The image that endures is of a platinum-blond picture of innocence silhouetted against a picture tube of pure evil. ”They’re heeeere!” called out 5-year-old Heather O’Rourke as Poltergeist‘s Carol Anne Freeling, in an angelic warning about her family’s haunted house. The hit 1982 horror drama launched the career of a remarkably composed young talent — and so it seemed particularly cruel when, just six years later, on Feb. 1, 1988, the 12-year-old actress died during intestinal surgery, fueling rumors among superstitious filmgoers of a ”Poltergeist curse.”
”She was a born actor,” says JoBeth Williams, who played Carol Anne’s mother in the Tobe Hooper-directed film. ”I had a scene where I’m screaming and crying, and Heather started to cry — really sob. After the scene was over, I told Heather that it was only pretend, and she turned to me and said, ‘I know that.”’
Such preternatural aplomb had helped O’Rourke get cast in the first place. She had been visiting MGM with her parents when Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist‘s cowriter and producer, asked if he could speak with her. Heather replied that she did not talk to strangers. Spielberg persevered, and O’Rourke soon was playing a poker-faced little girl who gets abducted by otherworldly spirits.
She loved it. And though she later worked on TV (notably as the daughter of Henry Winkler’s girlfriend on Happy Days), Heather and Carol Anne were an integral part of the Poltergeist franchise.
Prior to the filming of Poltergeist III, doctors had diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal inflammation. In fact, she was suffering from a bowel obstruction that could have been remedied. (Her mother later filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Heather’s healthcare provider and won an undisclosed sum in damages.) On Jan. 31, 1988, Heather woke up vomiting; the next morning, she collapsed. By the time she was helicoptered to a children’s hospital in San Diego, O’Rourke had suffered a cardiac arrest — and though doctors corrected the blockage, she died of septic shock shortly thereafter.
To some, she was the latest casualty of a dark hex. Dominique Dunne, from the first film, was strangled by her boyfriend in 1982, and Julian Beck, the grim preacher in Poltergeist II, died of cancer shortly after filming. To surviving cast members, such talk belittles the memory of their coworkers; no one contacted for this article would even discuss the ”curse.”
Certainly, the rumor has helped to obscure a real talent. That Heather O’Rourke was such a trouper may, in fact, have kept the adults around her in the dark. ”I spoke to her mother after she died,” remembers Williams, ”and she said that this was a child who never complained. And she wondered if that might have contributed to her death.”