(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Poltergeist used an iconic scare to herald the film’s true climax.)
“Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.”
This ominous line from spiritual medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) comes at a critical moment in Poltergeist when the paranormal activity within the Freeling household has reached a fever pitch, and the threat of losing Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) forever looms large. Tangina’s arrival marks what initially seems to be the film’s climax. The soft-spoken medium delivers eerie exposition on the great evil that has taken over the home before firmly leading the charge in the thrilling spectral rescue of the Freelings’ kidnapped daughter. The grand spectacle ends with Tangina declaring the house cleansed, and the family left to cope with the trauma.
As fans of this classic horror movie already know, it’s far from over. The Tobe Hooper directed and Steven Spielberg produced/co-written suburban nightmare left an indelible mark on cinema that ensured permanent placement in the pop culture collective and launched a franchise. Poltergeist‘s success has as much to do with its endearing characters as it does with its impressive special effects and terrifying imagery that instilled nightmares in younger audiences duped by its PG rating. Though there’s no shortage of haunting imagery in Poltergeist, from the pool corpses to the rotting face of a paranormal investigator, few managed to chill as effectively as the scene featuring the iconic clown doll.
Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) live the suburban dream with their three children in a new planned Californian community, Cuesta Verde. Steve is a successful real estate developer, while stay-at-home mom Diane looks after kids Dana (Dominique Dunn), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne. Shortly after contractors break ground in the backyard for a new family pool, the Freeling home becomes inundated with bizarre occurrences that ramp up with increasing regularity and intensity. An evil presence makes it crystal clear that it means harm to the Freelings.
The Story So Far
During a thunderstorm, the gnarled tree in the backyard grabs Robbie through the bedroom window. While the entire family rushes outside to save him, Carol Anne is left alone in the bedroom she shares with Robbie. When the family comes back inside, there’s no trace of Carol Anne. They quickly realize something supernatural is to blame when they hear her voice through the television and call in a parapsychologist group to investigate. Through their horrifying encounters in the home, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Ryan (Richard Lawson), and Marty (Martin Casella) deduce it’s not one but many raging poltergeists. Steve unwittingly learns from his boss the cause of those spirits; Cuesta Verde was built over a cemetery where only the headstones were moved.
In over her head, Dr. Lesh leaves and returns with powerful medium Tangina, who realizes that Carol Anne is in another plane of existence. She’s restrained by the Beast, an evil entity using the young girl to prevent the other restless spirits from crossing over. Diana enters the alternate dimension to retrieve Carol Anne while Tangina guides the souls into the light. Frantic for his wife and daughter’s safety, Steve rushes the daring process, though the pair return unharmed. With the house returned to normal, the Freelings attempt to readjust to normality.
While Steve and Dana are away from the house, Diane prepares herself a bath and asks Robbie and Carol Anne to tuck themselves in bed. Before settling under the covers, Robbie stares apprehensively at the grinning clown doll in the chair at his bed’s edge. He attempts to cover it with a jacket, misses, then decides to ignore his fears and sleep. Not long after the house settles into silence, a creaking sound prompts Robbie to sit up in bed. He immediately looks to the chair and finds it empty. With a gasp, he looks around the room before slowly leaning over one side of the bed. Then, he slowly peers over the other side of the bed, pulling up the sheets to expose the space beneath the bed. As Robbie sits back up, the camera panning with him, the clown doll pops up behind him, coiling its long limbs around his neck and drags him under the bed. Robbie’s battle with the doll triggers the Beast’s final, explosive attempt to permanently reclaim Carol Anne.
This iconic scene directly taps into Tangina’s haunting line, “it knows what scares you.” One of the film’s earliest scenes established Robbie’s overt fear of the doll. In a parallel moment, Robbie looked at it in repulsion as he successfully shrouded the doll with a jacket before bed. No one could blame him, either; the clown’s position to watch over him with its fixed stare is unnerving. Hooper ensures the audience never forgets Robbie’s fear of the clown either, keeping it in plain view anytime the bedroom appears on the screen. The Beast, always watching, saw how to exploit Robbie’s fear to isolate Carol Anne.
Hooper knows how to craft a scare and maximize tension. The sound of the creaking and Robbie’s knowing gasp at the sight of the empty chair signals that his worst fear is about to be realized. The slow build as the boy looks all over the room before checking all angles of the bed creates palpable suspense. As it mounts, Hooper limits the frame to show only Robbie’s hands reaching for the covers on the floor, using misdirection to set up the expectation the clown will be lurking behind them. A jarring music sting and ghastly cackle herald in the reveal of the clown behind Robbie, its face altered into something far more grotesque.
It’s also the timing of this scene that renders it so effective. It comes after what narratively and visually felt like the film’s climax. The visual effects extravaganza of Carol Anne’s rescue ceremoniously concludes with Tangina’s triumphant claim that the house was now clean of poltergeists. The next scene begins like a calm epilogue of the Freeling family packing up and preparing to start anew. It’s tidy, evoking a sense of finality, so it’s easy to overlook that one small detail of Steve rushing the cleansing process. All spirits did successfully cross over into the light, except for the most dangerous one – the Beast.
This jump scare and its implications of an all-seeing evil would be enough to solidify its ranking as one of the genre’s greatest scares. That it heralded in the film’s real climax – a battle over Carol Anne far more terrifying than before – heightened its potency to dramatic effect and instilled nightmares for generations.
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