The image everyone remembers: A young girl kneeling in front of a television broadcasting nothing but static, the eerie intermittent light bouncing of her face as she turns back to her bewildered parents and says, “They’re here.” That is Poltergeist, the horror classic directed by Tobe Hooper…or Steven Spielberg…or both. It’s one of the most iconic horror films of all-time and there’s plenty to scare us: killer clown dolls, skeletons popping out of the swimming pool, enormous death goblins smashing out of the closet. In the second film – Poltergeist II: The Other Side – it was a sickly looking old man named Henry Kane with a slow Southern drawl that gave us nightmares. And in the third film – Poltergeist III – it was a skyscraper, faulty elevators, and Tom Skerritt’s mustache. But the real villain of the Poltergeist franchise – even more sinister than the much discussed ‘curse’ – is the unmistakable feeling that Steven and Diane Freeling are, without a doubt, the most ridiculously terrible parents in the history of cinema. We’re talking John & Patsy Ramsey bad. Call Child Protective Services. It’s time to get real.
Poltergeist – The Abuse Begins
When you’re a child, Steven and Diane Freeling seem like the best parents. They laugh a lot together, they smoke pot together – they seem to be living the American dream. Played by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, the Freelings are young and energetic and just looking to stay vital as long as they can, even with three kids under their charge. Who can’t relate to that? Who hasn’t had kids a little too young and then become forced to grow up faster than maybe you ever thought you would? Who hasn’t had to juggle the complexities of the grown-up world with the desires of the youthful? The story of the Freelings isn’t an uncommon one. What is uncommon is the many ways they prove their unworthiness as parents over the course of the film, by:
- Smoking marijuana (at the time, a misdemeanor drug charge) in their bedroom with their children only a room or so away;
- Having a partially constructed swimming pool in the back yard that looks like an absolute physical hazard, let alone with small children in the house;
- Allowing their middle child, Robbie, to have those teeth when it’s obvious Steven’s job likely affords them quality dental insurance;
- Placing their child in the hands of a ghostly supernatural presence to be slid across the floor for their own sick amusement.
Sure – smoking pot isn’t the end of the world, but what if young Carol Anne had walked in on them? Later, she sleeps in their bed. So, for the rest of her life, she’ll equate the smell of pot smoke with her parents. What kind of example does that set? And who’s to say that Diane isn’t basically ‘giving’ Carol Anne to the ghouls by allowing her to become a pawn in their twisted game of adolescent shuffleboard? One could mount a valid argument that they only become interested in Carol Anne because Diane essentially offers her up to them.
Even with all the physical, emotional, and spiritual damage the Freelings bring upon their children, they still go to great lengths to save Robbie from that tree and bring Carol Anne back from the clutches of the dark side. So maybe we can give them this one?
Poltergeist II – Things Are Getting Out of Hand
Years have passed since the events of the first film. The Freelings are now living in a pleasant enough home with Diane’s mother, who seems like a natural and loving caregiver, values she evidently did not instill in her neglectful and downright dangerous daughter. Money is tight, Robbie’s teeth are…better…and the ghosts are back, this time in the form of a malevolent preacher named Henry Kane who wants Carol Anne because of her life force.
You’d think that – maybe with time the Freelings have done some soul searching and really took it upon themselves to become better parents. Maybe they’ve grown up in the years since they almost lost their family to the closet from hell. Or maybe – just maybe – Steven has used their ‘downward mobility’ (as he calls it) to become a lazy, jaded vagabond who’d rather keep his family living on the fringe to keep him from having to hold down another real job. How do their children suffer in this installment? Let us count the ways – by:
- Losing her daughter, Carol Anne, in a mall because she was too concerned with checking the price of a pretty dress;
- Allowing a maniacal man in a black suit to slowly walk up to their daughter singing, and then seriously entertaining letting him into the house, all after recognizing he was the same man who almost abducted her at the mall previously;
- Permitting a strange Native-American man to live in a tent in the backyard and brand their middle child with pagan symbolism;
- Not recognizing soon enough that the alcohol-fueled, violent, rapist-like behavior exhibited by Steven was the cause of something supernatural;
- Admitting, in a roundabout way, that they regretted Carol Anne ever being born;
- Taking their children to an underground cave of death and horrors and not giving either of them a jacket to wear;
- Never mentioning their eldest daughter, Dana, or where she might be;
- Casually gifting the family car to a strange Native-American man with no back-up plan for how to get the family out of the neighborhood that almost killed them.
When Steven is told he needs to take the entire family to the hell hole, it’s understandable that the Native-America, Taylor (Will Sampson), might not understand the negative impact that could have on children. He’s a Ghostbuster – not a father (and years prior he escaped from a mental institution after murdering Jack Nicholson, but that’s not important). But Steven should know. He almost lost his children once to inanimate objects and hungry trees. So the idea of taking them down to a place that he knows is filled with skeletons and beasts – that doesn’t strike me as “Father of the Year” material. At some point, your instincts have to kick in, right?
Poltergeist III – If At First You Don’t Succeed, Give Them Away?
Here we find Carol Anne older, and wiser and…living in Chicago with her aunt and uncle because her parents have given her away? #AreYouFreelingMe?
That’s right – Steven and Diane finally followed through with their spoken disdain of Carol Anne in the second film and just gave her away to someone else. Why? We never really know for sure. It probably had something to do with the television eating her and then vomiting her back up. Or something to do with Steven having to throw a spear at a Griever.
So that’s really all they did to Carol Anne in this film: THEY GAVE HER AWAY. Like she was a puppy who pissed on the carpet one too many times. Like an old Sports Illustrated football phone that they only ever got because it was free with the subscription. In the second film, they had given away their eldest daughter. In the third film, they gave away their younger. Who the hell knows what happened to Robbie. Maybe he was away at a dental college?
The 1980’s were a time of selfishness, and excess, and the ‘me-me-me’ lifestyle. The Freelings represent this version of the nuclear family better than any other cinematic family. Sure, there’s no doubt they love their children – they almost die multiples times to save them. They lose two homes, a car, and more dishes and nick-nacks that one could imagine. But sometimes you can love your children without necessarily being appropriate for raising them. Joan Crawford loved her daughter. But she also shoved her nose in dog shit on occasion.
Steven and Diane probably found themselves in an unimaginable situation. Diane got pregnant with Dana. Steven felt compelled to marry her and she reluctantly accepted. By the time Robbie came along, Steven had to settle down and get the 9-to-5 job he had been dreading. Of course he chose real estate because he really is a scumbag. Carol Anne was probably also an accident and a third child was really more than either of them bargained for, as human beings. So they smoked pot and shirked their responsibilities whenever they could to forget about the painful existence they had created for themselves, all the while ignoring the three wonderful children they had raised, despite their piss-poor parenting skills and lack of regard for their well-being.
If you’re a parent – be warned. Don’t be like Steven and Diane. If chairs stack themselves in your kitchen: LEAVE. Don’t play Pong with your daughter. If creepy old preacher men sing their way to your doorstep: LEAVE. Don’t have a five minute conversation with him through the screen and make your daughter think you might actually give her to that madman. And, most importantly, if your daughter experiences two traumatic experiences with the supernatural brought on my your parental neglect: DON’T BANISH HER TO A SKYSCRAPER. These might seem like wisdoms we should all just know. Not everyone is Steven and Diane Freeling.
For more information about child abuse law in California, visit:
Billy Ray Brewton
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