The Truth About Heather O’Rourke and Poltergeist III
Everyone love a good ghost story, something that tempts the possibility of the supernatural and sends chills down our spines. The weirder, the crazier and spookier the better. If it keeps us up at night, then it’s a tale wort telling. And this is a phenomenon not just reserved for old houses, abandoned factories and dark woodlands, ghost stories even manage to weave their way into the grand world of film making. Did you hear the one surrounding the 1987 comedy Three Men and a Baby? Rumours of a spectre which turned out to be giant cardboard standee of Ted Danson. How about the one where a munchkin spectral body continues to swing back and forth from where he hung himself in in The Wizard Oz? Or how about the one where Heather O’Rourke, the child star of the three Poltergeist films, died thanks to a terrible curse on the film? Well, it seems, that the truth here is sadder, more tradgic and terrible than you might have first thought. Curse or no curse, The Truth About Heather O’Rourke and Poltergeist III will haunt you.
Heather O’Rourke was born on December 27, to Kathleen and Michael O’Rourke. Her older sister, Tammy was a young inspiring actress who managed to get a role in 1981 musical drama film Pennies from Heaven. It was during lunch in the MGM commissary, that producer Steven Spielberg spotted four-year-old Heather eating with mother, whilst her sister filmed. He gave Heather a film role right there an then, and she signed the contract the very next day. The American dream played out in a small cafeteria, and one that would forever capture the beauty and innocence of a little girl that would never see her 13th birthday. Unlucky for some.
The film that young Heather had signed for was MGM’s supernatural horror film called Poltergeist, written by producer Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper. The film’s success helped spawn a franchise which consisting of two sequels, Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988), all of which Heather would star as Carol Anne Freeling, a young girl haunted by ghostly specters. Poltergeist was a massive box office draw and made $120 million profit for the studio, a gain from a Horror film that only Spielberg could deliver.
Like many films, it was not without it’s own controversy. Actress Dominique Dunne, who played Carol Anne’s older sister Dana, died shortly after the movie’s release. Her boyfriend strangled her and left her in a coma from which she did not wake. She was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery on November 6 1982. Her Poltergeist co-star Heather would join her there just a short six years later.
Producers for the sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, decide not to recast Dunne’s character. Instead, they introduced two new faces, the Yin and yang of the films supernatural tale, Will Sampson as Taylor and Julian Beck as the evil Rev. Henry Kane. Tragically, the two new faces on set would never fully understand the legacy they set up in Poltergeist’s follow up. Beck died of cancer shortly after filming, and Sampson succumbed to kidney failure a year after the films release. Both men died of natural causes. A rumbling, a low lying rumour spread by word of mouth was already doing the rounds. Whispered in corridors and written about in small town newspapers, the Poltergeist Curse had struck again.
There are many films that can lay claim to a curse, from Twilight Zone: The Movie to The Omen, all have strange deaths, peculiar incident and sound reasoning on why they are cursed. But Poltergeist was just a innocent supernatural horror film, why would it be cursed? Many people looked deeper into the original films production, around it’s film making process, and one reason sounded louder than the others, the sets had been really haunted. In one scene, Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) falls into an unfinished swimming pool that is flooded with rainwater. From the muddy depths of the dank water emerges several skeletons, their skin rotten and mummified, their deep hollow sockets staring into nothing and their mouths stuck in an eternal scream. For the fans, the evidence was clear, these were REAL skeletons, and their souls now haunted the films production.
Craig Reardon, one of the Special Make-up Effects Artist on Poltergeist recently addressed this rumor that has been doing the rounds for 38 years. The truth is that films have been using human skeletons for years. The audiences juts didn’t know about it. As gruesome as this might sound, sometimes you have to make a budget stretch, and whilst cobbling up life like skeleton might sound like an easy task, it’s not. It takes time, effort and materials. For films of the past, it was far cheaper and easier just to buy one.
“To my utter amazement, it’s created a sort of online mythology, and not a pretty one. Apparently there’s a contingent of people out there, who believe that the fact that real human skeletons were used are some kind of pretext to explain why two actress who worked on the film subsequently died. Which is not only conceptionally ridiculous but personally offensive to me.”
Reardon believed that peoples belief in the supernatural overshadowed the practicality of the films budget and the memory of the people that had sadly lost their lives.
“Here’s something I guess they don’t know, that’s the fact that human skeletons have been used in movies for years and years… no low budget B film is going to pay anybody to sculpt a human skeleton, when all you had to do was go to biological supply house and get a human skeleton. Wake up and smell the budget. That’s really the way it worked. The idea of having a few of them on the set of poltergeist and killing two lovely young girls is a pretty pernicious idea. It’s an insult to the memory of a sweet little girl, Heather O’Rourke. It’s worse than that to Dominique Dunne who was strangled to death by her boyfriend, which had fuck-all to do with a skeleton. “
With two films down, Writer-director Gary Sherman had a great idea about how to bring the suburban horror franchise into a city setting, bringing Carol Anne away from her native California to big city living in Chicago. Filming was underway and everything was looking good. Nathan Davis had stepped into the shoes of Reverend Henry Kane, using makeup effects cast on the face of Julian Beck. The film was pretty much in the bag when tragedy struck. Sherman was devastated to hear that his star, a sweet innocent young actress had passed away at the age of 12.
