Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1997 Wednesday

By Mark Caro, Tribune Staff Writer

You know that feeling when you hear a phrase so often that you want to throw things through plate-glass windows?

Well, it's baaaaack.

The movie "Poltergeist II" seems an unlikely source for such a towering contribution to our popular culture, but its key phrase continues to haunt us.

"They're baaaaack!" squealed the little girl played by the late Heather O'Rourke in the 1986 movie about evil spirits invading a suburban home. Her cry -- the follow-up to her original "Poltergeist" announcement of "They're heeeere!" -- became the crux of the movie's marketing campaign.

Eleven years later, the expression doesn't need to come back, because it won't go away.

"They're ba-a-a-a-ck!" was the headline of Time magazine's Nov. 17 Winners & Losers column citing Saddam Hussein, Madeleine Albright and others.

"They're baaaaaa-aaaack!" read an Entertainment Weekly Nov. 14 table-of-contents promo for a story about teenage performers.

"She's baaaaaack!" topped a USA Today story on Nov. 7 about "The Little Mermaid."

And the Oct. 24 Washington Post managed a double play. In one story Joel Kotkin of the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy mixed his movie references: "About 10 or 15 years ago, everybody thought Houston was dead and buried. And sort of like the Terminator, it's baaack." In another, sportswriter Leonard Shapiro pronounced, "Keith Olbermann. He's baaaaaack . . ."

The Tribune hasn't been immune, either, with five "baaaack" citations in October alone. In fact, the phrase has turned up more than 100 times in many variations. For those keeping score, it breaks down to one "baack," 27 "baaack," 28 "baaaack," 25 "baaaaack," eight "baaaaaack," six "baaaaaaack," three "baaaaaaaack," one "baaaaaaaaack," one "baaaaaaaaaack" and one "baaaaaaaaaaaack." There are also several hyphenated versions.

You'd think the expression's popularity might have died down after more than a decade, but the opposite seems to be occurring. A computer search through more than 150 magazines and 75 of the nation's top newspapers turned up 464 uses of "baaaaaack" in stories through the beginning of December this year, compared with 415 in 1996, 433 in 1995, 467 in 1994, 342 in 1993 and 295 in 1992.

Too bad Michael Grais and Mark Victor, the screenwriting team responsible for "Poltergeist II" and the original "Poltergeist" (with Steven Spielberg), can't get royalties for their phrase.

"It sure would have been nice to get a dime or a penny or a buck for every time I hear it," said Victor, who, like Grais, is a Highland Park High School graduate. "I hear it all the time. I don't even think about it anymore because it's so commonplace."

At this point most people quoting the expression probably couldn't even name its source. It's one of many film phrases that have worked their way into the vernacular.

"Show me the money" has played like a broken record since last winter's release of "Jerry Maguire." Other heavy-rotation movie quotes have included "Go ahead, make my day" from Clint Eastwood's 1983 "Sudden Impact," Arnold Schwarzenegger's taunt of "Hasta la vista, baby!" from 1991's "Terminator 2" -- which a current Chef Boy-Ar-Dee commercial transformed into "Pasta la vista, baby!" -- and "Phone home" from 1982's "E.T."

Television shows such as "Saturday Night Live" also have supplied their share of sayings (such as "Isn't that special?" and "Not!"), and you can thank the advertising world for "Where's the Beef?" (Wendy's) and "I love you, man!" (Bud Lite).

Such catch phrases usually have limited shelf lives. When's the last time you heard "Yes I am!" (also Bud Lite)?

But the "Poltergeist" expression endures. " 'They're baaaaack' somehow isn't boring people," said Richard Janda, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, who thought the phrase came from a "Halloween" movie. "The situation arises a lot when someone comes back, so you can say, 'They're baaaaack.' I use it. It makes people laugh."

And it's sure to keep amusing us for years. Not!


Copyright 1997 Chicago Tribune