1975-1988

Heather O'Rourke

On Monday, February 1, 1988, Heather, who lived with her parents both in San Diego and Big Bear, complained of stomach pains. She was rushed to Children's Hospital of San Diego. During surgery she died of cardiac and pulmonary arrest. It was identified that she had been suffering from a severe bowel obstruction, a result of a congenital birth defect. The obstruction led to an infection, which in turn caused septic shock. The shock triggered her death. She was buried in Los Angeles' Westwood Memorial Park in a vault on the first outdoor mausoleum wall. Poltergeist III was released four months after her death and was a box-office bust. Heather was the second Poltergeist star to die. In 1982, 22-year old Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister in that movie, was strangled to death by her estranged boyfriend.

We Miss You Heather O'Rourke

The Story

Her discovery was right out of a fairy tale. She was eating lunch in the MGM commissary with her sister (Tammy) and mother when Steven Spielberg approached their table. He was looking for a child and was not having much luck, he spotted Heather and approached there table. Heather was more interested in lunch than in the stranger who was talking to them. Heather initially failed the screen test for Poltergeist I (1981) when laughed instead of being afraid at a stuffed animal. Steven thought she was just too young. Heather was 5. He wanted a six year old.(Cinefantasque-July 1988) He saw something in her, and called her back asking her to bring a scary storybook. He asked her to scream, and she screamed and screamed, until she started to cry and couldn't do it anymore.(Cinefantasque-1988) She had the part after the second screen test. Incidentally, it was Drew Barrymore who Steven was originally considering for the part. During all the horrors that proceeded during the filming of Poltergeist, the only one scene that really scared her was the scene in her bedroom where she had to hold on to the headrest while the wind blew, toys flew about and the closet opened up behind her. She fell apart and Steven stopped everything, put her in his arms, and said she did not have to do the scene again.( Cinefantasque July 1988) Over the next few years, Heather became a familiar face on t.v. and at the movies. She made guest appearances in Happy Days -1982(Heather Pfzier), Chips-1982 (Loren), Fantasy Island (character unknown), TV movie - Massarati and The Brain 1984(character unknown), Rocky Road-1984 (character unknown, she played a Texan's daughter) Webster-1983, TV movie-Surviving-1985 (this was quite possibly the most exciting aspect of her career, the role was major and we got to see her in a role outside of Poltergeist), Our House-1986 (Dana, she was a blind girl), New Leave it to Beaver-1986 (Heather, she had a real nasty character in this one.) and of course Poltergeist I, II, III (Carol Anne) In real life, Heather loved to go shopping, but according to her mother Kathy (interview on Current Affair), shopping with her was a tremendous effort. Heather had to have everything match, from shoes to earrings. Heather loved to make and eat sweets. For a pet, she had a St. Bernhard. She was the student body leader of her school. (Current Affair interview) And in her words "I never watch horror films as a rule. (Current Affair interview, footage taken before death). Heather would also make home movies and she was leaning more toward directing than acting. (Current Affair) Cast-mates described Heather as having a calming influence in the set (Cinefantastique, July 1988). They also described cast meetings with her, everyone would be quickly leafing through the the script, while Heather was sitting calmly. Being able to memorize 60 pages a script in an hour (Odessa American newspaper article, Feb 2, 1988), she had already memorized the script. During the filming of Poltergeist III, Heather suffered flu like symptoms. They took her to a specialist but they still did not catch the intestinal blockage that would eventually claim her life. On the night of January 30, she woke up and crawled into bed with parents,(Globe Magazine, Feb. 16, 1988) complaining that she didn't feel well. She got up the next day, tried to eat some toast, saying that she was going to school. She then fainted. Her fingers turning blue. They flew her in to the emergency room, but it was too late, she died on the operating table at 2:43 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 1st, 1988. We miss you Heather O'Rourke

Filmography

  • My First Barbie Advertisment- 1980
  • Making Of Poltergeist- 1982
  • Poltergeist- 1982
  • Fantasy Island- 1982
  • McDonald's Commercial- 1982
  • Happy Days- 1982-83
  • Massarati and the brain- 1982
  • Chips- 1983
  • Matt Houston- 1983
  • Believe you can and you can- 1983
  • Webster- 1983-84
  • Strawberry Shortcake Commercial- 1984
  • Rocky Road-1984
  • Finder of lost lovers- 1984
  • Surviving- 1985
  • Poltergeist II- 1986
  • Our house- 1986
  • Still the beaver- 1986-87
  • Poltergeist III- 1988 (last Performance) Heather died (1) week before the film was finished.
  • Poltergeist III was released (4) months later.

