Poltergeist THE CITY, Basically

February 28, 2020

You guys have seen Poltergeist, right? It’s basically the best horror movie ever made that Gen X were allowed to watch as kids. It came out in 1982 and it was rated ***PG*** and it scared the ever living shit out of an entire generation. My parents wouldn’t let me watch Desperately Seeking Susan because it was PG-13 and had some quasi-sex stuff in it (dude, I loved Madonna at that age and I’ve never been so mad at my mom) but POLTERGEIST WAS OOOOKKKK. A movie with a killer clown, a killer tree, and a TV that sucked a kid into the great beyond. I feel like that was 800 times more traumatic than seeing people make out or a boob slip or whatever sin got Madonna’s movie banned in my house. 

The premise of Poltergeist is that developers built a subdivision over a graveyard, causing some weird shit to happen in the Freeling family house.  These capitalist bastard builders cut a few corners and removed the gravestones but NOT THE BODIES and those dead people haunt the shit out of the family that lives on their land. As they should. 

Fun fact: During the climax of the movie, Diane Freeling (the mom) is trapped in a muddy pit dug for a swimming pool that fills up with skeletons. They’re popping up all over the place, some in coffins, and it’s a pretty fucking harrowing scene. It turns out that the prop guys USED REAL HUMAN SKELETONS INSTEAD OF FAKE ONES BECAUSE IT WAS CHEAPER. Go back and watch that scene again now that you know this. It’s even better. 

At any rate - this city, San Francisco? Same same. Burial grounds have been started, closed, and moved all over this town, and sometimes they did a good job, but many times they did not. That means forgotten remains have been terrifying construction workers since about 1912. Spoiler alert - a lot of them are actually still down there. 

Location of some of SF's cemeteries, circa 1907 (image credit to the Prelinger Library by way of Spots Unknown)

Back in the Buena Vista post, we talked about the history of cemeteries in San Francisco. TL; DR -- All cemeteries were moved after burials were banned within city limits in 1902. It took almost fifty years to move the remains, and almost all of them went to Colma. There are only two cemeteries remaining in San Francisco. One is a tiny plot adjacent to Mission Dolores (though up to 5,000 Native Americans are said to be buried beneath the church property) and the other is the federally maintained San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. 

Of course, this post wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if all of the human remains had been carefully and thoroughly removed in a responsible manner. As it turns out, you can’t sink a shovel in this town without hitting some old timey coffins, maybe a skull or two. 

There are three major areas where human remains were found during modern construction projects - meaning AT LEAST three sites in the city where the workers pulled a Poltergeist and moved the headstones, but not the bodies. These sites are Yerba Buena Cemetery (now Civic Center), Lone Mountain (now University of San Francisco), and Golden Gate or City Cemetery (now the Legion of Honor and the Golf Course). There is one site, Mission Dolores, where the dead but unmarked make themselves known the best possible way. That’s what they call A TEASER, you guys, and I’m gonna make you wait til the very end to find out.  

Visit Part I to learn about the first cemetery in our series, Yerba Buena, and definitely check out the source material to lose a couple of hours down the rabbit hole of the dead in San Francisco. 


Header photo is Workmen Digging Up Graves In Odd Fellows Cemetery, 1931 from SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

The Dark History of Cemeteries in San Francisco (7x7) 

Found SF: Cemeteries 

SF History: Cemeteries 

Trina Lopez: A Second Final Rest 

KQED News: Why are there so many dead people in Colma? And so few in San Francisco?

Places in San Francisco you had no idea used to be cemeteries

Death in the Afternoon - Is that a Corpse in my Culture?


Ghostess with the Mostess

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