EarthRx: Why America Needs to Re-Watch Poltergeist

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<i>EarthRx:</i> Why America Needs to Re-Watch <i>Poltergeist</i>

“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” – George Carlin

It has been 35 years since Spielberg rocked the box office with Poltergeist, that wicked tale of the American suburban dream gone horrific, but the 1982 flick is more relevant now than ever. What really made Poltergeist a cult classic with cultural import that continues to hit harder and harder was that everything, from the daughter getting swallowed alive by TV Land to the son being terrorized by his own overgrown toys were perfect metaphors for the real psychological horrors of modern American society.

With the current ascension of a true Grinch president to the throne of the most powerful country in the history of countries just as the showdown over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which pit the overconsumption of fossil fuels that continues to drive the American Dream against the preservation of native ancestral lands, happening in the background, there is no better time to examine Poltergeist again than now. After all, at the end of Poltergeist it was the fact that the entire suburb was built right on top of a sacred native burial ground that turned out to be the problem, remember? The horror is in our very foundation.

The largest and longest continuous protest in U.S. history, Standing Rock was to me a sign that America was at last starting to deal with the ghosts in its closet. And the movement was victorious, at least for a moment, until like Rosebud Sioux leader OJ Semans recently said at the People’s Climate March in Washington DC, under Trump the pipeline rose again from the dead like a “zombie.” His use of horror movie language underlines just how grotesque this situation really is.

So what is driving this zombie apocalypse, this American poltergeist that keeps rising from the dead like a Chucky doll hell-bent on terrorizing everyone? The answer, if we pay attention to our native first peoples as well as our own top storytellers and myth-makers, everyone from Spielberg to Carlin to Dr. Seuss, may lie in the asphalt beneath our feet.

“The immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America is entropy made visible” said James Howard Kunstler, author of the bestselling book “The Geography of Nowhere,” at a 2007 TED Talk. Again conjuring up fright night spookiness, the talk, entitled “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs,” is a full takedown of the natural desolation and personal isolation produced by American-style suburban living.

“We cannot overestimate the amount of despair we are generating with places like this,” Kunstler explains.

Kunstler is right. According to Stephen Ilardi Ph.D. author of The Depression Cure, social isolation—the real cause of depression—has more than doubled in the last 20 years, with around 25 percent of all Americans admitting that they have “no meaningful social support at all—not a single person they can confide in.”

Depression is now the leading cause of disability not just in the U.S., but across the globe, according to the World Health Organization. Depression’s worst outcome is of course suicide, which is now the leading cause of accident related deaths in the country—more than car crashes or any other kind of injury combined. That’s a horror story even scarier than anything that Hollywood could ever come up with. And its real.

But it’s not just our inner landscape that is being devastated by modern American living, by our real-life Poltergeist; we are also destroying the physical world around us. Our lifestyle requires so much oil to run it, as suburbia is completely car dominated and not even habitable by those that don’t own a vehicle, that America now uses 25 percent of the earth’s fossil fuel resources even though we represent only five percent of the entire globe’s population.

Not only are whole ecosystems being decimated to feed our oil addiction, but we are on the brink of launching another world war over the largest crude reserves left in the Middle East. Like Freddy Krueger on steroids we are intent on expanding our dream cum nightmare way past Elm Street to encircle the globe.

So what’s really going on here? How did we get tricked into worshipping a system that is producing nothing but mental suffering, environmental degradation and bloodshed?
According to a recent in-depth report by the environmental website MongaBay, the future of the largest tropical rainforest and the most biodiverse place on earth—the mighty Amazon rainforest—hinges on the outcome of a “war between opposing world views.”

One worldview “sees forests and rivers as valuable for their own sake, and for the livelihoods, biodiversity, ecological services and climate change mitigation they provide.”

The other, opposing worldview “holds that Amazon forests are natural resources to be harvested and turned into dollars … the forests are there to be cut down, and the land is there to be used for economic benefit.”

The first is indigenous, the second is capitalist. Which one is the horror story folks? Why myth holds the key to a beautiful future?

At Standing Rock these same to two world views that are in conflict in the Amazon faced off right here on American soil. Like a real-life Poltergeist flick, the oil that suburban America needs to thrive needed to be transported across a real-life Native American sacred burial ground. While this face-off has been going on for centuries, this time something was different—we blocked the Poltergeist, if even just for a moment. To me, this is a sign that change is imminent.

As we begin to slowly wake from the bad dream, we are going to have to realize that the answer to our problems is also under our feet, buried there forgotten so many centuries ago under blood and broken promises like the graveyard in Spielberg’s masterpiece. As I have argued over and over again in this column, indigenous and traditional ways of life point the way forward towards a planet free of both pollution and misery.

For this to happen we are going to have to leave the fake security of our isolated homes and cars and join the Whos down in Whoville just like we did at Standing Rock. The only way that the Grinch is going to change is to hear our voice as one in collective unity—the only cure to his own heart that is two sizes too small from centuries of individualist isolation after all.

In order to rescue our daughters from the ghouls of TV Land, our sons from the clutches of giant mocking consumerist clowns, and our homes from the haunted spirits of a horrific history, we are going to have to do more than just change the channel. Even with direct TV it’s just one never ending horror movie anyway.

Just like they finally figured out at the end of Poltergeist, to exorcise this demon we are going to have to throw out the squawk box completely and join our brothers and sisters who are already on the front line.

In the end, the only way to wake up from the nightmare is to completely face reality and reclaim the ground beneath our feet.

Photo by Rick Danielson, CC BY-SA 2.0


Ocean Malandra writes the EarthRx Column for Paste Magazine and divides his time between the Redwood forest of Northern California and the Amazon jungle of South America.

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