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Real Mysteries: The "Poltergeist" Curse

Writing has been a passion of mine from a very young age. I enjoy writing everything from poetry to horror stories.

Heather O'Rourke in front of the family TV, an iconic scene from 1982's "Poltergeist."

Heather O'Rourke in front of the family TV, an iconic scene from 1982's "Poltergeist."

A Meta Suburban Horror Story

At age 35, Stephen Spielberg was a major force in Hollywood. While filming Raiders of the Lost Ark he came up with the idea that a haunted house would be scarier if it were in a normal suburban household. Most haunted house movies were at a remote cabin, or haunted castle; what if it were just a normal suburban family on a normal suburban street?

He wrote the screenplay with Mark Victor and Michael Grace, meeting with several mediums and ghost chasers to get a better feel for the material. Collectively, they drew on their own childhood fears and nightmares to fuel the terror of the story. Spielberg personally added that he was afraid of clowns and trees as a child.

Steven Spielberg in his early '80s prime

Steven Spielberg in his early '80s prime

Casting

Once the screenplay was complete it was pitched to MGM, who bought it immediately because it was Steven Spielberg after all. Next came casting.

JoBeth Williams (Kramer vs Kramer, Stir Crazy) was the number one choice for the character of Diane Freeling. She recommended Craig T. Nelson for the role of Steven Freeling as she had worked with him on Stir Crazy.

Dominique Dunne was cast as Dana, and Oliver Robins was cast as Robbie, the oldest and middle child, respectively, in the Freeling household.

Heather O'Rourke

Heather O'Rourke

Heather O'Rourke

Heather O’Rourke actually failed her first screen test because she couldn’t’ stop laughing even though she was supposed to be scared. But Stephen Spielberg noticed her eating in the MGM commissary and decided that her angelic look was perfect, so he urged her to come back for a second try.

She won the role of Carol Anne during the second audition after allegedly screaming until she started to cry.

Tobe Hooper on the set of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974).

Tobe Hooper on the set of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974).

Tobe Hooper

When Poltergeist was ready to begin filming, Spielberg found himself under contract to direct E.T., so he employed Tobe Hooper, the genius behind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to handle directing duties.

Spielberg, however, signed on as one of the producers. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about the project that he was on set nearly every single day—nearly unheard of for a producer.

Hello, nightmare fuel.

Hello, nightmare fuel.

Creepy Clown

In terms of the curse, the inciting incident was the "clown under the bed—fake out—clown behind Robbie" sequence. That creepy clown had a retractable arm that was supposed to unwind away from Oliver Robins’ neck. When shown in reverse, it would look like the clown was reaching out and grabbing the boy.

However, during the shoot, the hand didn’t release and the mechanism began choking Oliver. He called out, “I can’t breathe,” but most everyone thought the young actor was ad-libbing.

Spielberg, on set as usual, noticed a change in the boy’s color and leapt into action, pulling the hand free from Robins' throat, potentially saving the boy’s life.

It was the first of many strange occurrences that plagued the filming of ALL the Poltergeist films. Maybe the creepiest thing about the incident was that it directly foreshadowed Dominique Dunne's tragic death.

Fun fact: That's Spielberg peeling the face off Martin Casella (Marty).

Fun fact: That's Spielberg peeling the face off Martin Casella (Marty).

"They're Heeere"

Poltergeist was released June 4, 1982, terrifying audiences with a five-year-old girl hearing voices inside the television. “They’re heeere” was as unnerving as any line I can recollect.

The leftovers scene was potentially the most unsettling in the movie. I personally rewound and watched it at least a dozen times. It culminates in a flesh-tearing bathroom scene that is only made better by knowing that the hands peeling the flesh from the face belonged to none other than Steven Spielberg.

JoBeth Williams: “I’m glad I didn’t know that then, because I would’ve really been screaming a lot—for real.”

JoBeth Williams: “I’m glad I didn’t know that then, because I would’ve really been screaming a lot—for real.”

