The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
What lurks beneath the American Dream? That question gets a literal answer in the horror classic “Poltergeist” (1982), directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor, based on a story by Spielberg.
The Freeling family lives in suburban bliss in the planned community of Cuesta Verde. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is the development’s top realtor; Diane (JoBeth Williams) is a homemaker. Neighbors gather in their living room to watch football, their kids’ room is full of toys and they have an in-progress pool in the backyard. It’s the perfect vision of Reagan Era success.
The Freelings are ignorant of the sacrilege that made their luxurious life possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re innocent.
But Cuesta Verde hides a dark secret: It was built on top of an old cemetery. The developers moved the headstones but not the bodies, and now the spirits of the deceased are restless and angry. When the ghosts abduct the Freelings’ young daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), Diane and Steve fight to rescue her.
The Freelings are ignorant of the sacrilege that made their luxurious life possible, but (aside from the children) that doesn’t mean they’re innocent. “We worked so hard for this,” Diane laments. But that work is part of the problem: Steve’s responsible for selling most of the houses in the development. His family’s lifestyle depends on a grave injustice, and benefitting from it—even unwittingly—makes him complicit.
I found all of this especially resonant watching in my comfortable house, on my expensive TV, two cars in the driveway, excess food going bad in the fridge upstairs, excess clothing stuffed into suitcases in the basement. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking I deserve all of this, that it’s what I’m supposed to have at this point in my life and career. That’s the American Dream, after all. But when so many of my brothers and sisters around the world live in deprivation and precarity, it’s impossible to look at my lifestyle and shrug it off as morally neutral. My own efforts play a part, yes; but so much of the comfort I enjoy comes from participating in, and perpetuating structures of injustice. Realizing this calls me—and all of us who benefit from privilege—to a radical conversion of our way of life.
“Poltergeist” was made as a critique of Reagan’s America, but you can easily draw connections to today. We scroll past anything that makes us uncomfortable. State governments attempt to erase our shameful past of slavery and indigenous genocide from the history books. Many of us would rather plead ignorance than face the suffering of the world directly. But as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25, turning a blind eye doesn’t absolve us.
Our films this month have all involved seeing in one way or another: looking deeper or looking away. But as we see again and again, looking away doesn’t keep us safe. Horror movies assure us that what we don’t know can hurt us. When we avert our eyes from the horror and suffering of the world, the suffering doesn’t go away. We just abdicate our responsibility to do anything about it.
“Poltergeist” is streaming on Max.