Did Steven Spielberg Shadow-Direct the Original 'Poltergeist'?

Years of rumors point to the fact that Spielberg was the real director of the horror classic.


So they remade Poltergeist for no discernible reason, not that anyone much noticed. The 1982 version was spooky as hell, and featured performances and special effects have held up surprisingly well over the past three decades. Perhaps most enduring (besides the production’s legendary curse) is the nagging question about whether its powerful writer/producer actually directed it.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper is credited as the director of Poltergeist, but it's distinctly a Steven Spielberg film. The film is chockablock with his visual tics, and he was heavily involved in its storyboards and its shots on-set. Persistent talk and rumors — as well as accounts by cast and crew — have sustained speculation that Steven Spielberg in fact directed the movie.

At the time, critics and audiences noticed its similarities to E.T., a Spielberg-directed movie released only a week after Poltergeist. Both feature a sci-fi-tinged story of suburban families terrorized by outside forces that ultimately pull the family unit closer together. Shots of the California McMansions dotting the streets alone from each movie could be swapped and you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

And as you can see in the making-of featurette, Spielberg definitely seems to be captaining the ship. The rumor about his creative control began with an L.A. Times feature on the making of Poltergeist that ran before the film's release. In it, Spielberg contrasted his input with Hooper’s: “Tobe isn’t what you’d call a take-charge sort of guy. He’s just not a strong presence on a movie set. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump up and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of the collaboration.”

The article sparked an investigation by the Director’s Guild of America into Spielberg’s involvement as a potential director; ultimately it went nowhere. Spielberg went on to formally apologized to Hooper in The Hollywood Reporter two days before Poltergeist opened on June 4th. “Regrettably, some of the press have misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist,” Spielberg wrote. “I enjoyed your openness in allowing me, as producer and writer, a wide berth for creative involvement.” It wasn't exactly a refutation, though, of the perception that Spielberg big-footed the project, since Spielberg was essentially thanking Hooper for letting him roll in and do his thing.

Could be, though, that we're merely misinterpreting the role of the producer on a project in which he's so deeply vested. Spielberg's best friend, George Lucas, also shifted into the producer’s chair for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 (and again with Return of the Jedi in 1983) after directing the original Star Wars, but he retained creative control over the production. Somehow that arrangement worked without blurring the stakeholders' roles. Could it be that Hooper’s lax approach and Spielberg’s giddy enthusiasm for his own written creation drove the kerfuffle?

Hooper weighed in during a 2000 interview with the AV Club. He said the confusion stemmed from the fact that the production was split between first and second unit crews equally helmed by himself and Spielberg during the period when the Times journalist visited the set. “When we were shooting the practical location on the house, the first two weeks of filming were exterior, so I had second-unit shots that had to be picked up in the front of the house," Hooper said. "I was in the back of the house shooting Robbie [actor Oliver Robins] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, so Steven was picking those shots up for me.” Timing, in Hooper's version, led to the legend.

Other cast and crew likewise have weighed in over the years. Zelda Rubenstein, who plays the film’s creepy spiritual medium, told AICN, “I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. I only worked six days on the film and Steven was there.” Casting Director Mike Fenton was quoted as saying, “Did [Tobe Hooper] director the film? Not that I saw.” Star Craig T. Nelson defended Hooper, saying that “Tobe gave me a lot of direction. It’s not fair to eliminate what Tobe did,” while another of the film’s stars, JoBeth Williams, said, “It was a collaboration with Steven having the final say.”

For what it's worth, too, the voiceover in the film’s trailer mentions only Spielberg by name, though perhaps after his 1981 smash hit Raiders of the Lost Ark, his was considered the more bankable name.

Scene by scene, ascribing the authorship gets murkier. You could look at this one and recognize the sense of awe on people’s faces that Spielberg tends to give on his characters (affectionately dubbed the “Spielberg Face”). Or you could just as easily recognize Hooper's horror roots pushing the limits of the film's PG rating in this clip.

The question of who really directed Poltergeist will never really be answered. As in the case of so many creative works, the lines that separate collaborators' input is blurry — not that the casual viewer would much notice or mind. Thinking of Poltergeist as a cross between E.T. and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre explains a lot, in any event. 

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