My 9th grade Siena Honors English class just finished reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Throughout the year, they will undertake a study of the theme of survival in literature and I felt this novel, more than some of the others, would be a great way to start off the year: a little bit spooky, a possibly haunted house or a possible woman slowly battling the terrors within her mind, well it just might hook them right from the start. And hook them it did; they devoured the book, came up with some excellent comparisons between the book and some works of poetry, and then finally, worked to write a lengthy compare and contrast paper which focused on the heroine in the novel and the heroine of film from yesteryear; one that I was counting on them never having seen. The film, PG rated, summer sleeper from 1982– Poltergeist produced by Stephen Spielberg. And what an eye opening experience this viewing was…for myself and my 14 students.
I never thought students who are growing up in the age of CGI monsters, and American Horror Story could be spooked by this movie! Chairs piled on tables, a tree coming through the window, and some skeletons floating out of the swimming pool? We are not talking special effects that are anywhere near today’s standards. In fact, I prefaced the viewing by telling the young ladies that they were not to be nodding off or doing other work- they were to be taking notes for their major paper assignment. I need not have worried; they were riveted to the screen! By the 2nd day, I had to preface pressing play with the warning” No screaming! No yelling!” Without meaning to; I had spooked my students. At the final moments of the film, one young lady actually hid under her desk. When we had a discussion, the feedback I got was that it was “so spooky” and “old fashioned scary”. I was so happy with the success of this lesson.
However, now that it is over and done and we in Siena English have moved onto another book, I have a confession of my own to make. This was the first time I watched Poltergeist and was SCARED while watching it. And no it was not the tree or the eerie “They’re here” moment, or even the creepy clown doll. (Clowns were scary in 82 and are scary now!) It was how “ancient” for lack of a better word some of the scenes in the film made me feel, as I had to pause to explain it to students. They did not understand why there was no 24 hour television programming. I had to explain the old practice of TV sign offs and then the fade to static till the morning. They did not understand neighbors being on the same cable network signal; which could create havoc depending on which family wanted to watch what. And the TV itself; a square floor model encased in a brown hutch!? They could not wrap their heads around it.
Normally, I don’t feel old, but I was five years old in 1982; when VCR’s were just coming into homes and Cable TV meant maybe you had HBO in addition to 2, 4,7, 9, 11, and 13. I turned the knob, there was no remote! I adjusted the antennas (or my parents did) for a clearer picture. And now, 35 years later, the VCR is extinct, antennas are only found on Halloween costumes, and if there is a knob anywhere in someone’s home, it may only be on the stove. Times change and lately, with new tech advances at our fingertips, the saying time flies has more meaning than ever.
And so, what remains the same from 1982 to now? That belief in family love and family loyalty is the same. The bond between a parent and child remains the same. The sacrifices that parents will make when their children are sick or hurt or are in danger remain the same. It’s nice to know that the most important things will never change, for me, for you, and for your daughters and their families someday.
Still, I can only imagine, with new advances bursting forth every day, how old I will feel when I finally let Abigail view this spooky classic and have to explain the world of 1982 to her! I could be tempted to let her watch the remake, but, as we all know…the older, original versions are always the best…both in film, and in families!