‘Poltergeist,’ Steve Freeling, And Grappling With Toxic Masculinity
A personal essay about the masculinity of Steve Freeling in ‘Poltergeist’.
“There are a lot of ways to be a man.”
I honestly can’t remember a time where I haven’t struggled with what “being a man” was supposed to mean. Men-yes, all men-are raised under this umbrella of male toxicity that aims to keep the rain of anything deemed feminine out. Some of my earliest memories are being told that as a boy, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t play with dolls. I couldn’t even wear pink. To do any would result in both emotional and physical abuse from the so-called men in my life. As a kid, it’s hard because you cannot fathom why you’re being told these things. It’s even more difficult as an adult. You start to understand these ideas are born out of blatant sexism that sees femininity as “weakness”. Yet those childhood teachings are so engrained in your blood, that it takes more than one transfusion to rid yourself of them completely. In the meantime, you’re left with the pain that male toxicity has caused you and others, and continues to cause.
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Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) puts it simply in Poltergeist II: The Other Side with the above quote. She understands better than some men ever will. There is no right way to be a man. It’s most men that are wrong about what manhood actually is. That’s why our society continues to feel the burden of men that refuse to realize as such. The same way so many fail to comprehend what toxic masculinity is, how it’s harmful, and the various forms it can appear as, like a shapeshifting ghoul. Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) finds himself on a difficult but necessary journey to discover just that in the first two Poltergeist films. It’s a journey that I and so many others have had to take.
At first glance, Steve in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is your bread and butter, All-American dad. By day, he sells the American Dream to starry-eyed suckers looking to cram themselves into homes identical to the rest in the nightmare that is suburbia. By night, he’s the sports watching, beer drinking man of the house. He passes out to broadcasts of the National Anthem, bottle in hand, while Diane takes care of the family problems at home, like the death of poor Petey the bird. He’s (likely) a conservative at heart, immersed in books like “Reagan: The Man, the President,” the word “Man” centered and in larger lettering. Steve’s the product of generations of warped concepts regarding masculinity. He’s raised to believe that in order to be a man, you must be successful, in control, and never, under any circumstances, show weakness.
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When a horde of seriously pissed off ghosts come wailing and drag his daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) into another dimension, Steve isn’t prepared to have those ideas tested. A lifetime of being fed a bunch of bull has that effect.
Before the spirits come crashing into his existence with Carol Anne’s iconic utterance of “they’re here“, there are hints that Steve’s confidence in his manhood is waning. Gone is the athletic body he once had, replaced by a bulbous beer belly. “Your diving days are over,” Diane reminds him. She means nothing by it and he doesn’t show it. But I bet that comment stings.
One of the first things our culture begins pounding into the minds of young boys is that if you’re not physically strong, you’re nothing. Everything at that age is a contest of strength. Between gym class, the odd male obsession over arm wrestling, or just surviving another day in the pack of animals that are your classmates, you’re under constant pressure to not be perceived as “weak”. “Real men don’t cry” is something I heard often growing up, usually while I was balling my eyes out. As a skinny kid who looked like a shorter Slender Man, I was the prime example of “not a real man”. I suffered for years with the false mindset that you’re not worthy if you’re not “tough”.
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When it comes to home life, young men have also been led like cattle to the trough in believing that the responsibility of financially supporting a family rests squarely on their shoulders. It’s an idea that, surprise, was born out of sexism and the assertion that a woman’s place was at home. My wife’s father was a stay at home dad. That’s so out of the norm that it surprises everyone who hears it, but why should it? Don’t mean to break some of your minds with this, but men are fully capable of cleaning, making dinner and taking care of the kids, too!
In Poltergeist, Steve’s initial sense that something is beginning to change within his family comes at a noteworthy time. The moment he arrives home from work, with a declaration from Carol Anne that Diane hasn’t made dinner yet. She’s busy experiencing the most excitement she’s had in years, playing human shuffleboard with the spirits of the house.
This is the first time Steve appears truly terrified in Poltergeist. Pale, wide-eyed, hardly able to speak, he’s the polar opposite of Diane’s giddiness. The kitchen is (wrongly) associated with women. The change in this part of the home scares Steve. “No one’s going into the kitchen until I know what’s happening,” he orders. The audacity in telling Diane where she can go in her own home. Whether a metaphor for the male fear over a changing world in which more and more women were migrating to the workplace or just plain terror, the result is the same; Steve doesn’t understand something, and that dents his fragile male ego.
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Steve becomes a soulless husk after the kidnapping of Carol Anne. Dark circles invade the flesh beneath his eyes while the rest of the family is upset but not much worse for the wear. His home is changing. The women in his life are taking control. And he’s failed to protect his daughter, which he puts solely on himself. I know all too well that feeling of self-doubt, that mistaken “weakness” in being justifiably frightened. Those feelings come from decades of misconception about manhood. It shuts you down when you realize how gravely those ideas have lead you astray in the ways you treat yourself and everyone around you.
For Steve, that frustration-what’s so dangerous about toxic masculinity-manifests into an ugliness that takes hold of him. Through most of Poltergeist, we perceive Steve as a “nice” guy. But he can’t help but belittle the women taking control of the situation, in particular Tangina (with an unforgettable performance from Zelda Rubinstein). The dude has seen full-on child-eating trees, yet he mocks Tangina’s psychic ability. He doesn’t trust her and even tries to get Diane to doubt her, perhaps so he can feel in control of something again. Steve is utterly useless for the remainder of the film. He’s a shell of himself that disappears into the background, drink in hand, critical of everyone trying to save his daughter, yet afraid to point that critical eye at himself.
