The harrowing true story which inspired horror classic Poltergeist – LADbible

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Before there was Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, there was Poltergeist – Tobe Hooper’s critically acclaimed 1982 horror.

The award-winning supernatural flick – co-written by none other than Steven Spielberg, who also has a ‘story by’ credit – tells the story of a simple suburban family whose home is suddenly invaded by ghosts.

Upon its release, Poltergeist was the eighth-highest-grossing film of the year, earned a whopping $121.7 million in the box office, and still to this day regularly places on best and scariest movie lists.

For that, Spielberg can thank the Herrmanns; a real suburban family seemingly tormented by ghosts whose paranormal experience inspired his script.

Poltergeist was inspired by real life events. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Poltergeist was inspired by real life events. Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

It all goes back to Seaford, New York in 1958, where James Herrmann, his wife Lucille, and their children Lucy and Jimmy lived.

On 3 February, Lucille called James in a panic to let him know that the kids had heard strange popping sounds all around the house.

When Lucille, Lucy, and Jimmy looked around to see what was going on, they found several uncapped bottles in different rooms, with their liquids spilled out – including a vial of Holy Water.

At first, James was convinced it was a prank by some local teenagers, but the exact same thing happened just five days later, and again the following day.

In one instance, James claims he witnessed it himself – a bottle being moved across the room, as if by an invisible hand. Even after James called the police, the bottle popping continued.

Investigators checked the house for electrical disturbances or radio transmissions that might have caused the phenomenon, but found nothing.

The Herrmann family inspired Spielberg's film. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo
The Herrmann family inspired Spielberg’s film. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Later that month, the Herrmanns had a priest come by to bless the home.

After news of the unusual disturbances in the Herrmann home broke, people began writing to the family with their own theories.

Some people tried to come up with logical explanations, others were convinced it was the work of poltergeists.

What doesn’t quite add up, though, is that the Herrmann’s house was a new model, and they were the first people to move in. So why would a ghost have any haunting to do at their house?

Between 3 February and 10 March, approximately 70 reports of paranormal activity were recorded in the house.

Eventually, Dr J.B Rhine, director of Duke University’s Parapsychology Lab, decided to take a look for himself.

He had a theory that the presence of teenagers could be causing the paranormal activity, believing that psychokinesis could occur around puberty.

Popper the Poltergeist landed Steven Spielberg with an Oscar-nominated film. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Popper the Poltergeist landed Steven Spielberg with an Oscar-nominated film. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

After bringing some colleagues to investigate the house, though, the strange activity suddenly stopped, so his theory was never proven.

So, the Herrmann family never got to the bottom of what was causing the disturbances, but they did spark a media phenomenon – and popularise the term poltergeist, later inspiring Steven Spielberg to write his famous horror flick.

Poltergeist went on to earn three Academy Award nominations, but ironically lost all three to another of Spielberg’s films E.T the Extra-Terrestrial.

I guess the Academy just prefer aliens to ghosts.

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