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The Steven Spielberg ‘Poltergeist’ Theory That’s Still Spooking Hollywood

Tobe Hooper is listed as the filmmaker of this 1980s horror classic, but the world remains convinced that Spielberg is the movie’s true auteur. It’s a controversy that says a lot about what we think a director does.

Let’s face it: There is no summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday, we’re presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a ranking of every single Oscar-nominated performance. Or, like today, it will be a look back at the horror classic that everyone thinks Steven Spielberg directed.

I’m as bored as you are with the endless “Snyder Cut” conversation — they’re rereleasing the movie, big wow — but the only element of that whole debacle that interests me is that it represents a rare instance in which we’re not sure who actually made the film we saw. 

Movies can be good, bad, mediocre or forgettable, but we usually know who to praise or blame — the director, the person behind the camera literally calling the shots. No matter how disastrous a film turns out to be, you almost never see a studio fire a director during production and then bring on someone else. It happened with Solo, where original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced midway through with Oscar-winner Ron Howard, and it happened with Justice League, although the reasons there were very different. (Zack Snyder walked away from the superhero movie after his daughter Autumn committed suicide, with Joss Whedon taking over.) When a movie switches directors, or if there are rumors that the credited director really didn’t direct the damn thing, it often leaves the completed film feeling permanently incomplete — a strange, stitched-together, made-by-committee specimen. 

It’s been nearly 40 years since Poltergeist was one of the biggest hits of the summer of 1982. A ghost story about some spooky paranormal spirits that descend on a Southern California family, it redefined suburban horror and made glowing television screens a triggering image for Gen-Xers. And to this day, a lot of people assume Steven Spielberg directed it — even though the credits list a man named Tobe Hooper. The debate has haunted the film ever since.

In the early 1980s, Hooper was a working director with one horror classic on his résumé, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which remains among the genre’s scariest entries. The indie movie’s simple, primal terror — the sense that these savage cannibals could live in any small American community — horrified audiences, and it got the Texas native noticed in Hollywood, where he worked on projects like the television miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem Lot.

But while Hooper was finishing the 1981 slasher film The Funhouse, he was approached by Spielberg, who was well on his way to establishing himself as the preeminent blockbuster filmmaker of the age. The man behind Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third King and Raiders of the Lost Ark was only in his mid-30s but already feted with Oscar nominations and huge box office. He could basically do whatever he wanted, and being a fan of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he approached Hooper about collaborating. Perhaps Tobe would be interested in doing a dark follow-up to Close Encounters, tentatively titled Night Skies, in which the extra-terrestrials weren’t so benevolent? But Hooper had something else in mind, as he told Fangoria in 1982:

“My interest in ghosts and poltergeists goes back to when I was still living in Texas. Shortly after my father’s death, about two days after — the drinking glasses in the kitchen all exploded and showered. Various little ceramic souvenirs we’d had on a shelf flew across the room and broke; the water glasses were replaced, and they exploded again a day later.

“So I did very much believe that there’s an energy that can manifest itself, that’s beyond our hearing and sight.”

Hooper had developed an idea for a ghost story long before Spielberg’s call, but when the two set to work, the division of labor seemed pretty straightforward: Spielberg would handle the screenplay and produce, while Hooper would direct. Seemingly, it was an arrangement with which Spielberg would be familiar. After all, it wasn’t so different from his creative partnership with George Lucas on Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Spielberg directed and his pal came up with the story and executive produced. Plus, this was a time in which Spielberg was starting to serve as mentor to rising talents, taking on executive producing responsibilities on projects helmed by Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future). Hooper, who was actually three years older than his producer, seemed like one more protégé who was about to get the Spielberg bump, jumping from low-budget movies to blockbuster fare. Lucky guy.

Except it sounded like Hooper wasn’t so lucky. In recent years, people associated with Poltergeist have talked about how much Spielberg micromanaged Hooper on set — so much that it seemed like Spielberg was really directing the movie. In 2017, John Leonetti, who was an assistant cameraman on Poltergeist — his brother Matt was the cinematographer — asserted, “Candidly… Steven Spielberg directed that movie. There’s no question.” But even back then, there were whispers that Spielberg was the film’s true auteur. Those rumors were strengthened by a May 1982 article in The New York Times published just a few weeks before the release of Poltergeist — which would come to theaters a mere week before Spielberg’s other movie, E.T., would arrive. The article, which never mentions Hooper once, certainly created the impression that not only was Spielberg the creative engine behind both films — they represented two sides of his artistic soul:

Poltergeist is what I fear and E.T. is what I love. One is about suburban evil and the other is about suburban good. I had different motivations in both instances: In Poltergeist, I wanted to terrify and I also wanted to amuse — I tried to mix the laughs and screams together. Poltergeist is the darker side of my nature — it’s me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death when we were growing up — and E.T. is my optimism about the future and my optimism about what it was like to grow up in Arizona and New Jersey.” 