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Toxic masculinity doesn’t always appear in overt ways. It’s an ethereal spirit that hides in the souls of men to the point that some don’t even realize it’s a part of them. The necessity for Steve to be in control, to be a “man”, is so vital to him that he goes catatonic when he’s not. Shocker that he’s the one character to disobey Tangina and pull on that dimension-crossing rope, bringing about the head of the beast and nearly killing his wife and daughter in the process.
That’s all it takes for toxic masculinity to be harmful. It isn’t just blatant sexism and abusive tendencies. It’s a destructive thing that would have men sooner lash out than face the reality that maybe, just maybe, masculinity isn’t what they thought it was. If not for the teamwork of the women of Poltergeist, who aren’t afraid to show weakness, the Freelings might have lost her forever.
The sprinklers are going off in my eyes as I write this, haunted by all of the times I’ve lashed out for reasons I didn’t understand then. It feels good to cry, though. Crying isn’t exclusive to gender. It’s only human.
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I’d like to say Steve overcomes these issues and the family lives happily ever after. But that’s not how horror franchises work. It’s not how toxic masculinity works, either. You don’t just expunge centuries worth of masculine brainwashing that goes all the way down to “blue is for boys and pink is for girls”.
What a crock of shit.
Where Poltergeist merely touches on the theme of toxic masculinity festering inside of Steve, director Brian Gibson’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side tears out the screeching monster for all to see.
Following the events of the first film, we find the Freeling family living in the house of Diane’s mother, Gramma Jess (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Steve is (unsuccessfully) repairing home appliances for a living, and the Freelings are dead broke. After the death of Jess, Taylor (Will Sampson), a friend of Tangina, arrives to stay with the family, warning that the dangerous spirit which took Carol Anne has not yet been put to rest and wants her back. That spirit takes the physical form of Reverend Kane (Julian Beck). He’s a skeleton of a man oozing in “creep” that also happens to look like every rotting mummy of a male senator in congress.
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Coincidence? I think not!
Poltergeist II is about as subtle as the Bat Signal over Gotham when it comes to its theme of the toxic nature within men. Kane puts it to Steve directly when he says “your fear is that you’re not man enough to hold this family together“. Steve admits as much. Sinister eyes sunk into the back of his skull, wormy lips stretched tight, sporting a priestly outfit from a religion that’s viewed women as lesser than going all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, Kane is the embodiment of all of the ugliness that rests at the heart of what men think masculinity is. He’s that subconscious part of Steve that’s focused on himself and his own failings at manhood, as he sees it, instead of acknowledging what’s important, which is his family and what they think of him.
For whatever reason, that was one of the most difficult threads of toxic masculinity for me to snap. My wife makes good money. I don’t. I know now that there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet for years, I tormented myself with the idea that I wasn’t a man because I couldn’t take care of us. I couldn’t pay for every date. I couldn’t pay every bill. Not once did she put that feeling on me. It was all me and my misguided belief that I was responsible for those things. Something so utterly nonsensical as that should never have come as close to destroying our relationship as it did, but it nearly happened, because of me. I’m thankful every day I pulled myself up out of that black hole before I let it ruin us.
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Steve comes close to losing everything in Poltergeist II over perceived threats like that and others to his manhood. He’s jealous over his family’s adoration for Taylor. He thinks he’s too weak to take care of them. The self-hatred and rage boiling inside of Steve and encouraged by Kane eventually manifests into the nastiest tequila worm ever put on screen-never drink the worm. It possesses him to go all Jack Nicholson in The Shining and almost strangle Diane to death while shouting “I have needs!”
I bet if I ran a poll, one hundred percent of women would say they’ve had a man shout that at them at some point. In no situation is that okay. Diane and we as the audience would never expect it out of Steve, this person who otherwise seems all right. But that’s the corruption of male toxicity for you. Every man needs to confront it at some point, or watch themselves be destroyed by it.
“His soul remains evil, because he chooses not to see the light,” Taylor says of Kane, a man who killed himself and his followers by refusing to accept that he was wrong, the way men so often do. For the entirety of Poltergeist II, Steve is struggling to not fall into the same fate.
Steve isn’t saved by Diane screaming “the power of Christ compels you” or some other exorcism trope. She simply says she loves him. If only we could all so easily vomit up a half-formed ghoul-man, the face of the toxicity festering inside us, the way Steve does in response. If women can handle giving birth, men can handle puking up gooey goblins. Ghoul-men aside, Steve comes to terms with the fact that he doesn’t need to be rich, or strong, or “manly”.
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He just needs to love his family the way they love him. “They are your power, and you are theirs,” reminds Taylor, never lacking words of wisdom. It’s only when Steve can put aside his toxic feelings and come together with his family that they vanquish Kane in an acid trip of an other-dimensional battle that might melt your brain but also your heart with its warm symbolism.
We need more examples of Steve on screen. Men need to not only understand what we mean when we say “male toxicity”, but that with acceptance of the problem and a hell of a lot of work, they can do better. It took me years to see it within me, and many more to suck out as much of that poison as I could. And you know what? It feels great. Life in a male body is a lot more enjoyable when you allow yourself to cry, or be vulnerable, or wear nail polish if you feel like it (express yourself, my dudes).
You can be Steve, a man who is imperfect but always trying to be a better person. Or you can be Kane, constantly seething and writhing with anger while refusing to grow. Real men admit when they’re wrong. They consider the feelings of others. They’re an emotional support system for their family and friends. That’s manhood.
But like Steve, you have to be willing to recognize the toxic parts of yourself.
Here’s to hoping more and more men will go into the light.