It's Baaaack: Poltergeist Reboot Revives 'Haunted' Franchise

05_22_Poltergeist_02
Madison Bowen (Kennedi Clements) discovers apparitions that have invaded her family’s home in "Poltergeist." 20th Century Fox

In 1982, Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist did for ghosts what E.T. did for aliens and Fast Times at Ridgemont High did for pizza deliveries in history classes. It made cold spots hot. The plot involves a graveyard of ghouls who get shaken and stirred, and menace the family of Steven and Diane Freeling. They abduct 6-year-old Carol Anne Freeling by sucking her into a closet straight out of The Twilight Zone. Directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, the movie grossed a then-phenomenal $76.6 million. Two Spielberg-less and Hooper-less sequels didn't perform as well: Poltergeist II: The Other Side in 1986 ($41 million) and Poltergeist III in 1988 ($14.1 million).

But the films are best remembered for the spooky occurrences that happened off camera. Production was said to be "cursed" after special-effects makeup artist Craig Reardon used real skeletons instead of plastic ones in the original's climactic swimming pool scene. That's at least according to Poltergeist actress JoBeth Williams, in a 2002 installment of VH1's I Love the '80s. Four actors from the original three films also died around their release dates: Dominique Dunne (teen daughter Dana Freeling in Poltergeist) was strangled by her abusive boyfriend; Heather O'Rourke (Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist, II and III) succumbed to septic shock at age 12; Julian Beck (malevolent spirit Kane in Poltergeist II) perished of stomach cancer; and Will Sampson (the good Native American named Taylor in Poltergeist II) died from heart and lung transplant complications. It's hard for some to not view those coincidences in a paranormal light, especially given the film's subject matter.

Who You Gonna Call?

In horror lore, the poltergeist—or "noisy ghost"—doesn't haunt, which is a place-specific gig, but instead causes physical disturbances around certain people, usually children. Nasty habits include upending tables, chucking pots, knocking, banging, starting fires and goofing around with electromagnetic fields. The havoc it wreaks isn't meant to send a message—this isn't a vengeful soul seeking retribution—it's just part of the deal. So is it all a myth? Well, yes. But some people aren't convinced.

Parapsychologist Christopher Chacon has been active in the field for three decades and works for a "high-profile parapsychologist team" that, he claims, the FBI hires now and then. Poltergeisting "has been way up," according to Chacon, who says his team has been getting more calls than ever before. Alas, his claims are difficult to verify since he won't divulge the names of his clients. But he assures Newsweek that apparitions are out there. On the Island of the Dolls in Mexico, Chacon swears he once saw thousands of dolls turn their heads and glare at him. "They crawled toward me—maybe 12 inches in 20 seconds—and then stopped," he recalls. "The only other plausible explanation is that gophers had crawled inside them."

Yes, that's the only other plausible explanation.

When asked about whether the Poltergeist films are haunted, he says: "I've learned to keep an open mind. Just because someone died in a house doesn't mean there's a ghost or a poltergeist, and just because a house is haunted doesn't mean someone died there." He's reluctant to call the franchise ghost-infested and leans toward the arguably more likely theory that all the lethal happenings were coincidental. "I'm sure if you did the research, there are other movies where unfortunate circumstances happened. But they don't get the same publicity because they aren't about the paranormal." That's some pretty pragmatic thinking for a guy with the same job description as Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters.

05_22_Poltergeist_01
Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell) and wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt) desperately try to hold on to their youngest daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements), who’s been targeted by terrifying apparitions in "Poltergeist." Kerry Hayes/20th Century Fox

While it's probably in Chacon's best interests to believe in ghosts, a form of parapsychology has been around for awhile. In 1931, 13-year-old Voirrey Irving claimed to have met a bushy-tailed, flat-snouted, yellow-haired creature that introduced himself as "Geoff, an extra-clever mongoose from Delhi" that was born in 1852. Geoff, who insisted on spelling his name G-E-F, said he was "not a spirit" but instead called himself "the fifth dimension" or "the eighth wonder of the world." Allegedly, he lived behind the paneling of the cottage Voirrey shared with her family on England's Isle of Man. A talented mongoose, he was said to be capable of shifting shapes, making himself invisible and crooning "Carolina Moon" from memory.

