Poltergeist is a 1982 American supernatural horror film directed by Tobe Hooper and written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor from a story by Spielberg. It stars JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O'Rourke and Beatrice Straight, and was produced by Spielberg and Frank Marshall. The film focuses on a suburban family whose home is invaded by malevolent ghosts that abduct their daughter.
As Spielberg was contractually unable to direct another film while he made E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Hooper was selected based on his work on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Funhouse. Spielberg conceived Poltergeist as a horror sequel to his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind titled Night Skies; however, Hooper was less interested in the sci-fi elements and suggested they collaborate on a ghost story. Accounts differ as to the level of Spielberg's involvement, but it is clear that he was frequently on set during filming and exerted significant creative control. For that reason, some have expressed the view that Spielberg should be considered the film's co-director or even main director, though both Spielberg and Hooper have disputed this.
Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on June 4, 1982, Poltergeist was a major critical and commercial success, becoming the eighth-highest-grossing film of 1982. Years since its release, the film has been recognized as a horror classic. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, named by the Chicago Film Critics Association as the 20th-scariest film ever made, and the scene of the clown doll attack was ranked as No. 80 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments. The film also appeared at No. 84 on American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Thrills, a list of America's most heart-pounding movies. It was followed by Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Poltergeist III (1988), and a 2015 remake.
Steven and Diane Freeling live in Cuesta Verde, a California planned community. Steven is a successful real estate developer, and Diane looks after their three children: sixteen-year-old Dana, eight-year-old Robbie, and five-year-old Carol Anne. Late one night, Carol Anne inexplicably converses with the family's television set while it displays post-broadcast static. The next night, she again fixates on the TV, and a ghostly white hand emerges from the screen.
Bizarre events occur the following day: a glass of milk spontaneously breaks, silverware bends, and furniture moves on its own. These phenomena initially seem benign, but soon grow more sinister. During a severe thunderstorm, the gnarled backyard tree seemingly comes alive. A large limb crashes through the children's bedroom window and grabs Robbie. While the family rushes outside to rescue him, Carol Anne is sucked into a portal inside the closet. As the family frantically search for her, Carol Anne's voice calls out from the TV.
Parapsychologist Dr. Martha Lesh, arrives with two team members to investigate. They determine there is a poltergeist intrusion involving multiple ghosts. Meanwhile, Steven learns from his boss, Mr. Teague, that the Cuesta Verde development was built on a former cemetery and the graves were moved to a nearby location.
Dana and Robbie are sent away for safety, while Dr. Lesh calls in Tangina Barrons, a spiritual medium. Tangina determines the spirits are lingering in a different "sphere of consciousness" and are not at rest. They are attracted to Carol Anne's life force. Tangina also detects a dark presence she calls the "Beast," who is restraining Carol Anne and manipulating her life force to prevent the other spirits from crossing over.
The entrance to the other dimension is in the children's bedroom closet and exits through the living room ceiling. Diane, secured by a rope, passes through the portal, guided by another rope previously threaded through both portals. Diane retrieves Carol Anne, and they drop through the ceiling to the living room floor, covered in ectoplasm. As they recover from the ordeal, Tangina proclaims the house is "clean."
Shortly after, the Freeling family have nearly finished packing to move out of the house. Before the family is to leave for the Holiday Inn, Steven goes to his office while Dana is on a date, leaving Diane at home with Robbie and Carol Anne. The "Beast" ambushes Diane and the children, aiming for a second kidnapping attempt. The unseen force drives Diane to the backyard in the pouring rain, dragging her into the flooded swimming pool excavation. Skeletal corpses and coffins float up around her in the muddy hole. Diane crawls out and rushes back into the house. She rescues the children, and they escape to the outside as more coffins and decomposed bodies erupt from the ground.
Steven, accompanied by Teague, arrives home to the mayhem. As more coffins appear, Steven realizes Teague never relocated the cemetery and merely moved the gravestones, leaving the bodies. The Freelings jump into their car and collect Dana just as she returns home. They flee Cuesta Verde as the house implodes into the portal while stunned neighbors look on. The family checks into their motel room, where Steven promptly rips out the TV and shoves it outside.