Suburban ideology

by Douglas Kellner

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

Steven Spielberg is emerging as the dominant ideologue of affluent middle class America. In JAWS (1975), Spielberg depicts the transformation of Chief Brody from an antiheroic everyman, incapable of either stemming the economic and political corruption on the island or eliminating the shark, to a middleclass hero-redeemer who single-handedly destroys the shark and restores order to the community.(1) Brody thus becomes the first of Spielberg's middle class heroes. Whereas the novel jaws showed the sexual and class antagonisms between Brody and his wife, the film projects their closeness and love, presenting one of Spielberg's first idealizations of the middle-class family.

Although CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) shows the Richard Dreyfuss character torn away from his family and allegorically depicts the family's being torn apart by events and forces outside of its control, POLTERGEIST and E.T. elaborate idealized views of the family and the suburban middle class. Spielberg seems the most effective cinematic chronicler of affluent middle-class life-style, joys, and fears in contemporary U.S. society. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, POLTERGEIST, and E.T. affectionately depict the commodity comforts offered by a consumer society. POLTERGEIST and E.T. show the rising affluence in the split-level suburban tract houses with their ever more advanced electronic media, toys, appliances, and gadgets. Spielberg celebrates this lifestyle and can be seen as film's dominant spokesperson for middle-class values and social roles.

Most interesting in Spie1berg's recent films is his symbolic projection of contemporary U.S. insecurities and fears. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS allegorically presents fears of losing one's family, job, and home. Also, it contains a scarcely disguised yearning for salvation through extraterrestrial forces, for deliverance from contemporary problems — a theme also present in E.T. but more pronounced in the novelization than in the film. In its depiction of UFOs and aliens, the film reverses the 1950s alien-invasion films codes, which depicted aliens as monstrous threats to the existing order. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, POLTERGEIST and E.T. contain the fantasy that somehow beneficent forces will alleviate' threats to our security and well-being.

Ideologically, Spielberg's films traverse a contradictory field that in different films, or even in different scenes within a given film, celebrate and legitimate middle-class U.S. institutions and lifestyles or yearn for spiritual transcendence or both. E.T. mobilized its alien figure to highlight the commodities and joys of suburban family life — without, interestingly enough, the figure of the Law of the Father. The film depicts an alliance between the middle class and transcendent alien forces. God may no longer be on our side, but the aliens seem to be. The film reassures the middle class about their values and lifestyle and offers fantasies of reassurance that alien forces or the Other will be friendly and not threatening.

POLTERGEIST, on the other hand, symbolically probes both universal and specifically contemporary U.S. fears. It presents the shadow-side of suburban life in the form of an allegorical nightmare. It also has an utopian vision of the family’s pulling together and pulling through in the face of adversity and eventually triumphing over demonic forces. By articulating U.S fears and showing them conquered, the film defuses the nightmare quality of life in the U.S. horror show. By depicting with affection its residents, houses, goods, toys, and electronics, it presents advertisements for a U.S. way of life which defines happiness in terms of middle-class lifestyle and consumption.

Spielberg's films thus stand as clever ideological fables and do not just offer the pure fantasy entertainment which his defenders celebrate. His films are meticulously constructed ideology machines, planned in detail with elaborate storyboard models, well-crafted scripts, and cunningly planned-out special effects. Although he may or may not be a class-conscious ideologue, Spielberg's effectiveness as a purveyor of ideology derives from his identification with the affluent middle class and its way of life, which he appealingly reproduces.

Here I want to examine POLTERGEIST for what it shows about contemporary US society and Spielberg's ideological stratagems.(2) The film attempts to manipulate its audience through carefully planned, carefully paced jolts, special effects, frightening scenes, sentimental depictions of a loving family, and the assuring presence of technology, professionals, and spiritual powers. I shall first focus on POLTERGEIST's storyline, themes and ideology. Then I shall reflect on Spielberg's ideological problematic and his use of the occult.


POLTERGEIST depicts the trials of the Freeling family confronted with poltergeists, which haunt their house and spirit away their daughter, and with corpses, which return to life and destroy their house. The film uses the conventions of the horror-occult film, currently the most popular Hollywood genre, to explore suburban middle-class psychic and social landscape. The family unit contains a father, Steve Freeling, his wife, Diane, a teenage daughter, Dana, who is more connected to her friends than to her family, a young boy, Robbie, and little Carole Anne, who is about five and the first to make contact with the poltergeists. The Freelings live in one of the first houses built in phase one of a housing project called Cuesta Vista. The father is a successful real estate salesperson who has sold 42 percent of the housing units in the area — which his boss tells him represents over $70 million worth of property.

