Thornton Heath, England, August, 1972
The house was still. Diane Thrower* stirred quietly, pushing off the duvet cover and rolling over to face the open window. Beside Diane, her husband William draped an arm across his wife. She gently placed moved his arm away, whispering gently, “It’s too hot.” Soon both were fast asleep. On the bedside table next to Diane, stood a glass of water next to a small radio. Behind it, a clock ticked quietly.
A crackle. Then a sudden, sustained din as the radio burst into life. Diane sat up sharply, her heart pounding, confused but wide awake. the radio emitted staccato chatter, familiar, human, but in a language she did not understand. Quickly she fumbled with the volume nob, turning it down and then switching the radio off. Diane turned to William, who glared at her, through one half-opened eye. “What the hell are you doing?!” he demanded. “I didn’t turn the bloody thing on!” Diane replied, angrily. William let out an irritated sigh and rolled over. “Oh, go back to sleep!” she muttered and lay her head back on the pillow.
Turning towards the radio, Diane stared at it for a while, wondering if she’d perhaps managed to switch it to a foreign-language station earlier. She couldn’t have, though. Maybe their son, Michael, had, she reasoned. Whatever, it had unnerved her a little. Diane tried to get back to sleep, but kept opening her eyes and looking at the radio. She picked it up, quietly placed it on the floor and rolled over.
Take your best shot. Despite the rumours, the countless articles, quotes from those who swear that they were there, and cast and crew who actually were present, it depends entirely on which version of the truth you prefer, or perhaps which director your allegiance is with. Either way, you’ll never know the truth for sure.
Tobe Hooper, the man who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, will always have an occupied place in the hearts of horror fans. While cinephiles (with the exception of those given to snobbery and deeming his work not worthy of the greats) are certain that Stephen Spielberg took the reins.
There’s little doubt that Poltergeist is a genre classic. The story of a family under siege by malevolent spirits, Poltergeist was conceived and written by Steven Spielberg (in collaboration with Michael Grais and Mark Victor), and the director would probably have taken full control in the film were it not for a clause in his contract with Universal that forbid him to direct another film while in pre-production for E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1).
It’s interesting to take note of this, for if Spielberg were in contract with Universal, then his alleged directing of Poltergeist would have put him in breech of contract, which surely would have scuppered E.T, if not both films. But how could Spielberg have possibly made time to film both, whether he was in breech of contract or not? It’s entirely possible, logistically speaking, that he could have managed both, with Poltergeist in production from May to August 1981 and E.T. beginning in September. But surely, even though he was clearly on set, Spielberg simply wouldn’t have had the time to oversee the production.
The director has been described as a control freak with an obsessive-compulsive nature so that certainly gives rise to the notion that he might have been unable to help himself as the cameras rolled, especially with a story and screenplay of his own creation. But that does a huge disservice to the contribution of Tobe Hooper, whose name appears in the credits as solely responsible for bringing Spielberg’s vision to life. Or was he?
In part two, I’ll take a closer look at some of the ‘Spielbergian’ themes prevalent in Poltergeist…
*Although the incidences of the Thornton Heath Poltergeist are regarded as fact, I have included the names, Diane, William and Michael Thrower in lieu of any evidence of the names of the actual persons involved
Brode, Douglas (2000). The Films of Steven Spielberg (1)