifying creatures made of muscle and sinew and fangs. Things that were designed for destruction and death. The things of my nightmares.

            This early childhood fear of monsters became a mid-childhood obsession. I would seek out stories of monsters, make up tales to scare myself, draw pictures of things that were increasingly vicious and terrifying. I would, especially, pay extra-close attention to the previews on television for the upcoming horror films. They were usually brimming with monsters, blood, death, fear, horror, and they would thrill me. I begged my older sister to describe some of the films to me in greater detail; I wanted to know more about the horror, but I was still far too terrified to actually sit and see a scary movie.

            So when it came time for me to see my first horror, it was something of an event in my mind. I discussed it with friends, but, seeing as we were all between the ages of 7 and 10, there wasn’t a lot of experience. I finally turned to my sister again for a recommendation. What would be something really good for a little kid to start out with? Se recommended Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film “Poltergeist.” A seemingly wise choice, as it was only rated PG, and it featured kids my age. I was 8.

            Picking up the film wasn’t a straightforward process, though. I had to browse. I have to point out that browsing in video stores was another one of my favorite childhood activities. I addition to the glut of filmic wonderment in the world, I was merely impressed with the very graphic design of most videos. I liked picking up a video box, and pondering what wonders or horrors lay within. On my fateful trip to the now-closes 20/20 Video on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica to pick up my first horror film, I recall venturing into the previously-taboo horror section with a subversive glee. I looked at several films I was heretofore afraid to pick up. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3” has a photo on the back of a big slimy worm eating a young woman. “Troll” featured a picture of a man in the midst of turning into a tree. “The Evil Dead” showed a woman being dragged under the ground by a zombie hand, reaching out of its own grave. I was even thrown a little when I picked up a Megadeth music video compilation, featuring a scary skull with a bolted-on eyemask, and meathooks holding its jaw shut.

            These were all images that terrified me, and I was ready to sit through a whole film of them. But, seeing as I was 8, my mother opted for the film that was rated PG.

            We watched it as a family. Our VCR was connected to the TV in my mom’s bedroom. I sat on the floor at the foot of my mom’s bed, put the tape in, and steeled myself for my rite of passage. I was no longer going to be a fraidy li’l kid. I was going to be a cool kid who can sit through scary movies.

            Here’s the story of “Poltergeist” for those of you who haven’t seen it: The Freeling family is living in common suburban bliss in their lovely suburban home. Craig T. Nelson plays the dad, JoBeth Williams plays the mom. The three kids are played by Dominique Dunne (the teen), Oliver Robins (the 8-year-old), and Heather O’Rourke (the 5-year-old). O’Rourke’s character, Carol-Anne, begins behaving strangely one afternoon, claiming that “The TV people” have been talking to her. She has been having conversations with people through the family TV set. Furniture has begun rearranging itself around the house. Something is afoot.

            One evening, while the family sleeps, Carol-Anne invites the TV people to visit. An eerie green light emanates from the television, and burns a small hole in the wall above the headboard of her parents’ bed. Carol-Anne creepily intones “They’re here.” It was a popular line.

            Thereafter, the house explodes into horrifying happenings. Carol-Anne disappears into a glowing porthole. The family tree reaches into the son’s bedroom window and attempts to eat him. He escapes, but the son also begins having suspicions about a creepy clown toy he has on a chair. Any child who has seen this film can remember vividly the creepy clown toy; for some reason the inert clown was more terrifying than the tree-sized wood monster.

            The Freelings eventually hire a team of paranormal researches, led by the diminutive psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein). The researchers are able to trace where the TV people are entering the house, and where they are exiting. The TV people, it turns out, are malevolent poltergeists, leftover from the burial site that has been hidden under their suburban home. There is a scene where a steak crawls across a tabletop, a scene in which a man in goaded into pulling the flesh from his own face, a wiry monster with nasty claws, a gigantic doorway-sized mouth, and a scene when that clown finally fulfills its promise of harm. Eventually the Freelings rescue Carol-Anne, flee the house, and watch as the ghosts destroy the building. They move into a motel, making sure to keep the TV outside.


JoBeth Williams and friends

JoBeth Williams and friends

            As the film’s credits rolled, I bravely stood up, announced “That wasn’t so scary,” and quickly left the room.

