On the Cultural Importance of Poltergeist’s “Meat Scene”

Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Leah waxes poetic about maggots, haunted meat, and a few highlights of ’80s cinema.

Last month was Poltergeist’s 40th anniversary. As it was a formative film in my childhood, I jumped on the chance to revisit it, and was surprised by just how weird and idiosyncratic it was. But the moment that stood out, just as it did when I was a child watching it, was The Meat Scene.

Y’all remember The Meat Scene, right? I think it might be one of the  primary touchstones of ’80s cinema.

The Freeling family have been living in their house for about five years when they suddenly find themselves being haunted. At first they try to live with it, but then the spirits kidnap their youngest child, Carol Anne, and the dad, Steve Freeling, does the only thing he can think of: he goes to the local university and finds a team of parapsychologists. They are Dr. Lesh, a kindly middle-aged lady, Ryan, an enthusiastic technophile, and Marty, who’s… kind of a cipher with no discernible skills.

But a cipher is exactly what you need to make The Meat Scene shine.

The team moves into the Feeling’s home, recording poltergeist activity and trying to figure out if there’s a portal that might lead to Carol Anne. Sometime in the middle of the first night, Marty, having theatrically finished a bag of Cheetos while pointing the brand’s name at the camera, stops for a Ritz Brand Cracker on the way into the kitchen before digging in the Freeling’s fridge for something more substantial.

He stands up with a chicken leg sticking out of his mouth, and an enormous cut of bright red meat in his hand. Like if you asked a Warner Bros cartoonist to draw one of those scenes where Bugs and Daffy are starving to death, on a raft, in the middle of the ocean? And they each start hallucinating that the other is a type of food, but when Bugs looks at Daffy he sees a platonic ideal of “a pie cooling on a windowsill”, and when Daffy looks at Bugs he sees something that’s more like the concept of “steak” than an actual cut of meat? This is what you’d get.

Then Marty breaks out a frying pan.

Something about raiding a devastated family’s fridge and frying up a giant Night Steak while you’re waiting for ghosts to appear really appeals to me. But the Freelings’ kitchen is one of the centers of the paranormal activity—there’s no way the restless spirits are going to let this stand. Sure enough, as soon as Marty slaps the raw, unwrapped steak on the bare counter, it starts wiggling around like it’s alive. It makes squelching noises that have lived in my mind since I was 6. Then it rapidly decomposes and bursts with…I’m gonna say pustules.

PUSTULES.

And look closer—there’s a slime trail!

A slime trail.

Screenshot: Amblin Entertainment

At which point Marty spits the chicken leg onto the floor, and sees that it’s wriggling with dozens of maggots. He runs to the bathroom to rinse his mouth, tears at his skin, and gouges his face down to the skull in what turns out to be a very vivid hallucination.

It’s fucking awesome.

I’ve thought about this scene a lot. (Perhaps, too much…? No. No, impossible.) This scene works for a lot of reasons, first, of course, the winsomely naive practical effects. The cold chicken drumstick looks like a perfect cold chicken drumstick. The steak looks  like a cartoon. Watching these foods explode into vermin satisfies a deep well of childhood gross-out humor. It’s also incredibly primal—after all, what’s the one thing more horrifying than biting into an apple and finding a worm?

Finding half a worm.

You can’t distill the feeling of “finding half a worm” in a more pure way than “The chicken drumstick I was just eating in the dark is writhing with maggots, there’s no way I don’t have maggots in my stomach now.” (Again, the sheer childlike, taboo joy of watching buttoned up, Gillette Dry-Look Marty stare down at those maggots!) And of course, this is Tobe Hooper, Mr. Texas Chainsaw Massacre himself, getting to gross us the hell out, in what is otherwise a much more family-friendly movie. And on top of all that, in a film about death it’s only fitting that food would turn out to be corrupted and rotting. But finally, the most important element is how we see it.

Screenshot: Amblin Entertainment

Marty, in his shock, turns a flashlight on and shines it on the food. This a now spooky tale being told round a campfire, the flashlight passed from hand to hand. The horror and memento mori get a chance to take center stage and shine under a spotlight, like an old school star of the silver screen. The light shows us death and rot—what worse terrors lurk beyond that circle, out in the dark? What else does the house and its spirits have in store?

Even more than the basic revulsion of the maggots, this scene plays on the most primal fear of all: the darkness that lies in wait, the knowledge that something malevolent and inhuman is watching.

Having given us a pivotal scene of early ‘80s cinema, Marty flees the investigation.

Why do I think this is a pivotal scene? In the years after Poltergeist we got:

Eggs cooking themselves on Dana Barrett’s countertop in Ghostbusters (1984)!

 

Mogwai housing a bucket of late nite chicken wings, leading to their Gremlinification (1984)!

 

The rite of Kali Ma in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)!

 

“Maggots, Michael. You’re eating maggots, how do they taste?” (1987)!

 

(Which, in 2014, led to the majesty of…Basghetti.)

 

And, finally, the rapid aging and decomposition of noted Nazi apologist Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)!

 

And while I don’t know for sure that this scene was the alpha point for all of those, it would not surprise me if this scene set the tone for those? And I want to honor it, because those scenes are all load-bearing pillars in my mind. I mean has this ever been topped for sheer horrific/comedic beauty:

Screenshot: Amblin Entertainment

I’m drawing a line in the sand, pulling a steak out of someone else’s fridge, and saying no.

But by all means, tell me about the horror scenes that have lodged themselves in your mind over the years.


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