Material Basis: On The So-Called Poltergeist Movie Curse

On February 1, 1988 actress Heather O’Rourke, of the three original Poltergeist movies, died of cardiac arrest caused by septic shock. Originally misdiagnosed in 1987 as having Crohn’s disease, O’Rourke was actually suffering from a congenital intestinal stenosis. She expired on the operating table, as surgeons worked desperately to remove an acute bowel obstruction.

She was 12. It was four months before the release of Poltergeist III, and before post-production on the film could be completed.

Was the Poltergeist franchise “cursed”? And if we can make that determination…what does “cursed” really mean?

When rattling off lists of supposed “movie curses,” Poltergeist (and its sequels) is usually somewhere at the top—not only for the early death of O’Rourke, but those of a series of other cast members:

  • Dominique Dunne, 22, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend the same year the movie was released. She died four months after the release of Poltergeist.
  • Julian Beck, who portrayed the memorable villain of Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Henry Kane, died of stomach cancer in 1985. Beck knew he had the cancer before accepting the role—the disease possibly adding to his cadaverous “look” in the film. The movie was released the year after his death, and his role was re-cast for 1988’s Poltergeist III.
  • Will Sampson who played Taylor the medicine man in Poltergeist II, died a year after the film was released, of post-operative kidney failure. He was 53.
Dominique Dunne

Other Poltergeist actors, such as Zelda Rubenstein, have also since died, but under much more “normal” circumstances (for example, Rubenstein passed away in 2010 at the ripe old age of 76).

Does all this constitute a “curse,” however?

Let’s take the case of Beck first. He knew he had what would likely be terminal cancer when accepting the role of Kane. Certainly, it is possible that him possessing that sort of foreknowledge and tragic intimacy with death gave the role he played an extra “level.” But how could he truly be “cursed” by the movie series?

Julian Beck in “Poltergeist II”

The death of Sampson sounds more like “curse” material, in that he seemed to have a better “shot” at recovery than Beck (though his illness was pretty chronic as well)…and perhaps the movie’s “dark aura” brought his health over the edge. But that, in itself, would not be able to definitively peg the Poltergeist series as “cursed.” His role in Poltergeist II was very important, but not on the iconic level necessary for such a classification.

However, it is the weird and untimely passings of the young O’Rourke and Dunne that really clinch it for me. These young women were at the very precipice of breaking out in their careers, and had their entire lives in front of them. With Dunne dying four months after the release of the first movie, and her on-screen little sister O’Rourke dying four months before the release of the last movie of the original trilogy, it almost feels like tragic and macabre “bookends” to the franchise.

What a “curse” might look like

But it seems to me that in this discussion of Poltergeist—as in similar discussions involving Superman and the unreleased movie Atuk—perhaps the use of the vague and frankly generic term “curse” is problematic. What does “curse” even mean? It conjures up visions of very angry mystical old ladies with a vendetta. But surely, this is not the case with Poltergeist?

No. Not cranky witches with a “curse” falling from the ends of their tongues. But definitely, something that might have attracted bad karma for the franchise.

Allegedly, both Poltergeist and Poltergeist II were filmed using real skeletons as props. In a film series based on the premise that restless spirits were angry that their graves were desecrated, this is sort of a creepy coincidence. But is it true?

a possibly real skeleton prop

I found this quote on a Straight Dope message board. It refers to part of the Poltergeist series Wikipedia article that apparently has since been removed, so take it with a grain of salt:

In 2002, on an episode of VH1’s I Love the ’80s, JoBeth Williams revealed that the production used real human skeletons when filming the swimming pool scene. Many of the people on the set were alarmed by this and led others to believe the “curse” on the film series was because of this use. Craig Reardon, a special effects artist who worked on the film, commented at the time that it was cheaper to purchase real skeletons than plastic ones, as the plastic ones involved labor in making them.

But even if real skeletons of unknown origin were used in the making of the movies, does that necessarily mean they brought a “curse” upon the set? Or did the very idea that they were using skeletons subliminally creep out everyone enough to “plant” the idea of a possible curse from Day 1? And did O’Rourke and/or Dunne overhear such rumblings on the set?

Or is the act of making a movie itself—especially with such specific occult and spiritualist overtones—sort of like a type of ritual?

