Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 1: Poltergeist (1982)
I was a kid who grew up with three brothers in the lily-white middle class suburbs of Chicago. In the winter of 1982, when I was 10 years old, my father was transferred by his job to suburban New Jersey. It was hard. My whole life changed. It changed for all of us. The difficulty was so great we moved back a scant three and a half years later. But for a 10-year-old, it felt like everything I knew was swept out from beneath me. Nothing felt safe. Anything could change or go away at any given time. Even my parents couldn’t protect me. They were most certainly the beneficiaries of a better job and a better life by way of what that job provided in benefits for the whole family, but soon their own unhappiness at the situation we now all found ourselves in would become apparent and it was deeply felt by my brothers and I.
Into this maelstrom, in June of 1982, came Poltergeist. “Oh, another cool Steven Spielberg movie with maybe some creepy stuff in it like the beginning of Close Encounters (E.T. would not be released for another week). WRONG! Directed by Tobe Hooper (whose terrifying Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Funhouse had not yet been introduced to my tiny, fragile eggshell mind) with heavy Spielberg influence (he co-wrote and produced the film), Poltergeist was at that time the most terrifying experience of my life—I watched it mostly with my hands over my eyes—and my poor unwitting younger brother was only five! I still carry guilt about bringing him. We just didn’t know.
There was the haunted house, the scary clown doll, the bodies in the pool, the giant screaming skeleton head with glowing eyes—all spooky stuff—but when I look back almost 35 years later (!), I think what really got under my skin was the primal stuff about what was happening to my family (and America) at that time.
In Poltergeist, the family lives in an idyllic, modern suburb of houses that all look the same; everything seems lovely and safe. But then the youngest child is abducted through the television set (!!!) by ghost-monsters and there ISN’T A FUCKING THING THE PARENTS CAN DO! And then things get bad.
The movie—despite being scary just on the face of it—was all about Reagan’s 1980s America: Ineffectual, materialistic, yuppie parents who smoke pot while watching TV (the opening scene finds dad Craig T. Nelson passed out drunk in front of it while it plays the national anthem and his daughter communicates with demonic spirits). Their teenage daughter is out having sex and their youngest son is almost eaten by a tree when it crashes through his bedroom window and tries to swallow him whole. Dad manages to save him from the grips of death but eventually he is shipped off to grandma when it becomes too much for the folks to handle. Still wondering why I had screaming nightmares for at least a year after this?
Of course, the whole enterprise—the family’s happy life, the housing development, America—is built on false pretenses. The development [spoiler alert?] has been built on top of a literal burial ground, the sleazy developer whom dad works for only moving the headstones to a nearby hilltop (in the sequel, it is further explained to be a Native American burial ground—a nice touch for an otherwise unremarkable and unnecessary movie). But what a metaphor for the times, right? This suburban dream life we have built for ourselves is all bullshit. Reagan wants us to think it’s the ’50s again, but it isn’t. Another example: A ghost tricks a guy into thinking he’s ripping his own face off. Although, to be fair, that guy does seem pretty high: He polishes off an entire bag of Cheetos before gnawing on a chicken leg and then prepares to cook a steak. That is, of course until the steak begins to spew what appears to be human innards and the chicken is revealed to be crawling with maggots.
But Poltergeist is a reminder that the best horror is a reflection of the things that frighten us about everyday life. I’m just glad movies like this aren’t rated PG anymore; kids shouldn’t be subjected to it. But my parents aren’t to be blamed; they had other things on their mind…
Today’s ’31 Days Of Halloween’ editorial was written by television and film actor Pat Healy, who you might know from such excellent genre films as ‘The Innkeepers,’ ‘Compliance,’ ‘Cheap Thrills,’ ‘Carnage Park,’ and ‘Starry Eyes.’