Poltergeist Beat Sheet Analysis
The summer of 1982 was called “The Summer of Spielberg,” with two of his biggest films being released concurrently—E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist (June 4, 1982). For someone like myself who was a teen during these years, the name Spielberg had become a household name, beginning a year earlier with Raiders of the Lost Ark. The producer/director was on a roll.
Much has been written and discussed about Poltergeist, such as who actually directed it (Spielberg or Tobe Hooper), and there’s the subject of the “curse” of the film where several of the actors died coincidentally following the filming. But we’re not talking about that. It’s strictly story structure here at Save the Cat!
The film was certainly inspired by the Richard Matheson-scripted “Little Girl Lost” episode of The Twilight Zone TV series. A long-time fan of the show, Spielberg would go on to produce and direct a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie the following summer.
Poltergeist received three Oscar nominations: Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Original Score by Jerry Goldsmith (one of his all-time best). However, it lost in each category to Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Poltergeist was the eighth highest-grossing movie of 1982 and is considered a classic of its genre.
I’ve been wanting to cover this film for a long time—and what a better time than its 40-year anniversary—so here is the Blake Snyder beat sheet analysis of Poltergeist:
Logline: After an all-American suburban family is suddenly haunted by ghosts, and their youngest child is abducted within the home, they must call upon paranormal specialists to help return their daughter or lose her forever to the spirit world.
Genre: Monster in the House (Supra-natural monster)
MITH cousins: The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring, The Haunting, House on Haunted Hill, The Exorcist, The Omen, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hocus Pocus, The Witch
Story by: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais & Mark Victor
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Opening Image: The national anthem plays on television as it’s the end-of-the-night broadcast. Welcome to the all-American family in suburbia. The golden retriever, E. Buzz (named after the SNL character E. Buzz Miller, played by Dan Aykroyd), wanders through the Freeling family home, into everyone’s rooms, searching for snacks.
Set-Up: E. Buzz wakes up five-year-old Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). She walks in a daze toward the television screen that’s now snowy after station sign-off (back in the olden days). She responds to the TV’s “questions” that only she can hear. Her loud talking wakes the entire Freeling household of her father, Steven (Craig T. Nelson), mother Diane (JoBeth Williams), teen sister Dana (Dominique Dunne), and brother Robbie (Oliver Robins). Carol Anne places her hands on the TV, which is the iconic image of the poster.
Following that, we’re in Simi Valley, California where Questa Verde is located. And the good ol’ Freeling house at 4267 Roxbury Drive. It’s a house that looks like all the other homes in the area. But something is off with this one. Steve entertains his friends with beer and Sunday football.
Catalyst: Diane makes the bed in Carol Anne’s and Robbie’s room. She discovers the dead canary, Tweety, in the cage. A literal “canary in the coalmine” moment as Tweety’s death signals stranger things will be happening to the Freelings.
Theme Stated: Diane buries Tweety in his flower bed grave. The younglings are dealing with death—a small death of what’s promised later. Graves will tie into the transgression, or sin, which is what makes this story a Monster in the House. We’ll learn about that disturbing, buried secret in a big reveal late in the Finale.
Debate: Following Tweety’s death, a huge storm rumbles over Cuesta Verde. Eight-year-old Robbie’s frightened of the menacing old tree outside of his window. And a terrifying clown doll. Scared of the storm, Carol Anne and Robbie elect to sleep with their parents for safety. After the TV signs off for the night, Carol Anne awakens again. This time, though, a smoky, ghostly tendril snakes out of the television and roams around the room. It then explodes into a psionic force that shakes the house. The Freelings wake up and find their daughter in front of the boob tube…
Break into Two: … and she turns to them and claims that, “They’re here.” The “TV People” that is. And they’re not nice.
Fun and Games: In the upside-down world of Act Two, the Freelings begin witnessing some special-effects set pieces that are the promise of the premise of Poltergeist. First, spoons bending spontaneously, drinking glasses shattering, kitchen chairs stack themselves impossibly high in the kitchen dining area. Then Diane discovers a force that “pulls you along like tickling.”
Next, another storm comes thundering in. This time, the old, scary tree reaches at Robbie in his room, shattering the window, and taking him. While his parents are busy trying to pull him from the tree that’s literally trying to eat their child, the closet in Carol Anne’s room sucks all of her toys—and her—inside.