Why was the Times so convinced that Spielberg was Poltergeist’s guiding force? In John Kenneth Muir’s 2009 book Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, the author mentions the root cause of this controversy, at least according to Hooper: A Los Angeles Times reporter visited the Poltergeist set, saw Hooper shooting with the first unit and Spielberg handling the second unit, and speculated that maybe Spielberg was more involved as a director than initially believed. Muir also points to an interview Spielberg gave at the time where he claims, “All I can say about my involvement overall is … I wrote the movie. I actually wrote Poltergeist but co-authored an earlier draft with Michael Grais and Mark Victor [who were credited as co-writers]. I hired them to realize my original idea … From the storyboards to the post-production of this movie … I functioned in a very strong way.”

Understandably, the idea that Spielberg really directed Poltergeist didn’t sit well with the credited director. (The confusion over directorial authorship was so severe, in fact, that the Directors Guild, which determines credits, launched an investigation — and reportedly ordered that the film’s distributor, MGM, pay Hooper $15,000 for failing to properly credit him in the Poltergeist promotional material.) “I thought, at the time, it was one of the best working relationships I’d ever had between a producer and director,” Hooper said in Fangoria, later adding, “I think [the directing question is] really a shame; it’s been personally damaging, and it’s certainly knocked me out of the competition for the Academy Awards this year. It’s a tough business.”

Poltergeist opened on June 4, 1982, and on its opening weekend, it landed at No. 3 at the box office, edged out by the second weekend of Rocky III and another new arrival, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which debuted at No. 1. The film never captured the top spot — the arrival of Spielberg’s E.T. the following weekend saw to that — but it had considerable legs, ending up as the year’s eighth-highest-grossing film, launching two sequels and a 2015 reboot. And, still, people weren’t sure if Hooper really directed it. In his New York Times review, critic Vincent Canby noted, “There’s some controversy about the individual contributions to the film made by Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hooper. … I’ve no way of telling who did what, though Poltergeist seems much closer in spirit and sensibility to Mr. Spielberg’s best films than to Mr. Hooper’s.” 

For decades since, that’s been Hooper’s problem. With films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper established himself as a brilliantly raw and visceral filmmaker. But by comparison, Poltergeist seemed positively slick — and with its suburban setting and emotive kid characters, it bore a closer resemblance to Close Encounters and E.T. Plus, Hooper didn’t deliver a string of similar hits after Poltergeist, instead returning to more grindhouse-like projects, while Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment went on to produce everything from Gremlins to The Goonies to Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Poltergeist was but the first of several family-friendly blockbusters under the Spielberg umbrella. (Remember: It was actually rated PG in a time before there was PG-13.) And as Hooper’s Hollywood cachet slipped, Spielberg cemented his place as industry royalty. If you knew nothing about the backstory and simply saw the two men’s names attached to this project, who would you think directed it?

It appears that Spielberg eventually felt guilty about his desire to take credit for Poltergeist’s creation and success. In an open-letter to Hooper he had published in The Hollywood Reporter around the film’s release, he tried to clear the air, writing, “Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me, as a producer and a writer, a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully. … You performed professionally and responsibly throughout, and I want to wish you great success on your next project.”

The patronizing attaboy tone of the letter did little to stop the rumors. (Spielberg sure comes across as a guy trying to position himself as magnanimous — like a big brother trolling his tormented younger sibling, even though Hooper was older than him.) Then there were the conspiracy theories that started popping up. Oh, Spielberg let Hooper direct Poltergeist because he was afraid there might be a directors’ strike. No, actually, Spielberg’s contract stipulated that he couldn’t direct another project while working on E.T., which is why he had Hooper be Poltergeist’s director-in-name-only. 

No matter the truth, the perception became that Spielberg had called the shots on set — and that Hooper was willing to be pushed around because he was just thrilled to have the opportunity.