Movies

POLTERGEIST I

Poltergeist is a big, special-effects-laden production that's long on time and short on human interest. When a typical husband and wife (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) and their children move into the suburban home of their dreams, they find it instead to be the stuff of nightmares as weird happenings abound. The television begins to take control of their youngest child (Heather O'Rourke) and eventually pulls her through the screen. A diminutive medium (Zelda Rubenstein) informs them their house is built on the hub of a Native American burial site, and together they work to extract the child from the spirit world. Too tame for most adult horror fans, Poltergeist is still too scary for children. ~ Jeremy Beday, All Movie Guide

POLTERGEIST II

One of the more effectively spooky and financially successful horror films of the '80s got an inevitable sequel with this effects-heavy installment. The Freeling family is trying to grapple with the devastation wrought by the ghosts and ghouls that destroyed their lives. The insurance company doesn't believe their story about what happened to their house, so Steve (Craig T. Nelson), Diane (JoBeth Williams) and their kids, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) and Robbie (Oliver Robins), have been reduced to living in the home of Diane's mother, Jess (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Unfortunately for the Freelings, however, their new residence, just like their last, is situated on a haunted patch of unholy ground. A century before, the mad cult leader Kane (Julian Beck) slaughtered his followers nearby, and his evil spirit has returned in an effort to kidnap Carol Anne. When the Freelings realize what's happening, they call upon the psychic medium Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) to help them again, and they also receive aid from a kindly Native American spiritualist, Taylor (Will Sampson). Noticeably absent from the sequel was older daughter Dana, who had been played by actress Dominique Dunne. Dunne was killed in 1982 by her obsessed boyfriend. ~ Karl Williams, All Movie Guide

POLTERGEIST III

Evil spirits follow a young girl from the suburbs to the city in the second follow-up to the blockbuster horror film Poltergeist. Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O'Rourke) is now 12 years old and living with Patricia and Bruce Gardner (Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt), her aunt and uncle, in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Chicago. Carol Anne attends a school for gifted children, where the staff psychologist Dr. Seaton (Richard Fire) attributes her past troubles with noisy ghosts to mass delusions and hypnotic suggestions. However, Carol Anne isn't so sure that the explanation is that simple, especially since she still sees threatening apparitions in the mirrors of her apartment. Particularly troubling is the ghost of the wicked Reverend Kane (Nathan Davis), who is eager for Carol Anne to join him and his followers in the unknown world on the other side of the light. Sadly, Heather O'Rourke died due to surgical complications resulting from an intestinal blockage several months before Poltergeist III was released. ~ Mark Deming, All Movie Guide

True Hollywood Ghost Story

Was the Spielberg Brainchild Poltergeist Cursed?

A child star dies of an unexpected illness. A young actress is strangled in the heat of passion. Two more actors succumb to disease, and the strangest things happen on set.

What connects this string of tragedy and general spookiness? Some would say the supernatural fright fest Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg's story of nightmares in suburbia, is to blame. The hit 1982 movie spawned sequels, a TV show and--after its stars began dying--an eerie urban legend about powers from beyond. The E! True Hollywood Story: The Curse of Poltergeist explores the myths and mysteries swirling around a horror movie plagued with freak accidents, untimely illness and violent ends.

E! digs into the creepy connections between the offscreen deaths of little Heather O'Rourke, the iconic blond child warning "They're here...," and Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister. Some say this ghost story conjured something more frightening than coincidence. And what about the deaths of an actor and actress, who appeared with O'Rourke in later Poltergeist flicks?

