The 13th Floor

A Major Horror Misconception: There is No Indian Burial Ground in POLTERGEIST

Jared Rivet is a good friend of Blumhouse.com and a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. Principal photography on his first feature film has just been completed and his latest episode of Earbud Theater (“On The Line”) is one of the most listened to productions on the site.  He is also the monthly co-host of Dead Right Horror Trivia at Blast from the Past in Burbank. Jared is an expert at horror movie misconceptions. This week he sent in a guest post where he tackles that pesky indian burial ground in POLTERGEIST, how the misconception began, and where it may have come from. 

Jared Rivet: 

As a lifelong horror fan, I have always been frustrated by common misconceptions made about horror films. Whether it’s just an individual making an assumption or some sort of mass delusion causing people to believe something that just isn’t true, I have a habit of keeping a mental list of the more common misconceptions and wondering either in conversation or on social media, “why do people think that?”

Oftentimes it’s a very easy answer and others it’s a bit of a baffling mystery.

Case in point: what lies under the green lawns and swimming pools of Cuesta Verde Estates in the original POLTERGEIST (1982)?

The answer is clearly and definitively spelled out in the film itself. It is stated in dialogue and shown. There’s even a superb matte painting showing what used to be there. It might as well be underlined. Mr. Teague (James Karen) takes Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) out to a sprawling cemetery on a hill on the outskirts of Cuesta Verde and assures him: “Oh, don’t worry about it, after all, it’s not ancient tribal burial ground, it’s just…people.”

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The headstones of a modern cemetery were moved in 1976 so that development could begin on building the suburban tract homes of Cuesta Verde Estates (“all 300 acres, and let me tell you it was quite a deal”). As a cost-cutting measure, the bodies were secretly left behind, presumably intact, while scores of Reagan-era, SoCal yuppies with regulation 2.5 children settled in directly over their (previously) venerated resting places.

Once the Freelings begin experiencing the inexplicable poltergeist activity in their house (the first family to move into the development), the ghosts actually sprinkle a bevy of displaced burial jewelry (rings, necklaces, watches, etc.) through the bilocation portal and onto the living room floor. These were personal items which were buried with some of the folks resting in the earth beneath their feet. These are not pieces of Native American jewelry or furs or arrowheads or other such stereotypical bric-a-brac from a displaced tribe. These are modern items which are pointed out by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) as varying between being more than a century old and “only a few years old.” In the chaotic finale of the film, skeletons in conventional, modern-day coffins burst from the ground. You get the drift.

The only mention in the film of an ancient tribal burial ground is the cynical joke Mr. Teague throws at Steve in the scene described above. It is literally dismissed as a concern because the land is not a Native American resting place. (Lord knows they would just be ASKING for a curse if they did that!)

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SO WHERE DID THIS MISCONCEPTION COME FROM?

I have heard it in conversation. I have read it in published articles (most recently in the essay “After The Saw: Tobe Hooper’s EATEN ALIVE” by Brad Stevens, included in the EATEN ALIVE Blu-ray released in 2015 by Arrow Video and in The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, published in 2014). I have found it on reputable websites (the Turner Classic Movies movie description for POLTERGEIST by Paul Tatara and this 2014 piece from Gizmodo). Even the inciting incident of the FAMILY GUY parody episode “Petergeist” is the unearthing and desecration of a Native American skull.

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THE SHINING AMITYVILLE POLTERGEIST HORROR: THE OTHER SIDE

Now it is worth mentioning that two extremely high profile (and very successful) haunted house movies released just a couple of years prior to POLTERGEIST do indeed utilize the now clichéd backstory of structures built over “ancient Indian burial grounds.” Stuart Rosenberg’s feature adaptation of Jay Anson’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s THE SHINING (1980) both make it a point to mention this piece of shared backstory, though neither one really evokes Native American imagery in their respective spectral encounters to drive the point home.

Both THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE SHINING are also noteworthy for cramming grocery lists of possible supernatural explanations into their respective backstories. POLTERGEIST doesn’t have nearly as many and the additional whys and wherefores given don’t have the same level of overreach. In addition to the development being built over a cemetery, the Freelings were the first family to move into the neighborhood and Carol Anne was actually born in the house. This explains why the Freelings are seemingly the only residents being affected and why the restless spirits are so intent on possessing Carol Anne. The standard “why now?” screenwriting question doesn’t seem to have a clear answer, Carol Anne just starts talking to the TV one night and it’s shown as being new, unusual behavior, not something anyone in the house has seen her do before.

