blonde girl from poltergeist

In 1988, Heather O’Rourke starred in Poltergeist. Age 12, she died in mysterious circumstances.

Helen Vnuk

As an angelic little blonde girl in 1982, Heather O’Rourke spoke one of the most famous horror movie lines ever: “They’re here.” 

The movie was the mega hit Poltergeist . Heather would go on to star as Carol Anne in the sequel, where she declared, “They’re back.” But in 1988, at the age of 12, before Poltergeist I II came out, Heather died in mysterious circumstances.

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Heather had a classic Hollywood story of being discovered. She was eating lunch with her mum Kathleen, while waiting for her older sister Tammy, who was a dancer in the movie Pennies From Heaven . Steven Spielberg, who was looking for a “beatific” four-year-old to star in his upcoming horror movie Poltergeist , spotted her. He asked her into his office, and tested her acting ability. 

“He wanted me to be afraid of this pink fish and this purple pig and all that,” Heather later explained . 

The next day, Heather was signed on to star in Poltergeist , scoring the role over Drew Barrymore. The movie is about a couple with three children who move into a house inhabited by spirits. The youngest child, Carol Anne, can hear the spirits through the TV set. She is sucked into a portal to another dimension, but later rescued. 

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Oliver Robbins, who played Carol Anne’s brother Robbie, says he and Heather were like “brother and sister” on set. 

“She was precocious and a very intelligent girl for someone who was only five years old,” he told Daily Mail Online in 2015. 

Following the massive success of Poltergeist , Heather was offered other roles, guest-starring in classic '80s shows Webster and CHiPs and scoring an ongoing role in Happy Days as the daughter of Fonzie’s (Henry Winkler) girlfriend. Her manager, Mike Meyer, said she had the ability to memorise a 60-page script in an hour. Heather’s earnings meant that her family could move from a trailer park to a three-bedroom house in the woods in Big Bear, California. 

Poltergeist II came out in 1986. It was in 1987 that Heather started getting sick. After numerous trips to the doctor, she was told she had the parasite giardia, probably picked up from the well water at her house in the woods. She was treated for that, but later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and put on cortisone. It gave her a “chipmunk cheeks” look that she was self-conscious about. 

That same year, Heather shot Poltergeist III . Director Gary Sherman tells the Shudder documentary series Cursed Films that he “absolutely adored” her.

blonde girl from poltergeist

Once Heather had finished shooting, the family went on a road trip to Disney World. Kathleen described it as “the vacation of a lifetime”. 

On February 1, 1988, Heather woke up feeling unwell but insisted she wanted to go to school. Her symptoms worsened. She couldn’t swallow, her fingers and toes started turning blue and her breathing became heavy and fast. She collapsed on the floor, and Kathleen called an ambulance. She was in septic shock. 

Kathleen told Heather, “I love you,” and Heather replied, “I love you, too.” 

Those were the last words she spoke. She suffered cardiac arrest in the ambulance. At the hospital, doctors resuscitated her, but she had suffered brain damage. They performed surgery and found she had a bowel obstruction caused by a birth defect, rather than Crohn’s disease. But it was too late to save her. She was pronounced dead that afternoon. 

Dr Daniel Hollander, head of gastroenterology at the University of California medical centre, told AP that Heather’s death was “distinctly unusual” because she hadn’t shown prior symptoms of the bowel defect. 

“I would have expected a lot of [digestive] difficulties throughout her life and not just to have developed all of a sudden,” he explained. 

Another gastroenterologist, Dr Hartley Cohen, also found Heather’s death unusual. 

“It just doesn’t seem to quite make sense,” he said. 

Heather’s funeral was held three days later. Her Poltergeist and Happy Days  co-stars attended. Reverend Dennis Estill told the mourners there were two things Heather had wanted in her life. 

“She wanted an Academy Award. She wanted a Rolls Royce.”

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Heather was buried in an open casket, wearing a chain that said “friend” around her neck. Kathleen wore the matching chain that said “best”.

“Heather gave me these for Christmas,” Kathleen told People . “She used to tell her friends that I was her best friend and not just her mum.”