After rescuing Robbie, the parents discover Carol Anne is missing. They check the “swimming pool,” which is a hole in the backyard that’s being dug by construction workers and that’s filled up with storm water. Not there. They search for her in her room and her closet. Not there either. Then Diane hears Carol Anne communicate through a snowy, absent TV channel. The search begins to find Carol Anne and return her home.
B Story: Steven Freeling goes to the local college for help. He hasn’t gone to work, called the cops, or spoken to the press. He only wants his little girl back. He believes that Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight), Ryan (Richard Lawson), and Marty (Martin Casella) can help.
Fun and Games (con’t): The paranormal investigators are taken aback by the accelerated poltergeist activity in the house. It’s off the charts and unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. They manage to contact Carol Anne again.
Midpoint: Diane speaks to Carol Anne with the paranormal investigators. She says she’s afraid of the light—and Dr. Lesh tells her to stay away from it as it could be dangerous to a living person. Carol Anne then screams, saying there’s something with her. Something menacing with its growling. The stakes are raising and the clock is ticking as they only have a matter of time to rescue their girl lost somewhere in the ether. Later, Dr. Lesh and her colleagues discuss this strange phenomenon which they’ve never experienced before. Ryan suggests that there might be a portal to find the girl in, tying A and B Stories together.
Bad Guys Close In: As everyone in the house settles down for the night, Marty wanders into the Freeling kitchen to forage for grub. Pulling out a steak—he’s horrified that it starts crawling on its own and then exploding. After he spits out a drumstick, and finds maggots writhing on the half-eaten chicken, he goes to the utility sink mirror and has a vision of ripping off his face. The poltergeist is getting nastier, meaner, and more menacing. Marty leaves the house, the initial doubting Thomas now terrified in fear. The Freelings discover watches and jewelry that don’t belong to them falling out of a portal in their ceiling—some old, some more recent. It’s a little bit of a clue to what’s going on, as well as the ghostly images of many wanderers they witness floating down the stairs.
All Is Lost: Lewis Teague (James Karen) stops by. He’s head of the construction company that Steven works for. They built Cuesta Verde. In a perfect whiff of death moment, Teague and Steven walk up to the cemetery on the hill. It’s revealed that Cuesta Verde was once a cemetery, but the company relocated it to build the homes. The Freelings’ home was the first home built, and they were the first family to move in. Hmmmm.
Dark Night of the Soul: Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein), a pint-sized medium, is brought in to help the Freelings get back Carol Anne. At first, Steven is skeptical, thinking the small woman is a sideshow act, but she quickly gets to the heart of the matter. She says that there’s a powerful, evil force that has control of their house and their daughter that most people would call The Beast.
Break into Three: Working with Tangina, Dr. Lesh, and Ryan, the Freelings manage to pull Carol Anne out of the abyss using a rope tied around Diane. Tangina erroneously says, “This house is clean,” tying A and B stories together. It’s not.
Gathering of the Team: As any smart family would, the Freelings decide to move out. They’ve had enough.
Executing the Plan: Steven goes to talk to Lewis Teague to give him his resignation. Diane stays at home with Carol Anne and Robbie.
High Tower Surprise: Just like Michael Myers from Halloween popping back up for last scare, the Poltergeist makes another assault to get Carol Anne.
Dig, Down Deep: Diane fights to save her kids (Robbie attacked by his clown doll and Carol Anne hanging on for dear life from being sucked into her closet again), but the mean-spirited spirit locks her out. Running outside to get the assistance from the neighbors, she falls into the unfinished swimming pool and corpses in coffins start bubbling up from the muddy waters.
Lewis Teague brings Steven home and sees what’s happening. Here’s where we finally learn the transgression, the component that makes this a Monster in the House. To save time and money, Teague’s company moved the headstones but they left the bodies. Now they’re popping back up!
Executing the New Plan: Diane manages to save Robbie and Carol Anne from The Beast. The Freelings jump in the family car as corpses are vaulting out of the ground, and they leave Cuesta Verde forever.
Final Image: Matching the Opening, the family’s together again, but this time the TV set is outside of their room at the Holiday Inn. They’re a stronger family unit than ever before through the transformative process of what they’ve endured. And, there will more no ghosts haunting the Freelings and Carol Anne… until the two inevitable sequels!