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What Is The 'Poltergeist' Curse? Is Spielberg's Beloved Horror Film Truly Hexed?

Why have so many actors featured in the "Poltergeist" franchise suffered from mysterious deaths?

By Eric Shorey

A house built on an ancient Native American burial ground. A child who travels to the great beyond. Spiritual mediums battling the forces of evil. And most bizarrely of all, a handful of mysterious deaths.

Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's 1982 film "Poltergeist" is a beloved horror classic. Using inventive special effects and compelling character development, the movie is frequently ranked amongst the greatest entries into the genre of all time. "Poltergeist" would go on to spawn several sequels (and a critically reviled reboot) — but each attempt at continuing the franchise is met with considerable fear. That's because many fans of the film believe these scary movies, in reality, are cursed. So what is the "Poltergeist" curse... and is it true?

The original "Poltergeist" trilogy tells the story of the Freeling family and their terrifying encounters with the supernatural. Gifted with a magical essence, the youngest daughter of this average suburban household, Carol Anne, is relentlessly pursued by a cavalcade of malicious spirits, including that of a sadistic doomsday cult leader named Kane.

JoBeth Williams looks on as Craig T. Nelson holds Oliver Robins in a scene from the film "Poltergeist," 1982. Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

The legend of the so-called Poltergeist Curse began the same year the first movie was released. Actress Dominique Young, who made her debut in "Poltergeist" as the elder sister of Carol Anne, was strangled to death by her former boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney, in the wake of an argument between the two. According to a New York Times article at the time, Dunne was put on life support after the attack from her former beau but passed away five days later. Sweeney would go on to be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, sparking outrage amidst the perpetrator's family, who had hoped less serious charges would be pursued, according to a 1983 article from The Freelance Star.

Next in the string of spooky deaths was that of Julian Beck, who played the aforementioned apocalyptic prognosticator Kane in "Poltergeist II." Beck would not live to see the release of the sequel, which would be his final film: He passed away at the age of 60 after a battle with stomach cancer on September 14, 1985, according to The New York Times.

A third death of an actor associated with the film started rousing spectral suspicions. Will Sampson had played a kindly ghost named Taylor who protected Carol Anne in the second film of the series. He died on June 3, 1987, after a lengthy illness caused by a chronic degenerative condition, according to The Herald Journal. He was 53 years old.

Not long after that, Heather O'Rourke, the young actress who played protagonist Carol Anne in all three films, would pass away rather suddenly. Doctors had been attempting to repair an acute bowel obstruction caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine, but could not save the young thespian in time, according to the LA Times. O'Rourke was pronounced dead on February 1, 1988. She was 12 years old.

There was one other death as well: actress and activist Zelda Rubinstein, who played the plucky, diminutive psychic in the three original films, passed away from natural causes at the age of 76, according to CNN. Her death is not usually connected to the so-called curse, as she was not exactly cut down in her prime.

The shocking nature of O'Rourke's death solidified for many that something suspicious was afoot. Rumors about which members of the cast would die next began swirling about (and were more difficult to debunk before the advent of the internet): For a time, some mistakenly believed that Oliver Robins, the actor who played Carol Anne's brother Robbie Freeling in the first two films, had died in a car crash or had been mistakenly strangled by the mechanical clown doll in the first movie, according to Snopes, a fact checking website that covers urban legends, and Bloody Disgusting, a website that covers horror films. A more extreme version of the rumor had some claiming that every actor who played a main character in the film had died. This, also, is patently untrue: Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Jo Beth Williams (Diane Freeling), and Tom Skerritt (Bruce Gardner) are all very much alive.

When "Poltergeist" was rebooted in 2015, some wondered whether the stars would be safe. Although the movie was widely panned, it turns out no one has perished (yet!) as a result of their involvement. That being said, director Gil Kenan noted some paranormal phenomena during filming.

"Lights that could turn on anywhere else in the neighborhood would blow out the second you’d try to light them on [the set],” Kenan wrote in a Reddit AMA. “Also, I used a lot of aerial drone photography in the film, and the drone-pilots were never able to lock in the GPS signal in this field. We would have to move 10 feet away to launch the craft."

“The house that I rented during filming was straight-up legit haunted by a female spirit dressed in black,” Kenan continued. “And I became aware of her within the first few days of staying in the house. And only after I left did I receive a call from the previous owner, who had moved back in, who was terrified by the goings on in the house, and wanted to see if I had experienced any of it. So it was an incredible real-life inspiration for filming that followed me home.”

A series of relatively explainable deaths does not a curse make, but superstitions run wild in Hollywood, where the span and scope of the "Poltergeist" legend has grown in the audience's imaginations. In a series about the terror of the afterlife, fans have obviously let their fears run wild into the real world.

[Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images]