The 1982 horror classic Poltergeist is known for its frightening special effects and creepy storyline. However, behind the scenes of the film, there were some shocking revelations about the props used that broke ethical boundaries.

Real Human Skeletons as Props

In one particularly disturbing scene, paranormal investigators excavate a family’s backyard and uncover a whole skeleton. Many assumed these were just clever movie props. However, it was later revealed that the filmmakers decided to use real human skeletons in this scene instead of replicas. In an interview, special effects artist Craig Reardon admitted that six real human skeletons were rented from a medical supply company and used as props during the filming of this pivotal graveyard scene.

While using real human remains as movie props would never fly by today’s ethical standards, it was not unheard of in Hollywood in the 1980s. Medical supply companies would rent or sell actual human body parts to prop masters for use in films. However, using real human skeletons, especially entirely intact ones as Poltergeist did, crossed a disturbing line. It reduced human remains to the level of disposable props with no respect for the deceased.

How Did This Come to Light? 

The revelation that Poltergeist used real skeletons instead of replicas only came out years later. In a 2017 documentary called “Behind the Screams of Poltergeist”, special effects artist Craig Reardon spoke candidly about his work on the special effects for the film. He stated matter-of-factly that six full human skeletons were procured from a medical supply company and used in the pivotal backyard excavation scene. 

According to Reardon, director Tobe Hooper decided to utilize real skeletons over Hollywood replicas. The rationale was that real bones would photograph and appear more authentic on-screen versus fake prop bones. However, this desire for realism came at the disturbing cost of exploiting actual human remains without consent. It was a shocking revelation that permanently tainted viewers’ perspectives on some of the film’s most iconic scenes.

Failed Attempt at Keeping Secret

Those involved in Poltergeist sought to keep the use of real human skeletons a secret. Special effects artist Craig Reardon waited over 30 years before publicly disclosing this disturbing factoid. The film’s production team likely realized even in 1982 that exploiting actual human remains as mere props would be seen as disrespectful and unethical by audiences. 

However, their attempts to keep it hidden failed. Behind-the-scenes crewmembers leaked details over the years, with Craig Reardon’s 2017 confirmation providing final proof. Once revealed, it permanently stained viewers’ perceptions of the film. While Poltergeist is still considered a horror classic for its terrifying visuals and storyline, this dark secret surrounding its props choices leaves a lingering sense of unease. It shows how far some were willing to go for the sake of cinematic realism, with complete disregard for ethics or respecting the deceased.

Lasting Impact and Lessons Learned

The revelation that Poltergeist featured real human skeletons as props in a pivotal scene had a lasting impact. Once that disturbing secret was out, it could never be unseen or forgotten by viewers. Subsequent rewatches are forever tainted by the knowledge that those bones belonged to real people, displayed without consent or respect solely for the sake of movie shock value. 

It also illuminated how little regard the film industry had for human remains and ethics in the pursuit of realism back in 1982. Modern viewers find it unthinkable that full human skeletons could be so cavalierly treated as disposable props. The lasting legacy of Poltergeist’s dark secret is that it helped shift attitudes going forward. Today’s special effects artists strive for authenticity through replica prowess rather than demeaning actual human remains. While cinematic shocks still push boundaries, ethics reign supreme in most mainstream Hollywood productions. Poltergeist’s mistakes helped forge more conscientious standards for how the film industry handles human subjects and remains onscreen. Its legacy is a reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

The Skeletons’ Original Purpose

It’s unknown exactly how the medical supply company obtained the six human skeletons rented to Poltergeist. However, it’s almost certain they were not obtained specifically for film props. More likely, the skeletons were donated to science at one point for anatomical study purposes. Tragically, once their original academic use was fulfilled, they were deemed disposable leftovers available for Hollywood exploitation instead of being respectfully laid to rest.

Actors Unaware of the Truth

The cast and crew of Poltergeist have said they had no idea real human skeletons were used during filming. If informed ahead of time, many likely would have objected to the disrespectful decision. While filming the chilling backyard excavation scene, even experienced actors like Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams appeared genuinely shocked and disturbed by the uncovering of bones. Their reactions added genuine horror, though the skeletons fueling it belonged to real people exploited without consent.

Legal But Unethical

 Procuring and using real human skeletal remains as props was not explicitly illegal in 1980s Hollywood. However, it was undeniably disrespectful and unethical. The filmmakers recognized this, as they went to great lengths to keep it a secret for decades. While legal loopholes allowed the transactions, basic human decency should have recognized reducing actual humans to mere movie props crossed a line. Commercialization and exploitation of remains violate the dignity owed to the deceased.

Would It Fly Today?

The use of real human skeletons in Poltergeist would be considered completely unacceptable by modern entertainment industry standards. Today’s special effects wizards prioritize authenticity through skilled replicas and digital effects over disrespecting real human remains. Post-Poltergeist, attitudes shifted due to revelations like this one. Conscientious filmmakers recognize a responsibility to honour the deceased, not objectify their physical leftovers regardless of legal technicalities. Unethical shortcuts are no longer an option in the pursuit of shocks and realism.

A Disturbing Precedent

Poltergeist was not the first nor last film to inappropriately utilize real human remains as props. Previous shock flicks like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch also took disturbing liberties. However, Poltergeist set a particularly infamous precedent due to its mainstream success and iconic status. Its secret dirty laundry helped bring more widespread attention to the issues with such practices. Ultimately, it served as a cautionary tale forcing Hollywood to reevaluate its standards when depicting or sourcing actual human physical material. 

Lingering Questions Remain 

While Poltergeist helped shift attitudes, its use of real human skeletons still leaves many questions unanswered. How were the remains originally obtained? What were their identities and original purposes before exploitation? Did any living family ever know of their subsequent uses? Did the production ever consider respectfully returning them for burial once filming wrapped? In the end, we can only hope the deceased found some belated honour, even if forever tainted by these macabre events. Their exploitation remains a dark footnote in Hollywood history.

In conclusion,

The 1982 horror classic Poltergeist is still revered for its creepy visuals and storyline. However, revelations that it exploited real human skeletons as mere props in pivotal scenes forever tainted viewers’ perspectives. It showed a disturbing lack of ethics and respect for the deceased. While seeking realism and shock value, the film crossed lines that helped change attitudes going forward. Poltergeist left a legacy by highlighting what not to do when handling human remains or subjects on film. Its mistakes helped usher in more considerate standards within the industry.

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