Poltergeist Curse – Just an Unnerving Hollywood Fluke?

by Les Hewitt, January 2017 – Updated April 2021

Poltergeist Curse – Just an Unnerving Hollywood Fluke?
Poltergeist was a blockbuster hit in the 80s and fans claim the trilogy has a poltergeist curse. Source: Blumhouse.com

Silly Superstition or is the Poltergeist Curse Something Real?

Are curses real? Can a Hollywood set or crew be haunted? This is what many people have asked themselves about the blockbuster hit trilogy, Poltergeist, due to the uncanny number of tragedies on and off the set. Most people remember the sweet blond girl, Heather O’Rourke, who plays little Carol Ann. She was the main target of the poltergeist in the movies. Her real-life death before the completion of the third movie shocked the world. However, because there were so many other deaths and darkness surrounding those involved with the trilogy, fans have dubbed the phenomena the Poltergeist Curse.

“They’re here!”

Those two words helped to promote a film series of the 1980s that is often regarded in the same sentences as the likes of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies. The Poltergeist trilogy is the story of a family called the Freelings. The moment this middle-class family moves into their new home in a typical American suburb, odd things begin to happen. During a violent storm, the truth about their new home is revealed; the entire neighborhood has been constructed on top of an abandoned graveyard that no-one but the developers knew about. The souls that have been horribly desecrated look to take out revenge on the Freeling children in particular. Thus, in the story, the family faces their own poltergeist curse.

Real Paranorms

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Real Skeletons on the Set

Fresh from bringing us the world-famed adventurer, Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg was on a role and could seemingly do no wrong. Spielberg’s eye for realism might be responsible for one of the greatest curses that Hollywood has suffered to date – the Poltergeist Curse. During an interview for VH1’s, I Love the 80s show, actress and star of Poltergeist, Jo-Beth Williams, was the first to speak up about the strange things that began to affect filming and production. Williams revealed that the skeletons used in an infamous scene from the first film were not props as everyone on set had assumed. They were real skeletons of real people that had been acquired from Carolina Biological. This is a medical supply organization that provided medical schools with real human skeletons for research purposes.

Real skeletons were used on the set of Poltergeist. Source: twitter.com

Real skeletons were used on the set of Poltergeist. Source: twitter.com

When she made this announcement, viewers, and fans laughed it all off as banter and just another atypical Hollywood story. Williams’s version was later confirmed by Prop Master Bruce Kasson. While Kasson denied anything unnerving happening on set during filming, he did provide insights as to why real skeletons were used during production. Replicas simply did not exist and it was much more cost effective to use real skeletons than custom made ones.

The “Possessed” Clown

Kasson may not have suffered any disturbing occurrences while on set, but several other members of the production crew did. Oliver Robins was a child actor who landed the role of the youngest member of the Freeling clan. One scene involved a possessed clown puppet that tried to strangle Robbie Freeling. The watching crew initially had no idea that something had gone wrong with the remote control used to operate the clown. As far as they were concerned, it was merely an extraordinary performance of a rather tense scene. Fortunately for Robins, one of the crew realized what was taking place before any lasting damage was done and took steps. But other members of the cast were not so lucky.

True Life Drama of the Older Sister

The Poltergeist “Curse” was also observed off-stage on a very personal level. In her first major motion picture role, Dominique Dunne wowed audiences with her portrayal of Dana Freeling, eldest daughter of the family. Stardom was only just around the corner were it not for an all too common occurrence that took away the bright future that Dunne was destined for. Approximately a year before the release of Poltergeist, Dunne began dating a man called John Sweeney. The couple met at Sweeney’s place of work, a restaurant called Ma Maison.

A few weeks into their relationship, the pair moved in together. According to reports, they fought constantly. The trigger for all of the problems was Sweeney’s overbearing sense of jealousy and possessiveness. In late August 1982, reports indicated that Sweeney had pulled lumps of Dunne’s hair out from the roots during an argument. Around a month after that, a witness came forward with a report that Sweeney was in the middle of attacking Dunne once again. On this occasion, he had thrown her violently to the floor and had both hands around her neck. Both occasions, Dunne had managed to engineer an escape from the scene but was not to be so fortunate a third time.

