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Poltergeist Deaths

Claim:   Several strange deaths are connected to the Poltergeist film series.


Origins:   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 that the productions were in some way "cursed" due to the nature of the films themselves, as if the evil spirits conjured up 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.

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 Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke have since died, Oliver Robins (the lad who played the boy) appears to be still with us.

Three horror films comprise the Poltergeist trilogy: Scene from Poltergeist Poltergeist (1982), Poltergeist II (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988). Each recounts an episode in the lives of the Freelings, a fictitious family who have the bad luck to take up residence in homes inhabited by spirits intent upon kidnapping their kids or to send their kids to live in such places.

(As to what the word itself means, a poltergeist 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 that poltergeists are drawn to homes in which there are prepubescent children, especially girls.)

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 — indeed, expected — two were not. It's the combination of the two unexpected deaths which lies at the heart of every rumor about a curse.

22-year old Dominique Dunne died on 4 November 1982 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, four days after her boyfriend choked her into a coma from which she never awoke. Weeks earlier, Dunne had ended her abusive live-in relationship with Los Angeles chef John Sweeney. On the night of 30 October 1982, he dropped by their former shared residence to plead with her to take him back. The conversation did not go as he'd hoped, and the encounter ended with him strangling her for what was later determined to be 4 to 6 minutes, then leaving her for dead in her driveway.

Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced in November, 1983, and released in 1986 after serving only 3 years, 8 months of a 6 1/2 year sentence. His sentence is controversial to this day.

Poltergeist, the film in which Dunne appeared, had been released earlier that year, in June.

12-year-old Heather O'Rourke died of septic shock on 1 February 1988 at the Children's Hospital in San Diego. What had been thought to be a bout of ordinary flu launched her into cardiac arrest during the drive to the local hospital as bacterial toxins set loose by a bowel obstruction made their way into her bloodstream. Her heart was successfully restarted and she was flown by helicopter to the much-larger Children's Hospital where she underwent an operation to remove the obstruction. The toxins rampaging through her system proved too much, and she died on the operating table.

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

O'Rourke appeared in all three Poltergeist movies. Poltergeist III had yet to be released at the time of her death, leading to rumors that she had expired during shooting and a double was used to complete the picture. O'Rourke's family and agent said at the time of her death that her scenes for Poltergeist III had long been completed back in June 1987, but writer/director Gary Sherman has maintained that filming of Poltergeist III had not yet finished when O'Rourke died, necessitating changes to complete the film in her absence.

The other two deaths 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."

60-year-old Julian Beck died of stomach cancer on 14 September 1985 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Like O'Rourke, he expired during the period between filming and release, but in his case the film in question was Poltergeist II, which was released in May 1986. Unlike O'Rourke, his death was not unexpected; he had been battling the cancer for 18 months.

53-year-old Will Sampson died on 3 June 1987 in a Houston hospital after receiving a heart-lung transplant 6 weeks earlier. The cause of his death was ascribed to severe pre-operative malnutrition and post-operative kidney failure and fungal infection. It has been said he knew his chances for survival were small due to his weakened condition prior to surgery.

Like Beck, Sampson appeared in only one film in the series, Poltergeist II, released in May 1986. He was best known for his portrayal of the Indian who feigned being mute in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

An extreme version of the "curse" rumor asserts that everyone who appeared in these movies is now dead. That news must come as quite a shock to numerous thespians, most notably Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Jo Beth Williams (Diane Freeling), and Tom Skerritt (Bruce Gardner) — they all think they're still alive and continue to ply their trade in movies and television shows despite their deceasedness.

Barbara "spirited" Mikkelson

Last updated:   13 July 2014

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    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.