Eight arms to hold you: Poltergeist revisited
During my most recent viewing of Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, I kept hearing the 1965 Beatles hit single: Help.
This was not the obvious reason that the family’s little girl had been taken captive by an evil spirit and kept crying for her “mommy” to help her, but rather because the original title for The Beatles film out of which the hit record had come was “Eight arms to hold you” referring both to the number of arms the Fab Four had and the statue of Kali which serves as a central figure in the film.
While I also vaguely remembered that Spielberg and George Lucas had made the second Indiana Jones film, Temple of Doom, based on the same cult, it was not for this reason the Beatles title struck me.
The title and song struck me because somewhere deep in the back of my brain I recorded one of the images repeated again and again throughout the film, how arms of every sort seemed to wrap around characters.
Sometimes, these acts denoted safety, but often they became symbols of oppressive possession, a death grip from which the character could not escape.
Poltergeist is an extraordinary haunted house story made even more special by the fact that George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic company gave us its special effects.
And these special effects are put to suburb use in creating a terrifying mood, often accompanying many of the traditional elements of a Spielberg film such as the use of a TV through which evil spirit in the in-between world communicates with her.
Ominous and yet not to the oblivious adult world, the tree outside the window poses a perpetual threat – and which eventually wraps it arms around the son as a distraction while the beast from the other world steals the daughter through the closet.
The tree – which has lumps representing the presidential representations found on Mount Rushmore (perhaps a subtle political comment made during the heyday of the Reagan era). Is it an accident that the film opens with the Star Spangled Banner?
The arms of the clown doll also pose a menace later to the boy, clinging to him, dragging him under the bed. The beast who lingers in limbo is also said to hold the girl close. Even the remains of the dead that pop out of the disgusting water of the half dug pool seem destine to wrap their arms around the mother as she struggles to escape.
Leaving religious symbolism aside for this essay except to point out the most obviously related to holding, we get numerous spiritual connections such as the St. John the Baptist and Christ-like scene between the psychic and the mother before the mother’s descent into hell to rescue her daughter and the clutching scene at rebirth when mother and daughter pop out of the belly of the beast to land on the living room floor.
As in most Spielberg films, it is impossible to deal with all the implications: what is safe and not safe in Poltergeist and who we can trust and not trust. The film plays off our illusion of safety – and turns the home, which is considered the cornerstone of safety in the modern mind, into the most dangerous of threats. We are constantly forced to reevaluate to which arms we can rush and from which arms we should flee – made obvious when the mother is forced to tell her daughter to run towards the light and then reverse herself a short time later and tell her to avoid the same light. And perhaps, all safety is an illusion.
Of course, no connection likely links the Beatles with Spielberg’s most haunting film, except in my warped mind – a chanting I hear in my head even in the supposedly more innocent moments when the chairs pop up on the table by themselves or the kids slide across the kitchen floor.