Kathleen said after Heather’s death she had to force herself to get up and to eat. 

“I couldn’t cook in the kitchen anymore. Heather loved pies, cakes and cookies, and I used to make them for her. In the beginning I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I thought, ‘Why go on?’”

In May that year, Kathleen filed a wrongful death suit, claiming that Heather would still be alive if she had not been misdiagnosed.

Meanwhile, Sherman had been planning to re-shoot the ending of Poltergeist III . But without Heather, he felt her couldn’t – and he didn’t want to, anyway. 

“I can’t go back into the cutting room or watch this film with this dead 11-year-old in it,” he remembers thinking. 

But he tells Cursed Films that he had to. 

“Afterwards, the board at MGM just said to us, ‘You’re going to finish the film. We’ve got a lot of money invested in the film.’”

He had to come up with an ending that didn’t involve Heather.  

“So we came up with the idea for the stupid ending that’s on the film now and used a double for Heather. That was the creepiest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.”

The rumours that the  Poltergeist  films were cursed had started long before Heather’s death. Dominique Dunne, the 22-year-old actress who played Carol Anne’s older sister Dana, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in her driveway just months after Poltergeist  was released. She never regained consciousness and died five days later. 

Two stars of Poltergeist II passed away not long after they finished shooting. Julian Beck, who played Kane, died of cancer before the film was released, while Will Sampson, who played Taylor, died of post-operative kidney failure the following year.

When Heather died, the rumours went into overdrive. Someone came up with the theory that the curse was caused by real skeletons having been used in the making of Poltergeist , and that theory took off.  

Craig Reardon, the makeup special effects artist for Poltergeist , tells Cursed Films that this is “conceptually ridiculous” and “personally offensive”. He says human skeletons have been used in movies for years. 

“The idea of having a few of them on the set of Poltergeist and killing two lovely young girls is a pretty pernicious idea,” he says. “It’s an insult to the memory of a very sweet little girl, Heather O’Rourke, and it’s worse that than to Dominique Dunne, who was strangled to death by her [ex-] boyfriend, which had f—k-all to do with a skeleton.”

Feature image: Getty.

