Drowning in the Shallow End: Swimming Pools and the American Dream in Poltergeist
A sweltering summer’s day, friends and family happily gathered in a not-so-modest backyard, a large barbecue with a sizzling variety of meats, so enticing that the viewer can almost take in the unmistakable scent miles and years away on their couch, and of course the center of all activity: A sparkling swimming pool.
The swimming pool has become rife with symbolism as American film developed throughout the years. It has always been regarded as a status symbol. Whereas a swimming pool is pretty standard these days, it was always regarded as a luxury. Something that marked its owner as affluent, one of the few of have “made it.”
Swimming pools have also become an indication of how the family in the film interact with one another. This is seen in The Graduate (1967), where the Braddock family spends a large part of their social time around their swimming pool. By using an elaborate (and possibly unnecessary swimming goggle, and snorkeling set), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) makes it clear that his existential crisis makes him feel isolated.
Swimming pools are a sort of crowning achievement of any American family. A reward for working hard, and making your contribution to society. In short: a visual symbol for the American Dream.
The swimming pool being built by the Freeling family in Poltergeist (1982) is also a symbol of that American Dream, or rather the impossibility thereof.
Pool in Progress
When we meet the Freeling family, they have just moved into a moderately luxurious new development of homes. The patriarch of the family, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson), works as a real estate for this development. The family of five are clearly on their way to realizing all their material dreams. This is perhaps the most clearly seen in the swimming pool that starts construction but, over the course of the movie’s runtime, is never completed.
Poltergeist is in many ways a political movie. This is manifested in several ways. Firstly the Poltergeist in question enters Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) via the television, a device that offers plenty of American propaganda. Which is in tune with the growing fear over television content that many parents experienced during the 80s as children programming became increasingly popular.
The Freeling parents are also remarkably liberal. They smoke marijuana, and obviously had a daughter when they were both too young. Steve Freeling is also seen reading a book on American president Ronald Reagan.
The swimming pool forms a part of this narrative. The uncompleted pool manages to deliver a rather scathing commentary on the idea of the American dream in several ways.
Fears of the Future
Concerned about Carol Anne’s nocturnal activities, Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) becomes increasingly concerned about what constructing the pool will mean for her family. She worries about Carol Anne’s safety while the pool is being built.
Her eldest daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), is also harassed by construction workers. The valid concern for their children’s safety could point to a rising trend amongst parents in the 80s. The concern of how imposing the idea of an American dream on their children, will infect their children. Of course, during the course of the movie, the pool will grow to symbolize more immediate concerns.
The pool never reaches completion. The construction workers are ever digging, yet the pool is never completed and remains nothing but a hole in the ground.
To me, this refers to the unattainability and illusion of the American dream. The American dream depends on its blue-collar workers, as it dangles the carrot of possible wealth and luxury in front of them. Yet the pool is never built; The American dream is never quite achieved. The workers keep working towards this impossibility, in vain hopes, of maybe one day, reaping a reward.
We never get to see the familiar sparkling pool. The only images we see are a large hole in the ground. During the movie, the pool becomes increasingly muddied as the storms continue to rage. This muddied pool could even be a nod to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential mud.
The Dead Rising
Towards the end of the movie, Steve Freeling learns that the home development is actually situated on an old graveyard. True to form, the corporation responsible for the development did not move the coffins wherein the dead rests, but only moved their tombstones. Suddenly it becomes clear to Steve why the dead are in revolt and why they have chosen to target his family.
In the last few scenes of the film Diane jumps into the muddy pool where the corpses start rising out of the earth in revenge. This could be taken as a metaphor for the working class crushed by pursuing the American dream. The millions of Americans that capitalism relies on, and yet destroys in their pursuit of attaining affluence in the form of possessions. Another reading could also perhaps point to the native Americans who were slaughtered in the Westerner’s pursuit of capitalism. Those native Americans on who America is built.
Poltergeist is rife with subtle socio-political commentary. By analysing simple things like an unbuilt swimming pool, this hugely popular movie proves to be both enjoyable, and intelligent in its larger meaning. Something current Hollywood could and should take note of.