Posted on October 23, 2022

Inheritor of Charismatic Spiritualism- Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist

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In Poltergeist (1982), director Tobe Hooper and writer Steven Spielberg created a haunted house that ditched cobwebs in favor of wall-to-wall carpeting, central air conditioning, and a family television set turned scrying mirror. A panoply of characters fill Poltergeist, but no one outshines spirit guide Tangina Barrons. Actor Zelda Rubinstein’s magnetism poured from her 4’3″ frame, evoking the nineteenth-century Spiritualism movement’s tradition of empowered and charismatic mediums communing with the spirit realm.

Poltergeist centers on a suburban California family, the Freelings, and the supernatural abduction of the youngest daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Diane Freeling (Jo Beth Williams) is a counter-culture figure who emotionally connects the viewer to the otherworldly kidnapping, emphasizing the metaphysical bond between a birth mother and child. Diane’s spouse, Steven (Craig T. Nelson,) is a loving father but absent from most of the family’s daily life, establishing skepticism and confusion. While the hustle of the modern world frays the Freelings, they remain a bound and loving family. Gnawing at that unity is the paranormal kidnapping of their youngest child. That child, lost within the newly-built dream domicile, can only be wrestled from the clutches of a tortured soul, The Beast, with the help of another.

Rubenstein portrays Tangina as a colorful self-promoter with charisma, empathy, and clairvoyant power. The actress’s ability to shift from flamboyant to intense appropriately matches the plot’s tone. She can be tender and thoughtful to an emotionally wrecked Diane but equally ferocious while confronting The Beast. Through Tangina’s powers as a medium, we understand the youngest daughter is not dead; instead, a force holds her in a hellish limbo. Leveraging her supernatural gifts and charisma, Rubinstein’s Tangina bears a striking resemblance to practitioners of nineteenth-century Spiritualism.

a family stares into an open doorSpiritualism’s rise in the United States is commonly traced to the Fox Sisters of western New York in 1848. Known for their “Rochester Rappings,” a series of tapping conversations with the spirit of a dead peddler, sisters Kate and Margaret were national sensations feted by the public, newspapers, and many luminaries. Even as the Fox Sisters’ fame peaked, the role of Spiritualist seers of the dead grew and strengthened. As Simone Natale writes in “Mediums and Stars: Mediumship, Show Business, and Celebrity in Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism,” “Celebrity mediums contributed to the cohesion of Spiritualist communities by spreading the fame of the movement” while arousing the “curiosity of Spiritualists and non-Spiritualists alike” (238). Tangina Barrons’ star quality evoked the sessions of the Fox Sisters and mediums Cora Hatch and Eusapia Palladino. Regardless of their style of spirit communication, each Spiritualist medium realized the value of charisma and theatricality; as Natale describes it, “Mediumship was understood not only as a natural gift” but as a skill similar to acting (“Mediums,” 240). Harnessing this skill in Poltergeist, Rubinstein’s Tangina effortlessly drifts between the world of the living and that of the dead with a dramatic flourish. Tangina relishes the attention while somberly assessing the malevolent force at play. Her flamboyance, easily confused for hucksterism, is a classic attribute of real nineteenth-century mediums. With the claims of supernatural abilities and personal embellishments came doubters. The interplay between skeptic and medium was inherent to historical Spiritualist interactions, as séance sitters were, as Natale notes, “almost always, someone who needed to be convinced of the truth of spiritualism, to whom the spirits had to provide evidence, to whose questions they had to respond” (Supernatural, 80).

Swept up by a heart-clutching sensation, Tangina rushes to the home’s second floor, demanding to know what lies behind a locked door. A sleep-deprived, anguished, but incredulous Steven remains silent in the living room, squinting while the medium waits for a reply. Challenged by Tangina with an “I am addressing the living,” Steven explains that it is the room of their youngest children, Robbie, and the abducted Carol Anne. Mockingly, Steven whispers to Diane and parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight); he’s using his mind to answer Tangina. To Steven, her silence to his “psychic” reply exposes her fraud. However, Tangina puts the skeptic in his place, revealing that she could hear Steven’s thoughts but refused to acknowledge his response because “I just don’t like trick answers.” Tangina immediately establishes her legitimacy, yet Steven consistently doubts and bristles at the medium’s commands. The consistent, intense confidence expressed by the character created by Spielberg also circles back to the tradition of unconventional spiritualist women and the idea of “true womanhood.”

a woman smiles while her reflection appears on a tvIn Poltergeist, as the psychic glides assuredly through the haunted residence, Tangina’s earliest lines are confident and sassy, “Do y’all mind hanging back? You’re jamming my frequencies.” Tangina dismisses the hovering living with a genteel Southern drawl as she seeks the concealed dead. Wearing pearls, a floral dress, and a gold-accented woven shoulder bag, Tangina subverts social expectations by sporting amber shooting glasses, suggesting fierce independence while also adhering to period cultural expressions of “true womanhood.” The idealized feminine is a trait, Anne Braude noted in Radical Spirits, of the cultish belief that “woman’s nature was characterized by purity, passivity, and domesticity” (82). By adopting the garb and manners of a “true woman,” Tangina exploits Braude’s observation: indeed, mediums used womanhood to their advantage to lead Spiritualism’s advance when they would otherwise be forced by society to defer to men and remain silent. The ideal feminine aligned with the nineteenth-century idea that women were affiliated with the home and, by proxy, with death. As Braude points out, women’s sphere was “home and family” and, by extension, death because it “literally occurred in woman’s sphere. Most people died at home, in bed attended by female relatives” (52-53). Tangina behaves as a nineteenth-century Spiritualist would – an active participant in the supernatural realm emanating from the domestic environment dealing with the dead.

Harvard philosopher William James wondered if psychic knowledges were “stray vestiges” of “primordial irrationality” (1257). Perhaps those stray vestiges intrude on our rational minds when watching horror films like Poltergeist. In the unreal world of cinema, a diminutive character actor captures the spirit of the cadre of nineteenth-century seekers of primordial irrationalities to help to guide us through the depths of celluloid fear and terror.

Related: Poltergeist (1982 and 2015): Guilt and the American Dream.

Works Cited

Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Second Edition. Beacon Press, 1989.

James, William. “The Confidences of a Psychical Researcher.” William James: Writing 1902-1910, edited by Bruce Kuklick, The Library of America, 1987, pp.1250-1265.

Natale, Simone. “Mediums and Stars: Mediumship, Show Business, and Celebrity in Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism.” The Spiritualist Movement- Speaking with the Dead in America, Volume 3: Social and Cultural Responses, edited by Christopher Moreman, Praeger, 2013, pp. 237-251.

Natale, Simone. Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. Penn State University Press, 2016.

Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hooper, screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1982.

Kevin Cooney is an Environmental Studies graduate from Harvard University. A contributor to the British Science Fiction Association-winning anthology Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, his diverse interests include examinations of religion, class, or the environment in genre fiction (science fiction and horror.) He can be found on Twitter @bostonwookiee.

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