Heather O'Rourke

Heather O'Rourke

  • Born December 27 , 1975 · San Diego, California, USA
  • Died February 1 , 1988 · San Diego, California, USA (cardiopulmonary arrest and intestinal stenosis)
  • Birth name Heather Michele O'Rourke
  • Height 4′ 8″ (1.42 m)
  • Heather Michele O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975 in Santee, San Diego, California, to Kathleen, a seamstress, and Michael O'Rourke, a construction worker. She had German, Danish, English, and Irish ancestry. Heather entered American cinematic pop-culture before first grade. She was sitting alone in the MGM Commissary waiting for her mother when a stranger approached her asking her name. "My name is Heather O'Rourke," she said. "But you're a stranger, and I can't talk to you". When her mother returned, the stranger introduced himself as Steven Spielberg . She failed her first audition when she laughed at a stuffed animal Spielberg presented her with. He thought she was just too young (she had just turned five), and he was actually looking for a girl at least 6 years old, but he saw something in her and asked her to come in a second time with a scary story book. He asked her to scream a lot. She screamed until she broke down in tears. The next day at the commissary, Spielberg told her and her family, "I don't know what it is about her, but she's got the job." She instantly became a star overnight and was easily recognized at her favorite theme park, Disneyland, and everywhere in California. In the years that followed, Heather was a familiar face on TV in Happy Days (1974) (1982-1983), Webster (1983) (1983-1984), and The New Leave It to Beaver (1983) (1986-1987), three shows in which she had recurring roles. In 1986, the highly anticipated sequel to her first movie, Poltergeist (1982) , Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) debuted in theaters; it was her riveting performance in this film that cemented her a place in Hollywood history. In January 1987, Heather began to have flu-like symptoms and her legs and feet swelled. She was taken to Kaiser Hospital, and they confirmed it was only the flu, but when symptoms continued, they diagnosed her as having Crohn's Disease, a chronic inflammation of the intestine. She was on medication throughout the filming of her next project, Poltergeist III (1988) , and her cheeks were puffy in some scenes. She never complained during filming and did not appear sick to fellow cast members. When filming was completed in June, Heather and her family went on a road trip from Chicago, to New Orleans, to Orlando and all the way back to Lakeside where they lived at the time. Heather was well until January 31, 1988, Super Bowl Sunday. She was unable to keep anything in her stomach and crawled into bed with her parents that night, saying that she didn't feel well. The next morning, February 1, sitting at the breakfast table, she couldn't swallow her toast or Gatorade. Her mother noticed her fingers were blue and her hands were cold. Kathleen called the doctor's and was getting ready to put her clothes on when Heather fainted on the kitchen floor. When the paramedics came in, Heather insisted that she was "really okay" and was worried about missing school that day. In the ambulance, Heather suffered cardiac arrest and died on the operating table at 2:43 p.m. at the tender age of 12. Of all her achievements, Heather was proudest of being elected student body president of her 5th grade class in 1985. - IMDb Mini Biography By: Celia Foster
  • Parents Michael O'Rourke Kathleen O'Rourke
  • Relatives Tammy O'Rourke (Sibling)
  • Her blonde hair
  • Widely known and referred to as the Poltergeist (1982) girl
  • Is buried in the same cemetery as her Poltergeist (1982) co-star, Dominique Dunne .
  • Her last words were "I love you" to her mother.
  • Fellow cast members described Heather as having a calming influence on the set. They also described cast meetings with her: everyone would be quickly leafing through the script, while Heather was sitting calmly. Being able to memorize 60 pages of script an hour, she would have already memorized the entire script.
  • Heather's Poltergeist III (1988) co-star Tom Skerritt was one of her pallbearers at her funeral.
  • During all the horrors that proceeded while filming Poltergeist (1982) , only one scene really scared her: that in which she had to hold onto the headboard, while a wind machine blew toys into the closet behind her. She fell apart; Steven Spielberg stopped everything, put her in his arms, and said that she would not have to do that scene again (Cinefantasque, July 1988).
  • I hope people enjoy what I do. That would make me happy because I'd be bringing others pleasure while doing something I like.
  • I never watch horror movies as a rule.
  • Why do people want my autograph? It's just my name I'm writing.
  • I'm really not afraid of spooky things. When I have to look really frightened, I concentrate on scary things like losing my kittens or something like that.
  • I want to continue acting, but I want to be a director. I'd been thinking about it for a while. A couple of years ago, I decided it would be a different experience to work behind the camera. And I'd be able to work on scripts. But I like acting a lot. It's fun. You meet a lot of people.
  • Poltergeist III (1988) - $140,000
  • Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) - $75,000

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Mysterious death of 80s childstar Heather O'Rourke and the 'Hollywood curse' surrounding it

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Child actress Heather O'Rourke died in 1988. Photo / Supplied

A 1980s classic became known as Hollywood's most "cursed" film following the untimely death of a 12-year-old actress.

Not only is Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist regarded as one of the most terrifying horror films of all time, it's also known as the most "cursed" film in Hollywood.

Shrouded in superstition following a handful of mysterious cast deaths, the 1982 film's grim history has followed it through decades – even casting fear over the critically reviled 2015 remake.

Heather O'Rourke died suddenly after filming the third instalment of the Poltergeist franchise. Photo / News Corp Australia

The "Poltergeist curse", as it's become known, came about after four of the cast members died of mysterious circumstances – the most shocking being that of Heather O'Rourke – the cherubic 12-year-old childstar who played protagonist Carol Anne in all three Poltergeist films, as well as Heather Pfister in Happy Days.

THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY

Set in a house built on an ancient Native American burial ground, the original Poltergeist trilogy told the terrifying story of the Freeling family and their encounters with the supernatural.

Gifted with a connection to the spiritual world, the youngest daughter, Carol Anne (O'Rourke), was haunted by the malicious spirits buried beneath her home, including that of a sadistic doomsday cult leader named Kane.