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The Freeling house isn’t even truly haunted until the ghosts “download” into the walls through the television screen. The spirits don’t seem to have any true agency until Carol Anne (arguably) invites them in. Her famous declaration of “They’re here!” in said scene could just as easily be revised to “They’re here now,” as in they weren’t here before, “they” being Carol Anne’s “TV people” and “here” being the house.

Perhaps folks just ascribed the same “Indian burial ground” backstory to POLTERGEIST because of the inherent similarities in all three stories? THE SHINING and POLTERGEIST share many elements with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. Dad gets a little too fond of his axe after moving into a haunted house which begins to slowly drive him insane (THE SHINING). Family is plagued by spectral manifestations and other intensifying paranormal activity before discovering that their house contains a portal to heaven/hell/limbo (POLTERGEIST). Adding in the layer that the buildings in all three have been built over a resting place of the dead may have just caused some sort of collective blanket assumption.

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COULD IT BE THE NOVELIZATION?

A better than average novelization was hastily written by James Kahn, at the time, an ER doctor and fledgling author who took a month off of work to meet his deadline. The book made it onto shelves in time to capitalize on the theatrical release of the film and Kahn went on to write several novelizations for blockbuster movies (RETURN OF THE JEDI, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, THE GOONIES) before becoming a prolific writer for television.

While the book takes some interesting creative detours from what is shown in the film and expands on much of the backstory (as well as including scenes that were cut from the film), it never once brings up the idea that Cuesta Verde was once an Indian burial ground.

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COULD IT BE THE SEQUELS?

POLTERGEIST was followed by two sequels: POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986) and POLTERGEIST III (1988). Both films do their best to stick with the established continuity, but POLTERGEIST II does a couple of interesting things with retcon that might actually help to explain the misconception.

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: yes, POLTERGEIST II introduces a Native American mystic character, and yes, there is mention of a “massacre” involving Indians. How both of those things end up impacting the first film and where those story points originated is curious and potentially relevant.

POLTERGEIST II was released four years after the first film, but there are hints dropped here and there that it is only supposed to be one year later in terms of franchise continuity. Yes, Robbie and Carol Anne have had some serious growth spurts in the last twelve months (Oliver Robins and Heather O’Rourke, both reprising their roles), but Steve goes on a rant about a rejected homeowners insurance claim, exclaiming, “It’s been a full year, the house is not coming back!” There is also an active archeological dig going on at the site of the Freeling’s missing house in Cuesta Verde. Why this would still be happening four years later is also never brought up, so let’s assume it really has been only one year.

Said dig is taking place under the swimming pool on the property and is investigated in the opening scene by Taylor (Will Sampson), a Native American medicine man and occult expert. The dig has unearthed a cavern full of skeletal bodies beneath the modern day cemetery (“Directly below your house,” Diane Freeling is informed) and somehow it is the spirits of these corpses that were actually making all the trouble in the Freeling house. (Thus making the poltergeist intrusion more about there being direct proximity to these specific dead people and less about the Freeling’s symbolic role in Cuesta Verde’s establishment as a community as it was in the first film.) This is a very clunky piece of retroactive continuity that would be downright cringe-worthy had it not given birth to the character of Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck).

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Kane is identified in POLTERGEIST II as literally being The Beast incarnate, retroactively establishing that this was the evil adversary the Freelings were battling in the first film. (Taylor: “That was him. He comes in many forms, but that was him.”) And while this humanizing of the malevolent demonic entity would seem to diminish the raw strength of what we’re shown in the first film, there’s no denying that Julian Beck’s Kane is easily the best thing about the movie, a memorable horror villain for the ages. He almost single-handedly saves the movie, but his screen time is so limited that one leaves the film wishing he had more to do.

I should mention that one thing Reverend Kane is not…is Native American. We see flashbacks to Kane and his followers in the desert in the 1800’s sealing themselves up in the cavern after he prophesizes that the end of the world is coming. Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) tells Diane (JoBeth Williams) that this religious sect mysteriously disappeared and were believed to have been “massacred by Indians,” but that piece of assumptive history doesn’t end up being true. No, this whole group of misguided cultists died a slow, horrible death presumably from dehydration, disease and starvation because Kane told them they had to wait out the apocalypse in this hole in the ground.

