There is a popular urban legend which purports that the Poltergeist movies and those who participated in them are cursed. One theory attributes the curse to the use of actual human skeletons during the filming of the 1982 original, including in the unforgettably climactic pool scene.
In an interview for TVLand, Poltergeist actress JoBeth Williams recalled, “In my innocence and naiveté, I assumed that these were not real skeletons. I assumed that they were prop skeletons made out of plastic or rubber. I found out, as did the crew, that they were using real skeletons.”
The following five actors from the Poltergeist films all died shortly after their work on the films was completed.
Heather O’Rourke, the child actress who played the innocent Carol Ann Freeling, complained of abdominal pains on February 1, 1988. She was taken to Children’s Hospital of San Diego, where it was discovered she was suffering from intestinal stenosis – a severe bowel obstruction she apparently had from birth.
The obstruction influenced an infection which caused septic shock, and subsequently a total cardiac and pulmonary arrest. She died the same day during surgery at age 12.
O’Rourke’s mother later filed a wrongful death suit against the physicians alleging that an early misdiagnosis prevented proper treatment of Heather’s curable condition.
Dominique Dunne played Carol Ann’s big sister Dana Freeling. She died at age 22 on November 14, 1982, after being choked by her boyfriend, a kitchen worker named John Thomas Sweeney.
According to Brad Darrach of People magazine, Dunne and Sweeney had a tumultuous relationship. Sweeney physically abused her and fought with obsessive jealousy. After multiple violent altercations, she left him to stay with her mother.
Within weeks, Sweeney came to Dunne’s home while she was preparing for a role with actor David Packer in the television miniseries V. During a clash on the front porch, Sweeney hit her repeatedly and strangled her until she stopped breathing.
Inside the house, Packer tried to fruitlessly to get police to come to the property. When that didn’t work, as People reported, “Packer telephoned an acquaintance and told him that if he was found dead, the killer was John Sweeney.”
Dunne was placed on life support at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, though brain scans revealed that her brain activity had ceased. Four days later, her parents requested that life support systems be turned off.
Lou Perryman had a small part in the first film as Puglsey. He was brutally slain by an intruder in his home in 2009. He was 67. Perryman also appeared in the Blues Brothers.
Julian Beck died of stomach cancer on September 14, 1985, at age 60, after his role as Kane, an evil spirit in Poltergeist II. Beck was an accomplished experimental theatre actor but is best remembered for eerily singing “God is in His Holy Temple” to the haunting melody of “Autumn.”Beck had been diagnosed with cancer before filming began and his deteriorating health contributed to his gaunt appearance in the film. He died before the film opened in theaters.
Will Sampson, the imposing 6′ 7″ (2 meters) Native American Muscogee who played the good spirit of Talyor in Poltergeist II, died on June 3, 1987, at age 53.
He had suffered from the autoimmune disease scleroderma and endured a lengthy illness. Sampson passed away six weeks after a heart-lung transplant from post-operative kidney failure.
According to actress JoBeth Williams, Sampson came to the set of Poltergeist II late one night to perform an exorcism, after which the cast felt “relieved.”
Sampson worked for more than two decades busting broncos in rodeos before starting his film career in 1975. Though he never trained as an actor, Sampson appeared in ten other films in addition to Poltergeist II, including memorable roles as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and as Ten Bears in The Outlaw Josey Wales.
He was posthumously honored with the naming of Will Sampson Road in his home county of Okmulgee, Oklahoma.