The Poltergeist Curse

by P-Francone

The original Poltergeist film was co-written by Steven Spielberg and was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the 1980s

The connection between superstition and entertainment dates back to a time far before the 1980s, back to the 1600s, when the play The Tragedy of Macbeth was in full production in the United Kingdom. Actors say that Shakespeare used real witch spells for the performance piece, leading to the cursing of the play. Actors who have said the name of the play inside the theater have received physical injury and even death, and the only known method to dispel the curse is to immediately leave the building, walk around it three times, spit over your left shoulder, utter an obscenity and then wait to be invited back into the theater.

Similar to this superstition, the 1982 film The Poltergeist has been rumored to be cursed, along with its two sequels; Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988). This film series follows the Freeling family of Cuesta Verde, California, a typical American family who have a very non-typical problem. Their home has a ghost infestation problem. The ghosts communicate with Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), the young daughter who is eventually abducted through her bedroom closet by “The Beast”, as they believe that her light force can help them get to the “Light”, or afterlife. The movie focuses on the rescue of Carol Anne by the family, a group of parapsychologists and a spiritual medium named Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein). These two actors are the only stars to be in all three films. By the end of the film, it is discovered that the house was built on an old cemetery, and the house is sucked into another dimension just after the family escape too bad Bill Murray and his Ghostbusters movie wasn’t out yet!

The second film reveals a different explanation as to why the ghosts were there. It is discovered in this sequel that “The Beast” was actually a religious zealot who led a utopian cult in the 19th century. He was the Reverend Henry Kane (Julian Beck) and locked himself and his cult underground and killed themselves, kind of like an early version of Heaven’s Gate, the 90′s California suicide cult. The third film sees Carol Anne being sent to live with her skeptical relatives in a Chicago skyscraper, because ghosts are unable to go more than three stories up. Unfortunately, her psychiatrist’s office wasn’t high enough off the ground, because she was quickly discovered through the ghost’s unique way of using mirrors and once again she was kidnapped by the spirit. Tangina was rehired to help save the girl, and she eventually ended up sacrificing herself to bring the distraught cult leader’s soul into the afterlife.

Now this film series is not all fun and games though, even though it may appear that way by a causal observer. The film started off quite positively, when Drew Barrymore was shut down for the role of Carol Anne; Steven Spielberg decided that she was not quite ‘angelic’ enough, and although she was considered shortly for the role of “The Beast”, she was quickly removed fully from the set and sent to work with aliens in E.T., and eventually sentenced to a life of terrible romantic comedies and rollerblading films. During filming, actress Jo Beth Williams had to spend a week filming a scene in a pool of muddy water, dirt and skeletons. Although she believed these to be prop skeletons, it turned out that the studio found it was cheaper and easier to simply buy real skeletons from the slums of India than to make realistic plastic models. This is believed to be the cause of the curse of the Poltergeist, although after the Shaman from the second movie (William Samson), a medicine man on the big screen and in real life performed an exorcism on the set (I guess nobody told him that The Exorcist had already been made in 1973), the curse continued on.

It began on the fourth of November, 1982 when Dominique Dunne was only 22 (she played Carol Anne’s oldest sister in the first film). She was strangled to death by her jealous ex-boyfriend John Thomas Sweeney. As she had been rising in fame, she had met this young and attractive chef from the ritzy restaurant Ma Maison, and moved quickly with him that is until the beatings began. She finally called it off with him, but several days later he showed up at her house and wanted to discuss moving in with her, a conversation which unfortunately did not end well at all. She ended up dying five days later in the hospital, and was buried at Westwood Memorial Park.

Unfortunately, in 1988 another young soul from this series would die and be buried just a few yards away from Dominique’s final resting place. Heather O’Rourke, the cute little girl who had a special connection with the ghosts would make her way toward “The Light” close to end of filming for the third movie. Heather got into the film in quite a strange way. She was at a Hollywood studio in the waiting room while her older sister was working on a film, Pennies from Heaven. Her mother left for a minute and asked Heather to sit tight and not move or speak to any strangers, but fortunately she forgot to tell the strangers to not talk to her. A man walked over and started speaking with her while her mother was away, and Heather politely told the man that she wasn’t allowed to speak to strangers, but that Mrs. O’Rourke would be back soon. So the man waited around until she arrived, and introduced himself to her as Steven Spielberg, and told her that he would love for Heather to audition for a ghost film he was producing.

