the 1982 movie poltergeist used real skeletons as – tymoff


The 1982 horror classic Poltergeist is known for its creepy atmosphere and frightening special effects. What some may not know is that at least one real human skeleton was used as a prop during filming.

Director Tobe Hooper Breaks Down the Controversial Scene

In a 2006 interview, Poltergeist director Tobe Hooper broke down the controversial scene where real human remains were utilized. The scene in question involves young Carol Anne Freeling being abducted into the “other side” via her bedroom closet. While walking down a dark hallway, she passes an alcove containing stacked skeletons.

Hooper revealed that at least one of those skeletons was real. As he explained, “We got a couple of real skeletons from somebody who had access to medical school specimens. So they weren’t grave-robbed or anything, but they were real.” While most of the skeletons used were plastic or rubber props, at least one was authentic human remains.

How was this Allowed?

Naturally, using real human skeletons as props in a movie would not be permitted today. But in 1982, laws around the use of human remains for non-medical purposes were less strict. As long as the skeletons were obtained legally from a university collection rather than disturbing graves, it seems their use in Poltergeist did not raise any ethical red flags at the time of filming.

Still, it’s a chilling thought that within that iconic scene lurks at least one real human form quietly stacked among the props. For viewers watching unaware, it added an extra dose of realism and terror to the already frightening sequence.

Behind-the-Scenes Controversy

Word of the real skeleton’s inclusion did not become widespread knowledge until Hooper’s interview years later. Understandably, it caused some controversy among fans once uncovered. Questions were raised about the ethics of exploiting actual human remains, even obtained legally, just for a movie effect.

Some argued it showed a disrespect for the dead. Others countered that as long as the skeleton was an anonymous medical specimen, its brief role added authenticity without victimizing any specific person. Either way, it’s unlikely such a technique would be greenlit today without considerable debate.

The Effects of a Real Prop

While just one skeleton among many fakes, propmaster Ty Ratterree, who oversaw the stacking of the skeletons, confirmed the presence of real bones. He noted how using both real and fake remains intermingled had a powerful effect on sustaining the scare factor through multiple takes.

As Ratterree explained, “It kept all the actors and crew from knowing exactly what was real and what was fake. Even I didn’t separate them…it kept everybody on their toes.” So while just a brief moment in the film, the inclusion of a real human prop lent an unforeseen level of verisimilitude that enhanced the frights.

Legacy of a Taboo technique

Over thirty years since its release, Poltergeist remains one of the most psychologically disturbing horror films ever made. While just one of many elements that amplified its scare power, the utilization of an actual human skeleton as a prop was a taboo cinematic technique even at the time.

The Scene’s Authenticity

The inclusion of even one real skeleton amplified the authenticity and realism of the infamous closet scene. Standing among prosthetic bones, it would have been almost impossible for the actors to discern the real from fake in the dim lighting. This kept them genuinely unsettled not knowing if what they were passing was real human remains or not. The uncertainty added genuine tension to a already nerve-racking sequence.

Reaction from Crew Members

In interviews since, some Poltergeist crew members expressed their unease about working alongside real human skeletons. While they understood it enhanced the atmosphere, the knowledge stayed with them long after filming wrapped. Make-up artist Craig Reardon said being unable to distinguish real from fake stayed with him and he’d sporadically find himself thinking about it years later. For some, the inclusion of real props blurred fiction and reality in an unsettling way.

Effects on Child Actors

Young stars Oliver Robins and Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne’s brother and herself, were presumably kept unaware that any real bones were used. However, even passing amongst solely prosthetic remains was terrifying enough for child performers. Both Robins and the late O’Rourke have spoken about finding the scene highly traumatic to shoot. Knowing real human skeletons heightened that fear for the actors accentuates their bravery.

Parallels to Cemetery Desecration

Some critics argue that using a real prop skeleton, even if legally obtained, fostered disrespect for the deceased similar to robbing a graveyard. They believed no human remains should be exploited or put on display without consent. Supporters counter that as an anonymous medical specimen, its brief movie role did no true harm. Still, the debate shows how attitudes were beginning to change even in the early 1980s.

Echoes in Modern Media

Taboos broken by Poltergeist likely influenced later films willing to push boundaries. Shows like American Horror story¬†regularly employ real artifacts, and films like The Exorcist used real human bones. While props are now heavily regulated, some argue the realistic horror trends seen today can find roots in Poltergeist’s willingness to blur fiction and non-fiction.

Legacy of Controversy Poltergeist

Over 30 years after its release, revelations that Poltergeist featured real human remains continues to spark online debates. WhileHooper saw it enhancing the chills, others argue no film is worth desecrating the dead. The ongoing controversy is a reminder of the fine line between art and ethics. It also shows how cultural views towards representing real human remains in entertainment has thankfully evolved since the early 1980s.

Knowledge of its inclusion has added an eerie footnote to the film’s legacy. It highlighted both the creative risks directors will take to maximize scares and the evolving ethics around use of human remains. For better or worse, that one real skeleton lingering amongst the fakes ensured Poltergeist would leave its indelible mark on viewers and the genre.

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