Abuse on the Set

Another month afterward, Dunne was rehearsing for a new role in a new television production called “V”. A good friend and potential series co-star David Packer had been invited around to assist. Both were deep into the process when Sweeney once again turned up and demanded to talk to her. After a little cajoling, Dunne reluctantly agreed. However, she would not allow Sweeney into the house and went outside instead. The pair talked for several minutes, but things got out of hand.

Inside the house, Packer said that he heard impact sounds, a pair of screams, followed by a thud. He called the police, but they refused to respond because the incident was taking place outside of their jurisdiction. Packer then called a friend and revealed that should anything happen to him, Sweeney was to blame. Then he went outside and found Sweeney kneeling over Dunne. She was unconscious. John Sweeney actually insisted that Packer call the police.

A Tragic Death

They rushed Dunne to Cedar Sinai Medical Facility where doctors discovered that her heart had stopped beating. Dunne went on life-support and doctors evaluated her over the next several days. Brain scans revealed that as her brain suffered oxygen deprivation. Hence, there was barely any cerebral activity taking place and the situation was not likely to change. On 4th November 1982, her parents made the horrible decision to switch off her life-support equipment. Several days after this, Dunne’s final performance was broadcast on the TV series Hill Street Blues. Ironically, she was playing the part of an abused teen and the episode was recorded on 27 September – a day after the second serious domestic abuse attack on her. Dunne’s appearance in that episode required no make-up. The bruises on display were genuine and the result of the previous day’s events.

Dominique Dunne was just 22 years old when she passed away at the hands of her boyfriend. Source: Pics of Celebrities.

Dominique Dunne was just 22 years old when she passed away at the hands of her boyfriend. Source: Pics of Celebrities.

John Sweeney went to trial. Although courts found him guilty, they did not imprison him for murder. Sweeney spent just over three years of his six-year sentence in prison for manslaughter. After his release, he took on an alias and disappeared from public view.

The death of Dominique Dunne is not enough to solicit claims of a curse against the production, at least when taken on its own merits. As tragic and preventable as her death was, it’s just one more case of domestic violence taken too far. Dominique Dunne was not the only star of the franchise to meet an unfortunate and/or untimely end. Three other stars of the series had their own lives cut short in tragic or mysterious circumstances. And it could have been even more.


In the first sequel to the highly successful blockbuster, the script called for a Native American Shaman. Always the consummate professional, Steven Spielberg actually hired a Native American Shaman to play the role. Actor Will Sampson felt unnerved when he arrived on set for the first time. He used his thorough knowledge of the mystical nature of his tribe in order to bless the entire set and rid it of the evil that was apparently present. This delayed the initial filming for hours, but it seemed to do the trick. However, just like the first film of the franchise, they used real human skeletons once again.

Sampson suffered from Scleroderma and had an operation in June 1987. During this routine operation, Sampson passed away. Supporters of the curse believe that the blessing that he performed on the set of the second film somehow opened up his soul to the restless spirits that Sampson originally sensed. At the time of his death, Sampson was 53 years old but he had been ill for quite some time. His weight fluctuated from 260 lb to as little as 140 lb.

Another victim of ill-health connected to the franchise was that of actor Julian Beck. When filming began, Beck was already suffering from advanced stomach cancer. Not long after filming had finished, this condition proved to be terminal. Both Peck and Sampson fought disease and ill-health and had lived long and productive lives.

Bludgeoned Construction Worker

Another member of the cast of the opening film was Lou Perryman. Perryman only had a minor role in the film and played a construction worker. Long after the series had come to an end, Perryman was relaxing at his home in Austin, Texas when he received a visitor. His visitor was supposedly a man who went by the name, Seth Tatum. The pair entered the property together, but Seth later left the house alone.

Sometime later, police went to the house and found the grisly scene of an ax murder. Someone had bludgeoned Perryman repeatedly and almost hacked him to pieces. According to investigators, Tatum had left his own home and wandered aimlessly for miles. Then he eventually chose a house occupied by a member of the cast of Poltergeist. Tatum passed by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other properties before finding Perryman’s. Could something have drawn Tatum to the house he ended up at?

