I haven’t seen a horror film since I was nine years old. That’s when Steven Spielberg and Jack Valenti scarred me for life.
Spielberg was responsible for 1982’s Poltergeist; Valenti was responsible for the Motion Picture Association of America. And both are responsible for turning Poltergeist, a haunted-house horror masterpiece (I’ll grant it that) from a unanimously-rated R to a PG on appeal.
This was before PG-13 ratings, a period well documented in pop culture. Except very little of it mentions Poltergeist. Films like Red Dawn (the first PG-13), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins are more considered the rating’s spiritual ancestors. But Poltergeist made it necessary.
In Connie Bruck’s 2001 profile of Valenti in The New Yorker, Spielberg, after haranguing the MPAA over Poltergeist’s rating, is said to have promised Richard Heffner, chairman of the ratings board to “get that for you.” He meant the creation of PG-13, or some rating between PG and R. To me, that’s evidence enough that Spielberg knew Poltergeist was no PG movie — which in 1982 was basically taken as a G without animation or the Disney logo.
But Spielberg, Valenti and Poltergeist distributor MGM still browbeat Heffner into re-screening the movie for the ratings board. And, lo and behold, a panel that had been 24-0 in favor of R was now 20-4 for PG. “The fix was in,” Heffner said later, meaning Valenti got to the jurors. MGM and Spielberg needed that kid-tested-mother-approved PG rating if it was going to make any money, and Valenti was gonna do them a solid.
I saw Poltergeist on HBO in 1983, toward the end of my fourth-grade year. I don’t think I slept for a month. When I tried, I reverted to a fetal posture; less surface area for the evil tree to grab. It doesn’t help that, at this time, I also used my closet light as a nightlight. The glowing bedroom closet was a big part of Poltergeist. That was where “The Beast” lived, right? I can’t really remember for sure because, you know, I only watched the thing once.
Here’s the part where you guess I saw the movie by myself or at a friend’s house, given the broad license to watch anything PG. Here’s where you’re wrong. The only thing my parents ever forbade me and my brother from watching was The Dukes of Hazzard, probably because my dad’s name is Roscoe.
And as for Poltergeist, I found out the rating didn’t matter.
“Dad, did you know Poltergeist was originally rated R?” I said, after reading The New Yorker profile.
“No,” he said. “So what?”
“So, you told me and Brendan to watch it when I was nine, I guess because it was PG,” I said.
“No, I saw that the year before. I thought you and your brother would like it.”
“You what?!” I demanded. “You actually recommended that? After seeing it? What were you thinking?!”
Dad dug in and went Red Forman on me. “I was thinking, what the fuck, kids like being scared,” Dad said. “Quit being a [wimp].”
Like being scared? Like this was a ride at Carowinds? My ass! This film is not a “boo!” followed by giggles and squeals. This movie is an evil tree plunging through the bedroom window, dragging your ass outside.
It’s got body horror, in the form of a guy pulling his own face clean off in the bathroom. My acne phase sure was fun after this, Dad!
It’s got an evil clown doll, for God’s sake. Valenti was said to have unofficial rules (usually sex or swear words) that automatically got you an R. The evil clown is such a below-the-belt punch for kids, how is that not one of them?
And, of course, the coup de grace: the skeletons in the pool! These are supposedly ACTUAL HUMAN REMAINS being used as props, mind you, and no one told JoBeth Williams they were in the pool. Of course! We want her to be totally fucking terrified! People like being scared!
Twenty-four MPAA ratings reviewers saw all this and said, “Yep, that’s an R!” Who could argue? Spielberg, that’s who. According to Bruck’s profile, he insisted that the film was PG because it was “all threat and fantasy, no reality.”
To which I say, fuck you, mister! This movie is jam-packed with stuff to specifically and intentionally terrify children. It’s not limited to the clown, the tree (Spielberg is said to have taken inspiration from one that creeped him out as a child), and the bedroom closet. The evil is in the TV! There’s one in every room to take you straight to hell! You’re not safe inside your own home, especially at night (which is always strobe-lit by lightning). Are there monsters buried under your house? No? Yes? How do you know? Do you like swimming in a swimming pool? No sharks in a swimming pool, right? Just your disinterred neighbors.
No, Spielberg, MGM, and good pal Valenti wanted a PG on this because it was a summer movie that needed a wide audience, the kind you get with a drop-the-kids-off-and-go-shopping PG. MGM had bought United Artists the year before and the deal wasn’t going so well. The company needed a hit, and Valenti needed MGM to keep paying its MPAA dues. Poltergeist was indeed the first box office hit of the MGM/UA period, but it hardly mattered. MGM’s business would be reorganized and sold repeatedly over the rest of the decade.
After the betrayal, of Spielberg to his audience, Valenti to his ratings board, the ratings board to the rest of us, and, of course, Dad to me and my brother, I adopted a hard “no scary movies” policy that remains in effect to this day.
Not at parties when I was a teenager, not on a date, not in a boat, not with a goat. My high school friends were into shit like Hellraiser and Phantasm, and watching The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby on VHS. Good for them, I was into having a good night’s sleep. My rationale, then as now, is that if Poltergeist is a PG — by the way, it still is — then the shit that’s R is probably 100 times more terrifying. I know my own imagination. I know the hell my mind will inflict on me when I’m all alone. I get freaked out just reading the Wikipedia entry for The Amityville Horror.
So, since Poltergeist, 37 years ago, the scariest thing I’ve seen is the scene where that lady gives birth to the lizard baby on V: The Final Battle. And how that got onto network TV is almost as mind-boggling as Poltergeist’s PG.