Cinematic Haunts – The Black Hope Horror
by Annie Riordan
Ghosts. That one word has the ability to conjure a multitude of images; long abandoned houses shrouded in cobwebs, rotting floorboards creaking underfoot, the skeletal branches of dead trees scraping the dark sky above. In such places do the sheeted dead wander for all eternity, loudly lamenting their untimely demise. Haunted houses are shunned even by the lowliest of creatures and stand forlorn and avoided, crumbling into dust and seeding the ground below with despair.
Right? Well, no, not always.
In 1982, Mr. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (aka Tobe Hooper) teamed up with the Willie Wonka of summer blockbusters (aka Steven Spielberg) and birthed Poltergeist, a modern American ghost story which turned the genre on its head. Tobe and Steve gutted the spooky old mansion on the edge of town and turned it into a sprawling suburban planned community in the sunny valleys of southern California. Christened “Cuesta Verde” (which either means “green slope” or “cheap undocumented immigrant labor hired from the Home Depot parking lot”) the lofty subdivision boasted a stunningly vanilla population of upper middle class Republican yuppies whose most pressing problem is trying to decide between eggshell or ecru paint for the kitchen. Seriously, if you soaked an entire loaf of Wonder in a vat of Clorox, you couldn’t get any more whitebread than this setting. Despite its title, nothing about Poltergeist suggests ghosts. Brand spanking new housing developments can’t possibly house ghosts, nor can a mediocre family unit be plagued by a haunting that wasn’t inherited by a family curse born of madness and/or affiliations with Satan. That was pretty much the golden rule of ghost movies, until Poltergeist redefined the genre.
The film, of course, was a hit and has since become legend in the annals of horror history. It was an astonishingly original concept, genuinely frightening and sufficiently gory, but it also appealed to non-horror fans by keeping its focus on the bonds of family and not killing off a single character. Not even the damn dog.
However, the malevolent spirits depicted in the film seemed to take on a life (excuse the pun) of their own, and whispers of a Poltergeist curse began to circulate. Dominique Dunne was murdered not long after the movie was released. Little Heather O’Rourke succumbed to septic shock at the age of 12. A few other cast members died of old age, which is hardly shocking. Most people dismiss the various misfortunes as pure coincidence, and I’m inclined to agree with them. But if art imitates life, then perhaps the reverse is also true.
Just outside of Houston, Texas is a sprawling planned community called Newport. Erected in the late 70s, its large, shiny new houses and manicured lawns attracted the reasonably well off, who purchased their dream homes with the full intention of staying put, visions of happy golden years and champagne colored Cadillacs parked in the driveway doubtlessly dancing in their heads. Sam and Judith Haney even began making plans to construct a swimming pool in their back yard, a surefire way to beat the heat in the sweltering Texas temperatures. But before they could so much as break the sod with a shovel, a neighbor stopped by to talk with them. Seems he’d heard about their swimming pool plans and just casually wanted to let them know, by the way, no big deal, that there’s a couple of bodies buried in their back yard.
Wait, what? No way. No way in HELL, as a matter of fact. This is a brand new neighborhood, clean and white and sporting a hefty price tag. Why would there be dead bodies randomly buried beneath the pristine lawns? Thinking it was a piss poor joke, the Haneys started plowing up the yard with a backhoe. Sure enough, six feet down, they broke through two pinewood coffins, both bearing skeletal remains that had lain there for so long that they crumbled into dust when touched. The county coroner conducted an official exhumation and discovered that the remains were those of Betty and Charlie Thomas, former slaves who had been buried in a potters field in the 1930s and forgotten. Betty’s skeletal hand still bore her wedding bands, which were given to Judith Haney.
Instead of tossing the bones aside and continuing on with their swimming pool plans, the Haneys decided to rebury the deceased couple in their own backyard out of respect, genuinely sickened by the idea that they had desecrated someone’s burial site. But their good intentions were simply the first stone set in the proverbial road to hell. Charlie and Betty were awake, and they were none too pleased at having their rest disturbed.
Indeed, the residents of the community soon realized that it wasn’t just Charlie and Betty. The exclusive neighborhood of Newport had once been called Black Hope Cemetery, and no one had bothered to relocate the bodies before construction had begun. Soon, other residents began noticing eerie occurrences in their formerly peaceful homes. Coffin shaped sinkholes began to appear in their gardens, refusing to be filled in. Trees and flowers planted by well meaning ladies withered and died, no matter the amount of fertilizer shoveled over their roots. It was as if the soil itself was poisoned, refusing to sustain new life where death had been sown. The putrid stench of decomposition fouled the halls and rooms of many a home, and whispered voices could be heard by longtime residents and visiting relatives alike. Electrical appliances began to run even when they weren’t plugged in. Toilets flushed by themselves. Swarms of ants and poisonous snakes invaded the neighborhood in the wake of freak, isolated storms. Family pets not only died, but seemed to go insane: birds pecking their young to death, cats birthing horribly deformed kittens. The feeling that something was terribly wrong began to take over en masse.
Infuriated that they had not been told that they were living on top of a cemetery, the Haneys and another neighborhood family, the Williams, sued the site developers for mental anguish. They lost their case and the resulting legal fees forced them into bankruptcy. The legal system blandly informed them that without proof of a cemetery, they were literally shit out of luck. Oh, and Texas forbids the digging up of graves, which was just the shit frosting on the Catch 22 Cake. It was at this point that resident Jean Williams got righteously pissed, picked up a shovel and started digging up her own yard, determined to provide an actual body if that was what it took. But, after turning over only a few shovelfuls of dirt, Jean started feeling sick. She handed the shovel to her daughter Tina and went inside to lay down. Tina picked up where her mother had left off. Half an hour later, she too was feeling sick. Two days later, Tina was dead, having suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 30. She’d had no health problems prior to her death, and no history of heart disease. It was not the only tragedy the Williams had experienced. Prior to Tina’s sudden and unexpected death, 6 members of their immediate family had been diagnosed with rare and pernicious forms of cancer. Three of them died within a six month period.
Dark spectres were seen hovering over sleeping occupants. The whispering voices and teleportation of objects continued. The Haneys and the Williams, however, had had enough, They sold their homes and got the fuck outta Dodge, never to return. The housing community itself still stands and remains inhabited, however. And thirty years later, there’s a Poltergeist remake in the works. Oh, the IMDb page is still a big blank save for a handful of commentators crying “Blasphemy!” But let’s be real – it’s gonna happen. The Hollywood Remake Machine, much like the vengeance of the dead, cannot be stopped.
Notice I never stated that Poltergeist was based on the Black Hope Curse. I have no idea if it was or not. Other influences for the film may possibly include the Popper Poltergeist of 1958, Denver’s Cheesman Park and the Amityville Horror. The timing of events in Texas is also a tad too close, but Hooper – a native Texan – might have heard the rumors. Who knows? Who cares? A modern housing community, a freshly dug swimming pool, an abandoned graveyard, etc. It is, if nothing else, a hell of a coincidence. Perhaps with the Williams and the Haneys fled, the desecrated residents of Black Hope reached west, sensing their sad plight turned villain in a horror film franchise.
Or maybe the dead just want you to know that they are not the stereotypical trapped souls we’ve been taught to think they are, restricted to one type of locale. They are not confined to gothic Victorian mansions, weedy cemeteries or abandoned funeral homes. They’re everywhere. Supermarkets, coffee houses, brand new subdivisions. The age of the building doesn’t matter. The land it’s built on, however, is a different story. Who knows who or what was there a hundred years ago, or who or what might be there still, buried and forgotten?