Poltergeist came crashing into movie theatres in 1982, almost immediately searing itself into our collective consciousness. However, almost as famous as the film itself is the string of tragic deaths associated with it. Let’s explore the supposed Poltergeist Curse.
This is your spoiler warning.
The story, focuses on the Freeling family, who begin to experience paranormal encounters. After their youngest daughter begins to communicate with entities via the family TV, she is seemingly abducted by the spirits through her bedroom closet.
The family learn that their house – part of a new planned community which the Freeling father is involved in selling as a successful estate agent – is filled with spirits. With the help of a paranormal investigation team and their medium, Tangina Barrons, they are able to rescue young Carol Anne from the “Beast” who uses her life force to prevent other spirits from crossing over. The Freeling family discover that the house was built on what used to be a burial ground, and decide to move.
However, as they are preparing to leave, the Beast attacks again, resulting in the now infamous “pool scene”, in which the family matriarch is dragged to the flooded swimming pool excavation, where she ends up going for a dip with corpses and coffins, but more on that later.
Realising that the bodies were never relocated, the family flee the property just as it implodes, leaving behind coffins that continue to erupt from the ground, along with some very confused neighbours.
The film was a financial success, becoming the highest grossing horror film of 1982, and spawned two sequels, and one remake, with another in the works (as of 2023).
However, if this alone was the legacy of Poltergeist, we wouldn’t be discussing it here today.
A series of real life tragedies befall the film’s cast members, resulting in rumours of an alleged “curse” which overshadows the series itself to this day.
After production, it came to light that there was a reason the skeletons featured in the pool scene were particularly realistic. It’s because they were.
JoBeth Williams, who played matriarch Dianne Freeling, said in an interview that although she believed her skeletal co-stars were made of rubber and plastic during filming, she and the crew later discovered they were real. This was again reiterated by Bruce Kasson, alleged assistant prop master, who claimed the skeletons were supplied by the firm Carolina Biological, which supplied skeletons to medical schools. This was done because of costings – replica skeletons were particularly expensive to produce at the time. However, Kasson he doesn’t seem to have been officially credited in the film.
It’s claimed that this cost-cutting exercise was the cause of the alleged curse.
‘Victims of the curse’
It’s indisputable that many of Poltergeist’s cast members met with early deaths.
- Dominique Dunne – In a tragic incidence of domestic violence, Dominique Dunne – who played the Freeling’s eldest daughter, Dana – was murdered by her ex-boyfriend at the age of 22, just four months after the film was released. Poltergeist was set to be Dunne’s break-out role and in the short time between production and her tragic death, she featured in The Shadow Riders, CHiPs and was cast the miniseries, V, which she was never able to finish filming.
- Will Sampson – best known for his role as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Will Sampson was cast as a shaman named Taylor, in Poltergeist II. He was said to have been unnerved by the use of human skeletons in the first film and asked to preform an exorcism for the set. He suffered from scleroderma, a degenerative auto-immune disease, and passed away after a heart-lung transplant at 53 years old, almost a year after Poltergeist II was released. His cause of death was post-operative kidney failure.
- Julian Beck – diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983, Beck continued working until his death. His role as “the Beast” in the form of Reverend Henry Kane in Poltergeist II, was his final role, as he died a few months before the film’s release at the age of 60.
- Lou Perryman – The second of the original Poltergeist cast members to be murdered, Perryman was killed with an axe in his home in Texas at the age of 67. His murderer had been recently released from prison and was off his medications and had been drinking heavily before the attack. Lou Perryman played the construction worker, Pugsley, in the first film.
- Richard Lawson – After playing parapsychologist, Ryan, in the first film, Lawson was involved in a plane crash in 1992. The incident killed 27 of the 51 occupants, but Lawson was one of the survivors.
- Heather O’Rourke – after staring in all three of the Poltergeist films, 12 year old Heather was set to become one of Hollywood’s shining stars. She began treatment for Crohn’s disease in 1987, however, in what became the most famous incident of the alleged ‘curse’, she fell ill in January 1988, suffering a cardiacs arrest after exhibiting flu-like symptoms in her home. Although she was revived, Heather was discovered to have intestinal stenosis – a narrowing of her intestines – and underwent emergency surgery. Shortly after, she suffered another heart attack, and sadly passed away. Her cause of death was ruled congenital stenosis, complicated by septic shock. Poltergeist III, her final role, was released posthumously in June 1988.
Curse – Fact or Fiction?
Despite the very real tragedies befalling these cast members, is it fair to say they are the result of a true curse?
Despite passing away shortly before and after the release of Poltergeist II, Will Sampson and Julian Beck suffered from the diseases that would ultimately take their life long before their interaction with the franchise. Although both were relatively young, their passings weren’t completely unexpected. As much as believers like to include these two wonderful actors in the curse’s lore, I think it’s more a case of tragic timing.
Although he probably didn’t feel very lucky after being involved in a plane crash, Richard Lawson did survive. In fact, he is still alive and working, even going on to marry his friend of over 30 years, Tina Knowles – fashion designer and mother of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. Life is full of ups and downs, but it sounds like Lawson’s is going on alright – certainly not a victim of a ‘curse’.
As for Lou Perryman’s tragic death, it came a full 27 years after his (minor) role in Poltergeist.
That leaves us with Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke. Two awful, but very different deaths. These are often touted as the most obvious ‘curse’ victims, but laying them as such is a tragedy in itself.
By blaming Dunne’s death on a supposed ‘curse’, we’re shifting the blame to the supernatural, instead of pinning it where it belongs – John Thomas Sweeney, her ex-boyfriend. Sweeney and Dunne’s relationship was marred with abuse from the start, and the couple were said to have fought frequently. She is reported to have appeared on the set of Hill Street Blues, ready for filming of her part in an episode with visible bruises.
Her death was a result of domestic violence, which has far more victims than any alleged curse.
Similarly, Heather O’Rourke’s death was a combination of her ongoing medical issues and complications from sepsis. Sepsis, which can present with flu-like symptoms in it’s early stages has a mortality rate between 10-80% and it’s in these early stages that it is best treated.
It’s important to know the warning signs of sepsis which include:
- Fever and flu-like symptoms, such as aching muscles
- blue, pale or blotchy skin, lips or tongue
- Skin rashes that don’t face when rolled over with a glass.
- Difficulty breathing, breathlessness or fast breathing
- Feeling confused or slurring speech
- Decreased urination
If you or someone you love experiences any of these symptoms, it’s important to call 999 (or local alternative) and go to the hospital immediately. Sepsis can be difficult to spot, so be sure to tell your care provider that you suspect it might be sepsis, even if they don’t mention it themselves. Early intervention means the difference between life and death.
This public service announcement has been brought to you by Dr LJ Hawthorn (who’s not a real doctor), but who’s loved ones survived sepsis, thanks to a quick thinking nurse and a mother who followed her gut.
Anyway, back to curses
I love talk of curses, as our previous cursed articles will show, however, we must not forget the very real deaths or the very real reasons behind them. If we write these deaths off as purely supernatural hoo-ha, we miss an opportunity to expose the real horrors in life, and that leads to patterns of silence.
Then again, if there were no such allegations of a Poltergeist curse, would we be discussing these important issues right now?
You can find out more about Sepsis here
Here’s a link to domesticshelters.org list of international domestic violence charities
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