The Real-Life Curse Of Poltergeist

The 1982 version of ‘Poltergeist’ (not the average remake) is a horror classic.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (with a little help from Steven Spielberg, if you believe the rumours), it told the story of family haunted by ancient evil spirits.

Just as terrifying as the action on-screen however was the tragic events that happened to the cast in real life. Many of those involved in ‘Poltergeist’ and it’s sequels were dogged with awful luck, giving it the reputation of the most cursed film of all time. 

Cast deaths

The most remarkable thing about ‘Poltergeist’ is the alarming number of cast deaths that occured post-shoot. In the six years between the first movie and the third, four of the main cast had died. 

Will Sampson (who also played the sink-chucking Indian in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) died in June 1987 from complications of his heart surgery - he was 53. 

Julian Beck (Henry Kane in the sequel) died of stomach cancer in September 1985, aged 60.

The saddest deaths though were those of 22 year-old Dominique Dunne, who played Dana in the original, and Heather O'Rourke, who was little Carol Ann from all three films. 

Dunne was strangled by her abusive ex-boyfriend John Sweeney (who ended up serving less than four years in prison). Immediately after filming wrapped on the last film. 

Heather was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease and died due to toxic shock caused by a bowel obstruction missed by doctors. She was just 12-years-old.

Then, in 2009, Lou Perryman, who played Pugsley in the first film, was murdered on April 1, 2009. He was 67 years old.

Freak accidents on-set

The shoots of the films were also notable for several bizarre accidents. 

During ‘Poltergeist’ the clown doll that attacks the young boy actually did attack him. Malfunctioning robotics caused the red-nosed trouble-maker to squeeze Oliver Robins’ neck so tightly he went blue and started choking.

Whilst filming, the author writing the film’s novelisation, James Kahn, was injured after lightning struck his trailer, causing the air-conditioning unit to explode, fly across the room and hit him, causing damage to his lower back.

Another weird mishap: on the first day of shooting, the film came back blank at the end of the day. “I’d never seen this happen in 15 years” said an insider.

During 'Poltergeist II: The Other Side’, uneasy feelings amongst cast and crew during a scene in a cave reached such levels that filming was halted until an exorcism could be conducted. Who conducted it? The actor who played Taylor the shaman, Will Sampson (who was a real-life shaman). As we know, Sampson died shortly after this.

On 'Poltergeist III’, actress Zelda Rubenstein (Tangina Barrons) mysteriously became ill during the shoot and quickly fell into an unexpected and deep depression. That afternoon she received a phone call telling her that her mother had passed away.

Also during the shoot a scene in which a garage was on fire got out of hand and engulfed the set in flames. All but one of the crew members on set were injured. 

Real Skeletons

And the reason for the ‘curse’ of Poltergeist? Some blame the use of real skeletons in the highly disturbing swimming pool scene, rather than plastic ones (because they were cheaper). 

Spielberg said: “In my innocence and naivete, I assumed that these were not real skeletons. I assumed that they were prop skeletons made out of plastic or rubber…. I found out, as did the crew, that they were using real skeletons, because it’s too far too expensive to make fake skeletons out of rubber.“

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Image credit: Rex Features