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Cursed Movies: The Poltergeist Trilogy

There have been myriad movies and film productions that have been considered somehow cursed; usually a series of traumatic events occurs on the set during the making of alleged cursed movies or strange, unexplainable events surround the making of films commonly believed to be cursed. There are stories abound where actors, directors, and crew members have either witnessed or experienced the unexplained. In fact, some of today’s most popular and notable films are sometimes believed to be cursed.

The notion of cursed films spawns many concerning questions: Are these curses real and if so why are films cursed? If films are cursed, is the subject matter of such films delving too far into the paranormal realms; after all, there has been a noted increase in paranormal activity when investigators begin investigating the paranormal and when investigators begin listening to electronic voice phenomena. Are the sets of these alleged films somehow haunted? Could the act of researching and studying the paranormal be dangerous or is the mere increase in awareness of the paranormal causing people to falsely perceive an increase in paranormal activity? Are these said curses nothing more than urban legends that grow bigger as the tale gets passed around from one individual to the next?

The Poltergeist Trilogy Curse

One of the most popular stories in circulation today are the stories that surround the ever popular Poltergeist Trilogy, the first of which was produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy and directed by Tobe Hooper. Poltergeist first appeared on the big screen in 1982 ("Poltergeist (1982)"). The movie was incredibly successful and was followed up with two sequels. A story where a family is terrorized by angry spirits because the family’s home is built on a burial ground, Poltergeist remains a favorite movie of many horror fans. Behind the scenes, there seems to be even more terror as the first, second and third films are seemingly plagued with unexplained events and deaths. In fact, the number of deaths associated with actors in the Poltergeist films have caused quite a stir and stories of a curse quickly evolved.

The first death to be noted is that of the up and coming actress that played the role of the oldest sister of the Freeling’s three children Dana Freeling: Dominique Ellen Dunne. Dunne was living in her Rangley Avenue home when a mere five months after the first Poltergeist film was complete in terms of production, on October 30, 1982, Dunne was strangled by John Sweeney, an ex-boyfriend, an incident that rendered her into a coma. Six days later while in Cedars Sinai Medical Center Dunne died as a result of the strangulation on November 4, 1982 at 11 am (Michaels). Dunne, born in 1959, was just 22 years old when she died (Michaels). She is currently buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles County (“Dunne”). Unfortunately, Dunne’s death is the first of several when it comes to the cast of the popular Poltergeist films.

Who can forget that adorable little blonde girl, Heather Michelle O’Rourke who suddenly died shortly after the completion of Poltergeist III? Heather was born on December 27, 1975. On February 1, 1988, six years after the death of Dunne, O’Rourke was brought to the Kaiser Permanente Hospital after experiencing unexplained swelling and difficulty breathing. According to O’Rourke’s mother in an interview conducted with E! True Hollywood Story, Heather’s mother saw an apparition while in the waiting room of the hospital: the mother claims that it was Heather in her night gown. The little girl told her mother, “Mom, I’m not coming back” (“Youtube: E! True Hollywood Story Interview”). Shortly thereafter, the child died from complications brought on by septic shock (“Heather Michelle O’Rourke”). Requiring surgery the child passed away: the cause cited as cardiopulmonary arrest due to intestinal stenosis, at the age of 12 (“Heather Michelle O’Rourke”). It is believed that the child suffered from Chrohn’s Disease and that her death can possibly be attributed to the disease (“Heather Michelle O’Rourke”). O’Rourke is buried in the same cemetery as her co-star a few short yards away, Dominique Dunne, in the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles County – a plaque on her grave reads: “Beloved Daughter and Sister - Carol Anne, Poltergeist I, II, and III” (“Heather Michelle O’Rourke”). Still other deaths followed after the death of Dunne and O’Rourke.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a movie directed by Brian Gibson, was released on May 23, 1986 (“Poltergeist II”). Julian Beck played the role of the reverend Kane, and died at the age of 60, after enduring a long battle with stomach cancer shortly before the film’s release on September 14, 1985 (“Poltergeist II”). His grave marker reads: “Actor Painter, Poet, Anarchist, Pacifist, Playwright, Visionary” (“Beck”). Two years following the death of Beck, William Sampson also died at the age of 53; William played the role of the Native American shaman, and died shortly after receiving a lung transplant (“Will Sampson”). Sampson is currently buried at the Graves Creek Cemetery in McIntosh County Oklahoma (“Poltergeist II"). While Beck’s and Sampson’s deaths were due to natural causes, other events surrounding the cast members of the Poltergeist films continued to fuel the theory that the films were cursed.

Deaths are not the only strange events that happened on the set while making the Poltergeist films. Oliver Robbins, the boy who played the role of Robbie Freeling, had an encounter while making the first Poltergeist film: during the scene when Robbie is dragged under the bed by the demonic-looking clown, the puppet arms choked him, making it impossible for him to breathe (“Oliver Robbins”). When Robbins attempted to let the then director of the film know that he could not breathe, the director believed Robbins was only doing what he was expected to do: acting (“Poltergeist (1982)”). Steven Spielberg had to remove the puppet in order for the boy to regain his ability to breathe (“Poltergeist Trivia”). Additionally, rumor has it that some of the skeletons used in the film were actual human skeletal remains and that the cast and crew were extremely disturbed by such a fact; so much so that an exorcism was demanded (“Poltergeist Trivia”). Supposedly, William Sampson was asked to perform the exorcism, which he did while the set was cleared (“Eye Scream”). In addition, according to reports, the Simi Valley Home used in the film for the exterior photos of the Freeling home was involved in a 1994 earthquake and sustained damage (“Eye Scream”). The filming of Poltergeist III also saw its share of troubles.

During the making of Poltergeist III: Zelda Rubinstein, the actress that plays Tangina, was forced into leaving the production due to her mother’s death (“Poltergeist III”). Further, during one scene where a car’s explosion was staged, the explosion caused the entire set to catch on fire and endangered a crew member in the process (“Poltergeist III”). While the four deaths that occurred during the making of these three films are unfortunate, they do not necessarily equate to a curse or hex. Two of the deaths, those of Beck and Sampson are considered natural, while the deaths of the two females, Dunne and O’Rourke seem far more inauspicious and unexpected. Yet, can the series of deaths and strange events be written off to mere bad luck, coincidence, or chance? Similar events have surrounded other films of similar subject matter; and given a close look at some of the reports associated with the Poltergeist Trilogy it becomes increasingly difficult to write off such events to mere chance or bad luck. After all, deaths, fire, the unexplained movement of objects, requested exorcisms, and the unexplained choking by a puppet certainly sounds like real poltergeist activity doesn’t it?

Works Cited

“Beck.” Find A Grave. 2008. Find A Grave Inc. 28 May 2008

“Dunne.” Find A Grave. 2008. Find A Grave Inc. 28 May 2008

“Heather Michelle O’Rourke.” Find A Grave. 1 Jan. 2001. Find A Grave Inc. 28 May 2008

Michaels, Scott. “Dominique Dunne.” 2008. 28 May 2008

“Poltergeist II: The Other Side.” 2008. 28 May 2008

“Poltergeist III.” 2008. 28 May 2008

“The Poltergeist Curse” Eye Scream. 2008. 28 May 2008

“Poltergeist (1982).” Yahoo! Movies. 2008. Yahoo! 28 May 2008

“Poltergeist Trivia.” 2008. 28 May 2008

“Sampson.” Find A Grave. 2008. Find A Grave Inc. 28 May 2008

Article written by: Dayna Winters

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