The conservative family is sprawling, with a jumbled genealogy, so it’s helpful to use a few ancestors as touchstones in order to distinguish which conservatism applies here. As surreal as it may sound, the great-great grandfather of Poltergeist is Edmund Burke, the eloquent Anglo-Irish defender of tradition. From there, the branches of the family tree shoot through Coleridge, the American Federalists, Chesterton, T.S. Eliot and Wendell Berry. Skeptical of change for change’s sake, these poets and statesmen defended the communal continuity that Burke called a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.” Poltergeist is situated comfortably within this traditionalist conservative lineage. The film is the most cogent creative rendering we have of how the suburbs compromise history, community and family.
Like all good horror movies, the plot of Poltergeist is simple. The Freelings, a nuclear family comprised of three kids, two parents and a dog, live in the newly-built California suburb of Cuesta Verde Estates. Steve, the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, is a real estate agent for the development company that built the homes. The houses all look just the same, of course. The Freeling’s youngest daughter, Carole Anne, begins to communicate with spirits (one in particular, though there are others around), through the medium of television static. The entity kidnaps Carole Anne, spirits take over the house, chaos ensues, and only with the help of a diminutive spiritual guide is the family able to reconstitute itself and escape their paranormal nightmare.
James Howard Kunstler writes in 1993’s The Geography of Nowhere that “Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading.” Poltergeist’s wide, panoramic shots of the Cuesta Verde development seem to embody these words. The houses are nestled in a California valley, ugly and huddled together like toadstools. We know from Mr. Freeling’s fumbling attempts to sell a home that the shoddily built development has sprung up almost overnight, and continues to grow: “In a month you won’t be able to distinguish phase four from phase one from phase…well, around here grass grows greener on every side.”
The cliché is that the modern world moves too fast. But time in Cuesta Verde doesn’t seem to be moving at all. In the same way that the subdivision is isolated, cut off from anything resembling a city or downtown, it’s also a temporal island, cut off from history and stuck in a permanent present.
According to traditionalist conservative logic, the past refuses to be ignored. Attempts to cloister oneself from it backfire, and so they do in Poltergeist. It’s a cathartic moment when Mr. Freeling screams at his developer boss after discovering that the subdivision was built on a burial ground, “You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!” The neglected corpses are responsible for the haunting of the Freeling’s home. The metaphor isn’t subtle, but it isn’t supposed to be. When the past is ignored or disrespected, it seeps brutally into the present. There are no places that are temporally neutral, no possible way to ignore the past without doing violence to the present. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” By virtue of their disconnect from the past, suburbs are desecrated places.
Fancying themselves apart from history, suburbs fail at being actual communities. Charles Marohn writes, “America’s suburban experiment is a radical, government-led re-engineering of society, one that artificially inverted millennia of accumulated wisdom and practice in building human habitats.” Marohn refers here to the New Deal project of using fast housing development construction as a means of quick, short-term economic growth without regard for beauty, order, or function.
Cuesta Verde estates isn’t a real community. It’s just a group of quickly build houses. Almost every scene of the movie occurs inside the environs of the subdivision. There are no visible schools, stores, parks or churches. In the suburbs you see the combination of the worst aspects of both rural and urban life: isolation without beauty, crowd without culture. The Freelingses seem alienated from their neighbors; the few interactions they have are antagonistic. There’s no sense of shared communal space, physically or emotionally. The Freelings family is trapped by the terror in their home, without neighbors to turn to for help, facing the spirits of the past as an isolated nuclear family unit, alone with each other.
The message of Poltergeist is that the suburbs are crass, unnatural monuments to the degradation of community, the erasure of the past, and the fragility of family. Daughter Carole Anne stares vacantly into the static of the family television set, communicating with unknown spirits. In the absence of a cohesive community, she’s vulnerable enough to disappear into the inchoate meaninglessness of mass media. When arch-traditionalist conservative T.S. Eliot asks in Choruses from the Rock, “Where is the life we have lost in living? / Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” he might very well have been interrogating the same American spiritual decline represented by the suburbs. Poltergeist asks the same questions, just in a much more entertaining way.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer and Army veteran who lives in Portland, Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Paris Review, Bookforum, The Atlantic, and The Baffler, among other places.