Released in 1982, Poltergeist remains the definitive haunted house film that dominated the subgenre for decades, and arguably still does today. With the combined efforts of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg (much more on that later), it brought haunted house cinema from creepy decrepit mansions built in the 1800s to modern day suburbia, in a way making it feel much more real.
Its contribution to horror can’t be overstated. So in honor of its 40th anniversary today, we thought it would be fitting and fun to look at 40 fun facts about Poltergeist!
1. The word “poltergeist” comes from the German “poltern” (“to knock”) and “geist” (“spirit”). So it literally translates to “knocking spirit”, and was already a semi-common term in the parapsychology field, prior to the film.
2. The first references to the word itself date back to the 1700s.
3. The project itself began as a sequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but then developed into its own original story.
4. In the very early stages of development, Spielberg approached Stephen King to write the screenplay. However it ultimately went nowhere as they never agreed on terms.
5. Long rumored to be cursed, due to the tragic deaths of Dominique Dunn and Heather O’Rourke. This was the subject of an episode of Shudder’s original series Cursed Films. However, some have argued that perpetuating the idea of a “curse” wrongly sensationalizes these very real and very tragic deaths.
6. The original idea for the film came from a true incident in Denver back in the late 1800’s. The city was building a park on top of a cemetery and the contractor only moved the headstones, but left all the bodies. And by the time it was discovered what he had done, it was too late and too expensive to move everything else.
7. After seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Steven Spielberg was impressed with Tobe Hooper and decided to hire him to direct.
8. Another long-persisting rumor is that Steven Spielberg “secretly” directed Poltergeist. The rumor alleges that Spielberg was unable to direct both this movie and E.T. in the same year (due to DGA rules) and that Tobe Hooper was just a figurehead. Obviously Spielberg was very involved as both a screenwriter and producer, but the rumor itself came from a reporter who was visiting the set, Spielberg was quoted as saying Hooper wasn’t a “take charge kind of guy”.
Many fans took this to mean that he was directing the entire movie, when in actuality it’s not uncommon for a producer to step in to direct a scene here and there. Years later, Spielberg took back his quote and stated that Hooper’s contributions were “invaluable”.
9. These rumors even prompted the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) to open an investigation, however they found no evidence that Spielberg’s contributions warranted a “directed by” credit.
10. This controversy was further fueled by a 2007 interview with Zelda Rubinstein, where she claimed that Spielberg directed her for all 6 days she was on set, and that Tobe Hooper “required certain substances” to function. Her claims were disputed by James Karen later that year at a 25th anniversary Q&A, where he stated that Hooper was incredibly kind to everyone and he didn’t know why Rubinstein would speak of him like that.
11. Spielberg’s own childhood fears of clowns and trees outside his window at night were the inspirations behind some of the terrors that Robbie faces.
12. Initially, Drew Barrymore was being considered to play Carol Anne. While Spielberg felt she wasn’t quite right for this role, he decided to cast her in E.T.
13. Despite playing her mother, JoBeth Williams (Diane Freeling) was only 11 years older than her onscreen teenage daughter Dominique Dunn (Dana Freeling). In the movie, it’s mentioned that they are 32 and 16, respectively (while in real life they were 32 and 21 respectively). However, the film’s novelization clarified that Dana was Steven’s daughter from a previous marriage and that Diane was her stepmother.
14. Zelda Rubinstein was cast because she had been a medium in real life.
15. The movie is very similar to a 1962 Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost”, that deals with a girl getting pulled into another dimension in her house.
16. The infamous jump cut that goes from the kitchen to Steven at the neighbor’s house was the result of editing out a line about hating on Pizza Hut (which Pizza Hut was upset about).
17. A common reason cited for the film’s alleged “curse” is the fact that real skeletons were used during the pool scene. While this is very much true, it isn’t as scandalous as the conspiracy theories suggest. Real human skeletons were often cheaper than creating a realistic looking fake one. And many films had been using them for many decades. So it wasn’t at all out of the ordinary for the movie prop business.
18. All during production JoBeth Williams claimed that she would come home every day from filming to find her pictures on the wall all crooked.
19. The Freeling house exteriors were shot at 4267 Roxbury Street, Simi Valley, CA 93063. The house itself had only just been built in 1979 and remains in private ownership today (last being sold in 2009). According to Zillow, the 4 bedroom, 2.5 bathroom, 2373 sq ft home is valued at $1,060,100.
20. Robbie’s bedroom is filled with Star Wars memorabilia as a nod to Spielberg’s good friendship with George Lucas.
21. The iconic chair rearrangement scene really was done in one take. It helped that the “pyramid” of chairs was already assembled and attached as one piece. So in under 7 seconds, crew members had to quickly remove all the chairs and place the pyramid on top.
22. JoBeth Williams was nervous to shoot the pool scene, due to the electrical equipment nearby. To assuage her fears, Spielberg got in the pool himself, claiming that if something happened, he would be electrocuted as well.
23. When the clown doll strangles Robbie, the animatronic malfunctioned and actually started choking him. It took the crew a minute to realize that his screams of terror were in fact genuine.
24. The roaring sound effect coming from Carol Anne’s closet is the same sound effect as the MGM lion’s roar.
25. During the gruesome face ripping scene in the mirror, those are Steven Spielberg’s own hands ripping away the prosthetic flesh.
26. After filming wrapped, Heather O’Rourke got to keep the goldfish that her character had.
27. Upon first review, the MPAA gave Poltergeist an R rating. However, the producers contested this and were able to get it changed to PG (since PG-13 wouldn’t exist for another few years).
28. Unlike most Spielberg productions, John Williams did not do the score (he was busy working on E.T.). Instead it was composed by iconic composer Jerry Goldsmith, best known in horror for the chilling score from The Omen.
29. Not only did Spielberg immediately go from principal photography on Poltergeist to shooting E.T, but the films were released one week apart in June 1982.
30. Due to E.T. admittedly overshadowing Poltergeist, the latter was re-released in October of 1982 to cash in on the Halloween season.
31. While it did receive mostly positive reviews, Gene Siskel only gave the movie one and half stars, calling the terror “very silly”. Roger Ebert disagreed (as he and Siskel often did) and gave it three and half stars.
32. Nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score at the 1982 Academy Awards, but lost both to Spielberg’s E.T.
33. Grossed $121.7 million on a $10.7 million budget, and remains the highest grossing film of Tobe Hooper’s career.
34. Went on to win Saturn Awards for Best Horror Film, Best Make-Up, and Best Supporting Actress (Zelda Rubinstein).
35. Ranked #80 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
36. Also ranked #84 on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Years…100 Thrills list of movies.
37. A remake was released in 2015, which was panned by critics and audiences.
38. Another remake was announced in 2019 with the Russo Brothers (Avengers Infinity War/Endgame) set to direct. However, as of now, there haven’t been any further developments.
39. Finally got an HD release on Bluray in 2008 and a 4K release has been announced for October 2022!
40. In 2018, Universal Studios Orlando featured Poltergeist as one of his haunted houses for Halloween Horror Nights.
Which of these did you already know? Which ones surprised you? Let us know in the comments!