            In actuality, I was more than terrified. I was shaken to my very bones. The monsters that used to crawl through by bed felt like they were on my body at that very moment. I couldn’t breathe. Somehow Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg (the film’s producer) were able to take the very monsters I always feared out of my head and show them to me. The film ended at about 7 pm. At 9, it was my bedtime. I had two hours to exorcize these demons before I fell asleep.

            I played some video games. I chatted with my big sister Heidi. I played with some of my toys. I did anything I could do to distract myself from my own imagination. In a mere 114 minutes, my world went from a mildly frightening, but exhilaratingly large place, to a world where ghosts and monsters were pressing their faces flat up against every window in my house. I felt, small, trapped, doomed.

            As 9 o’clock rolled around, I began wailing. My nighttime monsters were sure to return. My mother, God bless her, sat and held me for a while. We listened to Indian flute music. My sobbing subsided. This ritual did help to assuage my fears. I also came up with a few other rituals to help. My stuffed animals, I decided, were nightmare defender. They would not let nightmares get to me.

            The next day I asked my sister what the scariest film she had ever seen was. She replied that it was “Poltergeist.” Thanks a lot, I thought. Start me off with the worst one ever. Couldn’t you have started me with something easier?

            In the following five years, I had the most terrifying dreams of my life. They were not, strangely enough, “Poltergeist”-related dreams. They were just horrifying. My childhood monsters had returned. I began sleepwalking from time to time (nothing serious, although I did one telephone my dad while asleep), I talked in my sleep, I would awake crying, and run to the bathroom to vomit in fear.

            And here’s the odd thing: I was still fascinated by the monsters in my waking hours. I would still talk about them, still ask for details about horror movie previews, and still tell monster stories with my friends. I would then go home, do my evening anti-nightmare rituals, and go to bed, praying that my mind not destroy my sanity. It wasn’t death I was afraid of, so much as it was madness.

            By the time I was 14, the nightmares had subsided. When I was 15, my night terrors were reduced to noisy snoring, and even that ended by the time I graduated high school. I am now in my 30s. I am still fascinated by all things horrific, but now I can sit through horror movies with ease. I still have the occasional nightmare. Perhaps my impulses to view horror films all stems back to my inner childhood fears. I seem to be constantly struggling with my fear, in a perpetual state of exorcism that will never, ever end.

            When I was in my 20s, I told this story to a friend of mine (Hi, Richard!). His response was to buy “Poltergeist” and its two sequels for me. I watched the film again, and was surprised at how scary it still was. By itself, it’s a scary and imaginative film. But with the added bonus of my childhood trauma, it still managed to scare me. Especially that clown.


This thing ruined hundreds of children.

This thing ruined hundreds of children.

            Talking to many of my peers, it’s become clear that “Poltergeist” has ruined many a childhood. Since it was rated PG (this was before the invention of the PG-13 rating), and carried the stamp of Steven Spielberg on it (who, in the same year, brought us “E.T.”), any parents felt it was o.k. to bring their young children. The film nearly received an R rating, and, to make things more shocking, Dominique Dunn, the teenage daughter, was strangled to death by her boyfriend shortly after the film was released. Heather O’Rourke died in 1988, shortly after the filming of “Poltergeist III” of intestinal stenosis. She was 12. She’s buried in a mausoleum in Westwood. I’ve seen it.

            Well, we who were children in 1982 are now grown, and we all have the common trauma of seeing “Poltergeist” when we were too young. Ask anyone under 35 to describe the clown, and their eyes will glaze over, their shoulder will fall, and they’ll tell you a chilling story.

            Talking to my dad, though, he tells a similar story about “The Mummy’s Ghost” (1944). I guess we all have that film, that one film, that turned our nightmares back on us.

Published in: on August 18, 2008 at 8:25 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great, I traumatized my brother and had to read about it on the web… 🙂

  2. Poltergeist is the ONLY movie that scares me, it’s simply the childhood connection since it was my first and I was like 5. I grew up at the home of the Barnum & Bailey circus and LOVED clowns. I had pictures of them all over my room. After this movie, to this day I tremble in fear when I see a clown. I can’t believe this movie was PG with the guy ripping his face off, the mom smoking a joint, the toy strangling a child, the cussing – it’s unbelievable. I love Speilberg, but I will always be pissed at him for whatever manipulation he used to get this thing a PG rating. I have talked to several other people who have been traumatized by this film because they saw it way too early. I don’t believe in censorship normally, but it really reminds me of why we have a ratings system, and the need for it to be enforced.

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