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.
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.
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.
(at around 34 mins) There is a 'jump cut' from the scene where Diane is explaining to Steven about the feeling you get when the spirit pulls you across the floor. The scene jumps mid sentence to the scene where they are both on their neighbours doorstep, again in mid sentence. The reason for the cut was because in the original scene Steven says how he hates Pizza Hut. The scene was edited (rather crudely) after Pizza Hut took offence.
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.
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.
Steven Spielberg worked on Poltergeist (1982) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 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".
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.
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.
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.
Two of the film's cast members were subsequently murdered: (1) Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling) was strangled by her former boyfriend in the driveway of her West Hollywood home on October 30, 1982 and, having been declared brain dead, died five days later at the age of 22 and (2) Lou Perryman (Pugsley) was killed with an axe by a 26-year-old man named Seth Christopher Tatum in Austin, Texas on April 1, 2009. He was 67 years old at the time of his murder.
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.
Robbie has a poster in his room for Superbowl XXII, which would not take place for another six years. Heather O'Rourke died in San Diego the day after Superbowl Sunday of 1988 which was played in San Diego as well.
The late 00's saw a homage to Poltergeist (1982) 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.
Poltergeist's special effects were nominated for an Academy Award, but they lost to Spielberg's other big film of the year, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The score was also nominated for an Oscar, but again the film lost to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
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.
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.
When Steve Freeling first meets with the university paranormal specialists, he states that his wife, Diane Freeling, was "31" at the time, and their eldest daughter, Dana, was "16". Thus, Diane was only fifteen years-old when she gave birth to Dana. Steve immediately changed his answer to 32 when giving Diane's age.
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.
In one scene, Steve and Diane Freeling are in their bedroom and the movie A Guy Named Joe (1943) 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 (1989).
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.
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 (1982), 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 questioned about who had the greater control over Poltergeist (1982), 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 (1982) is still a muddy issue even today.
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.'
When writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor first met with Steven Spielberg, they were being hired to write the film that eventually became Always (1989). 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 Poltergeist series has long been the subject of a legend that holds that there is a "curse" associated with it, largely because of four cast member deaths that occurred between 1982 and 1988. Of these four deaths, however, only one could be called "unnatural" in any way - the 1982 death of 22-year-old Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling in the first movie). Dunne was murdered by her ex-boyfriend when he strangled her after she rebuffed his attempt to reconcile. Of the other three deaths, all were the results of longterm, chronic illnesses: Julian Beck (Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side) died in 1985 after a long battle with stomach cancer; Will Sampson (Taylor in Poltergeist II) died of complications from a heart-lung transplant; and Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne in three movies) died at age 12 from sepsis from a bowel obstruction that was in turn a complication of her longterm struggle with Crohn's Disease. Of the other main cast members in the first three movies (for example, JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, etc.) most are still alive as of 2014.
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.
When Diane is blow drying her hair, in the background is a normal family collage of family shots. After the clown attacks and the frame moves back to the bedroom, the collage changes to a devilish looking character In one of the frames.
The original cast of Poltergeist (1982) 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.
During Steve Freeling's (Craig T. Nelson) interview with Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her associates at the college, the backward writing on the office door reads "Department of Popular Beliefs, Superstitions, and Parapsychology".
At a point of the movie, Diane lies in the bed trying to sleep, when a supernatural force tries to remove her red shirt, shaking in the bed like she was being sexually attacked. Strangely, a few months later was released The Entity (1982), a horror film about a woman sexually attacked by a supernatural force.
In the scene where Steve tells the parapsychologist his family members' ages, he lists his oldest daughter's age as 16 and his wife's age as 32. Many viewers interpret this to mean that Diane was only 16 herself when she gave birth to Dana. However, the novelization of the film clarifies that Diane is actually Steve's second wife and that Dana is the daughter of his first marriage.
When Diane is in the bed with Steve talking about Carol Anne's behavior talking to the TV, Steve takes a book in his hands. This book is "Reagan: The Man, the President", published in 1981 and written by Hedrick Smith, Adam Clymer, Leonard Silk, Robert Lindsey and Richard Burt, all they correspondents of The New York Times at this time.
Staying in a haunted house for a couple more weeks after they rescued their daughter was probably not smart, even after Tangina said it was clean. After all they know it's like a portal to Hell and the Netherworld.
At a point of the movie, Dr. Lesh talks with Diane and Robbie about a white light that people see when they are dying. As well as it describes may derive from war stories that pilots claim to have seen in combat, the Dr. Lesh's explanations about the light and the effects of the people who see it are inspired in the book "Life After Life", written by Dr. Raymond Moody and published in 1975. It's a series of compilations and testimonies about people who by a brief time were dead and later lived again, called NDE or Near-Death Experience. One of the trademarks in this phenomenon is a voice (commonly a friend or familiar died time ago) saying "It's not your time", indicating to the person that he/she must back to life, closing it to the Dr. Lesh's explanations.
The house built on a sacred burial ground recalls The Shining (1980) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), but in this film it was done in secret, while in Holmes, a village tried to put a stop to it; it also mentions the spirits will take revenge against those who defile holy ground, again like these films.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
During the scene where Robbie (Oliver Robins) is being strangled, the clown's arms became extremely tight and Robins 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 scene. Spielberg told her, "Now if a light falls in, we will both fry." The strategy worked and Williams got in the pool.
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 (1982). 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.
After the procession of ghosts that go down the stairs from the Carol Anne's bedroom 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 (1986), it's revealed that under the Freeling's home there is a mass grave of a sect of the 19th century, who buried themselves in the belief that the end of the world had come. Members of the sect, shown in flashbacks, strongly resemble the ghosts recorded by Dr. Lesh.