Steven Spielberg appears to have adapted the Roman and Greek myth of Ceres and Pluto for his film Poltergeist - making this film the closest model to the one Joseph Campbell outlined in his book, "Hero with a Thousand Faces."
Campbell described the mythological hero as someone who must go through hell in order to bring the world back into balance, and the mythological villain as a tyrant who has violated the public trust or opted for personal gain over the good of the community. The hero, in opposing the villain seeks to undo the harm done, but also goes through a process of re-evaluation and significant personal development in the process.
Poltergeist presents us with both of these as well as fulfills other aspects of the pattern of myth Campbell set out, and appears to be using the story of Ceres, whose daughter was abducted by the Roman god Pluto and she had to go into the underworld to get the daughter back.
Although Poltergeist on the surface appears to make a villain out of the dark force that abducts the hero's daughter, Spielberg appears to be following the pattern established by the original myth, which sought to come up with a credible explanation for the seasonal life and death of plants. Spielberg, too, appears to be promoting an environmental message and the dark force is merely the mythological tool used for helping right a deeper wrong inflicted on the world by the actual villain.
In Poltergeist, the villain is an evil developer who to gain an increase profit from the construction of a housing development, does not bother to move the bodies from the graveyard he has acquired, merely the headstones. This has stirred the wrath of the underworld, and brought out the beast that eventually kidnaps the girl child, dragging her into the underworld where he can use her to help control the other spirits.
Poltergeist works on several levels, including one in which the evil spirit serves as the Biblical Beast - or in Christian terms, the Devil. But in mythological terms, he serves as a guardian of the underworld, the force that must be appeased or defeated as part of a right of passage the hero must take in order to right the wrongs of the world.
Poltergeist literally recreated rebirth with the hero mother passing into the underworld to rescue her abducted daughter in the way Ceres did to rescue her daughter Proserpina - both Ceres and the Spielberg mother aided by helpers.
In the original myth - depending on which translation you read (I looked at five)-Pluto, the master of the underworld and the beast in Poltergeist, falls in love with Ceres' daughter, abducts her so that she can share rule in the underworld over the souls of the dead. Depressed at being unable to find her daughter, Ceres - who is the goddess of agriculture - withholds her benevolence from the world so that no corn, wheat or other crop will grow.
Campbell, in describing the journey's beginning, claims it takes place in a specific significant location called "the world navel" through which supernatural powers pass easily. In the film, this was a passage that extended from the girl's closet to a point in the living room ceiling - though it was not the fruits of the gods that poured out but a load of useless crap.
But in some ways, the whole house and yard serve this function, as Spielberg plays with some of the environmental aspects suggested in Campbell and the original Ceres myth. In the Roman Myth, Pluto lures Proserpina into the underworld with exotic flowers she seeks to collect. Proserpina leaves a trail of flowers she had collected with the hope that her mother might follow. This environmental theme appears as part of the fundamental makeup of the Roman myth and Spielberg's film.
For Campbell, the world navel contains The Tree of Life, and Spielberg plays off this concept of corrupted life and environment when he places a dead tree outside the children's bedroom window. While this tree serves as a monstrous diversion later in the film for when the beast seeks to kidnap the girl, it also serves as a symbol for the moral pollution that has been allowed to fester there. The father of the children and one of the top salesmen for the evil developer is so misguided in reading the meaning of this symbol that he keeps the tree despite its decrepit appearance calling it "historic."
The tree, in fact, is exactly opposite of the tree of life Campbell mentions. No leaves grow on its branches. No bird perch there either. While the world navel should also have a spring of fresh water running through it, only foul water from a partially dug swimming pool decorates this tree's roots.
Campbell also said the world navel from which a mythical adventure starts might also contain a mountain (such as the one in Close Encounter), Poltergeist contains only a hill atop which there is also a graveyard the developer has an eye to despoil - offering it to the salesman as reward for his efforts in much the same manner Satan offered the world to Christ in the New Testament.
The hero, according to Campbell, travels to some other world, a distant, dark forest or as in this case, and underworld kingdom which promises danger and reward. In the Roman Myth, this was the place where souls reside as it is in Poltergeist. Campbell said the hero travels into a place with fluid magical beings, torments and superhuman deeds. In one scene in Poltergeist, the spirits of the good dead flow down the stairs as if Spielberg had directly adapted Campbell's description for the film.
The journey the hero mother of Spielberg's film comes with foreshadowing typical of myth. Campbell says events that seem trivial at first later become obvious signs, such as the girl holding up the play phone for her father, saying the call is for him or the whole burial rite the girl makes the mother go through for the death of their pet canary. The fact that the canary's grave is violated by the bulldozer digging a hole for the pool further foreshadows the journey as well as the eventual horror scene later when the pool becomes filled with the rotted remains of the disturbed graves.
Adding to the evidence that Spielberg likely based his film plot on the Ceres myth is the fact that the abducted girl's light becomes a distraction to the good spirits trying to find their way to the light that would lead them to the next level of existence. Spielberg's dark spirit - while given motivation not in the original myth - serves as the guardian Campbell describes as watching over the entry way to the other world.
Campbell points out that the call for a journey is often heralded by some dark, loathsome and terrifying figure see as evil by the world, but in mythological terms, serves as the tool by which a great evil can be corrected. By luring the daughter into the underworld, this figure called "The beast" in the film, creates the need for the woman to make the passage - and the incredible rebirth that includes placenta and umbilical cord.
The journey becomes necessary because the adult humans are deaf to the original warnings - all the call such as the girl holding out the toy telephone to her father saying the call is for him or even the movement of the chairs in the kitchen - not to mention the refusal of the parents to listen to the fears of their son at the approaching storm. When girl is abducted the parents have no choice but to face the problem and somehow wrestle their child free of the enraged spirit.
As in Campbell's outline of myth, the woman hero in Poltergeist enlists natural and supernatural aid to help her gain access to the underworld. In the Roman myth, the goddess Ceres found and assortment of helpers during her long search for her daughter such as the nymphs that played near the shore, a fisherman who pointed out the daughter's footprints in the sand, an old woman who heard the girl's scream and others who heard the rumble of wheels from Pluto's chariot - finally getting precise aid from the spiritual guide Melancholy. She eventually guided - as the hero in Poltergeist is - to the underworld but a supernatural being who aids in her daughter's release.
In myth, the passage the other world isn't merely to rescue a child, nor is that the case in Poltergeist - although on the surface it might seem that way. The purpose of the journey is to correct the problem and bring back some enlightenment that will reestablished the correct balance in the real world. This is most likely why the film does not end with the return of the child and the freeing of the good spirits from the grasp of the beast. The social flaw which caused the problem in the first place - the construction of a housing development over the graves - had not yet been exposed or rectified.
Campbell's analysis shows that Spielberg uses a foundation in myth to give depth and additional meaning to his films. While Poltergeist is the most obvious and apparently direct translation of myth to modern uses, Spielberg uses other techniques in other films to play off myth and fable.
All of this, of course, must have been extremely obvious to Spielberg scholars, but my stumbling upon it, increased my enjoyment of Spielberg's work a hundred fold - and has sent me to look more closely at his other films as well.