The opening scenes depict the Freeling family's environment and show close, loving relations between mother and father, parents and children. The film's power derives from its portraying the family's pulling together in the face of forces trying to tear it apart. Such positive images of the family have become increasingly rare in Hollywood, which instead in recent years has celebrated the couple or the single (usually male) parent or has ironically and satirically dissected family life and marriage (e.g. Robert Altman, Woody Allen). POLTERGEIST thus offers solace that the family stands as a viable institution, even in the context of contemporary troubles. It is one of the few "blockbuster" films that explicitly and unabashedly offer apologetics for the family.

The Freeling family idyll soon becomes interrupted by the poltergeists' presence. At first, they appear only to little Carole Anne through the medium of the television set. The poltergeists soon begin, however, more actively intervening. They shake the house, turn on appliances, bend and play with kitchen utensils, and make chairs slide across the floor. These scenes, I believe, celebrate middle-class commodity icons, showing the consumer society's bounty. During the night, the poltergeists become more menacing. In the midst of a thunderstorm, branches of a giant tree take Robbie out of the bedroom window; his parents desperately retrieve him from the forces of raging nature. At this point, little Carole Anne disappears and the family is thrown into panic.

The father then goes to Stanford and summons a group of parapsychologists to come investigate the phenomena. They in turn call in a diminutive woman spiritualist who tells the family how to deal with the poltergeists and how to get their daughter back. With the spiritualist's guidance, the mother enters the spirit world to retrieve her daughter, revealing the depth of her love and concern for the child. The mother emerges as the moral center of the film — and of the family. In Diane Freeling, POLTERGEIST presents a positive image of the New Mother, who is able to smoke dope, be sexy and modern, and yet also be a loved wife and nurturing mother. In response to the women's movement's critique of "women's place," Spielberg and company answer with the image of a mother who assumes her traditional role while she enjoys suburban affluence. The film thus cleverly supports traditional roles and institutions while it presents symbolic threats to the existing order.

As the film proceeds, it shows the house and its objects being progressively demolished. At first, objects fly around and are broken and shattered. Eventually the whole house is totally destroyed. These scenes play on fears of losing one's home in this era of rising unemployment, inflation, and economic hard times. The film evokes the horror of watching loved objects smashed, of seeing the tokens of the middle class systematically disintegrate. Finally the film offers a fable about the family's walking away from the ruins of suburban afflunce with the comforting assurance that the evil spirits have been vanquished, that the family is still intact, and that all will be well.

The "explanation" for the series of poltergeist disturbances is that the real estate development company, for which the father works, had built the housing project over a graveyard after removing the headstones but not removing the corpses. In the film's occultist text, the spirits of the dead wander about in a purgatorial spiritual dimension. They are unable to leave purgatory for the white light of bliss and apparently angered by their burial ground's desecration. After the corpses apocalyptically destroy the house over that burial ground, Steve yells at his boss, "You moved the cemetery. But you left the bodies, didn't you! You son-of-a-bitch, you left the bodies and only moved the headstones!"

Such a plot device highlights a critical theme in Spielberg's films and allows us to define more precisely the specificity of his ideological problematic. Clearly the villain is the greedy real estate developer who neglected to rebury the corpses to save time and money. Similarly, the villain of JAWS is the corrupt business-political establishment, which puts economic interests over people's safety and well-being. Spielberg does not defend the capitalist class or the economic and political elite. His representations of the state and political establishment tend to be critical. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was initially intended to be a UFO Watergate-style cover-up, with the state's suppressing information about UFOs. This theme gets displaced in the film, but the state authorities still appear a bit menacing and sinister in the look of the film. Likewise, E.T. tends to present the adult world and especially state authorities from a low camera angle, the perspective of E.T. and the children. Consequently, state authorities usually appear threatening and sinister, even at the end when it appears that they are trying to save E.T.

Spielberg thus champions the middle-class ideologue but not the economic or political establishment His strategies reveal a crisis of ideology in the United States, where its most powerful and effective ideologues working in the cinematic cultural industries cannot or will not concoct ideological fables to legitimate the economic and political order. Legitimating these domains was precisely the ideological achievement of many films in Old Hollywood. But Capital and the State no longer have many successful ideological champions in Hollywood, although they may have in network television, albeit with contradictions and questionable success.


Spielberg's most popular recent films, from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to POLTERGEIST, participate in the resurgence of the occult, which has occurred in both Hollywood films and U.S. society since the end of the 1960s. When individuals perceive that they do not have control over their lives, they become attracted to occultism. During eras of socioeconomic crisis when people have difficulty coping with social reality, the occult seems to help explain incomprehensible events, with the aid of religious or spiritualist mythologies. Many recent occult films have served as vehicles for blatantly reactionary religious ideologies (e.g., THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN). Other filmmakers like George Romero, Wes Craven, and Larry Cohen have used the occult to present critical visions of U.S. society.(3) In contrast, Spielberg's use of the occult is neither systematically conservative-reactionary nor critical-subversive. Rather, it is marked by ambiguities which characterize his ideological problematic as a whole.

