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.
A poltergeist in folklore is a noisy and destructive (but usually mischievous, not malicious) ghost held to be responsible for unexplained noises and movement of objects within a home. It is hypothesized poltergeists are drawn to homes in which there are prepubescent children, especially girls. Three horror films based on this form of lore comprise the Poltergeist trilogy:
Though coincidence is a much more likely explanation than a curse, there have been four deaths among the cast of this set of films: Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Heather O’Rourke (Carol Ann Freeling), Will Sampson (Taylor, a good spirit), and Julian Beck (Kane, an evil spirit). Though two of the deaths were foreseeable (expected, even), two others were not. It’s the combination of the two unexpected deaths that lies at the heart of every rumor about a Poltergeist curse.
Dominique Dunne, the 22-year-old actress who portrayed big sister Dana Freeling in the first Poltergeist film (released in June 1982), died on
Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced in
Heather O’Rourke, the child actress who played Carol Anne Freeling throughout the Poltergeist series (starting when she was six years old), unexpectedly passed away at the age of 12 when she died of septic shock on
The circumstances surrounding her passing rendered her death even more of a shock than it otherwise would have been, as she went overnight from a little girl who had the flu to a dead little girl who expired during a desperate operation to save her life. It’s hard enough to accept that a child can die of an illness, let alone a healthy-looking youngster no one knew anything was wrong with. (That she looked healthy did not necessarily mean that she was. The year before her death she’d been diagnosed as having Crohn’s Disease, a lifelong inflammatory small bowel disease which often first manifests in children and young adults.) Of course such an unexpected death would fuel rumors, especially when considered in conjunction with Dominique Dunne’s murder only six years earlier.
O’Rourke had appeared in all three Poltergeist movies.
The other two deaths connected with Poltergeist were of seasoned actors well into their careers, both suffering from serious illnesses that would in time take their lives. Because their deaths were not unexpected, only rarely is either mentioned in connection with the Poltergeist “curse.”
Julian Beck, the 60-year-old actor who played the evil spirit Kane in 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, died of stomach cancer on
Will Sampson, the 53-year-old Native American actor who portrayed the good spirit Taylor in
Like Beck, Sampson appeared in only one film in the series,
Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive actress who filled the part of seer Tangina Barrons in all three Poltergeist films and reprised the role in the spin-off TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy, died in 2010. She passed away of natural causes at the age of 76, however, hardly the type of death one associates with a “curse” that supposedly causes unexpected and premature demises.
Although he was not a cast member, English film director Brian Gibson, who helmed
In a popular form of the rumor, one of the child actors is said to have come to an untimely end after the making of each film, one murdered, one in a car accident, and one of a mysterious disease. Though it’s true actresses Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke have since died, Oliver Robins, the child actor who played their characters’ brother Robbie Freeling in the first two films, is still with us. No child actor from the Poltergeist series was killed in a car crash or died just after
An extreme version of the “curse” rumor asserts everyone who appeared in these movies is now dead. That news must come as quite a shock to numerous thespians, most notably
The February 2015 release of trailers for the upcoming a Poltergeist reboot/remake (with different cast members) prompted renewed interest in the original trilogy’s supposed “curse.”
Arnold, Roxane. “Strangled Actress; Did Slayer’s Penalty Fit His Crime?”
Los Angeles Times. 3 December 1986 (p. A1).
Associated Press. “Poltergeist Actress in Coma After Being Choked on Coast.”
The New York Times. 1 November 1982 (p. A17).
Associated Press. “Dominique Dunne, Actress, Dies After Being Choked.”
The New York Times. 5 November 1982 (p. D19).
Associated Press. “Slayer of Actress Sentenced to 6 1/2-Year Maximum Term.”
The New York Times. 13 November 1983 (p. A28).
Folkart, Burt. “Role in Cuckoo’s Nest; Will Sampson, Gentle Indian Giant, Dies.”
Los Angeles Times. 4 June 1987 (p. A24).
Folkart, Burt. “Poltergeist Star Heather O’Rourke Dies at Age of 12.”
Los Angeles Times. 3 February 1988 (p. A3).
Freedman, Samuel. “Julian Beck, 60, Is Dead; Founded Living Theater.”
The New York Times. 17 September 1985 (p. B6).
The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Heather O’Rourke, 12, Dies, San Diego Actress.”
2 February 1988 (p. A3).
United Press International.
2 February 1988 California; Regional News.