The year of 1982 was, as we cineastes know, the great year of American science fiction and fantasy. Not only did we get enduring faves like THE ROAD WARRIOR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, BLADE RUNNER and THE THING, there were two movies from the Spielberg camp, ET, and POLTERGEIST. Like a capstone to the great 70s, 1982 was a time to regroup on issues of masculinity, fatherhood and the outsider relation to the social order. A dad was notoriously absent from the ET family unit, and figures like Mad Max and Conan (and the entire cast of THE THING) stood firmly on the outside of any sort of social order or role model status, avoiding even feral kids as passengers; Deckard in BLADE RUNNER was a part of the order, a cop, but over the course of the film began to become more and more the bad guy, shooting 'replicants' guilty of little more than self-defense as they searched for a home on a planet beyond saving. In other '82 offerings, like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, there were no parents of any sort. So what happened to the 70s dads?
One was left: POLTERGEIST, a rare glimpse into a 'cool' family with a hip, playful, relaxed good provider father, one brilliantly played by Craig T. Nelson, an ubiquitous presence on TV screens at the time, he was almost like the more domesticated version of Harrison Ford in his dry, knowing delivery and ability to seem dryly fun and employable at the same time. During the opening 20 minutes of POLTERGEIST we get to know him and his family, including hip wife JoBeth Williams. We get, among other things, a whole great early scene with them smoking dope after the kids are in their beds.
The scenes show the dead the master of his domain, note in these scenes how Tobe Hooper / Spielberg display his arms stretching to the edges of the frame, at ease, master of his domain yet not a tyrant. He jumps on the bed to demonstrate a high dive to soothe wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) over concerns about their daughter drowning in their under-construction pool. Rambling about air pockets, and when Diane mocks him saying "Your diving days are over," he gets all serious, arms outstretched, demonstrating form on the high dive, noting with great mock solemnity, "we're talking about the Olympics here, Diane."
Imagine such a scene today in a horror film and you can't - imagine Tom Cruise playing a dad this mellow, or Nicolas Cage a dad this unencumbered by free-floating anxiety.
Spielberg's first big breakout film, JAWS had the premiero uno great 70s dad, so it's only natural this guy should close out the series. Instead of "gimme a kiss... I need it," we have him inviting the son to jump on his back, noting "I am the wind and you are the feather," clearly this is some kind of inside joke between them stretching back to his infanthood. There's no warm sachharine strings like there would be if John Williams was scoring. Thankfully Jerry Goldsmith is, so there is no score in this part, just the crash of the thunder outside, people talking in inside voices. Unlike Williams, Goldsmith has always known when to hold back, and even though the score gets overwrought in a few places, overall it's properly invisible, conjuring a 'safe' kind of menace where applicable, but hanging back in other parts to let the horror build on its own.
Dad Steve also has an appreciation for nature and the mysteries of the beyond. Robbie is freaked about the tree outside the window, feeling as if it's spying on him. "It knows about us, doesn't it?" he asks.
"It knows everything about us," replies his dad with utmost whispered seriousness. That's why I built this house right next to it, Rob, so it could protect us. .. you and Carol Ann, and Dana and you're mom and me. It's a very wise old tree." This is superlative parenting because Steve's not diminishing Robbie's concerns, not admonishing him for an overactive imagination. He's taking his son's worry seriously and elevating the sense of magical thinking, channeling it into the proper pronoiac (rather than paranoiac) direction.
But all is not well for long. He's humbled and at wit's end when he recruits the paranormal research group, and during their at-home investigation, Steve's sense of powerlessness over the events begins to diminish his sense of confidence and self-worth.
A subtle moment of this draining of power occurs when JoBeth Williams reaches over to him at the family table, telling the team, "He's been wonderful, really," as if boasting of some reformed wayward child to his parole officer. JoBeth's tone carries just the hint of condescension, like Dad tries really hard, but he just can't protect them from this thing. Steve is very rude, like a sullen, jealous child, when the dwarf psychic medium (Zelda Rubenstein) comes over, he makes cracks, referencing THE WIZARD OF OZ and snickering under his breath, even 'mentally' signaling to Zelda, refusing to answer verbally since he reasons she should be able to pick up his answers if she's so damned psychic. Very insulting, Steven!