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Once again: no Native American burial ground. We have a heroic (albeit stereotypical) Native American character in Taylor, but he is not a ghost and he’s specifically using Native American mysticism to try and help the Freelings through their second go-round with the Cuesta Verde specters, none of whom are Native Americans. It is abundantly clear that they are the good guys in this saga.*

POLTERGEIST III sticks with the continuity established in the second film, recasting the late Julian Beck with a non-lookalike (Nathan Davis) who was then put through extensive prosthetic makeup to make him resemble Beck’s Reverend Kane…somewhat. He’s got an entirely new M.O. involving mirrors but he’s the same guy with the same plan (which is evidently just to get Carol Anne Freeling at all costs). And since POLTERGEIST III is set in a Chicago skyscraper, there is little to no new backstory mentioned about the land at Cuesta Verde (though Tom Skerritt’s character makes a disparaging remark about how Steve had somehow made Carol Anne into a scapegoat for the mass exodus and subsequent financial ruin of the Cuesta Verde subdivision).

Even the 2015 remake makes a joke out of it, paraphrasing Teague’s dialogue from the first film while a dinner party of upper class folks pleasantly mock the new version of the financially struggling Freeling family (now called the Bowens) for having bought a house in what is obviously a haunted neighborhood (now called Willow Creek). “Well…it’s not like it was an ancient tribal burial ground!” Some even mistook this line to mean that they were playfully mocking the first film’s usage of the burial ground cliché and then deliberately not using it, when nothing could be further from the truth.

 

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, CUESTA VERDE ALMOST HAD THE ANCIENT BURIAL GROUND BACKSTORY…ALMOST.

The original treatment developed by Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper in 1980 for the first POLTERGEIST is a very different animal than the premise dramatized in the final film. The treatment is called NIGHT TIME (available online here, and Devin Faraci did a fantastic write-up about it here) and while Steve Freeling lives with his family in a Southern California subdivision that is haunted, an awful lot of the details beyond that are drastically different.

One of the bigger differences? The treatment establishes that in the 1800’s, white settlers were killed by Indians in the exact spot that the Freeling’s neighborhood (now called “Vista”) was built on. With further shades of POLTERGEIST II, this discovery is made by an archeological dig going on in the suburban neighborhood. “The excavators discover bones. Human bones. Thousands of them. It is discovered that what has been unearthed is an extremely large grave site. The results of a massive massacre of white settlers, perhaps 150 years ago. The bones had been shoveled into shallow graves in approximately a 100 acre perimeter. Children, babies, pioneer men and their women. Arrow heads, scalping knives-a horrible way to die.” This revelation is revised out of future drafts of the treatment and the plot point never made it to the script stage. At least now we know where screenwriters Michael Grais and Mark Victor (the credited writers of the screenplay for POLTERGEIST and the writers/producers of POLTERGEIST II) got all of that material for the second film. It is ironic that it was there from the genesis of the project and then removed (only to be revised and retconned back in for the sequel) though once again, we still wouldn’t be talking about “an ancient Indian burial ground” if it had stayed in, but rather a group of white families killed by Native Americans.

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I don’t think we’ll ever know what truly caused this pop cultural mass delusion. It’s fascinating to have such a widespread misconception continue to fester and propagate in the age of the internet and streaming media, but here we are. Did folks really just presume that the backstory used in AMITYVILLE and THE SHINING carried over into another haunted house film? Was it further compounded by the introduction of Taylor and Native American mysticism in the sequel?

Maybe someday, when we’re all dead and they relocate the cemetery we’re buried in, we’ll finally understand. Until then, remember: “It’s not ancient tribal burial ground, it’s just…people.”

* The novelization for POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE was also written by James Kahn. While it fleshes out a great deal of the events between the timelines of the two movies as well as the overall backstory of the characters – including the sad fate of Dr. Lesh, the whereabouts of the unaccounted for Dana Freeling, and the ongoing spiritual battle Taylor and Kane have been engaged in – it never reveals that the house from the first movie was built over an ancient burial ground.

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