The weird way the family members descend the stairs at the beginning of the film was created by having the actors walk backward up the stairs and playing the film in reverse. The same effect was used later in the movie during the scene showing video playback of the ghosts.
Steven Spielberg worked on Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial literally back to back. Principal photography on Poltergeist ended in August of 1981, then Spielberg took a few weeks off and began work on E.T. Spielberg also supervised the visual effects for both films simultaneously (which were produced at Industrial Light & Magic under the supervision of Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren). Once post production work on Poltergeist began in early 1982, Spielberg was in total control. He was responsible for the editing of the film (Spielberg's usual editor Michael Khan edited this film while Carol Littleton edited E.T), the final sound mixes and loops, the supervision of the visual effects, and the selection of Jerry Goldsmith as the composer of the score. Poltergeist and E.T opened to theaters nationwide only a week between each other during the summer of 1982, Poltergeist on June 4th and E.T. one week later on June 11th. Spielberg later said "If E.T. was a whisper, Poltergeist was a scream".
Heather O'Rourke, who played the little girl Carol-Anne, and Dominique Dunne, who played the teenage daughter, are buried in the same cemetery: Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Dunne was strangled into brain-death by her boyfriend in 1982, the year of the film's release. Six years later, O'Rourke died of intestinal stenosis.
When writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor first met with Steven Spielberg, they were being hired to write the film that eventually became Always. When Spielberg happened to mention he also had an idea for a ghost story, Grais and Victor said they'd rather write the ghost story than Always and that's how they got this job.
The crawling steak was done by using a real steak which was laid over a slot cut between the tiles in the counter top. Two wires were fastened to the bottom of the steak and a special effects operator, hidden under the counter, simply moved the wires to make the steak crawl like a caterpillar. A similar operation was done when Diane presents to Steven the chairs that move across the room by themselves. A wire was fastened to one of the chair's legs under the set. An operator first wobbled the chair with the wire, then dragged the chair across to its destination.
The shot of the chairs that position themselves in the amazing balancing act on the table was all done in one take. As the camera panned along with JoBeth Williams, who was getting some cleaning materials, several crew members quickly set an already organized pyramid of chairs on the table, then took the single chairs away before the camera scrolled back. See Goofs entry.
Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper wanted virtually unknown actors to play the Freelings because they wanted to add a realism to the family that would off-balance the ghost story. They felt that if the audience watched well-known stars, then it would take away from the realistic feel of the characters.
The swirling, flickering lights coming from the closet during the rescue scene were achieved using a very simple effect by having an aquarium full of water in front of a spotlight. Then a fan blew on the surface of the water to make it swirl.
In addition to the two times that the Beast appeared in the movie (the face that appeared in the closet and the creature that guarded the kid's door), the script had it appearing during the scene where the family and investigators are looking at the tape of the manifestation. The giant ghost that they saw visually slowly resolved itself into the image of a face of a cruel old man: the man we know in the later films as 'Reverend Henry Kane.'
During all the horrors that proceeded while filming Poltergeist (1982), only one scene really scared Heather O'Rourke: that in which she had to hold onto the headboard, while a wind machine blew toys into the closet behind her. She fell apart; Steven Spielberg stopped everything, took her in his arms, and said that she would not have to do that scene again.
When Steve Freeling first meets with the university paranormal specialists, he states that his wife, Diane Freeling, was "32" at the time, and their eldest daughter, Dana, was "16". Thus, Diane was only sixteen years-old when she gave birth to Dana.
Though on-screen credit goes to Tobe Hooper, a wealth of evidence suggests that most of the directorial decisions were made by Steven Spielberg. In fact, Spielberg had wanted to direct the film himself, but a clause in his contract stated that while still working on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg could not direct another film. Members of the cast and crew, including Executive Producer Frank Marshall and actress Zelda Rubinstein, have stated that Spielberg cast the film, directed the actors, and designed every single storyboard for the movie himself. Based on this evidence, the DGA opened a probe into the matter, but found no reason that co-director credit should go to Spielberg.
When originally released in the UK the film was given an 'X' certificate, prohibiting anyone under 18 from seeing the film. This was due to a delay in the BBFC's introduction of the new '15' certificate (which replaced the old 'AA' rating), and UIP's wish to release the film as soon as possible. When the '15' certificate was introduced in August 1983 the film was re-rated.
In one scene, Steve and Diane Freeling are in their bedroom and the movie A Guy Named Joe is playing on their television. Not only is this a movie about a dead person who is still "hanging around" as the spirits in this film are, but Steven Spielberg remade A Guy Named Joe seven years later as Always.
James Karen at the time was also the commercial spokesman for PathMark supermarkets. He received hate mail from people saying they would never shop there again because of his character's treatment of the Freelings.
Many people believe there's a curse on the Poltergeist franchise, that may have been caused by the use of real skeletons on-set, e.g. several actors in the franchise have died, and this became the focus of The E True Hollywood Story.