During interviews with members of the original cast and the late Heather O'Rourke's mother, this story takes on the spooky question: Was the movie cursed?

Tune in to see what this two-hour True Hollywood Story reveals, but first warm up with a feast of freaky Poltergeist facts.

Freaky Facts: Everything You Need to Know About Poltergeist, Loud Spirits, Cursed Movies and Spielberg

  • Poltergeist" is a German word that translates generally as "noisy ghost."
  • Although Steven Spielberg received credits for writing and producing the movie, he is also acknowledged as the film's unofficial director and editor.
  • The credited director, Tobe Hooper, also directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Poltergeist and E.T. were released a week apart in June of 1982. E.T. was Steven Spielberg's vision of a suburban dream, while Poltergeist was his suburban nightmare.
  • When ghost-hunter Marty looks into the bathroom mirror and sees hands ripping flesh off his face, the fingers actually belong to Spielberg.
  • James Khan wrote the novelization of the movie. One night, as he typed the words "Thunder and lightning ripped the sky," a blast of lightning hit his building and blew the cover off an air conditioning unit with enough force to hit him in the back.
  • The movie's initial R rating became a PG after Spielberg and producer Frank Marshall lobbied the ratings board. Forget that it would give kids nightmares for years to come: They said the film deserved the tamer rating, because it contained no nudity or sex and only mild language.
  • Dominique Dunne, who played eldest daughter Dana Freeling, was strangled by her possessive boyfriend five months after the release of Poltergeist and died five days later. Just 22 years old, she was the daughter of novelist Dominick Dunne and sister of actor Griffin Dunne.
  • Dunne had been rehearsing lines with an actor friend when her boyfriend showed up, picked a fight and then killed her. To drown out the noise of the two yelling outside, the actor turned up the Poltergeist soundtrack.
  • Zelda Rubinstein, who played freaky-voiced psychic Tangina Barrons, is 4 foot 3 inches tall. Zelda Rubinstein passed away on Jan. 27, 2010, read more.
  • Craig T. Nelson, who played the freaked-out family's father, is a full two feet taller than Rubinstein.
  • During a scene when Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robins) was choked by a clown in his room, something went wrong with the prop and Robins was actually being choked. Spielberg praised him for his authenticity until he caught onto the trouble and saved Robins.
  • JoBeth Williams, who played mother Diane Freeling, claims she returned home from the set each day to find pictures on her wall askew. She would straighten them, only to find them crooked again the next day.
  • The scene in which the ghosts stack the chairs on the kitchen table was reportedly done in a single take.
  • In one scene, the parents' TV set is tuned to the 1943 movie A Guy Named Joe, in which Spencer Tracy starred as a deceased aviator who returns to earth. Spielberg later remade (and reworked) the film as Always.
  • The house used for exterior shots in Poltergeist, located in the L.A. suburb of Simi Valley, was damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
  • Steven Spielberg had the vortex-crumpled model of the home enclosed in clear plastic, and it now sits on his.
  • Poltergeist was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Music. It lost to E.T. in all three categories.
  • In Poltergeist II, the spirits make contact with Carol Anne through her play telephone. The movie's tagline was "They're back."
  • A spooky tree that grabs Robbie from his bed in the first film is reminiscent of one that unnerved Spielberg at his home when he was a child.
  • Drew Barrymore was originally considered for the part of Carol Anne, but Spielberg used her in some other movie instead.
  • Parts of Poltergeist are very, very similar to a forgettable 1962 Twilight Zone episode called "Little Girl Lost." In it, a girl rolls under her bed and disappears. Her dog follows. Her parents can hear her but can't find her, so they naturally assume she's in another dimension.
  • The weird way the family members descend the stairs at the beginning of the film was created by having the actors walk backward up the stairs and playing the film in reverse. The same effect was used later in the movie during the scene showing video playback of the ghosts.
  • The skeletons used on the set of Poltergeist II: The Other Side turned out to be actual human skeletons, which creeped out the cast members.
  • Actor Will Sampson--a Creek Indian and actual shaman, best-known for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--performed an exorcism on the set of Poltergeist II to rid it of "alien spirits."
  • A few months after filming wrapped on Poltergeist II, actor Julian Beck died after a long battle with stomach cancer.
  • A year after Poltergeist II was released, Sampson died of complications from a heart-lung transplant.
  • During a hiatus from the filming of Poltergeist III, Heather O'Rourke, 12, who played Carol Anne Freeling in all three movies, died from an intestinal blockage that ruptured. She had been ill for about two years, but her mother claimed doctors misdiagnosed her condition. The movie resumed filming, with stand-ins for O'Rourke's part.
  • O'Rourke was buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, a short distance from Dunne.
  • Some urban legends about the movie's "curse" claim that all the child actors died, which just simply isn't true.
  • Poltergeist III was the feature-film debut for Lara Flynn Boyle.
  • The TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy--it ran on Showtime, then in syndication, then on the SCI FI Channel--followed a crack team of demon hunters. Beyond the name, it had little to do with the movies.
  • The Misfits recorded a song called "The Shining," with lyrics like this: "Carol Anne, the beast is calling/Carol Anne, Carol Anne, she can hear souls sing/Carol Anne, the beast it needs you/Here it comes, here it comes/Reaching out somewhere from inside your TV."
  • In 2001, an American Film Institute survey of 1,500 leading figures in the film community named Poltergeist number 84 on a list of the 100 most thrilling American movies.

