Poltergeist is considered by many to be one of the scariest movies ever made. That has everything to do with not only the quality of the storytelling itself, but the creepy mythology that exists outside the film, too. Similar to The Exorcist, a specter of misfortune is said to haunt the cast and crew members who were involved with the making of the 1982 film, in what is known as the Poltergeist curse.
The curse in question doesn’t just apply to the first installment, but the entire Poltergeist franchise, to boot. As Snopes explained in their article about the curse, in which they gave the claim a “Legend” rating,
“What is seen as an unusually large number of deaths have occurred among the former cast of the Poltergeist trilogy. This occurrence has given rise to the rumor the productions were in some way ‘cursed’ due to the nature of the films themselves, as if the evil spirits conjured in the make-believe world of the cinema have since reached out into the real world to claim what they might see as their rightful victims.”
In total, four actors died who have been featured in the three films Poltergeist, 1986’s Poltergeist II, and 1988’s Poltergeist III. The deceased actors included Dominique Dunn, Heather O’Rourke, Will Sampson, and Julian Beck.
When it comes to Beck and Sampson, both of their deaths were somewhat unsurprising given the context in which they occurred. For Beck, who played Kane the evil priest in Poltergeist II, he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983 and passed away from the disease shortly after finishing filming on the second movie, as Biography pointed out. Sampson, who played the Native American shaman Taylor in Poltergeist II, was also given a low chance of survival when he had to undergo a heart-lung transplant and died following the procedure. But it is the other two more mysterious and unexpected deaths that have continued to fuel the legend all these years later.
Dominique Dunne, who played Dana Freeling in the first film, died in 1982 at the hands of her ex-boyfriend when he showed up at her house, begged her to take him back, and then choked her and left her to die when she refused. Heather O’Rourke, who played Dunne’s on-screen younger sibling, Carole Anne Freeling, and was the platinum blonde actor most associated with the original Poltergeist, also died unexpectedly related to an illness that became a medical mystery. O’Rourke, who also starred in Poltergeist II and Poltergeist III, was incorrectly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1987, which may have been the first domino to fall in a series of events that ultimately ended in her demise. As Biography explained,
“The following year, O’Rourke fell ill again, and her symptoms were casually attributed to the flu. A day later, she collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest. After being airlifted to a children’s hospital in San Diego, O’Rourke died during an operation to correct a bowel obstruction, and it was later believed that she had been suffering from a congenital intestinal abnormality.”
The original Poltergeist film was produced by legendary Jaws director Steven Spielberg and directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper. It followed the story of the Freeling family who starts to experience strange events after purchasing a new home in California. This all culminates in the revelation that the home was built on a Native American burial ground and that the family is apparently being haunted by a malevolent ghost.
Unsurprisingly, other creepy details on the production side of the Poltergeist franchise have also emerged over the years, adding even more mystique to the curse and its legend. For instance, JoBeth Williams, who played Diane Freeling in the first two movies, has claimed Spielberg chose to use actual skeletons from human beings in a scene where she was submerged in an open pit in the ground filled with water. Supposedly, this was due to the fact that using real human remains was actually cheaper than plastic skeletons at the time. What’s more, Sampson apparently performed an exorcism, for real, at the end of one of the day’s filming for Poltergeist II.
A legend that keeps on growing
The Poltergeist curse is such a prominent part of the zeitgeist (pun intended), that the sole surviving cinematic sibling from the franchise has commented on what he thinks about it. “I hope there isn’t a curse, because I’m still around,” remarked Oliver Robins, who played middle child Robbie Freeling in the first two movies. Robins elaborated on his thoughts about the curse with Yahoo Entertainment:
“I do believe in the paranormal to some degree, but I don’t think there’s a curse because those deaths can be explained. You had these tragedies happen, but they were going to happen whether [the actors] were in the movie or not. Like with Heather, she had a medical condition for which she wasn’t treated. So I don’t think they are interconnected.”
Robins meets horror fans frequently due to being a common presence at conventions. He said the Poltergeist curse still draws new viewers to the film to this day, which he said is one “positive side” to the legend since it is such a “great movie.”
If you’re currently in the mood for some considerable scares — and possibly a curse — you can check out the original Poltergeist on HBO Max now or buy or rent it from wherever you make digital media purchases.