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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Poltergeist can be found here.
Strange things begin to occur in the Freeling house, a seemingly average home in the burgeoning housing development of Cuesta Verde, California. Furniture moves around on its own, silverware is twisted out of shape, and five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) begins hearing voices talking to her through a dead channel on the television. When eight-year-old son Robbie (Oliver Robins) is pulled out the window by a snarly old tree and Carol Anne disappears after being sucked into her closet through a wind tunnel, parents Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) suspect they may be haunted by poltergeists and call in psychic investigators.
Poltergeist is based on a screenplay written by American film-maker Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Michael Grais and Mark Victor. However, a novelization, also titled Poltergeist, was released in 1982 by American writer James Kahn. The popularity of the movie spawned two sequels Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1985) and Poltergeist III (1988). A remake, also titled Poltergeist, was released in 2015.
Literally, poltergeist can be translated as "noisy ghost," from German poltern "to make noises" + geist "ghost." The typical poltergeist story is characterized by noises, moving furniture, breaking dishes, etc., usually when no one is looking. At first, the poltergeists in the film are fairly benign, performing such pranks as bending forks, breaking a glass, moving and stacking the kitchen chairs. As the movie progresses, however, they become much more malevolent but don't seem intent on harming the Freelings.
It was a diversion to keep everyone away from Carol Anne by making the storm look like a tornado. When the tree pulled Robbie out of the bedroom and lodged him in its trunk, Steve and Diane and Robbie's 16-year-old sister Dana (Dominique Dunne) hurried outside to free him, leaving Carol Anne alone. The poltergeists were then able to create a windtunnel that sucked Carol Anne into the closet and into their dimension.
Spiritualist Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) explains to the Freelings that the ghosts are attracted to Carol Anne because she is a living presence to them. The ghosts haven't yet learned to go forward (i.e., into the light) in their own deaths. Carol Anne's strong lifeforce is luminescent, and the ghosts see her as a reminder of the lives they once lived. Also, during the scene where Steve is on a hill overlooking his neighborhood with Mr Teague (his boss), it is revealed through their conversation that Carol Anne was born in the Freelings' house, and that the land used to be a cemetery, so it's possible that Carol Anne has a special connection with the ghosts.
In some systems of belief about the afterlife, the transition from life to death is through a tunnel that leads to a light. To follow that tunnel and go into the light is to pass into the afterlife with no hope of returning to one's earthly life. For this reason, the scientists do not want Carol Anne to go into the light.
Because there is another presence there...the Beast. The Beast, who appears to Carol Anne as a child and a friend, is using her luminescence to keep the ghosts away from the light, to keep them trapped in the nether plane with him. She does attempt to coerce them into the light, but Steven interrupts her, mistakenly believing her words are meant for his wife and daughter.
It depends on the viewer's interpretation or on their belief system. "The Beast" is a phrase that's often used as a name for the Devil. However, it could be Tangina's word for a demon or some other type of violent spirit. Tangina never assigns an actual identity to the spirit itself, but she knows that it's malevolent and wants the souls of those who haven't crossed over and are haunting the house. It also wants Carol Anne. Tangina says that the Beast is drawn to Carol Anne's life force. The Beast is not, however, the "poltergeist" of the title. A poltergeist is a restless but typically non-harmful spirit. The spirits that haunt the Freelings' house are doing so merely because they're lost between our world and the next. They likely would have returned Carol Anne unharmed after she'd been able to help them.
Those two events are the Beast trying to scare everyone in the hope that they would leave the house. The bite was very real and was the Beast's first attempt, which wasn't enough to get everyone to leave. The mirror scene was an hallucination of Marty's, but it still scared him.
It would seem strange or like a plot hole that only one house built on the grounds of a former cemetery would be affected, especially since cemeteries often cover much more ground than the plot of land the Freeling home sits on. The paranormal phenomena being concentrated only in the one home is never fully explained in this film. It could simply be that the poltergeists found that the strongest concentration of spiritual or dimensional energy was located there and they were able to use it to create the portal into our world. Also, with Carol Anne possessing such a strong luminescence herself, the spirits from the old cemetery were drawn from all of its land to the spot where she herself was located.