The Ghost Story of Heather O'Rourke

One of the saddest stories was that of stage 19 and the ghost of a little girl. Stage 19 was the host to he ever popular "Happy Days" during its long run. It brought a lot of laughter and happiness to the nation and the world. Even though it was one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, a piece of tragedy lingered with it. Years after "Happy Days" had gone, one of its cast members lingered behind. A security officer was patrolling the sound stage as part of her usual route. She went inside to make sure that everything was locked down air tight for the night. The rafters were checked, the stage was patrolled, and the doors were locked. As the officer was preparing to leave, she saw a bright light coming from behind her. No one was in the sound stage with her. No one was there to work the lights on the catwalk. She started to get scared. Upon turning around, the guard gazed up on the ghost of little Heather O'Rourke staring her down. Heather appeared on the last couple of seasons of "Happy Days" as the daughter of Fonzie's girlfriend. She also appeared as the angelic "Carol Anne" in the doomed "Poltergeist" movies. Heather died on the operating table due to complications of both the operation and a birth defect. The security officer was in shock. Here was this beautiful little ghost staring her straight in the face. Calmly, coolly, the officer took out her trusty radio and proceeded to scream. Over every radio that night were the cries of "Oh my God! She's here! Someone, quick, get over here! Oh my God! Oh my God!" Maybe this reaction scared Heather, for she never appeared again. -- Written completely by Hatex

THE ARROW INTERVIEWS GARY SHERMAN.

Gary Sherman loves horror. He's directed non genre films such as "Wanted Dead Or Alive" (with Rutger Hauer) and Lisa (with Stacy Keenan). But the horror freaks know him as the guy that gave us the weird Dead And Buried and the tragic Poltergeist 3. The Arrow had the pleasure to speak with the man and this is how it went down.

1- What's your favorite horror movie?

That's a hard one! For one thing there are many. Then you have to define "horror movie". If I take the widest definition my list would start with PSYCHO (the original Hitchcock one) followed by ROSEMARY'S BABY and SIXTH SENSE (which I think is about the most brilliant scary "movie" made in a long time. I am also a big fan of the classic horror films with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney. Then, I have to say that I enjoyed SCREAM. I'll add to that part of the list John Carpenter's original HALLOWEEN, Wes Craven's NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and Sean Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13TH. The bottom line is that I like originality, good writing and good film-making. Shock value alone doesn't do it for me.

2- You haven't directed anything since Poltergeist- The Legacy (TV). What have you been up to? Any projects in the works? When will we get a new Gary Sherman flick?