For the next several years, Heather had the time of her life acting in the Poltergeist series, and told all the other members of the cast that she wanted to continue to be an actor and eventually become a director when she got older. She was described as a sweetheart by everyone on the set, a non-complainer by her mother and a prime target by her disease. During a month long hiatus near the end of filming for the third movie, Heather returned home to San Diego and her mother was worried that she had caught the flu because of her strange swellings on the extremities of her tiny body. On the morning of February 1st, 1988, while eating breakfast before school with her mother, she finally complained for one of the first times in her life. Her throat swelled up and her hands got cold, so her mother rushed her to the local hospital. The doctors were finally able to diagnose her mysterious disease, which turned out to be Septic Shock, and later on that day her intestines burst and she passed away.

Before she was notified, Mrs. O’Rourke saw a ghost of Heather in the hallway, which actually spoke to her and said “Mom, I’m not coming back.” In another strange twist, she had told her mother just a few days before that she wanted to be buried with her dumbo stuffed animal, and that wish was carried out. The marker on her mausoleum vault commemorated her as the actress from the Poltergeist trilogy, because as her mother described, acting was for what she wanted to be remembered.

Heather and Dominique are not the only members of The Poltergeist Death Club however, not by a long shot. Julian Beck, “The Beast” from the second film died the year after the film was released from stomach cancer (yes he was diagnosed previous to taking the role, but who’s to say that evil spirits can’t see into the future), and William Samson, the medicine man from the second film who performed the exorcism on the set died in 1987 as a result of post-op kidney failure and pre-op malnutrition problems he was only 53 years old.

Brian Gibson, the director of number 2 died from bone cancer, and Louis Perryman (played Pugsley in the first film) died from a freak murder incident in 2009 when he was beaten to death by a random stranger who was angry at his mom. Zelda Rubinstein, who played the spirit medium in all three films died at the age of 76 from lung and kidney failure in 2010.

Two other actors have come close to death in very strange ways. Actor Oliver Robins, who played Robbie in the original Poltergeist had a scene where he was to be strangled by an angry clown. Unfortunately nobody told the clown that he wasn’t supposed to actually try to kill the actor. While filming, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper thought that the actor was just ad-libbing when he yelled out “I can’t breathe” while the strangling was in process, so they simply motioned to Robbie to look at the camera, and they told each other what an excellent shot this was going to be that is until they noticed his face had turned purple. Spielberg quickly ran from behind the camera and saved the poor young man from the treacherous clown, playing the hero as always. It’s possible that Spielberg was there undercover when Richard Larson was flying US Airways, or even more possibly he should have acted in Final Destination instead, because he actually has had five near death experiences.

On his 21st birthday, Larson was deep in the jungles of Vietnam when heavy gunfire started flying all around him, but luckily none ended up hitting him. In the 70s he was in Australia to take part in a television show, and after meeting some people at a pub he came within two inches of being killed on the street by a speeding car. His third brush with death also occurred due to a vehicle, when he was hit while driving his Volkswagen. His body was virtually bent in half against the door, if his window hadn’t have been down he would have been dead. In 1983 Lawson overdosed on cocaine, but thankfully got clean soon afterward when he thought of the path he was going down after seeing another friend almost die from the same addiction. The friend ended up dying a year later, and Lawson became a drug addiction counsellor with the National Basketball Association’s Players’ Association.

In 1992, ten years after his role in Poltergeist, Lawson was traveling from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Cleveland for business. Lawson had a very bad feeling about the US Airways flight he had just boarded, and this fear turned out to be well deserved. The jet got 50 feet off the ground of the runway before diving down into the icy water below. He was trapped underwater for several minutes before finally getting out to the surface and being rescued by a startled medical worker who quickly asked Lawson “Hey, aren’t you on All My Children?” Being on the show was actually what had saved him, as the ticket agent recognized him when he checked in and upgraded him to first class the person who took the coach seat originally assigned to him died in the crash. In total 27 passengers died out of the 51 flying together that fateful day.

The Poltergeist Curse is an all too real superstition for anybody who believes in ghosts and the afterlife, but for the many realists out there, it is simply a highly improbable set of circumstances that has several great coincidences. It is a tragedy that so many great actors with so much potential have died in their youth, but they will be remembered forevermore as highly talented actors who were the victims of terrible circumstances, and not for being cursed by some evil skeletons.

Read more:

A Look at the Poltergeist Curse

TV Myths and Legends – Poltergeist Series | YouTube

The Curse of Poltergeist

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