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Movie Style | Halloween Special: JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist (1982)

In 'Poltergeist', JoBeth Williams plays Diane Freeling, suburban housewife and mother of three. And as her name might suggest, her style of dress is that of a liberated woman. The Freelings discover to their horror that some (decidedly un-free) ghosts who reside in and around their house have started turning in their graves.

JoBeth Williams In Poltergeist
JoBeth Williams In Poltergeist
JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist


There is something lovely, but ordinary -- simple, but complex -- about Diane Freeling. She is effortlessly capable, no matter the situation. One of the first notable looks she wears is a pretty white nightgown with a smattering of colorful flowers. The look has a hippie-esque vibe to it. And because it's 1982, it can be assumed that Diane was once a hippie who has only begun to adjust her look and temperament to match the preppy, more conservative 1980's.

In the bedroom, sitting on the bed while wearing that nightgown, she rolls herself a joint. Diane's ability to switch from giggling pothead to sober guardian the moment a child appears at the door is impressive. Meanwhile her husband, played by Craig T. Nelson, is reading a book about Ronald Reagan. There is a changing of the guard taking place that will affect their home life and the world around them -- and it's interesting to see how Diane and Steven Freeling will handle the terrifying crisis to come, as individuals and as a couple.


The next important outfit Diane wears is a pair of very short jean shorts, fitted red t-shirt, and blue classic Nike Cortez sneakers. Her hair in a loose ponytail, she spends the day athletically taking care of her household. She runs around in the morning getting everyone fed and ready for the day, and smiles proudly in the kitchen when she observes out the window her teenage daughter properly sassing the wolf-whistling workers -- who are there to build a pool in their backyard.

She is both frightened and excited when she discovers the dining chairs moving around on their own, as confirmed by little Carrie-Anne; she jumps up in the air for joy while experimenting with the spookiness of the moving chairs, and the strange force that pulls her helmeted daughter across the kitchen floor in a demonstration for her confused husband -- who's come home from work to find Diane and Carrie-Anne playing with ghosts. Just another typical day.

But the ghosts are not in a playful mood, unlike Diane -- and within a few hours, the Freeling's youngest child is abducted from her bedroom, pulled through the closet into the otherness of restless and angry spirits. Diane spends that horrifying night desperately, and very physically, trying to keep her children safe from these metaphysical forces.


The next time we see Steven Freeling, he is a wreck -- disheveled, worn out, his eyes with noticeably dark circles underneath. He is enlisting help for spiritual cleansing (from amateur ghost hunters) for his home to rescue his daughter. A viewer's first thought upon seeing Steven is to wonder how much of a terrified mess poor Diane has become.

Which is why what comes next is incredibly striking, and definitive about Diane. We see her at home, with the family, when their helpers arrive. She is perfectly composed. Her hair looks pretty and brushed, she looks very well groomed. She's dressed neatly in sophisticated slacks, a blouse and she has a sweater worn over her shoulders. The colors she wears are deep and bold. Preppy, conservative, looking fresh and prepared to fight for her daughter's life.

In this outfit, she's ready to plead and communicate with the ghosts. She's ready for battle. And because she is dressed up for this process, she demonstrates her respect for the power of this thing that's taken her daughter. This is her first clear switch in wardrobe style, and it is indicative of Diane's flexible and adaptable nature. She's ready for whatever comes her way and will stop at nothing to take care of her family. Sadly, the rescue of Carrie-Anne will not occur on that first night.


For her next notable look, and the next attempt at saving little Carrie-Anne, Diane takes her reverence up yet another notch. This time she looks like a angel. She's all in white. Her hair looks pretty and even dressier now, since she's wearing it up. She is surrendering to the ghosts, in a sense.

Her stylish loose white top, gathered at the waist with a belt, and her elegant white slacks, make Diane look very chic. It's as if she is having a dinner party at her house -- when she is in fact about to risk her own life to save her daughter's. And this time she does. She physically enters the void through the closet and brings her daughter back with every ounce of strength in her being.


Once her children are safe again, and they're packing up to move from their haunted home the next day, we see that Diane has a chunky streak of white hair now. Understandably so, after the horror of the past two days.

The next switch of character and wardrobe is the most surprising, since she allows her children to sleep in the same scary bedroom, while she colors her hair and then takes a bath. It's a very irresponsible move and it's unnerving to the viewer that she should suddenly be so careless, after everything that has happened. But in her #65 red sports jersey t-shirt nightgown, Diane Freeling -- the mother/athlete -- again saves the kids with her pure physical force. She literally pulls her children back to safety.

And this time, the Freeling family leaves in the dead of night to stay at a motel. (Finally!) By now, we're about as relieved as the sweet golden retriever (a great actor, with very expressive eyes) who had been so terribly distraught throughout the entire film about the scary ghosts that had taken over his home and upset his family.

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