National Anthems in Film: Poltergeist

An 80’s horror perspective of America

There are plenty of films that I could have picked as an example of the Star Spangled Banner. The particular dynamics of theatre and nationalism (and identity through nation / nationality) in America are interesting enough in themselves. The national anthem precedes many kinds of spectacle or sport, including, up until recently the showing of movies, making it effectively entrenched into entertainment experiences.

This is partly why I have picked Hooper/Spielberg’s 80’s soft-horror Poltergeist, which uses the national anthem as part of its opening scene.

The Star Spangled Banner opens Poltergeist by itself being in a film, a screen within a screen. It is playing across the credits in the television screen that is being watched by Steve Freeling, the head of the household. The camera pans out to show his bare hand flop from an armchair, signifying that he has fallen asleep (sleep is a recurring motif of the film). The poltergeist resides in this screen, or rather, in the static left after the channel has finished broadcasting.

Spielberg directly points to the way that the national anthem is tied to fictionalised and filtered (through a screen) entertainment, but he simultaneously conveys this as a signifier of a haunting. In several scenes, the national anthem is the last thing played before the channel dies out and the ghost emerges from the white noise left behind.  These two concepts (a filtered fiction, a haunting) are thus joined by the symbol of a song about nationhood.

This dynamic is the undercurrent of Poltergeist, and sets the tone for the otherwise unremarkable environment of an American home that is full of gadgets, slogans, TVs. Throughout the film, characters graze numbly on food in bed, on the sofa, pacing in the kitchen. The parents gently drug themselves in the bedroom while talking about sleepwalking.

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Tying these small incidents and characteristics into a narrative about nationhood – sustained by the use of the national anthem – paints a larger story than that of one family and one home that happens to be riddled with a poltergeist. Indeed, the constant scenes of passivity (sleeping, grazing, doping) suggest political and historical undertones by the countertexts that are invariably present in each frame. The book on Ronald Reagan, for example that the father vacantly reads (while rolling joints and watching TV).

By the end of the film, it is clear that it is the home itself that is the problem. In a similar premise to The Shining, the prime piece of real estate that this family have settled into (and sold others into) is built on top of a cemetery, and the land is consequently ‘cursed’.  Accordingly, this portrait of domestic dumbness and numbness slowly comes apart as the ghost becomes more active and monstrous. The characters are forced to spring into action, compelled to ‘wake up’.

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Poltergeist, then, is a mass-market, blockbusting, Spielbergian movie that uses its own form – filtered film – to query how the American Dream is literally – physically – built upon the suffering of others.

In this All-American consumerist settlement of toys, TVs and takeaways, the spectres beneath the screen become not just the haunting of a sleeping home, but of a sleepwalking nation; the shadowy underside of a country disjointed from its own history, its own submerged graveyard of unresolved horrors.

 

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