Heather O'Rourke played a child harassed by evil spirits in Poltergeist. Photo / Getty Images

It was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on June 4, 1982 and was a commercial success, grossing $1.13 million in the United States, making it the highest-grossing horror film of 1982 and eighth overall for the year.

The film's special effects – inventive for its era – makes it frequently ranked among the greatest horror films of all time.

BEGINNINGS OF "THE CURSE"

Many believe the "Poltergeist Curse" began the same year the first movie was released.

Actress Dominique Young, who made her film debut in Poltergeist as the elder sister of Carol Anne, died a violent death shortly after its release in 1983.

She was strangled to death by her boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney.

According to a New York Times article, Young was put on life support after the attack but passed away five days later.

Sweeney was later found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, according to a 1983 article from The Freelance Star.

JULIAN BECK

It was the actor who played Carol Anne's most intimidating spirit, doomsday cult leader Kane, who died next.

Julian Beck, who played Kane in Poltergeist II sadly did not live to see the release of the sequel.

He was 60 when he lost a battle with stomach cancer on September 14, 1985, according to The New York Times.

WILL SAMPSON

The third in the spooky string of deaths associated with the film was of the man who portrayed a friendly ghost named Taylor in the second Polergeist film, Will Sampson.

Sampson died on June 3, 1987, aged 53, after of an illness caused by a chronic degenerative condition, according to The Herald Journal.

HEATHER O'ROURKE'S DEATH

It was the unexpected nature of Heather O'Rourke's death which led many to believe the "Poltergeist Curse" was real.

Known for adorable, blue-eyed angelic looks and her creepy delivery of the line; "They're here" in the first film of the series, it was largely O'Rourke's chilling performance that made the film iconic.

At 12 years old, she passed away suddenly.

The actress died in surgery when doctors were attempting to repair an acute bowel obstruction, caused by what was believed to be a long battle with Crohn's disease, the LA Times reported.

The young address was tragically pronounced dead after suffering septic shock, on February 1, 1988.

Heather O'Rourke rose to fame in the first film of the Poltergeist trilogy. Photo / Supplied

HOW THE "CURSE" AFFECTED THE 2015 REMAKE

When Poltergeist was rebooted in 2015, superstitious film buffs were quick to unearth rumours of the "curse" surrounding the film.

Starring Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt, the movie may have been widely panned, but no cast members died.

In a Reddit AMA, however, director Gil Kenan recalled "paranormal activity" during filming.

"Lights that could turn on anywhere else in the neighbourhood would blow out the second you'd try to light them on (the set)," Kenan wrote.

"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."

blonde girl from poltergeist

Heather O’Rourke, ‘Poltergeist’ Child Star, Dies

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Heather O’Rourke, the terrified youngster sucked into a spectral vacuum by supernatural spirits in the film “Poltergeist,” is dead at the age of 12, it was learned today.

The blonde ingenue, who finished filming “Poltergeist III” last summer, starring as Carol Ann Freeling for the third time, died Monday.

The Associated Press said she had been pronounced dead at Children’s Hospital in San Diego. United Press International quoted her agent, Bob Preston, as saying she “passed away on the way to the hospital” where her parents had called after she fell seriously ill.

Her family, who lives in Big Bear, was not available for comment.

A spokesman for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, where the “Poltergeist” films were produced starting in 1981, said the studio would issue a clarifying statement later.

Heather, also seen regularly on television’s “Happy Days,” “Webster” and “Still the Beaver,” brought two catch phrases into the language after Poltergeists I and II. The first was “They’re heeeere!” which she screamed after coming into contact with strange forces while peering into an apparently blank TV screen. The second was “They’re baaaack!” featured in the sequel.

Heather came to films when she was 5 and sitting in the MGM commissary. Steven Spielberg saw her and asked if he could talk to her. She replied that she didn’t talk to strangers.

But she got permission and that led to her role in “Poltergeist.”

Heather is the second actress from the “Poltergeist” movies to die at a young age. Dominique Dunne, was strangled in October, 1982.

Dunne, then 22, who played Heather’s older sister, had tried to break off her relationship with her boyfriend. Los Angeles chef John Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced in November, 1983, to the maximum 6 1/2 years in prison.

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