For many of us who came of age in the 1980s, the PG-rated thriller Poltergeist was a gateway to lifelong horror fandom. The seminal supernatural creeper celebrated its 35th Anniversary last week, which makes it the perfect time to revisit a question that, for many horror aficionados and historians, feels as old and deliberated as Schrödinger’s Cat and the Chicken & the Egg debate: Who really directed Poltergeist?
For those not aware of the immense complexity of the production, it may seem like a silly question; IMDB says Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist, so that’s the end of the story right? As for how some people got the idea that Steven Spielberg was the actual director, well, that’s just a misunderstanding. Spielberg was the producer of Poltergeist and, as the most famous filmmaker affiliated with the movie, his name floated to the forefront. There are plenty of film fans who refer to The Orphanage and Mama as Guillermo del Toro films, even though those movies were directed by J.A. Bayona and Andrés Muschietti respectively; del Toro produced both films, which explains the misconception.
So why, 35 years later, are some folks still questioning who actually directed Poltergeist? What makes so many believe that Steven Spielberg was actually at the helm, relegating Hooper to a supporting position? The main reason is that many people who were actually involved in the production say so! But even if we disregard 2nd and 3rd hand recollections, an objective examination of artifacts, like behind the scenes pictures and footage, is enough to make anyone question who was actually calling shots on the set of Poltergeist.
Related Article: Top 15 Most Terrifying Haunted House Horror Movies
For example, check out this full-page ad that was released in advance of Poltergeist’s premiere:
It reads: Steven Spielberg has fascinated, mystified, and scared audiences with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now Time Magazine calls Poltergeist “a work of popular art… full of spine-snapping thrills” and Newsweek agrees that “it is a circus of light and magic… a superior, spectacular ghost story.”
At the bottom, it says “A Steven Spielberg Production”. Not only is Hooper’s name practically buried, mentioning Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders is significant and telling because Spielberg actually directed those other films. This advert seems like an admission, nay, a braggart’s boast of ownership. You can practically hear Spielberg muttering, “Mine, mine, mine…”
Now check out the behind-the-scenes footage from Poltergeist below. I was initially drawn to this video for the unprecedented glimpse it gave me into many of the film’s most iconic scenes, but what really got my attention was the footage of Steven Spielberg in action. The video opens with Spielberg giving passionate, detailed instruction to the special FX crew. Clearly, this is the man in charge. Hooper doesn’t even appear until the video is several minutes deep; when we do see Hooper, he looks like a shy teenage wallflower waiting for someone to ask him to dance.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words; check out this behind the scenes shot (below) of Spielberg directing Poltergeist star Craig T. Nelson; Hooper has a deer-in-headlights aura, meekly sipping a can of coke as Spielberg calls the shots. If this photo wasn’t captioned, who would you assume is directing?
It’s important to understand the role of a producer: Producers provide the resources to make a film (i.e. they’re the ones who pony up the cash); major studios can produce films, as can businesses and individuals. As for the amount of control a producer has over a production, it depends on the film; as financiers, producers can steer a director towards certain expectations, or even make demands under threats of pulling funds. It’s not uncommon for producers to regularly visit sets during filming as a way of making sure their money is being well spent.
By all accounts, however, Spielberg was on the set of Poltergeist for the entire production minus only 2 days. This kind of oversight is very unusual. Some may argue that, as the author of the screenplay, Spielberg had an especially personal attachment to the production, leading to an undeniable zealousness. Again, we’ll be citing reports and artifacts in an effort to prove that Spielberg’s involvement was primary over Hooper’s.
So now you may be wondering, “If Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist, why didn’t he just say so? Why even give Hooper credit at all?” And this is where things get complex to the point that some people claim there’s a conspiracy at play. For starters, Spielberg was already busy directing another movie, a little production you might have heard of called E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. While this might seem to weaken the argument that Spielberg directed Poltergeist based on sheer logistics until you learn that the set for E.T. was less than 2 miles away. It was, in fact, very easy for Spielberg to split his time between the 2 productions. Directing 2 films simultaneously may be a herculean task, but it’s not impossible, especially for a filmmaker in his prime (as Spielberg was).
It’s never been a secret that Spielberg wanted to direct Poltergeist, but there were certain industry rules that thwarted him. “Steven Spielberg wrote and produced, but had a clause in his contract to prevent him from directing another movie while he made E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Therefore, Hooper was selected to direct based on his work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” (Source)
While this sounds like a glowing endorsement, some pessimistic horror historians believe Spielberg felt Hooper (a relatively inexperienced director by comparison) would be easy to steamroll.
The most compelling evidence I found that Spielberg is undeniably the true director of Poltergeist comes from YouTuber Dr. Udru. His in-depth investigation put these and other pieces together into a tapestry that’s clear as day. Have a watch and let us know in the Comments section where you stand on this enduring argument from horror history.
Official Synopsis: An overview of Steven Spielberg’s sometimes controversial involvement in the creation of Poltergeist.
About Dr. Udru: A dose of horror history. Every other Friday.
35 years later, there are aspects of Poltergeist that feel dated, but it remains an incredibly effective and immensely entertaining haunted house saga, one anchored in legitimate human drama. The film is filled with fantastic characters and brilliant scenes. Exposing Spielberg’s overbearing involvement was never meant to diminish the quality of the final product, nor to discount Hooper’s contributions. If it’s been a while, take a stroll down Memory Lane by revisiting the trailer & synopsis for Poltergeist below.
Official Synopsis: Strange and creepy happenings beset an average California family, the Freelings — Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams), teenaged Dana (Dominique Dunne), eight-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and five-year-old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) — when ghosts commune with them through the television set. Initially friendly and playful, the spirits turn unexpectedly menacing, and, when Carol Ann goes missing, Steve and Diane turn to a parapsychologist and eventually an exorcist for help.