When it comes to Horror Movie Dads, you essentially have two camps to choose from: “Absentee” or “In On It.” Horror Movie Dads either dismiss or ignore the obvious signs of danger until it’s too late, like, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Don Thompson or Neil Prescott from Scream; or they are actively enabling or engaging in the horrors, like Dean Armitage in Get Out or Jerry Blake in The Stepfather. Rarely do you see a Dad reacting the way a Dad actually would to something supernatural and dangerous – flustered, confused, goofy, and, in the end, thoroughly determined to save those he loves.
That is why this Halloween we raise a Jack O’Lantern-shaped glass to the best and most relatable movie Dad: Craig T. Nelson’s Steve Freeling from 1982’s Poltergeist.
For those who need a quick recap, here you go: A picture-perfect suburban family – Dad, Mom, three kids, a dog, and a bird (well, briefly) – learn that their house is an epicenter of paranormal activity after the youngest daughter, Carol Anne, is whisked away through an inter-dimensional portal by angry spirits she’s been communicating with through TV static. Poltergeist has become iconic for Carol Anne’s cryptic proclamation “they’re heeere,” and two emotionally-scarring scenes where the middle son is first attacked by a gnarly old tree and then attacked by an even gnarlier clown doll that is still more terrifying than anything involving Pennywise. Somehow, this movie was rated PG.
Steve exists at a nebulous time for movie Dads in general. Given that he’s in his thirties, that means he came of age in the turbulent 60s and 70s, and now finds himself a suburban homeowner in the nascent 80s. It’s a pivotal moment for the role of the father. We progressed through the “OK, I’m off to work, honey! Be back when the kids are teens” type of Dad to the “Whoa, man, we, like, have a kid?” Dad — and Steve is struggling to figure it all out. His confusion around his sense of identity is clearly illustrated early on in the movie: He’s introduced rolling a joint in bed…while reading a book about Ronald Reagan. Political and social battle lines haven’t been so severely drawn in the sand as they would be in later years, and he’s not sure where he fits.
Even before the ghosts show up, this is a man on unsteady ground. He’s trying to hold it together as the decade takes hold, just before the 80s forced men (but even more so, women) to kill themselves to “have it all” and be the perfect power parent. He’s successful at his job and provides a loving home, but his job also requires that he sell cookie-cutter planned communities that are steamrolling the natural landscape and reducing everything to one, giant homogenous cul-de-sac.
Now, we could write a whole other essay on Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams), too, and how she similarly exists in an uneasy state. She teeters between being the traditional housewife who chuckles while watching a team of contractors casually sexually harass her eldest daughter, and the take-charge woman willing to throw herself into a nether portal and risk her own life to literally tear her daughter from the arms of demons, but for now, let’s focus on Steve.
The reason we applaud Steve is that he isn’t superheroic. He’s not even that heroic (Nelson would cement his superheroic Dad cred later, as the voice of another cinematic Dad all-timer – Bob “Mr. Incredible” Parr in The Incredibles). But his response to the trauma is messy and complicated and real. For one, he never loses his sense of humor. He and Diane can’t resist a case of the giggles while questioning their douchebag neighbor to see if he’s experienced anything unusual, and when diminutive ghostbuster Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubenstein) tosses Steve a question from the upstairs bedroom, he goofily tries to “answer” her with his mind. Does he need to read the room a bit? Sure, but it’s nice to see that level of humanity even at his darkest moments. After the family sees their house consumed by evil spirits and escapes to a Holiday Inn, the movie’s final image is of Steve wheeling the television set out into the hallway. Just to be sure.
He also puts his family before his career. When Carol Anne disappears, Steve plays sick to skip out on work so he can stay home to help figure things out. He responds with proper revulsion when his boss, Mr. Teague (James Karen), reveals that the company is more than happy to plow over some gravesites to give the Freelings a better bedroom window view. When he decides (rightly) to quit that job, Steve reassures Diane that if his “go to hell” message to Teague is ignored, he’ll “draw him a map.” And when the desecration of graves proves to be the impetus behind the possession of his home, Steve has no qualms about taking his amoral boss to task for the recklessness that put his family in danger.
Through it all, you see Steve’s genuine love for Diane – the moment post-rescue of Carol Anne where he gently strokes her now gray-streaked hair is reassuring and tender – and concern for his children. When the parent’s puff-puff-pass evening wind-down is interrupted by the kids (where Steve is trying to seduce Diane with a Donald Duck voice, which cracks her up), there is no admonishment or even mad scurry to act more “parental.” Steve offers instead a piggyback ride back to bed and some comforting advice about how to count the silence between lightning flash and thunderclap to help the kids take their minds off the storm. Hell, he even fully embraces his Dad bod.
Steve Freeling isn’t perfect, but in the annals of horror movie fatherhood, he shines as a beacon of realness who is genuinely part of the solution and not the problem.
Poltergeist is available to rent on Amazon for $3.99