How The Movie Poltergeist Inspired Mad Men … Yes, Really

A chance encounter with a horror classic changed how Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner approached the AMC drama.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 13
Photo: AMC

AMC drama Mad Men is one of the best TV series of its era – or any other for that matter. The seven season-long saga of 1960s Madison Avenue advertising executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has rightfully taken its place among the classics in the TV canon. In addition to its greatness, however, another thing that Mad Men should be remembered for is its bizarre commitment to secrecy.

Mad Men was one of the most spoiler-phobic TV shows ever. Showrunner Matthew Weiner insisted that AMC’s promos for the drama reveal next-to-nothing about upcoming plots. A typical “on the next episode of Mad Men” advertisement might include stunning revelations such as someone entering a room, someone exiting a room, or God forbid: someone uttering a revealing line of dialogue like “what’s going on?”

Mad Men promos that say absolutely nothing became something of a meme. Fans have even cut together YouTube videos of the infamously oblique clips so that future generations of watchers can enjoy their vagueness.

Mad Men‘s aversion to spoilers was particularly funny because there really wasn’t anything to “spoil.” Mad Men is for grown ups. There are few storytelling twists or bombshells to be found within it. Instead, the show thrives on the artistry of the writers, directors, actors, and production designers and their ability to articulate the frustrations of the human experience, regardless of era. There isn’t a Marvel movie-esque moment in which another AMC character like Walter White cameos. There’s only Don Draper’s simultaneous dissatisfaction with and exploitation of the American dream.

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Matthew Weiner would occasionally be asked about the maddeningly vague promos in interviews. Most of the time, he would say he just didn’t like sneak previews. One time, however, Weiner got unusually honest and revealed the real reason why he hates spoilers so much. And that’s where, believe it or not, 1982 horror movie Poltergeist comes in.

At first glance, Mad Men and Tobe Hooper’s film about a malevolent haunting have nothing to do with each other. It turns out though that Weiner had an unusual experience with Poltergeist and it changed the way he thought about the audience experience forever.

In the May 6, 2015 episode of The Nerdist podcast (now rebranded as “ID10T with Chris Hardwick”) Weiner shares an interesting anecdote with host Chris Hardwick to illustrate where his appreciation for knowing nothing prior to a TV show or movie began. What follows is his transcribed, slightly paraphrased account:

“This may be where my spoiler thing comes from. I had this experience when I was in high school, my car broke down. I’m in Orange County, I’m by myself. I get the car towed, which is a huge pain in the ass before cellphones. So now what do you do in Orange County? There’s more movie theaters per square foot in Orange County than like any mall in America. I went to the movies. I walk in to see a movie that I know nothing about. And I’m laughing … it’s Poltergeist.

“I gotta tell you something – It’s funny [in the beginning]! Craig Nelson was really funny. The kids – they’re smoking dope at the beginning of the movie in their housing community. You think it’s just a comment on Orange County. And all of a sudden that hand reaches out of the TV. I’ve never been more scared of anything in my entire life. It just got scarier and scarier and scarier.”

Though the special effects work in Poltergeist hasn’t aged particularly well (something that Hardwick immediately notes in that interview), it’s hard to imagine a more terrifying cinematic experience than entering a theater and not knowing you’re about to witness a Steven Spielberg-written and produced horror epic.

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Poltergeist is full of gut-churning images of suburban terror from haunted TV static to slamming cabinets to a veritable lake of misplaced skeletons. Nowadays, the average person knows that the word “poltergeist” is a term for a noisy spirit in German folklore but not everyone was equipped with that knowledge pre-Poltergeist. Weiner very well may have though he was walking into a German-language family drama. And instead he got this:

With that satisfyingly traumatic narrative experience under his belt, it’s no wonder that Weiner wanted to gift audiences the element of surprise wherever he could. Of course, a ghostly hand never emerges from a television set in Mad Men, but someone does get their foot run over with a riding mower. It would be a shame if someone spoiled that (like we just did). So go watch Mad Men before we spoil any more.