Real Skeletons

During the dramatic climax of Poltergeist, Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) falls into the muddy hole that was dug for their new pool. Several skeletons rise up from the murky water and she screams in terror.

She might have screamed even louder had she known they were REAL skeletons with whom she was swimming. The production crew apparently found that purchasing old bones was cheaper than making new bones out of plastic.

Some believe that this practice is what brought on the curse.

Dominique Dunne was tragically murdered three weeks shy of her 23rd birthday because she told her boyfriend, "No."

Dominique Dunne was tragically murdered three weeks shy of her 23rd birthday because she told her boyfriend, "No."

Dominique Dunne Murdered

Dominique Dunne played the oldest Freeling sibling, Dana. In real life, she separated from her boyfriend John Thomas Sweeney—later changed to John Maura—due to his short temper and abusive nature.

He showed up at her house the day before Halloween, October 30, 1982, begging her to reconcile. When she refused, he attacked, strangling her in her own driveway.

She died on November 4th, never having regained consciousness. She was 22.

Richard Lawson

Richard Lawson

Richard Lawson

Richard Lawson, who played Ryan, one of the parapsychologists in Poltergeist, nearly lost his life to the curse. The scientist was in a plane crash that took the lives of 27 of the 51 passengers on board. Lawson was gifted a first-class seat after giving a fan his autograph.

Cleveland bound flight 405 slid off runway thirteen at LaGuardia Airport during a snowstorm. It appeared the pilot tried to abort take-off but ended up crashing into the freezing waters of Flushing Bay.

Julian Beck

Julian Beck

Julian Beck Dies Prematurely

Julian Beck, who played the skeletal Cane in Poltergeist II, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away within six months of the movie's release. Despite his aged look, he was only 60.

Will Sampson

Will Sampson

Will Sampson Performs Blessing

While filming Poltergeist II: The Other Side, the production crew was plagued with equipment malfunctions, electronic failures, and other strange occurrences. Zelda Rubinstein, self-proclaimed medium in real life stated that she was being followed by a light orb while on the set.

Eventually they asked Will Sampson, native American actor from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—and real-life shaman—to perform a blessing (exorcism) on set. Afterwards the incidents allegedly decreased, allowing them to complete the film on time and under budget.

Will Sampson would die one year later during heart and lung replacement surgery.

"Poltergeist III" (1988)

"Poltergeist III" (1988)

Fire During Poltergeist III

During the filming of Poltergeist III, a fire broke out in the parking garage of a 10-story plaza. A large quantity of polystyrene was accidentally ignited during a planned explosion. Six cars had been coated with the plastic so that they looked as if they were frozen

Three people were taken to a local hospital and treated for minor injuries. There were four firefighters on hand and about a hundred cast and crew members present. A ball of fire chased everyone out of there. There was black smoke all over the place and there was a lot of structural damage to the concrete.

Six trucks loaded with twenty-five firefighters took about two hours to get the blaze under control and it caused more than $250,000 in damage. Even though they had the fire, director Gary Sherman said, “Great shot.”

Heather O'Rourke's crypt at Westwood Memorial Park

Heather O'Rourke's crypt at Westwood Memorial Park

Death of Heather O'Rourke

On February 1, 1988, Heather O'Rourke was taken to the clinic with flu like symptoms. While there she suffered cardiac arrest and was flown to children's hospital where she underwent emergency surgery. She suffered a second cardiac arrest and passed away.

Official cause of death was listed as congenital stenosis of the intestine, complicated by septic shock. Heather complained about stomach pains in the days prior to her death. She was only 12 years old.

Kathleen O’Rourke Peele sued her doctors alleging that they misdiagnosed a birth defect that caused the severe bowel obstruction. The suit was settled out of court.

Both Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke are buried at the same cemetery, Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

The Curse Continues?

Even an attempt to remake the classic was marred with unexplained phenomena. The production crew of the 2015 remake insist that the house they filmed in was haunted. Repeated equipment failures persisted ONLY when filming at the home location.

Several people, including the director reported seeing a figure clothed in black moving about the house.