Catching my breath mainly... and writing. I'd had a nearly ten year run of being in production constantly when MISSING PERSONS went off the air. I decided to take some time off. Wrote. Traveled. Then got involved with a number of other people's TV pilots and series on which I acted as Executive Producer, one of which was POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY. After that I sold another series of my own, which, I won't bore you with the details, was ordered, we went into pre-production and then never went on the air because of a total management change at the network. A whole year up in smoke! Then I was asked to come in and help out on two different flailing series. In between all that I wrote two new screenplays and am getting some pilot ideas polished for the new season. For the first time in a long time I am thinking about movies again. After losing Heather during the making of POLTERGEIST III and then having the studio die while making LISA, I became more than a little disenchanted with the movie biz. It's been a lot more fun turning out 22 hours a year of TV instead of 2 hours every 3 years where you basically only get one weekend to prove yourself... but... maybe I'll give it another go soon.

3- You're responsible for the infamous "Dead And Buried". What comes to mind when you look back at that film?

"Dead And Buried"... That was a real director's horror story. It was originally written as a black comedy. We shot it and did the first cut for one company, that company was bought by another, who had a whole different take on the film, then in the middle of re-cutting for them a third entity came in and bought the company again. This third entity wanted as much of the comedy as possible out, and as much graphic horror as we could come up with put in. When their cut was finished, version #3 was screened for the distributor, Avco-Embassy, then run by Robert Rehme. Rehme, who had loved version #1 and liked version #2 absolutely hated version #3. A fight ensued with me caught in the middle. A compromise was reached which basically left everyone unhappy. Me especially. "Dead And Buried" was a very adventurous film.

For one thing, originally, the color red was never to be seen until the final scene. You might notice that there are no red props, set dressing or clothes. Even the tail-lights of cars were blued out, the fire engines were green and the police bubbles were blue. This was to add to the deadness of the town and to amplify the effect of seeing blood for the first time. Steve Poster's photography was immaculate and we did some unprecedented camera moves (many of which were eliminated by entity #3 because they felt it slowed down the pace... WRONG!). Here's a quote for you... The head of entity #3, after seeing version #1 looked at me and said, "Great film... but if I wanted an Ingmar Bergman film, I'd hire Bergman... I want a horror movie!" Bob Rehme felt so bad about what happened to the picture in the end, he called me to come see him. Spread a stack of scripts across his desk and said, "Pick one." That's how VICE SQUAD happened

4- I discovered you thanks to Poltergeist 3. This has been killing me for years...was the ending re-shot? Cause we never see O'Rourke's face in the last frames. If so, what was the original ending?

The ending was not a re-shoot. The original ending was never shot. Heather died a week before we were scheduled to shoot the ending. There was no way we could (or even wanted to, for that matter) shoot the scenes without her. There's were some 17 pages left to shoot, most of which was to be the ending, a tear jerking scene in which Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) offers herself as a sacrifice - that she would go over into the light in exchange for Scott (Kip Wentz), Bruce (Tom Skerritt) and Carol Anne (Heather) and everyone else. As Carol Anne and Tangina passed from one side to the other, they were to say "Good-bye" for the last time. It was to be not only to be the end of POLTERGEIST III, but the end of the Poltergeist Trilogy.

We weren't even going to finish the film at all, after Heather died. I was not interested, neither was Barry Bernardi or the studio heads, Alan Ladd, Jr. and Jay Kanter. None of us were. We got together and decided to shelve the project, at least for the time being. But the MGM board didn't see it that way. They basically said, "Look, either you finish this or we'll get somebody to finish it for you." Since we weren't about to let that happen, I half-heartedly wrote that pathetic ending where Bruce (Tom) and Patricia (Nancy) carry out a photo double, dressed as Carol Anne, at the end. People just weren't available anymore for it. We just didn't care about it. Scott (Kip Wentz) couldn't even show up. He was on the east coast, that's why he's mysteriously missing. But we just didn't care at the end of it all.

5- I thought Poltergeist 3 was a brave film. It's a total departure from the first two. What inspired you to set it in a building filled with mirrors?

Having a background in optics, I have always had a fascination with mirrors. Considering how often mirrors and reflections have been the subject of myths and fiction (i.e., Alice Through the Looking Glass, Dracula, etc.), I guess I'm not alone in that fascination. So, we actually did use "smoke and mirrors" to create the effects.

