Advertisement

The Poltergeist Curse: Exploring The Horror Franchise's Tragic Real Life Legacy

 Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist
Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist

One of the most terrifying haunted house movies of all time is the 1982 favorite from producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist – in which a family is forced to contend with malevolent spirits that have infiltrated their home and abducted their young daughter into the netherworld. Even more unsettling than the bizarre supernatural events that take place in the classic horror movie and its sequels are the real-life tragedies that have affected multiple people involved with the films.

Because there have been so many heartbreaking deaths related to the hit horror movie franchise – not to mention a few claims of unexplainable circumstances on set – fans have speculated that the films are hexed by what has come to be known as the “Poltergeist Curse.” We would like to make it clear that we do not believe in such a thing, but also cannot deny that the Poltergeist movies have a very sad and strange legacy associated with them. The following is a timeline of this genuinely haunting history, starting with a few unusual details that some say are the cause.

Skeleton from Poltergeist
Skeleton from Poltergeist

The Alleged Origins Of The Poltergeist Curse

In one of the most iconic moments from the original Poltergeist, Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) falls into her unfinished swimming pool and struggles to climb herself out as rotting, human remains from the cemetery her house was built upon rise out of the muddy waters and surround her. As Williams would recall in a 40th anniversary retrospective by Vanity Fair, it was not until after she was finished shooting the already stressful sequence when she learned that the skeletons she was sharing the pool with were real.

This behind-the-scenes horror movie fact is certainly shocking by today’s standards, but using real cadavers was actually a common practice in Hollywood at the time, considering they were cheaper to purchase than fake ones were to build. However, as discussed in the docuseries Cursed Films — one of the best TV shows on Shudder — fans have theorized that real, angry spirits were attached to those skeletons and would become the cause of eerie things that happened on set and after production.

For instance, in an episode of E! True Hollywood Story that explores the legacy of the “Poltergeist Curse,” crew members recall facing unusual mishaps while filming 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which continued the use of real skeletons. Craig T. Nelson, who reprises the role of Steve Freeling in the sequel, also describes in the episode how his co-star, Will Sampson, sensed that there was a malevolent presence disturbing the production and personally conducted an exorcism on the set. The Incredibles star claims that the production did not suffer any further setbacks from that moment on.

Dominique Dunne in Poltergeist
Dominique Dunne in Poltergeist

The Death Of Dominique Dunne

Poltergeist is also remembered as the first feature-length film to star Dominique Dunne (younger sister of Academy Award nominee Griffin Dunne) as the Freelings’ oldest daughter, Dana. Unfortunately, it would also be her last film, as the actor was murdered only a few months after the movie was released.

As the New York Times reported in November 1982, the 22-year-old had been strangled into an unconscious state, and she was held on life support for five days before she passed. Dunne’s former boyfriend, then-26-year-old chef John Sweeney, admitted to investigators that he was the one who choked her in response to an argument over moving back in together. The following year, Sweeney was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which the actor’s father, frequent Vanity Fair contributor Dominick Dunne, mentioned in a 2008 article for the magazine in detailing his account of the trial.

Julian Beck in Poltergeist II: The Other Side
Julian Beck in Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Julian Beck Died Shortly After Finishing Poltergeist II

In Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a movie our own Rich Knight was terrified of as a child, the Beast who taunted the Freelings in the first film takes the form of a preacher calling himself Reverend Henry Kane – which is easily the most iconic film role by Julian Beck. Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, the villainous part would also mark his last big screen appearance, having passed away at the age of 60 just a few months after the sequel wrapped in 1985.

While some theorists have often considered the theatre actor’s death to be further evidence of the curse, the Los Angeles Times’ report of his passing mentions that he had previously been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983. Knowing that he was near the end of his life and suffering from a painful illness while portraying the decrepit Kane makes his already chilling performance even more unsettling.

Will Sampson in Poltergeist II: The Other Side
Will Sampson in Poltergeist II: The Other Side

Poltergeist II Star Will Sampson Succumbed To Various Health Complications

Julian Beck was not the only Poltergeist II star who passed away not long after working on the film. The aforementioned Will Sampson, who played a Native American shaman who tries to help the Freelings named Taylor, died in June 1987 at the age of 53.

According to the Herald Journal (via Google News), the actor – who had previously been diagnosed with scleroderma – passed 43 days after an otherwise successful lung transplant. He was suffering from malnutrition, a post-operation infection, and kidney failure of an unknown cause that lapsed him into a 10-day coma. Sampson made his major acting debut as part of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest cast as “Chief” Bromden in 1975 before going on to star opposite Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales the following year and in the 1977 creature feature Orca.

Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist III
Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist III

Heather O’Rourke Passed Away At 12 Years Old

Easily the most memorable character of the Poltergeist franchise is the malevolent spirits’ young, primary target, Carol Anne Freeling – played by Heather O’Rourke. The child actor’s promising career was sadly cut short after her doctors failed to detect a long-standing bowel obstruction that led to the 12-year-old’s death in 1988, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Similar to her Poltergeist II co-star Julian Beck, O’Rourke had finished shooting the third installment of the franchise, 1988’s Poltergeist III, shortly before her passing. However, the sequel’s director was reluctantly forced to reshoot many of her scenes with a double, as he recalled in Cursed Films, which can be viewed with a Shudder subscription.

In 2015, MGM released a remake of Poltergeist that – as director Gil Kenan admitted in a Reddit AMA thread – experienced a few on-set electrical problems, but has no tragedies associated with it (unless you count its not-so-favorable reviews). Therefore, we believe there is no quantifiable reason to suspect that any unfortunate events remotely related to this franchise are the result of a curse and the films are perfectly safe to enjoy today... if you are not too scared, that is.