‘The Poltergeist’: Yes, Those Are Real Skeletons Terrorizing JoBeth Williams in the Pool Scene

Some of the scariest things about The Poltergeist happened off-screen. The 1980s horror sensation is terrifying to watch, but even more terrifying given the multiple deaths that have been associated with the movie. At least four of the actors involved in The Poltergeist, or the subsequent sequels, The Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Poltergeist III, met untimely ends. Plus, there were onsite mishaps as well.

Although the curse was unknown during the filming of the first movie, some of the actors clearly had misgivings about doing certain scenes. That includes JoBeth Williams, the actress who played Diane Freeling. 

(L-R) Dominique Dunne, JoBeth Williams, Craig T Nelson, Oliver Robins and Beatrice Straight in a scene from the film 'Poltergeist', 1982.
(L-R) Dominique Dunne, JoBeth Williams, Craig T Nelson, Oliver Robins and Beatrice Straight in a scene from the film ‘Poltergeist’, 1982 | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

JoBeth Williams did not want to film the pool scene

The Poltergeist centers around a family, the Freelings, whose home is haunted by ghosts. They seem particularly taken with the youngest Freeling, Carole Anne (played by Heather O’Rourke). In the movie, the matriarch, Diane Freeling, falls into a deep hole in the yard and discovers that the house was built on an ancient burial ground. As the hole, intended for a swimming pool, begins to fill with rain, skeletons float to the top, all around her. 

In real life, JoBeth Williams, the actor who played Diane Freeling, didn’t want to film the scene, according to Screen Rant. Things were already weird on set. One of the other actors who played the middle Freeling boy, Robbie, was strangled by a clown. The prop was designed to make it look like he was being strangled by an evil clown toy, but it malfunctioned and began to strangle him for real. Steven Spielberg had to pull the clown off of him. 

Williams was reluctant to go into the water while surrounded by so many lights. If one of them fell in, she would be electrocuted. Spielberg convinced her by jumping in himself, and saying “now if a light falls in, we’ll both fry!” But he still wasn’t completely honest with Williams about the scene. She didn’t know that the skeletons that would float up around her were real skeletons, not fake props.  

Some people think that using real skeletons in ‘The Poltergeist’ caused a curse 

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After all the tragedies began befalling the actors in The Poltergeist franchise, fans began to speculate that using real skeletons had something to do with it. People thought that the fake cursed burial ground that Spielberg had created led to a real curse for the actors involved. Williams didn’t find out until after production wrapped that the skeletons were real, but she probably didn’t believe in the curse. 

The tragedies that befell the actors of The Poltergeist weren’t related to production. Unfortunately, young O’Rourke died due to a misdiagnosis. Another cast member died of cancer and a third of kidney problems. The actor who played the oldest Freeling girl, Dominique Dunne, was murdered by an abusive boyfriend. While the public may believe in the curse, others who worked on the movie don’t. In fact, according to Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina the psychic, using real skeletons was common due to cost reasons. 

A lot of horror movies used real skeletons 

A lot of horror movies used real skeletons, and they weren’t necessarily the victims of curses, according to SnopesThe House on Haunted Hill and Frankenstein were among those with real human remains on set, but basically any horror movie filmed before a certain time period would have used real remains. 

According to Bruce Kasson, the assistant prop master, there was no such thing as a fake skeleton. “Replica skeletons did not exist, as far as I remember, at that time.” Now that there are fake skeletons that can be easily produced, modern movies wouldn’t dream of using real skeletons. But if The Poltergeist was cursed because of the skeletons, all horror movies made before the 1990s are in the same boat.