With Steve away at a meeting and Dana out on a date, Diane gets Robbie and Carol Anne ready for bed and then lays down on her own bed. Just as they are about to fall asleep, Robbie hears a knocking. He sits up to look and notices that the clown has disappeared. As he looks around for it, the clown suddenly grabs him and pulls him under the bed. Diane hears Robbie's screams but, before she can do anything, she is pulled up and over the ceiling by an unseen force. Another portal opens in the closet and attempts to suck the children into it. Diane tries to get into their bedroom but is lunged at by the snarling Beast. Diane falls down the stairs and runs outside, screaming for the neighbors to help. In the rain and slick mud, she falls into the recently-excavated pit for the new swimming pool and is horrified to see corpses and coffins popping up all around her. Mr Tuthill (Michael McManus) pulls her out of the pit but refuses to enter the house to get the children. Diane goes in alone and finds Robbie and Carol Anne hanging onto the bed while the vortex pulls their legs toward it. Diane manages to get the children out of the bedroom and runs outside just in time to see Steve and Mr Teague (James Karen) drive up. As more and more coffins pop out of the ground, Steve realizes that Teague lied to him when he assured him that they moved the cemetery before building the houses. 'You only moved the headstones, but you left the bodies!' Steve charges. He gets everyone, including Dana who has just returned from her date, into the car and they drive away as the entire house is imploded into the portal, while the neighbors look on in horror. In the final scene, the family checks into a Holiday Inn and prepares for a good night's sleep, but not before Steve rolls the television set outside onto the balcony.
The likely motive is revenge for being foiled in its plans. The Beast is a violent and angry demonic force that probably wasn't pleased with being defeated. So to get back at the Freelings, it came back after the kids and tried to force them into its world. Another explanation lies in what Tangina said about Carol Anne...she possesses a very strong life force. Perhaps the Beast thought swallowing her would increase its own power.
As has been often noted, there seems to be a bit missing between when Diane is explaining to Steven about the "sliding phenomena" in their kitchen and when they suddenly appear on their neighbors' doorstep; the scene cuts right in the middle of Diane's line. The first draft of the script contained this additional material:
You can't believe the feeling.
What's the gag? There a magnet back there?
He looks behind the door in the dining room. Nothing. Steve just stands for a long moment in hapless silence, then...
I hate Pizza Hut! Where's supper? I don't understand, Diane. What the hell's going on around here?
Steve sidesteps the chalk marks, removing himself from the active area.
I figured I'd never explain it to you. So I showed you instead, but don't ask me how or what. Just help me figure out what to do.
You mean there's no gimmick?
Not from inside the house. Maybe Tuthill got himself a super remote from the Radio Shack.
Carol Anne adjusts her helmet and sits inside her launch circle. Diane and Steve are having the discussion across the room and aren't aware of her.
Maybe the shakeup and this thing...relate.
Daddy, look at me!!
They turn but it's too late. Carol Anne shoots across the room faster than before, and with no one to catch her.
At a sickening speed her helmet smashes into the wall. Diane SCREAMS. Steve runs over. An eight-inch hole in the wall and the cracked plastic on the helmet testify to the force of impact. Carol Anne is dazed but unhurt.
You promised pizza.
Rumors that Poltergeist is cursed began just months after the movie's release when 22-year-old Dominique Dunne (who plays the elder Freeling daughter Dana) was strangled by her jealous boyfriend, suffered brain death, and died five days later. Rumors intensified when, six years later, 12-year-old Heather O'Rourke (who plays Carol Anne) died suddenly of septic shock due to intestinal stenosis (a narrowing of the intestine that causes partial blockage). Two other actors who appeared in Poltergeist II also died within the six years after the film was released.
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