The one thing that Poltergeist is, aside from a three-decades-old horror film that holds up pretty damn well despite a few structural flaws--
(For the record, those structural flaws include the late introduction of Steve's boss, and the very late lead in, thereby, to the explanation of what's going on, or rather why. Its is also, arguably, a structural problem that all those potential metaphors I mentioned yesterday pretty much get forgotten after the first act... or get twisted up into the one metaphor I'm going to play through today. The movie hints at things that are not followed up on. Why do Dr. Lesh and Tangina exist as separate characters at all? (I might figure out how to answer that last one below.)
And, for the record, there is definitely something going on in this film regarding suburbs and tract homes, but that also gets twisted into today's actual topic. Actually, the potential dangers in domesticity--those kids with the remote control cars that purposely knock down the guy riding his bike with a precariously-balanced case of beer are, perhaps, more explicitly evil than the so-called "beast" that takes Carol Anne. I mean, they do it on purpose, for fun. The Beast needs Carol Anne in order to act in support of all of those dead people whose graves have been desecrated. Another for-the-record, there isn't really a poltergeist in Poltergeist; there is an apparent demon (or spirit of some inhuman source) trying to work with a bunch of ghosts.
The one thing Poltergeist is is feminist.
Seriously, in simple terms, it passes the Bechdel Test, which I've written about before: It has 1) two named female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. It also passes the more recently introduced Mako Mori Test; it has 1) at least one female character 2) who gets her own narrative arc 3) that is not about supporting a man's story. Diane talks to Carol Anne, to Dr. Lesh, to Tangina, even to Dana. Diane's efforts to recover Carol Anne have more screentime and more narrative oomph than Steve's. This is a film about a mother fighting to save her daughter...
But, from what?
Let's run through it from the beginning.
Diane is there to tuck in Robbie and Carol Anne and protect them, symbolically, from monsters. She leaves on the closet light. (Of potential interest, there is a Darth Vader poster by that closet door. Darth Vader, of course, aside from the direct Star Wars link--
(Robbie has plenty of other Star Wars toys around, including the Darth Vader action figure storage container that I had, except his seems to have translucent red eyes like the actual Darth Vader costume. Seriously, Vader's eyes are red, a dark red that looks about as black as the rest of his mask with the lighting in the movie, but red nonetheless. My storage container was just one kind of black plastic, no translucent parts. I wonder if that one they have in Robbie's room was a prototype that wasn't even available. I'd look it up but I've already digressed long enough about toys when I was supposed to be talking about mothers and fathers at the moment.)
--means "dark father." I'm not going to take this down a path that suggests that Steve is a bad father, but I do think this film is specifically dismissive of men, generally, and Steve, specifically. In fact, the only really useful thing he does in the film (aside from offer up an opportunity for us to learn about the cemetery because apparently he's employed by opportunistic assholes) is push that television set out of the motel room at the end of the film. I would argue--and this may not seem too well supported just yet--that his pushing that television out is actually a conservative impulse toward an earlier version of domesticity, and that he is also rejecting his own manhood. I mean, Steve is the one who has been watching television previously in the film. The opening scene, he has fallen asleep watching... well, we don't know what. Not long after, he and his buddies (who then disappear, never to be seen again in the film) are watching football--you know, manly stuff. The television is also on in the bedroom after Robbie and Carol Anne (frightened by the mangled tree and the lightning outside their window) but we don't know what was on then either--this instance would suggest a tangential issue with the ubiquity of television, anyway: the television as babysitter.
Quick note: just now, it was the kids' mockingly repeating "ask dad" that coincided with Robbie's glass exploding in his hand. The "poltergeist" doesn't seem to like the idea of Steve having the authority or being the center of knowledge in the family. Meanwhile, it seems it is Steve watching the television in the kitchen as they all eat breakfast.
Now, the "poltergeist"--what does it want? What does it do? It shows up in the television and erupts in the bedroom. Not to get too weird about it, but some later imagery suggests a womb, so maybe this is the ejaculation that impregnates that womb (eventually) with both Carol Anne and Diane. It speaks to Carol Anne, but always so vaguely that it is impossible to gauge what it wants from her. It also speaks to the dog, who it gets to do tricks, including fetching a tennis ball. Later, Tangina will test the portal by tossing a tennis ball through it. Does the "poltergeist" want balls? Is that another weirdly gendered reference?
Moving on. The next place the "poltergeist" interacts with the real world is in the kitchen, the heart of feminine domesticity--for the record, I'm dealing in stereotypes the film might be invoking; I am not suggesting that these things are as the world should be or is. It interacts with Robbie's glass at the breakfast table. It moves the chairs around that same table.
(Sidenote: Steve and Diane laughing inappropriately when they go to talk to the neighbor about disturbances plays like those two are very high. I'm not sure those chairs (or Carol Anne) ever moved in the kitchen at all.)
Diane is amused and directly interacts with the "poltergeist" there in the kitchen and dining room, first with a chair, then with Carol Anne.
Next, the mangled tree and the closet get involved. Not sure about the tree, but the closet is definitely something like Clover's (1988, 1992) "dark place" (even though here it is quite obviously not dark)--womblike. The tree holds Robbie and embraces him, which visually could be a motherly image, but I think what really matters is that the children are being taken. Dana, the teenage daughter, has her own life going on and has, figuratively speaking, already been lost to her parents, to her mother, but now Robbie and Carol Anne are being taken. It's like the "poltergeist" is deliberately challenging Diane's motherhood. It even effectively mocks it by leaving the clown doll in the place of Carol Anne. Now, if we drift into the drug metaphor, this is the point where the family breaks down because of the parents--and it was Diane who we saw smoking first--using drugs. Their irresponsibility loses one kid and nearly loses another (and drives the third away to a friend's house). Structurally, this is about Diane more than Steve (though it is Steve who goes to Dr. Lesh, but that leaves Diane in the house or on the property around it for the entire film. She is part of the house. But, running with the drug metaphor again--because mixing these things together is fun--and blaming Diane for everything, Steve seeks out and brings home another woman. Dr. Lesh is there to do what Diane cannot.
The "poltergeist" moves a whole lot of stuff in the kids' bedroom when Dr. Lesh and her assistants are there. Then, it moves the teapot--another feminine object--and plays with the lights there at the table. It is Diane's space and the children's space (which by extension, is their mother's) being affected by the "poltergeist."
And, this brings me to the end of part 1 of this... rambling treatise on Poltergeist as feminist film. There's plenty of movie to watch, still--and I will probably finish it on the drive back to LA tonight. But, this entry is getting a little long.
I will end with today's title. Carol Anne has literally passed through part of her mother. A bit of pre-feminist thinking would suggest that Diane's womb, her vagina, the birth canal we will later see echoed within the portal, is the soul of who she is as a woman and a mother. Whether it's true or not is a different matter altogether, but if we take that angle, the title line is quite literally true.