It's Halloween, and while everyone else is dressing up, carving pumpkins and getting candy ready, I'm thinking about the movies. Specifically, the scariest movie I've ever seen. I've seen a lot of scary movies, some of which have burrowed into my brain, just the mere mention of which can give me the chills. There's the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, Alien, and The Shining. All of these films still give me the heebie jeebies every time I watch them. But to think of the scariest movie I've ever seen, I have to go back to where fear begins: childhood. Back to the first movie I ever saw that drove me into the lobby of the theater, crying; that, for weeks, months, maybe years after, had me sleeping with the light on, had me hiding ever stuffed animal I owned, and had me putting every chair in the house in front of my closet doors. That film is Poltergeist.
I was an 8 year old living in the San Fernando Valley when the film was released in June of 1982. Being an 8 year old, my only real exposure to Steven Spielberg had been Raiders of the Lost Ark, and some showings of Close Encounters and Jaws on this new thing called cable television, but I had fallen hard for those three movies, and eagerly anticipated his new film, ET, which was going to be released shortly. (For the record, I don't find Jaws nearly as scary as most people do.) So when I saw the poster for Poltergeist, and Spielberg's name was prominently featured, I was ready for an exciting film. It would be like Raiders of the Lost Ark, right?
I went to see the film with my next door neighbor Greg and his mom. Greg was a year and a half younger than I, but was much more sophisticated in terms of film. He had an older brother who had shown him Halloween, Carrie, and other movies that my parents would never let me see. But this movie had Steven Spielberg's name attached. He wouldn't make a horror film would he? Had my parents seen the poster for the film, with the tag line "It knows what scares you"? Had they seen the trailer, where that creepy little girl holds her hands up to the TV and says, "They're here"? I guess not, because they let me see it anyway.
The film starts in a suburb, very much like the one I lived in. The film was shot in Simi Valley, only about 25 minutes from my house. In fact, the house the Freelings live in looked like the house I was then living in, and had moved into only a few years before. The Freelings had three children, just like in my family. This, of course, is where any similarities between my life and the life of the Freelings diverge, as my house was never built atop an old cemetery and evil spirits never attacked my family. But it was this mundane existence in the suburbs, this seemingly safe home that begins to terrorize its inhabitants, that first had me shielding my eyes from the screen. It wasn't my family, but it could have been my family.
Then, there were the fears that almost every child had, that I certainly had, that the filmmakers brilliantly toyed with. There were trees, whose shadows at night created eerie figures on my walls, their branches looking like claws that could come out and grab you. In Poltergeist, they did grab their victim, attacking young Robbie in his own room and pulling him into the rainy night. There was that clown, the clown whose face I still see today whenever anyone mentions the word. I don't know a child, or adult for that matter, who doesn't have a small fear of clowns. The clown in this film looks as evil as any I've ever seen, even when it's in its "nice" state, and even more so once it is possessed by the evil Beast. When he attacks Robbie and drags him under the bed, it's as if the filmmakers crawled into our unconscious and put our nightmares right up there on the screen.
Then, there's the fear of the that space in your room that held the unknown, the one place you couldn't hide from: the closet. The closet was that dark place that evil always seemed to be lurking in. I always had to check the closet before I went to sleep before seeing Poltergeist. I'd check behind the doors, turn the light on and off to make sure nothing scary was ready to jump out at me. I'd sometimes leave the light on, so that if evil wanted to get me, at least I'd be able to see them first. In the movie, it's the portal to evil, and leaving the light on won't do you any good. The closet can't move and there's nothing in it, but you can't get away from it, because it will suck you in. Even though Carol Anne holds on for dear life, nothing can stop her from being pulled into whatever horrible place these spirits have her.
30 minutes into the movie, I was sitting in the lobby of the movie theater, a frightened 8 year old, just waiting for the film to end, and that's exactly what I did. I would pop in, every few minutes, trying to be mature and brave, but it was no use. I would always end up back in the lobby, sobbing. When the show ended, my friend made fun of me for being a chicken. I tried to laugh it off, but the film had an effect on me. For years, I closed my closet door every night and put a chair in front of it. I slept with lights on, music playing, and my bedroom door open so that if I needed to call my parents, there would be nothing blocking my screams. And clowns? No way.
A few years later, I watched the full film for the first time. I was older, maybe 12 or 13, and had seen other horror films, "scarier" horror films. Poltergeist was nowhere near as gross or violent as those other films. But when I got to those scenes, with those iconic fears that I had had as a child, I still had to cover my eyes. Because what makes a film scary really has to do with our own personal fears, and how the filmmakers use them to manipulate us. I was never afraid of the bogeyman, or of a guy in my dreams with sharp knives, or of sharks. No, my fear as an 8 year old was that evil lurked in the one place that was supposed to be safe, and that it would suddenly, unexpectedly, rear its head. Poltergeist put those fears in front of my eyes, and to this day, no other film can scare me like it can.