Even when Hooper’s friends stood up for him, they ended up making the director sound like he was a little overwhelmed by the situation and by Spielberg. Mick Garris, who directed Sleepwalkers and was around the Poltergeist set, put it this way in 2017

“From my perspective, it was Tobe’s first studio movie. Here he is, on a studio lot, on a big soundstage. Steven Spielberg had written the shooting script, was on the set and was producing, and Spielberg is a consummate filmmaker and he lives and breathes movies. … Very passionate, very intelligent, very articulate. And, yes, I would see him climb on the camera and say, ‘Maybe we should push in on a two-shot here,’ or ‘do-this-or-that,’ there. And Tobe would be watching. Tobe was always calling action and cut. Tobe had been deeply involved in all of the preproduction and everything. But Steven is a guy who will come in and call the shots. And so, you’re on your first studio film, hired by Steven. I mean, Tobe directed that movie, Steven Spielberg had a lot to do with directing that movie, too.”

The rare times that there’s this kind of directing controversy, the temptation is to watch the final film and play detective: Can you tell which person was more likely to make this? (Or, with Solo or Justice League, you watch individual shots and try to guess which director’s sensibility feels more aligned with it. Is that a Ron Howard scene? Or a Lord and Miller scene?) Unless you were on set, though, you’ll never truly know. (For the record, actress Zelda Rubinstein, who played the clairvoyant Tangina in Poltergeist, has said, “I can tell you that Steven directed all six days I was there. … Tobe set up the shots and Steven made the adjustments. You’re not going to hear that from Tobe Hooper, you’ll hear it from Zelda.”)

But it does speak to a certain attitude that we as moviegoers still have about what a director’s job is. We think of them as the boss, the man in charge. (It’s so rare that a woman actually gets to make a movie.) And so the stories about the Poltergeist set don’t just violate that belief — they tend to paint Hooper as beta, subservient to the more assertive alpha-dog Spielberg. They don’t just diminish Hooper, they emasculate him. And they effectively nullify his biggest commercial success: We all “know” he didn’t really direct Poltergeist.

Hooper died in August 2017 at the age of 74, and Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist were prominently featured in his obituary. Perhaps not surprisingly, a fresh wave of “Who really directed Poltergeist?” conversation got going after Hooper’s passing. It was a topic he was reluctant to discuss, but a couple months before his death, a reporter brought up the subject.

“I don’t want to talk about it except that I directed the motion picture,” Hooper replied, “and [Spielberg] wrote the screenplay and he produced. And we are good friends. I have shot, I think, four other things for him since then.” He then mentioned the L.A. Times reporter who, Hooper claimed, had gotten the wrong idea after visiting the set: “[T]hey printed a story and out of that sprang this [rumor]. It exploded out of that and became this thing.”

It remains a thing, still inspiring think pieces and disagreements. (In fact, there’s a Twitter account, Poltergeist Thoughts, dedicated to debunking articles and tweets asserting that Spielberg directed the movie.) All I’m sure of is that the job of a film director is viewed as a hallowed, mighty position — you’re a god whose every whim must be obeyed. And gods tend not to like to play nice with others.

In 1982, Spielberg was asked about “facing turmoil as a producer” while making Poltergeist. “Well, the turmoil is essentially created by wanting to do it your own way and having to go through procedure,” Spielberg responded. “That is why I will never again not direct a film I write. It was frustrating for Tobe Hooper, and it was frustrating for the actors, who were pretty torn between my presence and his on the set every day. But rather than Tobe’s saying, ‘I can’t stand it. Go to Hawaii, get off the set,’ he’d laugh and I’d laugh.”

If that’s true, you can’t help but wonder how tense that laughter must have been — particularly for Hooper. The making of Poltergeist should have been the story of a respected horror veteran who, after finally being given the keys to the kingdom, delivers a crowd-pleasing classic that continues to give people nightmares. Instead, we watch the film still unsure whose achievement it is. 

In that same interview, Spielberg insisted, “If he’d said, ‘I’ve got some ideas that you’re not really letting into this movie, I would love you to see dailies, consult, but don’t be on the set,’ I probably would have left.” We’ll never know if Spielberg interfered with Poltergeist or rescued it — or, if Hooper really had decided to boot him off the set, if it would have worked. That’s why this debate won’t go away. All of us — whether we’re film critics or just filmgoers — like to think we know how movies are made. But we don’t, although that doesn’t stop us from wildly speculating and choosing sides in the Poltergeist controversy. 

Really, we’re all just chasing ghosts.