We often hear about life mirroring art and such sayings and it seems that often when something tragic happens, there has been a movie, a TV show or a book written that seemed to predict it. But with the 80s film Poltergeist, it seems that the reverse was true – that the making of the film created a curse that effected the people who featured in it. So was the movie really cursed?
The original film
The first Poltergeist film was made in 1982 and was produced by Steven Spielberg, spawning a series of movies, a TV series off-shot and a remake being released this year. The story of the film was classic – a Californian suburban family whose home was invaded by evil spirits that attempted to abduct the youngest daughter. The film features Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams as the parents while their children were played by Dominique Dunne (Dana), Oliver Robins (Robbie) and Heather O’Rourke (Carol Anne). The events started after a batch of static on the TV one night and an earthquake along with the announcement by Carol Anne that ‘they are here’.
The film goes on to depict what sounds like classic poltergeist activity – glasses breaking, silverware bending and furniture moving around on its own. Frequency intensifies and a tree comes to life at night, grabbing Robbie who is saved by his dad at the last minute, while Carol Anne is pulled through a portal in her closest.
The family call in parapsychologists who discover that more than one ghost is involved and that the complex the family lives in was once a cemetery. The two remaining kids are sent away for safety and a medium comes in to try to find Carol Anne. She discovers that among the ghosts is a demon called Beast who has the girl. The mother ventured through the portal and rescues the girl, at which point the medium says the house is ‘clean’.
There’s a bit more but I won’t spoil the end in case you haven’t seen it before!
The real Poltergeist
The story that the film was based on was said to be that of events which took place in 1958 in a house in Long Islands, New York with a family called the Hermann’s who were plagued by a poltergeist. They experienced phenomena such as bottle tops and lids popping open, ornaments flying around the house, a heavy bookshelf that inexplicably fell over and a figure of the Virgin Mary that flew across the room and hit a mirror 12 feet away.
There were a number of witnesses from outside the family including a police officer who was hit by a flying globe and a press photographer from the UK who saw flashbulbs lift off a table. A priest and a minister were called in but the weirdness continued. Experts confirmed that the house was structurally sound while the fire brigade checked out issues such as water levels in an old well and that there were no vibrations causes the effect. Then abruptly, everything stopped.
Nevertheless, the family moved out of the house but believed that a Native American burial site near the house was somehow part of the problem – a theme that was continued into the film.
So a spooky film based on a real life spooky experience – but what happened after the film was made is perhaps even more fascinating and earned the film the nickname as the most cursed film of all time.
Within a few weeks of the release of the film, Dominique Dunne who played the older daughter was strangled by her boyfriend in their West Hollywood home, dying a few days later in hospital.
Heather O’Rourke, who played the young daughter Carol Anne, was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1987 but this provide to be incorrect. However, the following year she suffered a heart attack as the doctors operated on her for a bowel obstruction. She was 12 years old.
The author who wrote the book accompanying the film, James Kahn, said that as he wrote the line ‘lightning ripped open the sky’ his building was struck by lightning and all the arcade games in the room began to play themselves.
The second movie began production soon after and Julian Beck was cast as preacher Harry Kane but died from stomach cancer as the film was released while Will Sampson, who was the Native American shaman in the film, also died after a heart-lung transplant. Lou Perryman, who played a small part in the film, was murdered in his home with an axe by an ex-convict.
One person who may have escaped the curse was Richard Lawson, who starred in the original film. He was on USAir Flight 405 when it crashed in 1992 in Flushing Bay and was one of only 27 people of the 51 on board who survived.
It seems that there was no shortage of weirdness surrounding the film and its sequels that has either fuelled the stories of a curse or simply shows how odd everything was. For starters, in the sequence when the mother falls into the family pool filled with skeletons, these weren’t fake plastic versions but real human skeletons and the cast didn’t know until afterwards.
Will Sampson, who died after the second film, was an actual Native American shaman and when he heard about this during the filming of the second film, he conducted his own type of exorcism on the set in 1984. He did this alone and afterwards the cast said that the set did feel better.
There are plenty of different views regarding the film and its cursed status. With a remake due for release this year, it will be interesting to see if the curse resurfaces, though hopefully not with such tragic circumstances. While there are often deaths on a movie set or after it, the tragic deaths of the two daughters in the film was certainly a little out of the ordinary but if the film hasn’t had such scary subject matter, would the idea of a curse ever surfaced?