Reporters soon descended on the village of Dalby to hear how Gef would roam the countryside to pass gossip back to the Irvings. The story was more or less corroborated by a local bus conductor who insisted that the Dalby Spook had once snatched his sandwiches. Eventually, the yarn reached Harry Price, one of the day's noted paranormal investigators. Price visited the island and, though he didn't entirely dismiss the sightings, noted that Voirrey was an accomplished ventriloquist. (Gef, incidentally, disappeared when the Irvings moved out in 1935). The phenomenon and the setting were later revisited on the popular British reality show Most Haunted, where the show's resident "expert," Richard Felix, observed: "You have a young girl of 13, and this case started with rapping and tapping and things disappearing and coming back again. Typical poltergeist activity."

Which brings us to the latest addition to the polter-zeitgeist: On May 22, after a 27-year hiatus, a reboot of Poltergeist will be released in theaters nationwide, bringing the franchise back to life (afterlife?). It's an updated take on the original, produced by Sam Raimi, directed by Gil Kenan and starring Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt. This year's model will be 3-D, giving the noisy ghosts plenty of opportunity to hurl stuff straight into moviegoers' faces.

Rather than being limited to TV sets and pink toy telephones, the spirits in the remake can access and interfere with all the different screens, devices and monitors we now use on a daily basis. The parapsychologists portrayed in the film are cutting-edge techies—drones are one of their ghost-busting tools. "We used a small quadro-copter with two cameras on it, piloted through a smartphone or tablet," says Kenan. The new Poltergeist is "fairly accurate" at depicting paranormal investigations, says Chacon. "As was the original."

Though the film's marketers at Fox included facts about the Poltergeist curse in their press releases, they're not playing it up in their social media campaigns. Still, Kenan is eager to see if he breached any paranormal barriers. "I don't want to be trite about the curse, because it's linked to some real tragedies," he says. "But I would be lying if I said it didn't hold a small thrill for me, the idea that I get to open a tiny crack into the world of the unknown and that might lead to all kinds of excitements down the road."

Maybe he did open something: While filming in Ontario last year, some of Kenan's crewmembers got suspicious of what he calls "mysterious disturbances." One of these involved a drone camera used on the set. "The big open field directly behind the house caused us some grief," says Raimi. "The open space seemed to interfere with our on-set radio microphones, personal cellphone transmissions and the signals between the drone cameras and their operators. The drone would work perfectly everywhere else but would crash whenever it attempted to fly over this area. It was a disconcerting feeling at best."

Kenan says the equipment issue "actually was enough to unsettle the crew members." It didn't help that one local woman who strongly objected to the Poltergeist production "would walk up and down the street and say we brought the devil into their neighborhood, and that we unleashed dark forces and were all doomed." Raimi and Kenan ended up calling in a Cleveland-based clairvoyant named Brenda Rose. "Usually, when spirits get lost, they need a bit of guidance to find their way back to their destination," Rose says of her work "cleansing" the set.

Raimi has said he doesn't believe in ghosts or the supernatural, but Kenan is a believer. A self-described "paranormal-obsessed" guy, he studied spoon-bending and claims he was once "fairly proficient" in the art of moving dinnerware with his mind (there's a nod to that ancient parlor trick in his reboot). Parts of the latest Poltergeist were filmed in the San Fernando Valley, where Kenan insists he has experienced "a few physical manifestations" and "an energy, like someone was following me, but no one was there."

Hope he doesn't get the same feeling in multiplexes during the film's opening weekend.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the latest Poltergeist was set in the San Fernando Valley instead of filmed in the San Fernando Valley.

It's Baaaack: Poltergeist Reboot Revives 'Haunted' Franchise