The Young Heather O’Rourke

Without doubt, the face, voice, and star of the entire trilogy was Heather O’Rourke. When she was just five years old, she was having lunch with her mother at MGM when Spielberg happened to notice. The day after this innocent meeting took place, renowned child actress Drew Barrymore was on the schedule to audition for the part of Carol Ann Freeling. Spielberg signed O’Rourke for the part there and then in the restaurant. The rest, as they say, is history. The youngster popularised the catchphrase, “They’re here!” with her sweet and innocent little voice. Today, the phrase is one of the most recognizable lines used in Hollywood.

Heather O’Rourke played the part of Carol Ann in Poltergeist. Sadly, she passed at the age of 12. Source: Wicked Horror

Heather O’Rourke played the part of Carol Ann in Poltergeist. Sadly, she passed at the age of 12. Source: Wicked Horror

In 1988, during the filming of the third movie in the trilogy, Heather O’Rourke fell ill and was rushed to Cedars Sinai. During surgery, the youngster sadly passed away. In the immediate aftermath of her death, O’Rourke’s manager wrongly attributed the cause of death to nothing more sinister than the flu. The true cause of death was a lot more controversial. When she was born, Heather suffered from stenosis of the intestine. Her doctors never diagnosed the problem and thus, they did not treat it. Doctors believed that Heather actually had Crohn’s Disease instead.

O’Rourke’s True Death

A hospital spokesman confirmed that Heather died from septic shock during surgery to repair an acute bowel obstruction. A couple of months after the tragic loss of the youngster, her parents’ attorney filed a lawsuit for wrongful death. Doctors at the Kaiser Foundation in San Diego had monitored Heather since birth. The nature of this lawsuit was the misdiagnosis of her condition, and ultimately the wrong treatments provided. The Kaiser Foundation denied the accusations. They believed that their doctors performed every action above board and that they had not committed any malpractice. However, Kaiser settled out of court and nobody knows any further details of this resolution.

Other Events Alluding to the Poltergeist Curse

In reality, a poltergeist is a spirit that makes its presence known by the movement of objects and sudden noises. If there is a Poltergeist Curse that bears the name of the German ‘noisy spirit’, then there is more to it than deaths of some of the cast. The traditions of the actual poltergeist entity might explain what happened to author James Kahn. Kahn was commissioned with producing a novel based on the first film. As work on the novel approached conclusion, a sudden bolt of lightning struck the exterior of the building that he was working in, knocking out all of the electrics. Kahn reported that an air-conditioning cover flew across the room and collided with his back. Several seconds after that, the electricity returned and a bank of arcade video game machines began to play themselves.

Other reports of poltergeist activity came from the home of Jo-Beth Williams. Every night when she returned home from filming, all of the photos and artwork hanging in her home were askew. Each time she discovered this, she would fix it, only to have the same thing occur.

The Poltergeist Curse has affected many of the cast and crew members of the trilogy. Source: Alchetron.

The Poltergeist Curse has affected many of the cast and crew members of the trilogy. Source: Alchetron.

A Thwarted Death

In at least the following instance, the possibility of the Poltergeist Curse actually had a positive effect and might have saved a life! Actor Richard Lawson was a passenger on the USAir Flight 405 that crashed on March 22, 1992. Circumstances dictated that Lawson swapped seats with another passenger. Lawson survived the accident, but the passenger that took his original seat was one of the 21 fatalities.

Is it possible that a film franchise could harbor a terrible curse? Did one fateful decision bring on years of unexplained phenomena? It is true that actors have passed away during productions of various film and television shows. However, the Poltergeist trilogy seems to have more than a normal share of tragedy.

Blumhouse http://www.blumhouse.com/2015/12/22/the-shocking-history-of-the-poltergeist-curse/
Snopes http://www.snopes.com/movies/films/poltergeist.asp
Pop Sugar http://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/Poltergeist-Curse-True-Story-37392582
Movie Pilot https://moviepilot.com/posts/2958482

Sites Pulled 20 January 2017

Les Hewitt

Les Hewitt

Les currently resides in London and is a freelance writer with a long-standing passion for the unexplained and paranormal. In his spare time, he enjoys astronomy and Xboxing. It's a big Universe full of wonders.