The ‘Poltergeist’ Curse: Uncovering the Haunting Mysteries Behind the Classic Horror Franchise

The tragic legacy attached to the classic horror series has led some to believe there might be a supernatural element at work.

Zelda Rubinstein during a scene from "Poltergeist" (1982).
Zelda Rubinstein during a scene from "Poltergeist" (1982). / Warner Bros. Entertainment

It makes sense that there would be something haunting the set of a horror movie. After all, isn’t the act of telling ghost stories simply paying tribute to the unknown, or to the paranormal? If you’re making a scary movie about ghosts, you’ve simply got to believe they exist—and they might want to curse you a bit, just so you’re absolutely sure.

The original Poltergeist quickly became a horror classic after it was released in 1982. The spooky tale focuses on a suburban, middle-class family whose life and home become a living hell following some vicious paranormal events, including the abduction of their youngest daughter, Carol Anne (played by Heather O’Rourke). The film introduced the world to a monster demon called “The Beast” and found massive success at the box office, becoming one of the highest grossing movies of 1982. A couple sequels (1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, 1988’s Poltergeist III) and a remake (2015’s Poltergeist) followed, but they couldn’t capture the pounding hearts of scared moviegoers as much as the original. 

While Poltergeist’s biggest scares are certainly on screen, there have always been strange events and mysterious tragedies surrounding the film, leading some to believe there’s a curse on the series.

A Cursed Cast

The so-called origins of the Poltergeist curse are often linked to one climactic scene where mom Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) falls into an unfinished pool filled with human remains. Williams has long claimed she didn’t know during the shoot that real human skeletons were used as props. “I always assumed that the skeletons were made by the prop department,” Williams told Vanity Fair in 2022. “A few years later, I ran into one of the special effects guys, and I said, ‘You guys making all those skeletons, that must have been really amazing.’ He said, ‘Oh, we didn’t make them, those were real.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they were real skeletons.’”

While the notion certainly seems outlandish by today’s standards, using actual cadavers and remains wasn’t unheard of back in the 1980s. At the time, they were cheaper to acquire than plastic skeletons. “I don’t know where they were bought from, but that really grossed me out,” Williams added. “I’m glad I didn’t know that then, because I would’ve really been screaming a lot—for real.”

In the docuseries Cursed Films, some fans suggested that perhaps the owners of those bones weren’t happy with how their remains were being used, leading to the eerie incidents that followed. 

Heather O'Rourke in a scene from "Poltergeist" (1982)
Heather O'Rourke in a scene from "Poltergeist" (1982). / Warner Bros. Entertainment

Four cast members died either during filming or shortly thereafter, including O’Rourke. In 1987, she was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease. During the filming for Poltergeist III, she was treated with cortisone and sulfa to manage the condition, but this led to facial swelling until she was gradually eased off of cortisone by the fall of 1987. When she fell sick again in January 1988, about a year after the Crohn’s disease diagnosis, her doctors initially believed it was the flu. That illness quickly progressed, though, and after collapsing at home, she suffered her first cardiac arrest en route to the hospital. The doctors managed to revive her, but she suffered cardiac arrest again hours later, during an operation to clear up a bowel obstruction. O’Rourke didn’t make it after the second cardiac arrest and died at just 12 years old. It’s since been reported that she had congenital stenosis of the intestine, complicated by septic shock, rather than Crohn’s disease.

But O’Rourke’s sudden, shocking death wasn’t the first time tragedy had struck one of Poltergeist’s cast members. Dominique Dunne, who co-starred on-screen as O’Rourke’s big sister, also met an untimely end. John Thomas Sweeney, Dunne’s abusive ex-boyfriend, showed up in her driveway about five months after the first film was released in 1982, demanding to be allowed to move back in. When she refused, he violently assaulted and choked her until she became unconscious. When the police arrived at the scene, they arrested Sweeney and Dunne was taken to a hospital. But Dunne never regained consciousness; she was kept on life support for five days, and ultimately died. Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter the next year and sentenced to just six-and-a-half years in prison, but only served about half of it. 

Another Poltergeist cast member, Lou Perryman—who played Pugsley in the original film—was also the victim of a violent murder, although his death happened years after his involvement with the series. He was struck down in 2009 by Seth Christopher Tatum, a young man who had recently been released from prison for robbery. Tatum had no connection to Perryman and invaded his home unprompted, killing him with an ax. He later told police he’d gone into the house to steal Perryman’s car and pleaded guilty to murder, receiving a sentence of life in prison in 2011.

Mysteries On Set

There were two other deaths connected to the franchise, which have only added more fuel to the Poltergeist curse fire. In the case of Poltergeist II’s Julian Beck, it wasn’t as shocking, as he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983, before signing on to work on the sequel. He passed away in September 1985, before Poltergeist II was released in May 1986.

Spielberg, Hoope And Nelson On 'Poltergeist' Set, 1982.
Steven Spielberg, Tobe Hooper, and Craig T. Nelson on the 'Poltergeist' set in 1982. / Getty Images/GettyImages

The set of Poltergeist II did have some strange occurrences, though; cast and crew members, including star Craig T. Nelson, reportedly had a weird run of unusual mishaps while working on it. Nelson in particular complained about the unsettling vibe of a cave where the film’s finale was shot.

Will Sampson, who had previously starred as Chief Bromden in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, appeared in Poltergeist II as Taylor, a Native American shaman. Sampson actually was a real-life shaman, and told the cast and crew that he believed the set was haunted, then performed an exorcism. Crew members said that no further setbacks occurred during the filming of Poltergeist II, but the fact that Sampson felt like he had to do that at all speaks volumes. He died in June 1987, roughly a year after Poltergeist II was released, from a post-operative infection and kidney failure following a heart-lung transplant he had undergone in April of that same year.

While some may have believed there were eerie things going on during the making of the series, others have taken all of it with a grain of salt. Oliver Robins, who played middle child Robbie Freeling, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2022 that he believes in the paranormal “to some degree,” but that he doesn’t think there’s a Poltergeist curse. “Those deaths can be explained,” he said. “You had these tragedies happen, but they were going to happen whether [the actors] were in the movie or not.” 

Read More About Horror Films: