Is it possible that a movie could be cursed? How about an entire series of movies? These are the questions that seem to come up whenever you talk Poltergeist with any die-hard fans. Matter-of-fact my initial reaction to the announcement that 1982’s Poltergeist would be coming to HHN 28 was “oh this won’t end well.”
I first learned of the Poltergeist curse back in high school. Every weekend friends and I would gather in my basement bedroom of my parent’s house to watch horror movies. For three weeks straight we rented (on VHS… because I’m old) the Poltergeist films. We were hooked.
In 2002 an episode of E! True Hollywood Story highlighted the supposed curse is some pretty grand detail. Sure, it could all be a series of unfortunate coincidences but it’s all too eerie to ignore.
Plenty of films, particularly in the horror genre, are said to be cursed (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen) and skeptics could easily explain them away as mere coincidence or marketing schemes. But Poltergeist seems to carry a large number of similarities between the film and real life.
Given that Halloween Horror Nights is overseen by lovers of all things horror, I’m kind of surprised at the decision to bring the Poltergeist to the HHN stage. Don’t get me wrong, I love the original film (I’m watching it while I write this) but the continued string of accidents and deaths surrounding the franchise would give me pause.
Haven’t heard of the curse and think I’m crazy?
Since I can’t find the Hollywood Story episode ANYWHERE online, I’ll break down some of the highlights of the curse and where it all started.
It all began with skeletons, lots of them. It is believed that the use of actual human skeletons in the first film bred a deadly curse that persists to this day when it comes to all things relating to the film and it’s actors.
The very plot of the film is that the Freelings sparkly new home is built on top of a cemetery where the cheap-ass developers went ahead and lied about relocating the bodies buried there. Denied their final resting place, the spirits of the disturbed dead seek revenge.
The reasoning behind using real human remains came down to cost. Back in the early 80’s there wasn’t much in the way of replicas of skeletons and the price of having them created was too high so Prop Master Bruce Kasson purchased them from Carolina Biological.
This practice, albeit slightly unethical, wasn’t uncommon. When Pirates of the Caribbean first opened in Disneyland in 1967, it came complete with real human remains acquired from UCLA Medical Center. The imagineers wanted authenticity. Over the years, these remains were replaced with replicas though many will argue to this day that one of the skulls is still genuine.
That’s an argument for another day.
SEND IN THE EVIL EFFING CLOWNS
Before Pennywise the Dancing Clown was haunting the nightmares of children and parents alike, there was that damn possessed clown that tried to take down one of the youngest member of the Freeling clan, Robbie. During the filming of the scene, a malfunction with the puppet lead to the near strangling of the actor, Oliver Robins. The crew, looking on, simply thought they were watching an amazing performance by a young talent, having no idea he was actually being strangled. Even when Robins screamed out, “I can’t breathe” director Stephen Speilberg thought he was ad-libbing. It wasn’t until the boy started to turn purple that Spielberg stepped in an removed the clown’s arms from his neck.
A REAL-LIFE TRAGEDY
Dominique Dunne stunned audiences with her performance as the oldest Freeling child and she had a bright future ahead of her. In the year prior to the release of the first Poltergeist film Dunne began dating Jon Sweeney whom she had met while he was working at a restaurant. The two began living together shortly after their relationship began but it was far from a fairy tale ending.
The two fought constantly. These fights escalated to violence leading the actress to eventually leave Sweeney. A month later Sweeney showed up at Dunne’s home demanding to speak to her. She wouldn’t let him in the house and the two spoke just outside where the conversation became a heated argument that moved indoors.
Fellow actor David Packer was on scene and heard the fighting and sounds of violence and called the police who refused to come citing jurisdiction. Packer raced inside to find Sweeney standing over Dunn’s unconscious body.
She was rushed to Cedar Sinai Medical Center where doctors evaluated her condition. 7 days later her parents made the decision to remove her from life-support. Sweeney was arrested and tried but convicted only of manslaughter. He served 3 years of his 6 year sentence and was released. He has since changed his name and gone into hiding.
THE GOOD SPIRIT AND THE EVIL SPIRIT
For the sequel to Poltergeist, the script called for a Native American Shaman. In casting the role Stephen Speilberg hired actor Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who was also a genuine Native American Shaman.
Upon arriving to the set for the first time Sampson was reportedly unnerved. Productions was delayed for several hours while Sampson worked to bless the set and remove the evil that was apparently present. While this seemed to do the trick, the production once again used real human skeletons.
Sampson suffered from Scleroderma and during a routine operation in June of 1957, he passed away. At the time of his death Sampson was 53 years old and had been ill for quite some time. Believers in the curse support the theory that when Sampson performed the blessing on the set he opened up his soul to the restless spirits that he had originally sensed.
Another actor on the sequel, Julian Beck, was suffering from stomach cancer when production began on the film. Shortly after completing his scenes for Poltergiest II, Beck succumb to his illness and passed away.
THE CURSE FOLLOWS
Actor Lou Perryman has worked on the original film in a minor role as a construction worker. Perryman was relaxing at his him in Austin, TX when he received an unknown visitor. The young man, Seth Tatum had wandered from his own home and found himself at Perryman’s home. The two entered the house together but only Tatum left.
Sometime later, police came to Perryman’s house where they found that he had been bludgeoned and nearly hacked to pieces with an axe. They discovered that Tatum had left his own home and wandered for miles before ending up at Perryman’s door. Believers theorize that the curse led Tatum passed hundreds of potential victims to end up at Perryman’s home.
Actress JoBeth Williams who played Diane Feeling, reported that during filming the first film, she would always come home from a day on set to find pictures and objects in her home out of place and tilted. Even when she would fix them only to return and find them same occurrence.
Author James Khan was tasked with writing the novelization of the film. While completing the book, the building he was working in was struck by lightning. Khan reports that the facing of the air-conditioning unit was blown across the room, striking him. Lights began flickering rapidly and video games in the room started playing themselves.
LIFE CUT SHORT
One of the most tragic stories to come out of the curse of Poltergeist is the dead of the trilogy’s young star, Heather O’Rourke. In 1988, during the filming of the final film of the trilogy, Heather fell ill and was rushed to Cedar Sinai. During surgery, the young star passed away.
It was originally and mistakenly reported that Heather had died from the flu. It would turn out that he cause of death was a bit more controversial. When she was born, Heather suffered from a stenosis of the intestine. She was misdiagnosed as having Crohn’s Disease. A hospital spokesperson confirmed that Heather died from septic shock during surgery to repair a bowel obstruction.
THE CURSE CONTINUES
Because Hollywood has apparently run out of ideas for movies, reboots are the hot ticket right now. Sadly, a deeply-loved classic like The Poltergeist wasn’t spared from this horrific treatment. The director of the reboot, Gil Kenan, reported multiple instances of equipment failure on the set and additional problems at home, claiming that his rental house was haunted by a woman in a black dress.
So I guess the question becomes, is Universal Studios inviting trouble by bringing aspects of this original film to life in the form of a maze at Halloween Horror Nights? Considering Orlando does a better job with houses then Hollywood, are we more cursed than them?
Let’s just hope that Universal hasn’t been getting their props from medical research facilities…