Forty years ago, on June 4th, 1982, the film Poltergeist hit theaters. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper it was a huge hit, a haunted house movie for the whole family. At the same time there was a growing health crisis: the AIDS epidemic was just starting to draw national attention. Poltergeist and AIDS are connected by the actress and activist Zelda Rubinstein.
There’s nothing about AIDS in the movie Poltergeist—after all HIV wouldn’t even be identified as the cause of the disease until 1983. In fact there’s really no deeper meaning to the movie at all beyond there being something rotten in the state of suburbia, but there are some interesting coincidences. The Freeling family’s house is on a secret graveyard—the foundation is a lie—because the developers who built their neighborhood decided moving the dead, treating them with dignity, would be too much trouble. The dead were seen as a problem and the problem was simply paved over. When the Freelings talk to their neighbor about the disturbances, standing on his porch, outside in the dark, they’re cagey about it, not admitting to anything while they’re tormented by mosquitoes. Because HIV is a blood-borne illness there was a persistent myth that it could be transmitted by mosquitoes. The Freelings hide the fact that their daughter Carol Ann has disappeared, and retreat into their own private enclave, only trusting their secret to a small group of discreet professionals. At one point a monster bursts forth from the closet where their daughter is trapped—and that same later closet that threatens to pull their youngest children back in. Finally, unable to hide anymore, the Freelings leave everything behind as their home literally implodes, driven out by forces they can’t control.
And then there’s Tangina, the powerful and charismatic psychic played so brilliantly by Zelda Rubinstein. She comes in well over an hour into the movie’s runtime and, if the part had been given to a lesser actor, it would have been a minor part, but Rubinstein owns every scene she’s in. It’s hard to believe it was her first film. When I first saw her she give a satisfied smile and say, “This house is clean” I expected the credits to roll.
She—Rubinstein, that is—was also an early AIDS activist, risking her career. It might be difficult for people who didn’t live through it to understand how scary the AIDS years were. There was no internet so there was a lot of misinformation—although the internet’s at least as good at spreading fiction as it is for sharing facts. My friends and I were all just starting to hit puberty when stories of AIDS were front page news, when Rock Hudson’s revelation that he had HIV rocked the world, since so many of the victims had been, at least as the general public was concerned, nameless, and sadly dismissed as unimportant. Too many people ignored AIDS for too long, thinking it was someone else’s problem, something that only happened to those people, and that it could just be paved over.
It was terrible for me and my friends, bursting with hormones that made us want to have sex, to get the message that sex could be deadly. The tagline for Poltergeist was, “It knows what scares you.” Even before AIDS sex was both appealing and scary. AIDS just made it scarier even as our bodies pumped up the desire.
AIDS primarily affected gay men but we knew it wasn’t limited to them. We whispered stories of women who woke up after one night stands to find the man they’d slept with gone and “Welcome to the world of AIDS” scrawled on their bathroom mirror. We knew it was possible to get it through blood transfusions. My sophomore English teacher, Coach Peters, read a news article to us about Ryan White, a thirteen-year old hemophiliac who’d been given HIV-infected blood. Coach Peters almost broke down when he read how White’s neighbors drove by his house chanting, “Kill him! Kill him!” And Coach Peters told us all that he didn’t want to hear any jokes, any snide remarks. He didn’t care who had AIDS or how they got it. He wanted us to know it was a terrible, indiscriminate disease that no one deserved.
Other teachers—other people—were not so understanding. A friend of mine, Kay, had a gay friend who, when he learned he had HIV, drove his motorcycle into an oncoming car. When Kay wrote an essay about what a good friend he’d been to her and how his loss affected her a teacher wrote, “He got what he deserved” on it in red ink. That belief was all too common.
This was the world in which Zelda Rubinstein, in 1984, when people who got it were shunned, hated, and feared, even by Hollywood celebrities who, seven years later, would start wearing red ribbons, became an advocate for people with AIDS. She didn’t get an acting job for a full year, and would say in later interviews that she paid a price professionally because of her AIDS activism, but she had the courage to work with the LA CARES Project, to talk to gay men about the importance of safe sex at a time when talking about sex for too many people, gay and straight, was taboo. Rubinstein understood, even before it was a slogan plastered on walls and billboards, that silence equals death.
She was more than just an activist, though. Zelda Rubinstein was a mother figure to people who’d been thrown out of their families, who’d made new families only to watch their partners and friends die, ravaged by a terrible disease and harmed even more by hatred and fear.
Zelda Rubinstein, born May 28th, 1933, died January 27th, 2010, lived long enough to see HIV become a manageable condition, one that can be treated with medication although there’s still no cure. But there’s still hatred and fear, especially toward the LGBT community, the very people she worked so hard for. There are too many people who think things were just fine forty years ago, and that we need to go back to that time. The progress we’ve made is in danger of slipping away. The governors of Texas and Florida have pushed unnecessary and harmful legislation that attacks LGBT people and their families because the governors are afraid to deal with real problems. They’re at the front of a push that threatens the the rights and, I’m not exaggerating, the lives of LGBT people across the country, because the politicians who want to take us back to 1982 aren’t content with silence. We still need advocates like Zelda Rubinstein. As long as we do this house is not clean.