He's certainly treading a thin line, paying a stiff price for this disillusionment. The threat of invisible ghosts, Russians, terrorists, drug dealers, you name it-- was keeping the Reagan-Bush dynasty in business. The fun freewheeling 70s were over. Ghosts, slashers, and bogeymen were making their way to every home in America via the arrival of cable TV. Meanwhile, everywhere huge lawsuits and civil actions erupted: hysteria over child molestations at day care centers led to massive firings of male childcare workers, just to be 'safe' - moms were thrown to the ground in handcuffs when they went to the fotomat to pick up pictures of their nude daughters. MADD boosted laws and public awareness against drunk drivers, thus killing a sense of nightlife freedom for an entire nation. Suddenly no one wanted to drive to any party even at a friends house a few blocks away, unless their spouse was going to be the designated driver, which itself was a total buzzkill as who wants to drink in front of a judgmental, sober spouse. And god forbid you had a joint in your purse or something when they pulled you over on the way home: you might still be in jail even now.
Oh yeah, and hysteria over AIDS leaving it open season on firing anyone who happened to be gay, or even sound gay, lest they somehow contaminate our children. Plastic gloves, condoms, fear of inappropriate touching, all led to a great turning away from the social sphere.
The withdrawal of Steve Freeling into an embittered dad, prone to panic, sulking and defensively snickering is implicitly linked to this national parenting sea change. It's emblematic in the way he pulls the rope too early during the rescue of Caol Ann, because his myopia misinterprets what Zelda is saying. The psychic is continually reversing whether or not Diane and Carol-Ann should go into the light, and it's too loud to hear well, but he panics at the moment she's talking to the trapped spirits who are caught in the crossfire between the demon and the Freelings. She's telling them--the innocent, trapped ghosts-- to go into the light, but Steve thinks he's telling Diane to go into the light and so freaks out, pulling the rope too early. Similarly, our national sense of security became tied into the personal, our inability to let go of attention. A TV show like America's Most Wanted had never before existed until the 80s, and it was a huge hit, and everywhere we became suspicious of our neighbors if they bore even a cursory resemblance to someone involved in a reported crime. People bunkered down for the long haul, drinking at home so they didn't get arrested by MADD, cheering the draconian drug laws that trapped innocent pot and acidheads like fish in a net meant for coke heads and at-risk youth. No one could go into the light anymore, period. And spirits had to just stay trapped in the plowed-over graveyard maze of suburbia.
These sorts of drastic measures seem very sane, comforting even, to someone who is very, very afraid of what's happening to their neighborhood. Maybe it was Indian immigrants, or blacks or hispanics, instead of ghosts moving in, but the resulting drive to retreat and fortify defenses was the same. The bad 80s dad had replaced the carefree 70s version, and for no clear reason other than media suggestion. It was just our time to withdraw, the hangover for the 70s boondoggle was bad enough that we were swearing off having any kind of fun, at least in public, and in the center of it all was a dad, beaten down and emasculated by supernatural forces he could not control. Steve's final act of defiance, kicking the TV out of the hotel room, seems foolish. You can't shoot the messenger, and more than likely that TV would be stolen before morning and he'd get charged on his bill. But Steve is right in one thing, the TV is the 70s dad's mortal enemy, it defeated his good vibes. It defied and destroyed his sense of self; it made all men who played with their kids seem like pedophiles, and all men who ignored their kids seem like bad parents; it made hostile strangers of neighbors, and turned children against their parents and themselves. Dad'sonly consolation, by the 80s, was that 'sign off' national anthem flag shots used by channels in the wee wee hours were gone. As if quietly correcting the problem for future families, now the screens would never go static. Now channels were always, always running programs. There was nothing to do now but wait it out, alone, unemployed, and shattered to the core by TV's endlessly rerun phantom menace.