6- Was it your decision to film all the effects "live" on set? Why take that approach? It must of been a kicker to have "Dick Smith" there....

First of all, you have to remember that this was before CG had come into its own. Effects were done optically on film, which meant going several generations away from the original negative. Those post-production optics, which I knew inside and out, very simply just used lenses, mirrors and mattes to achieve their goal. So why not just do that in the first place. What I did was to turn a sound stage into a huge optical printer. It was mind-boggling. At first I was virtually the only one on the set who understood what we were doing, but after a few weeks everyone, including the cast, was really into it. We had a hell of a lot of fun. And seeing the effects at dailies, instead of months later, was amazing.

Working with Dick was not only a "kicker" it was an honor. He was brilliant. I have worked with Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Zoltan Elek and others who are incredible, but Dick Smith's genius was overwhelming. Aside from his talent and ingenuity, you couldn't have asked for a nicer person to have around.

7- If I may ask...how was it working with Heather O'Rourke? She came across as a sweetie...

Let me just put it this way, if I could have adopted her I would have. She was the best. There aren't enough superlative adjectives to describe her. Her death was a tragic loss to everyone who'd ever met her and to everyone who ever would have had that pleasure if she had not gone so early. Anything else I could say would just be redundant.

8- What was your inspiration for Lisa? It's an interesting premise...

My daughter was my inspiration. She always complained that I only made films she was too young to see. So I started thinking about doing a film aimed at early and pre-teen girls. The mother-daughter relationship, and how it changed at puberty, had interested me. There were a lot of ways to approach that subject but I decided, mainly because of what the studios expected from me, to wrap a thriller around it. A PG thriller. That's where it started. I also remembered my fears of serial killers from my own childhood. That whole "boogeeman" thing. But not the ghost stories we were told at summer camp, but the real "boogiemen" we read about in the newspapers. One of my most vivid childhood memories of growing up in Chicago was, when I was just a little boy, seeing a picture on the front page of the Sun-Times of the bodies of three other little boys who had been kidnapped and murdered. That photograph has never left me. I had nightmares about it for years and have never forgotten the feelings it raised in me.

9- Of all the work you've done, which one are you the most proud?

I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed in this answer because it wasn't one of my films. Yes, there are a lot of details in many of my movies that I am proud of. My early music films were well ahead of their time. There are even some of the commercials I've shot which were ground-breaking enough to brag about. DEATH LINE, my first film, won several awards. It was even honored in England last year, 28 years after being made. VICE SQUAD was a film about which I have been quoted as saying it was my favorite, but the fact that its violence has been taken the wrong way by so many has lessened my enthusiasm.

DEAD & BURIED and P3 don't even make the list. WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE? I think my direction of that film far outweighed the script and story matter. I'm being a little long-winded here, but you've asked a question that needed introspection. My answer is MISSING PERSONS. I'm very proud of the writing and the direction of the 2-hour pilot, as well as every episode of the series. It was about people. The characters were very real. It was completely character driven. It evoked real emotions. The letters I received from viewers made all the hard work worthwhile.

10- What's the last horror movie you saw...was it any good?

If you'll accept SIXTH SENSE as a horror movie, my answer is that it was great. Thanks a lot Gary for a great interview. My Poltergeist 3 question is answered so now I could sleep at night.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: "Ghost Story" on this site a true story?

A: The Ghost Story of Heather was supplied by Hatex. The story was never confirmed true nor do we know where Hatex got the story.

Q: How did Heather O'Rourke Die?

A: Heather O'Rourke died of cardiac and pulmonary arrest. It was identified that she had been suffering from a severe bowel obstruction, a result of a congenital birth defect. The obstruction led to an infection, which in turn caused septic shock.

Q: Where is Heather O'Rourke buried?

A: Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary 1218 Glendon Ave Los Angeles , CA 90024

Disclaimer

This site is dedicated to Heather O'Rourke. This page was intended for personal information only. Some of the information found on this page is written & supplied by Artcurus.