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To Zelda, With Love

Zelda Rubinstein in the film Poltergeist.
Zelda Rubinstein in the film Poltergeist.

The HIV activist and 'Poltergeist' actress died 8 years ago. We remember her fondly.

Lately instead of getting down on the daily news, I've been looking to the past for hope. And last night I remembered a memorial to Zelda Rubinstein  I wrote nearly 8 years ago today.

Zelda Rubinstein came into all of our lives as the savior of Carol Anne and the Freeling family in the 1982 horror movie Poltergeist, which left an indelible mark on pop culture and for many of us, our childhoods.

As the medium Tangina Barrons, she saved Carol Anne from malevolent spirits who had taken over the family’s home. The remarkable thing about Rubinstein’s screen persona was her ability to make that little voice and presence emanate something palpable. You could sense from her screen presence that, on the earthly plane, you were thankful she was that small because of all that potent heartfelt energy – emanating beyond Tobe Hooper’s direction and Spielberg special effects – even at that size, could blow you and everyone off the set.

Rubinstein had that gift of simple presence on screen that didn’t need much artifice. You could reach out to touch the screen and feel what she felt. Diminutive and strong at the same time, she was an outspoken activist for little people and for HIV/AIDS at the height of the crisis when it wasn’t fashionable.

Rubinstein became active in the fight against AIDS/HIV in 1984, when she appeared in a series of advertisements directed towards gay men specifically, promoting safer sex and AIDS awareness. Rubinstein did so at risk to her own career, especially so shortly after her rise to fame, and admitted later that she did “pay a price, career-wise." She also attended the first AIDS Project Los Angeles AIDS Walk.

On December 29, 2009, it was reported that, after a month-long stay at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, her close companion and her family made the decision to take Rubinstein off life support due to both kidney and lung failure. She died at the age of 76.

I remember feeling that maybe in another life, where I was an insecure geeky target of bullies, if she came along she could save you from anyone: poltergeists, bullies or whatever the world threw at you.

When Rubinstein wrapped her arms around Carol Anne after pulling her out of the television – the doorway to a darkly sinister dimension – she wrapped her arms around a whole generation.  

I’m terrible at eulogies, so let’s just say this: although little in person, she was larger than life. She made all our lives a little richer, stranger, and more delightful.

This originally appeared on

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