Special Guest Post
Women In Horror: JoBeth Williams
By Jimmy Retro
Jamie Lee Curtis is often regarded as the Queen of Scream for her bout in the Halloween series. While this title is well-deserved, I’d like to pay some attention to another highly talented, but unjustly disregarded, screamer who displayed her Might of Fright just a few years later: JoBeth Williams.
Almost exactly 10 years older than Jamie Lee, JoBeth Williams claim to horror fame was accomplished by playing the role of Diane Freeling, a young suburban housewife in Poltergeist (1982) and Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) opposite Craig T. Nelson as hubby Steve Freeling. Put bluntly, Diane was a 32 year-old, pot-smoking, daisy duke wearing MILF. Seen early in the movie rolling joints with Steve and jovially laughing about their free-loving days before kids and obligations, one got a sense that Diane had some passing remorse about that particular phase of her life having come to a screeching halt. Her inebriated giggling state, engaging in foreplay with her husband, was abruptly curtailed when their youngest daughter Carol Anne walked into the bedroom a bit stunned, stating she was thirsty, or couldn’t sleep, or some such childhood bedtime delay tactic.
Her unhappiness, or frustration, was a very subtle subplot in the movie but very well delivered by JoBeth. The oldest child, Dana, was an unruly 16-year old teenager flirting with construction workers on her way to school. (Do the math! Can you say, “Shot gun wedding”?) Robbie, the middle child, was constantly taunting both his older and younger siblings. The point of highlighting this familial grief was to accentuate Diane’s coming full-circle with embracing and fully accepting family life and motherhood when Carol Anne was sucked into her closet and trapped in some sort of netherworld, only being able to communicate through the static of an un-aired channel on the television. (Thank goodness they didn’t have satellite!)
Her grief of potentially losing her child was brilliantly portrayed. The scene that still brings me chills to this day is when the spirit of Carol Anne passed through Diane. The look on Diane’s face was wrought with amazed emotion. Diane gasped and started smelling her scarf exclaiming, “It was her! It was her! Steve, smell my scarf! It’s my baby! It’s my baby!” JoBeth executed this brilliantly, as Diane truly became a mother in that moment and the audience knew that she would stop at nothing to get her daughter back.
With the help of Tangina, a psychic, Diane learned that only she, as Carol Anne’s mother, could rescue the child. Tied to a rope, Diane had to step into a nuclear-glowing walk-in closet and yank Carol Anne out.
The portion of the movie where you really got to see JoBeth scream in fright, thus showing her talent as a horror goddess, was during the climax—starting with the calm before the storm. Carol Anne was rescued, the family decided they were going to pack up and move despite the fact the house was supposedly “cleaned”.
Steve was working late, the kids were in bed, and Diane decided to take a nice shower to color the anomalous grey streak she had developed from the stress of the ordeal. Afterwards, she was lounging in bed with a rather seductive over-shirt and panties. Suddenly, havoc ensued in the children’s bedroom; and Carol Anne was soon to be sucked up in the closet (again!). I think the Victorians had it right with wardrobes! Oh wait; there are lions and witches in there! Everyone should just have cedar chests! Jesus!
Anyway, Diane rises to respond to these screams and the laws of gravity suddenly change, flinging her against the wall. And like a vending machine gummy spider in reverse, her body starts rolling upwards and onto the ceiling. Successfully fighting this supernatural force, she drops to the ground and proceeds to run to her children. Again, she battles more of the Poltergeist’s chicanery as the hallway starts to elongate. She has to run as fast as she can to get to her children’s door. But the Poltergeist isn’t done tricking her.
Prior to the grand rescue of her children, Diane is forced outside her house, screaming for help. But with none of her neighbors willing to come to her aid, and nowhere else to go but back inside, she slips on the mud and slides into the family’s unfinished pool. To her horror, she is surrounded by floating corpses. The look on her face as dead bodies brushed by was frightful enough to scare even the most stout-hearted viewer.
In Poltergeist II, JoBeth was more mature, but still looking fine. She was simply portraying a more motherly Diane, this time dealing with a progressively drunken Steve. (I’d drink too if insurance didn’t cover a missing house and braces gone array on my preteen son!) She also had to deal with her mother passing—as the family was living at Grandma’s house. She didn’t have as many “in-your-face” scream scenes in the sequel but still earned Demon Diva status as she and her family had to jump into a campfire to learn the truth about the Poltergeist haunting. (You’ll just have to watch).
Two other movies JoBeth starred in that delivered doses of horror were Endangered Species (1983) and the made-for TV The Day After (1983). The former was a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-esque movie where JoBeth played a sheriff of a rural county investigating mysterious cattle mutilations. The latter was a drama about a nuclear bomb that followed a nurse into a shelter where she eventually succumbed to the devastatingly sad effects of radiation.
JoBeth continues to star in movies and bit roles in television series, but she will forever be known as that hot number in shorts just a tad too high--thankfully!--, thwarting demons in her southern California home-gone-array, and belting her hot body’s worth of screams.
We salute you, JoBeth Williams, you sexy Scream Queen, you!