This is a paper I wrote for my 300-level Spielberg film class. 1,466 words long and coming out to a little over four pages, it earned me an A. A decent read for anyone interested in Spielberg, though this is certainly not the most well written paper: I could’ve done better. Speaking of which, I’m going to study Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can right now, just for fun.

The family is an entity present in Steven Spielberg’s films. With family being central to his work, the hearth and home is important to the meanings behind his films. Two movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist, feature the home as the main source of conflict.

In Poltergeist, protagonist Steve Freeling is a husband and father of three. He and his family live in a house in a developing suburban neighborhood. Spielberg creates a portrait of the neighborhood as a relatively happy one where children play in the streets and neighbors gather to watch sports.

However, all is not perfect. There is a scene in which youngest daughter Carol Anne catches her mother Diane as she is about to flush her recently deceased pet bird down the toilet. Previously, she had complained about the bird’s death, saying, “Oh Tweetie, couldn’t you have waited for a weekday?” Diane’s comical reaction to the bird’s death is a statement that death is a part of everyday life. While Carol Anne’s reaction to the death of her pet is one of respect and sadness, she also moves on from the death rather quickly, cheerfully asking to replace the bird with a goldfish immediately after she has completed the burial. Again, while this is funny, it also serves to illustrate the lack of reverence for the dead: Carol Anne, who sheds no tears for her bird, does not grieve the death of her pet bird any longer than is convenient. Death then would seem to be something that is not particularly traumatic to the residents of the Freeling home. Later, the spot in the yard where the bird is buried is dug up by a bulldozer, causing the box in which it was buried to tumble, foreshadowing the later discovery that the house is built on top of desecrated burial grounds.

In the first scene of the movie, Carol Anne awakes in the middle of the night while the rest of the family is fast asleep. She wanders down into the living room, drawn towards the flickering television set. Carol Anne speaks to the spirits inhabiting it. Later, the spirit manifests itself as an ethereal hand that suddenly penetrates the screen, breaking through the spiritual dimension to the physical realm. Visually, it is quite startling. It is a physical act of invasion, showing us the spirits breaking into the Freeling home. More specifically, the spirits invade the home when everybody is asleep. That is to say that they invaded when everyone is unguarded and nobody is watching the home. Spielberg illustrates that it is a strange force that violates the safety of the home by literally entering into it. This idea that danger comes from within the house is further reinforced by the fact that the ghosts attack the family from inside the house; the portal exists in Carol Anne’s closet and they dominate her room. Save for the initial distracting attack by the ghosts, all of the danger comes not from the outside, but from the inside of the house.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the conflict and threats to the family come from within the house as well. Roy Neary is the head of his household, a husband to Ronnie and a father to three children. One night on a dark road, he encounters a U.F.O. He becomes obsessed with this encounter. Because of his strange, distant, and obsessive behavior, he becomes estranged from his family and argues with his wife.

Roy has an emotional breakdown in front of his children during dinner. That he does so during dinner is significant. Gathering together for a meal is a routine central to family interaction. Family dinners are a part of creating a normal home atmosphere. It is a time where everyone comes together to share nourishment and to share in each other’s lives. Roy realizes during dinner that he is going through something abnormal (evidenced by his reaction to his creation of a mountain made of mashed potatoes). It is during this cornerstone of family life that Roy humbles himself before his family and tries without success to explain his strange behavior. Not only does this scene clearly illustrate tension between the family members, it also expresses the disturbance of the normalcy in the family dynamic. It is not every day that children see their fathers messily sculpting a mountain out of the mashed potatoes at the dinner table.

Here, the family is not attacked by external enemies. Rather, the destructive force comes from within. With the stage set with the great deal of tension within the family, the breaking down of the family is shown explicitly in the scene where Ronnie is trying to deal with Roy’s breakdown in the bathroom. She yells at him to attend family therapy. His son enters the scene and, upon seeing his father broken down and wet in the bathtub, repeatedly screams, “Cry baby!” at him while banging the door open and shut. Ronnie responds by screaming at him to get out. All of this commotion scares the young daughter who herself screams desperately for everyone to be quiet. Summarily, the things that cause Roy distress happen to him in his own home. The source of the stress and damage that destroys the family is the family itself. Where the wife could be supportive of Roy’s experience, she yells at him in a desperate attempt to hold on to the normal life she once had. His own children are fearful and distrustful of him. Later, his wife takes the children and leaves him to his own devices. In other words, she takes his loved ones away at the most pressing of times, a time when he is most in need. Roy’s demons exist not out in the world, but in himself and his own home.

The home should be a safe place. Yet it also appears in Spielberg’s work to be a place that is quite prone to invasion. There is a scene in which a boy named Barry is abducted from his home. His mother, named Gillian, sees a mass of morphing clouds giving way to a formation of lights. Understanding that the lights are aliens approaching her home, she runs inside and tries to secure the house by jamming the doors and drawing the blinds. Despite her efforts, the alien presence approaches and invades her home. A shaft of light appears to enter the house through the keyhole of a door. This is a visual symbol of the invasion of a strange force that means to harm the family, similar to the ethereal hand invading the Freeling household through the television set in Poltergeist.

Aside from the visual entrance of the alien presence in the form of light through a keyhole, the alien presence manifests itself in the manipulation of the physical realm. It attempts to enter through a vent in the floor. An invisible force throws the carpet clear of a vent in the floor and unscrews it. Shortly thereafter, the entire house beings to rumble and appliances shake violently, turning themselves on. In the ensuing terror and confusion, Barry leaves the house through the pet door and is abducted.

The moving of inanimate objects by an unseen force is the ultimate invasion of one’s home. It takes away the sense of familiarity that comes from the predictability of a home, violating one’s sense of safety. This invasion is also seen in Poltergeist. After breakfast, Diane cleans the kitchen table and tucks the chairs away. She turns away very briefly to get something from a cabinet and is shocked to see them stacked in an unusual and impossible formation on top of the table when she turns back. This very visual act of paranormal mischief is shocking and amusing to her, but it also serves as a reminder that an invisible force is inside the house. It is the visual representation of an unwelcome entity that seeks to impose its will and is a threat to the family, in much the same way that an unseen alien force invades Gillian’s home and abducts her son Barry.

Spielberg’s movies have a particular theme revolving around the family. In these two films, the home is something that must be defended. Poltergeist puts forth the idea that one should be wary of strange malevolent forces making its way into the home and that one should remain attentive in the defending of one’s home and family. Close Encounters of the Third Kind warns us that sometimes a family’s greatest enemy is itself. Together, these two films show us that threats to families can come from both within and from without and that the family as a unit must be watched vigilantly and guarded closely if it is to remain intact.