On one hand, Spielberg uses the occult to present rational contemporary fears: losing one's home, seeing one's family torn apart, fear of disease and bodily disintegration. For instance, in one of the most frightening scenes in POLTERGEIST, a young Stanford scientist goes to the kitchen and takes a steak out of the refrigerator. We see the piece of meat undergo a cancer-like metastasis, spewing out bizarre growths and organs before our eyes. The frightened scientist goes into the bathroom and washes his face and then looks into the mirror and sees his face mutate into rotting flesh. Although this hallucination disappears, he leaves the house and does not return. The scene is truly frightening, as it evokes fears of cancerous growth and bodily disintegration.

On the other hand, Spielberg's occultism serves as a vehicle to promote sentimental irrationalism. In his recent films, he constructs a spiritualist metaphysics out of representations of beneficent aliens, extrasensory perception, spirits, poltergeists, and magic (i.e., the children’s flying in E.T.). Fantasy and science fiction offer, of course, legitimate areas for film to explore. But the ubiquity of the occult in Spielberg's recent films provides an irrational worldview that feeds the already rampant irrationalism in U.S. society (i.e., religious revivalism, cults, "new age" spiritualism, etc.). Moreover, his occultist fables deflect people's legitimate fears onto irrational forces and create the false impression that deliverance will come from spiritual or extraterrestrial forces. Whereas a critical hermeneutic might find interesting symbolic projections of middle-class fears that relate to real socioeconomic crisis, most of the audience probably experiences these symbolic projections as deflections of their real fears, escape from contemporary U.S. monsters. As the films promote irrationalism and occultism, they cover over, rather than reveal, the origins, nature, and impact of the U.S. nightmare on people's lives.

Yet the weakest part of POLTERGEIST comes from the didactic occultism enunciated by the diminutive woman spiritualist, Tangina, who comes to help rescue Carole Anne and cleanse the house of the poltergeists. In two long, talky passages, she delineates the phenomenology of the spirit world and explains the source of Carole Anne's problems and the poltergeist disturbances. Throughout the film the viewer sees manifestations of the spirit world and is thus led to believe in the existence of spirits and an afterlife. Here Spielberg recycles old religious-spiritualist ideologies to reassure the audience about its deepest fears (i.e., descent into death, nonbeing, total nothingness) and provides a set of metaphysical representations useful for traditional, religious ideologies.

Spielberg provides reassuring fantasies that soothe fears concerning disintegration in this life (i.e., the family, the American dream, etc.) and in an afterlife. One of the tasks of cinematic ideology is to enunciate fears and then to soothe them. Spielberg magnificently accomplishes this in his fables of reassurance. While the contemporary United States is wracked with deep doubts and fears concerning its socioeconomic, political, and cultural system, Spielberg plays on these fears, finds (perhaps unconsciously) cinematic representations for them, and offers fantasies of reassurance. His ideology machines are popular precisely because of their effectiveness in enunciating and defusing such contemporary fears. Much more interestingly than the mindless, reactionary drivel concocted by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg has become the dominant ideologue of the middle class. However, now that he has become wealthy and powerful, it will he interesting to see if he moves on to become an ideologue for the economic-political establishment. In the meantime, it is as ideological fables that Spielberg's films should be interpreted and criticized.


1. On the transformation of Brody to hero-redeemer, see the discussion in John Lawrence and Robert Jewett, The American Monomyth (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977). On the class problematics of JAWS, see Fredric Jameson, "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture," Social Text 1 (Winter 1979). See also the following articles and Critical Dialogue in JUMP CUT on JAWS: Peter Biskind, "Between the Teeth" (No. 9, October-December 1975); Dan Rubey, "The Jaws in the Mirror" (No. 10/11, June 1976); Robert Wilson, "JAWS as Submarine Movie" (No. 15, July 1970). JAWS and Spielberg's other films will be discussed in more detail in the forthcoming book Politics and Ideology in Contmporary American Film by Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan. This article is indebted to work done with Ryan on the ideologies of contemporary film.

2. POLTERGEIST is directed by Tobe Hooper while Spielberg is credited as producer and one of the writers. Spielberg claims that the story idea was his. The film concludes with, "A Steven Spielberg Film." Alleged tensions arose between Hooper and Spielberg. There is debate over whose film it really is — as if a collective enterprise "belonged" to one person. In fact, the film offers an amalgam of the cinematic styles and philosophies of Hooper and Spielberg. The film exhibits Hooper's flair for the suspenseful, odd, and horrific and Spielberg's affection for the middle-class, fuzzy-minded occultism, and nose for the market. In any case, there are enough Spielbergian elements in it to justify analysis of the film in terms of Spielberg's ideological problematic.

3. On the problematics and ideological contradictions in contemporary horror films, see the studies collected in Andrew Britton, Richard Kippe, Tony Williams, and Robin Wood, American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (Toronto: Festival of Festivals Publication, 1979) and the studies in Kellner-Ryan (forthcoming).