“I had an amazing relationship with Heather, I absolutely adored that little girl. Heather had been Ill before we started shooting and her parents had been taking her to doctors. She was diagnosed as have Crohn’s disease, and they were treating her… she was on steroids and I guess the only side effects were the chipmunk cheeks that she would develop sometimes. “
Sadly, doctors had misdiagnosed the young girl and were treating her for something she didn’t have.
“We got a call one morning that we were going to have a conference call that afternoon and the conference call was Heather’s agent telling us that she had passed away that morning. My first reaction to that Heather had passed away was just total sorrow… I just couldn’t believe it.“
On January 31, 1988, Heather collapsed in her home. She was rushed into hospital where she discovered she had intestinal stenosis. An abscess in her colon had built up, and that morning it had exploded. Whilst she survived the emergency surgery performed on her, the stress was too much on her fragile body and she died whilst being transferred to the recovery room. A young life had tragically been lost.
Poltergeist III closed down, and MGM and Sherman considered the films future.
“We have a film in which we had an ending we were unhappy with… so I flew to Los Angeles, I wanted to be there anyways for the funeral, where I had been asked to be a pallbearer. We decided in that room, that day before the funeral, that we were not going to finish the film. Films over!”
But as often as it is in the brutal world of film making, the studio had a sizable amount of investment in the project, and they were not about to walk away from it.
“I can’t go back into the cutting room, or watch this film with this dead 11 old in it. Afterwards the board at MGM said to us ‘you’re going to finish the film’. So they said you’ll have to come up and do ending that won’t involve Heather. So we came up with the idea of the stupid ending that’s in the film now and used a double for Heather. “
It was a tough time for all. The production crew were forced back into production, with an ending that they hated, using a double they despaired using, all to give MGM the film release they wanted.
“That was the creepiest thing I’ve gone through, in my life, having this little girl dressed up as Heather. Keeping her face away from camera. I really just did not wanna finish the film. None of us would go along with the studio and of any publicity for the release of the movie. None of us wanted the movie released… but it was. I don’t think any of us thought finishing the film would be a memorial to Heather. The only thing we did was… at the end of the film, was a single card that says in memoriam to Heather O’Rourke, which makes it sadder!”
Supermarket tabloids and local newspapers immediately jumped on the building bandwagon surrounding the Poltergeist films productions. The idea that the films were jinxed or cursed began to circulate once more. Sherman had the brunt of the negative press, but the press was unaware that director had never wanted to finish, let alone release the film.
One of the biggest debunkers of such rumors about a curse was fellow Poltergeist alumni Zelda Rubenstein, who spoke openly about the films jinx.
“I owe it to Heather to present her case. As most honestly and lovingly as I can. I loved this child very much and I am still very grieved at her passing. Heather died because of an undetected congenital anatomical defect. Julian Beck died of cancer in his mature years. Will Sampson passed away after receiving a heart and lung transplant… and Dominique Dunne died at the hands of an extremely ill directed, passionate, boyfriend… I do not call this a jinx. So, I think that it’s pretty much a courtesy to put to an end this superstition crap.”
Poltergeist III under-performed at the box office. It made only $14.1 million on $9 million budget, a long way away from the originals hefty haul. Whilst audiences failed to warm to a film that starred a young girl that had recently died, many of them holding their own superstitions on such a practice, for the people who made the film, it broke their hearts and souls to see Heather O’Rourke’s last film publicly aired. A young life had been lost, no amount of money could ever justify her death. The films release only exacerbated the grief felt by those who knew, loved and cherished the sweet little girl that one day wanted to be a film director.
Life is filled with terrible tragedies and accidents. As a species, we try to make sense of the things we can’t understand, this can often lead to us concluding with unsubstantiated conclusions that may or may not much sense. Our beliefs in the unknown and supernatural can often fill in the blanks we are unsure of. In the case of the tragic events that rocked the productions of the Poltergeist films, we can believe that an invisible and malevolent force killed several people without reason, or that natural and unforeseen events took place that sadly ended lives of people who were admired, loved and continue to be missed.
In memory of Heather Michele O’Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988)
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“Hello Horror Fans – It’s too easy to find the entertainment value of something before considering the truth. We mythologies, spread and transform tragedy into something more curious, but we forget that there are real people effected by these events. Heather O’Rourke will forever be missed, by those closest to her, and by us, the fans, that watched her grow through the glorious medium of film and TV. I love you all, please take care!