When questioned about who had the greater control over Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg or Tobe Hooper, Spielberg replied "Tobe isn't... a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, I'd jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of our collaboration." Co-producer Frank Marshall spoke out to the press and claimed "the creative force of the movie was Steven. Tobe was the director and was on set every day. But Steven did the design for every storyboard and was only absent for three days during the shoot, because he was in Hawaii with (George) Lucas." Hooper later claimed that he did half of the storyboards. Spielberg then sent a letter to Hooper to clarify matters: "Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me...a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project." Zelda Rubinstein disagreed. While Hooper set up the shots, it was Spielberg who made the adjustments, and most of the time, Hooper was "only partially there" on set. The issue then of who had creative control over Poltergeist is still a muddy issue even today.
The highest grossing horror film of 1982, and the eighth highest grossing film of the year. The film was reissued in October, 1982 to take advantage of the Halloween weekend. It was also shown in theaters for one night only on October 4, 2007 to promote the new restored and remastered 25th anniversary DVD, released five days later. The event also included a documentary about poltergeist phenomena, which is available on the DVD.
The late 00's saw a homage to Poltergeist in a DirecTV commercial. Craig T. Nelson reprised the role of Steve Freeling, complaining to Carol Anne and the audience that the static on the TV set is just bad cable reception and quips "Not getting rid of cable. THAT'S gonna come back to haunt me!" Heather O'Rourke's family were pleased with the ad, for keeping her memory alive.
JoBeth Williams had a supernatural experience during the making of the film. Whenever she came home from filming, the pictures on the walls of her house were crooked. Everytime she fixed them they would hang crooked again. Zelda Rubinstein also had an experience when a vision of her dog came to her and said goodbye to her. Hours later, her mother called her and told Rubinstein that her dog had passed away that very day.
Heather O'Rourke was chosen for the film when she was eating lunch with her mother and sister at an MGM commissary. Steven Spielberg came up to them and wanted O'Rourke for the part of Carol Anne. She initially failed the screentest because she kept laughing her way through the audition, even when she was supposed to be afraid. Spielberg thought she was too young to take the part seriously, but he still recognized something special in her, so he asked her to come back for another audition, and this time, bring a scary storybook with her. He also asked her to scream, so she screamed and screamed until she started crying. This audition got her cast as Carol Anne.
The scene where Diane is attacked in her bedroom by an invisible force was actually filmed in a rotating box with a stationary camera. This gave the appearance she was being dragged up the wall and across the ceiling.
The original cast of Poltergeist included veteran actor Edward Ashley, who portrayed Dr Lesh's older and wiser colleague, who convinced her to bring in Tangina to handle the case. The scene was cut from the film.
The theme music is known as "Carol Anne's theme". It was originally titled "Bless this House" and was written like a lullaby as a contrast to the horror in the film. There are lyrics which can be found on the Internet.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The house that gets sucked into a black hole at the end was actually a model about four feet across. The model took several weeks to complete. The shot was arranged with the camera placed directly above model, which was mounted over an industrial strength vacuum generator (the front door was facing directly up, straight at the camera). The model also had about 100 wires attached to various points of the structure. These wires went down through the back of the house, and down through the vacuum collection sack. The camera was turned on, and took 15 seconds to wind up to the required 300 frames per second. The vacuum was turned on, the wires were yanked, and several SFX guys blasted the house with pump-action shotguns. The entire scene was over in about two seconds, and they had to wait until the film was developed before they knew if they would have to do it again. Luckily, they got it right on the first take. The finished scene was sent to Steven Spielberg, who was on location shooting E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He gave it to a projectionist, who assumed it was dailies from ET and was startled by the images. Spielberg had the remains of the model encased in perspex, and it is now sitting on his piano. The model itself was worth well over $25,000.
During the scene where Robbie (Oliver Robins) is being strangled, the clown's arms became extremely tight and Robbins started to choke. When he screamed out, "I can't breathe!" Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper thought that the boy was ad-libbing and just instructed him to look at the camera. When Spielberg saw Robbins's face turning purple, he ran over and removed the clown's arms from Robbins's neck.
JoBeth Williams was hesitant about shooting the swimming pool scene because of the large amount of electrical equipment positioned over and around the pool. In order to comfort her, Steven Spielberg crawled in the pool with her to shoot the screen. Spielberg told her, "Now if a light falls in, we will both fry." The strategy worked and Williams got in the pool.
After the procession of ghosts that down the stairs from the Carol Anne's bed room to the living room, Dr. Lesh reviews the videotapes together with her assistants and Freeling family, showing them in different TV screens. In one of them the ghosts seem to be dressed in old suits with hats. In Poltergeist II: The Other Side, it's revealed that under the Freeling's home there is a mass grave of a sect of the 19th century, whose buried themselves in the belief that came the end of the world. In the flashbacks are shown the members of the sect, whose appearance resemble strongly the ghosts recorded by Dr. Lesh.