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Poltergeist may be even more terrifying off-screen than it is on-screen. The horror franchise—launched in 1982—birthed two sequels (in 1986 and 1988) as well as a recent reboot (out May 22), starring Sam Rockwell. But what's even scarier than the premise of angry ghosts haunting an innocent family is the strange real-life occurrences that happened around the filming of the original trilogy.
Whether or not you believe in curses, and particularly this one—famously dubbed the Poltergeist Curse—you have to admit the odd happenings are more than just a little eerie. Young actress Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne (a.k.a. the little girl sitting in front of the TV in the iconic image), met her maker too soon, when she died at the age of 12 from cardiac arrest caused by septic shock. She passed away on Feb. 1, 1988, just four months before Poltergeist III, her final film, was released. Dominique Dunne, who played Carol Anne's older sister in the first Poltergeist, was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend five months after the release of the film. In 1985, actor Julian Beck, who played Kane, the evil reverend in the second Poltergeist, died of stomach cancer, while Will Sampson, who played Taylor the Medicine Man, passed away in 1987 from post-operative kidney failure. Between 1982 and 1988—the six years during which the three films released—the Poltergeist franchise saw four deaths from its cast members.
Though not often cited as part of the Poltergeist Curse, the gruesome death of actor Lou Perryman, who had a small part as Pugsley in the original Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg film, reignited interest in the curse in 2009. He was murdered with an axe in his own home. It's not unusual for a movie 33 years old to have cast member deaths, but the abnormal manner of Perryman's death was worthy of note among the unfortunate events surrounding the film.
Many people have cited the skeletons in the film for the curse—later revealed to be real dead bodies, because they were apparently cheaper than fake ones. In an effort to cleanse the set of evil spirits, actor Will Sampson (who is also a shaman) performed an actual exorcism after shooting one night. Actress JoBeth Williams, who plays the mom, Diane Freeling, has said that during filming, she would always come home to find pictures on her wall crooked, even if she'd straighten them every day. Spooky, right?
With the release of the new Poltergeist, horror buffs are wondering, Is the curse back? Was it ever real, or all just terrible coincidence?
In a recent Reddit AMA, director Gil Kenan of the new Poltergeist detailed some unnerving events during filming: "The location for the house, during shooting, I chose because it had a strange and unnecessary field that the houses of this particular community were built around," he wrote. "And we found—throughout production—that we had persistent and repeatable equipment field only on that strange plot of land. For instance, lights that could turn on anywhere else in the neighborhood would blow out the second you'd try to light them on this plot." It's unclear whether this is spooky for reasons other than something totally normal and logical. Plus, considering Kenan has been "trying to catch a curse since [he] was 11," it's possible some of the oddities have been amplified in his head.
But here's the scariest and latest chapter of the mysterious curse: Just last month, a family in Sacramento claimed to have experienced horrifying events after purchasing the Cabbage Patch Doll that once belonged to Heather O'Rourke. The details of the case can be found here, along with the email the couple sent paranormal investigator Paul Dale Roberts (co-owner of Halo Paranormal Investigations). The husband, Dusty, said that since he and his wife Jamie-Lynn are huge fans of Poltergeist, they excitedly bought the doll off eBay, but terrible things started happening shortly thereafter:
The doll arrived on the 30th of October. We were in awe. Halloween day, we left for our anniversary trip to Reno. Our anniversary is Nov 1. While in Reno, we got a call that my wife's step brother had been in a terrible accident while playing soccer. He ended up with a ruptured spleen and broken ribs. Due to internal bleeding, he was hospitalized for 5 days. 3 days later, my father-in-law became ill. Within 2 days, he was in a coma. He was diagnosed with encefalitis. He remained in a coma for 5-6 days and we almost lost him. Miraculously, he woke up and was released after a 9 day stint. He is still in rehab for brain damage. We thought we could be back to our lives after a very trying few weeks. On Dec 2nd, my wife found out her childhood friend, John had committed suicide by gunshot. Dec 8th, our good friend Dawn died of heart failure...she was 33. Shortly after, my mother was having agonizing pain in her hip. She ended up having surgery. On Jan 7th, my wife's Uncle Jeff (not a blood relative, he was her best friend's father who took my wife in on more than one occasion as a child) passed away from a heart attack. He had no known medical conditions. January 26th, my wife was hospitalized for the night with a rare intestinal infection. The end of January, I left my job for a new company. On Feb 12, I was let go. Feb 14th, we had to put our dear dog, Zeus down. Early March, our 4 year old Pomeranian lost a tooth.
Shortly after, my wife was told something was wrong with her heart and they suspended her driver's license. She has had to wear heart monitors for 24 hours twice and they still don't know what is wrong. On March 27th, due to an error, Kern County Child Support levied my account right before a bunch of debit purchases and auto drafts cleared. This left us with a negative account balance of almost $2,000. My car broke down two days prior. Last week, the doctors notified my mother that her surgery not only failed, she had a fracture in her hip. She had a hip replacement April 8th. On top of all of this, my wife and I have not gotten along. There is constant tension in the air and the topic of divorce has come up more than once.
I called up the paranormal investigator on this case to hear his take on this curse, and if there have been any follow-ups with the doll owners. Paul Dale Roberts has worked on thousands of cases since he started in 2006, and he does indeed believe the Poltergeist Curse exists. "Yeah, I believe that negative energy can be thrown upon something. It can be thrown upon any inanimate object and stay there. When a person gets around this negative energy, something bad could happen to them. They may get sick, someone close to them can get sick, there can be a death."
He believes the doll was responsible for Dustin and Jamie-Lynn's recent misfortunes as well. He explained: "There was some type of curse on it. I mean, it has the history. It goes all the way back to The Poltergeist movie. Steven Spielberg supposedly used human bones from India, which upsets the spirit world, which caused the curse. So yeah I believe that the curse was manifesting from the doll and when it was trying to prevent the cleansing, which caused me to become dizzy." He and his wife Deanna Stinson, a psychic, work on cases together; she confirmed an evil spirit attached to the doll.
When he tried to cleanse the household, he felt a resistant spirit. "I felt very, very dizzy," he says. "I fell off-balance. It was almost like something was trying to prevent me from cleansing the doll." He believes the cleansing was successful though. The couple still owns the doll, but now keeps it in a blessed glass case. "Things are calm now," he says.
So is the latest Poltergeist in danger? Roberts doesn't think so. "No, even though this movie is a remake of Poltergeist, I don't think it has a connection to the curse," he tells Complex. "I think everybody is relatively safe." Whew. Perhaps we can all go see the new Poltergeist without fear of IRL repercussions.