Two deaths and real skeletons: 5 things you didn't know about Poltergeist.

Warning: This post deals with domestic violence and could be triggering for some readers. 

Poltergeist (the original 1982 version) is one of the most iconic horror films of our time. 

While it was directed by Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg wrote the film, and his influence can be spotted throughout the movie. Made before the days of believable CGI, what makes the film scary is the way it has been put together, as well as the stellar acting and the real skeletons that were used in the final scenes.

But Poltergeist has a complicated legacy. While it is still beloved, and enjoyed by many each year on Halloween, the devastating and untimely death of two of its stars has left the rest of the cast with bittersweet memories of filming.

Here's five things you might have missed about Poltergeist.

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Real skeletons.

One of the most memorable scenes in Poltergeist sees Diane Freeling (played by JoBeth Williams) fall into the family's half-constructed swimming pool, which contains the dead bodies that were once buried underneath the site of their house.

But much to the shock of the viewers, and Williams herself, the skeletons were actually real. She didn’t find this out until much later, though.

"A few years later, I ran into one of the special effects guys, and I said, ‘You guys making all those skeletons, that must have been really amazing'. He said, 'Oh, we didn’t make them, those were real'. I said 'What?' He said, 'Yeah, they were real skeletons'," Williams told Vanity Fair for the movie's 40th anniversary.


Before she even realised the cadavers were real, Williams had a pretty difficult time filming the scene. While it had been in the script, she’d barely noticed it, and it wasn’t until they shot that she realised the physical toll such a scene would take.

"It was awful," she recounted. "First of all, they made the mud with peat. And peat begins to really stink after about a day, it begins to smell like dog poop, and so it was really icky to be in it. I'd have to scream, and I'd think 'Oh God, I don’t want to get this water in my mouth because I’m sure I’ll get terrible diseases'."

Injuries from a rolling set.

If the peat pool wasn’t traumatic enough, Williams was also put through her paces in another scene that took place on a literal rolling set.

In the scene, Diane is thrown against the ceiling and tossed around the room by the unseen spirits. In order to nail the effect, Williams was put into a set built on a massive gimbal, meaning she was literally rolling around the walls and the ceiling.

"Let’s just say the charm wore off after about 12 takes," she told Vanity Fair. "When they said, 'you're just going to ride this thinking and slide along the ceiling,' I went 'okay, I see'. What they didn't say was that I'd be doing 50 takes of it and by the end, my elbows and knees were bleeding."

Williams wasn’t the only one to suffer, with the cameraman capturing the scene having to get off the set to throw up. "It was literally making him physically sick, but he carried on," Williams said.


Dominique Dunne (L) with fellow cast members JoBeth Williams, Craig T Nelson, and Oliver Robins. Image: Getty.

Dominique Dunne's murder.

Dominique Dunne, who played Dana Freeling, died just a few months after the film came out. An aspiring actress, Dunne was just 22 when she was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney, outside her West Hollywood home. She fell into a coma, and died five days later.


Dunne had been rehearsing for a role with a friend when Sweeney came to her house, asking to talk. She agreed to speak to him, and from inside, her friend heard smacking sounds, thuds, and screaming. When he went to see what had happened, he found Sweeney kneeling over Dunne’s body. Sweeney later told police, "I killed my girlfriend, and I tried to kill myself."

"She was just a delightful, delightful young woman. We were all just stunned when she was killed. That was really a horrifying thing," Williams said.

Watch the trailer for 2015's Poltergeist. Story continues below.

Video via 20th Century Fox.

Heather O'Rourke's sudden death.

Heather O’Rourke, who played little Carol Anne Freeling in the film, passed away when she was just 12. While she was in both the Poltergeist sequels, she met her untimely death not long before the third film was released.

In 1987, doctors discovered she had the parasite giardia, and though she was treated, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease when she remained unwell. She lived with autoimmune disorder while filming Poltergeist III, but shortly after filming ended, she woke up one morning feeling unwell, which escalated into difficulty breathing, which turned out to be septic shock.


Surgery revealed O'Rourke had suffered from a bowel obstruction caused by a birth defect, rather than Crohn’s disease. By this point, she had suffered cardiac arrest, and although she had been brought back, she was pronounced brain dead.

Director Gary Sherman had been planning to re-shoot the ending of the third film, but didn't want to without Heather. However, production told him he had to.

"We came up with the idea for the stupid ending that's on the film now and used a double for Heather," he told Cursed Films. "That was the creepiest thing I've ever gone through in my life."

Heather O'Rourke. Image: Getty.


An unexpected legacy.

At the time the movie was made, no one really knew what to expect of its reception. Horror films don't usually have the same lasting impact that some big Academy Award names might have, but all these years later, Poltergeist is still very much beloved. It was a hit among adults, but also children, whose parents likely tried to forbid them from watching it.

However, Williams had no idea how successful the film would be, saying she and her on-screen husband, played by Craig T. Nelson, didn't know what to expect.

"We kept looking at each other going, 'Do you think this will just show in drive-ins for the rest of our lives? Or do you think it'll actually be a movie anyone will want to see?' And we didn’t know."

Feature Image: Getty.

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