There is a essential part of occult ritual called “the material basis.” It’s the thing or place the spirit needs to inhabit in order to communicate with the magician. This could be smoke from incense, leaves blown in the wind, an animal (wild or domestic)…or a human.

For example, the person possessed by the spirit of of a “ghost” or other otherworldly being during a seance. That person is the “material basis” for the entity to communicate.

a “material basis” could be a scary clown doll, for instance

From the book Sinister Forces, Book Three by Peter Levenda (which breaks down the connection between magick and moviemaking in great detail):

“To evoke them only needs a suitable medium, and the will to summon them. They will then clothe themselves in the molecules of whatever medium is available, arranging them around themselves into a semblance of what they are and what they represent…”

A “suitable medium” could be a movie itself: a matrix of actors, set designs, props, dialogue, special effects, and so on. The movie itself becomes the “material basis.”

For a film like Poltergeist, using real skeletons as props would only greater strengthen the veracity of the movie to its subject matter…making it an even more powerful “material basis” for our theoretical spirits to descend into.

And what are the Poltergeist movies about? They are essentially about the sacrifice of child, specifically a female child, to the world of spirits. These spirits seek to drag this child to “the other side”—which is basically the land of the dead. The spirits use things like a TV set—similar to a movie screen—as a medium through which to express themselves.

Which, of course, gets kind of meta…if the “real life” spirits or entities or demons or whatever (if you believe in such things) are also using the actual movie itself as a material basis to express themselves. By doing so, the film becomes a “portal,” much like the movie’s TV set, between the world of the dead and the living, between the world of the “real” and the world of fantasy.

Heather O’Rourke’s character Carol Anne is the thread that ties all three movies together. A plot point is that since her first encounter with the spirits, they now follow her everywhere, regardless of moving out of the “haunted house” of the first movie or not. She can’t escape these spirits. The same way that, after Poltergeist III, even though the actress was done with the movies…they might not have been done with her.

I have to question if the sum total of the films and their content, plus O’Rourke’s young age and naturalistic, skillful performance, all created an extreme powerful material basis for something—in the same way 1994’s The Crow and 2008’s The Dark Knight and so many other movies which were ironic last roles in the lives of their actors provided…something. A material basis.

And perhaps Dunne, Beck, Sampson, and others all got caught up in that material basis, that matrix of correspondences, that unintentional cinematic “ritual”…maybe unlike the movie’s stars Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, the aforementioned actors all had certain preexisting things in their lives that might have made them more vulnerable…O’Rourke had a congenital birth defect she knew nothing about, that silently ticked like a time-bomb inside of her. Dunne had a volatile boyfriend. And Beck & Sampson were dealing with highly serious health issues.

In the same way, Heath Ledger had a serious drug problem, Brandon Lee had an obsession  with death sparked by the untimely passing of his father, and so on. These “pre-conditions”  only add to the material basis, “egged on” by a very dark subject matter, the “weight” of taking on the role of a possibly very iconic character, etc.

Lastly, it should be noted that the “mechanisms” that unfurl such so-called “curses” on films will differ widely from film-to-film. In the case of the original Superman franchise, it might be traced back, in part, to a public letter by one of the creators of the character literally placing a curse on the film. With Atuk, it is less clear…how could a comedy about a friendly Eskimo possibly be dark? Perhaps in that case, just the “idea” that John Belushi, the first man offered the role, died tragically not soon after reading the script put a superstition and morbidity over the entire proceedings that then was “carried” (at least subconsciously) by each subsequent actor. In these examples, the driving force of the curse is not the thematic quality of the movies themselves, but the behind-the-scenes elements.

In 2015, a remake of Poltergeist was released. As far as I know, no “curse” has impacted the movie…except, perhaps, at the box-office.

NOTE: That “acclaimed” gossip website Crazy Days And Nights has offered up several “blind items” over the years that can be interpreted as referring to O’Rourke and the misfortunes surrounding the Poltergeist films. These blind items are SO grotesque and incendiary in nature that if they are indeed true…it’s a BIG, BIG thing that is beyond the scope of this post. Not going to touch them with a ten-foot pole here, but…if you’re doing a deep-dive down the rabbit-hole, just letting you know that those rumors do exist.