The 'Poltergeist' Curse: Inside the Mysterious Cast Deaths and Oddities On Set

JoBeth Williams looks on as Craig T Nelson holds Oliver Robins in a scene from the film 'Poltergeist', 1982. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Released in 1982, the original Poltergeist , directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Spielberg, was an instant success and is considered to be a masterpiece of American horror cinema. The film focuses on the Freelings, a middle-class family (led by a youthful, dashing Craig T. Nelson) whose life is upturned when a number of paranormal and vicious events occur in their California home and their daughter Carol Anne is abducted through her bedroom closet by a group of ghosts who are under the control of a monster demon called the “Beast.”

After learning that their house sits atop a Native American burial ground, the Freelings spend their time attempting to retrieve Carol Anne and all the while stay sane as they get smacked around, terrorized and ultimately, “goobered” on in the bathtub.

With Poltergeist's success came a creepy mystique that the classic film is shrouded in real-life tragedies that some interpret as a curse.

Four cast members died during and soon after the filming of the series

The majority of the fuel for the alleged curse stems from the deaths of multiple cast members. In total, four cast members died during and soon after the filming of the series. Two of these tragic deaths were highly unexpected and puzzling, leading many fans to speculate on the trilogy’s eerie implications.

Heather O'Rourke screams as she is harassed by evil spirits in a scene from the film 'Poltergeist', 1982. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Heather O'Rourke

Carol Anne Freeling, the young focal point of the series, was played by Heather O’Rourke. Only six years old when the first Poltergeist film was released, O’Rourke captivated audiences with her stark blond hair, doll-like appearance, and big, inquisitive eyes. Sadly, however, she was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1987. The following year, O’Rourke fell ill again, and her symptoms were casually attributed to the flu. A day later, she collapsed and suffered a cardiac arrest. After being airlifted to a children’s hospital in San Diego, O’Rourke died during an operation to correct a bowel obstruction, and it was later believed that she had been suffering from a congenital intestinal abnormality.

Dominique Dunne

Dominique Dunne, who played the original older sister Dana Freeling, met an equally tragic and unforeseen fate. In 1982, Dunne separated from her partner, John Sweeney. In November of that year, he showed up at Dunne’s house, pleading for her to take him back. When she refused, Sweeney grabbed Dunne’s neck, choked her until she was unconscious, and left her to die in her Hollywood home’s driveway. Sweeney was sentenced to six and a half years in prison but was released after three years and seven months.

Julian Beck and Will Sampson

The other two cast member deaths, while unfortunate, were not as unpredictable or mysterious. The evil preacher Kane from Poltergeist II was played by Julian Beck. In 1983, Beck had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, which took his life soon after he finished work on the second installment of the series. The same film was met with further tragedy, after Will Sampson, who played Taylor the Native American shaman, died after undergoing a heart-lung transplant, which had a very slim survival rate.

Other strange things happened on set

Cast deaths were not the only agents of the curse’s proliferation, as other peculiar and creepy legends surround the film franchise. JoBeth Williams, who played mom Diane Freeling in the first two films, claimed that director Spielberg insisted on using actual human skeletons as props in an attempt to save money (at the time, they were cheaper than plastic skeletons). Williams’ claim has never been verified, but it persists to this day in the lore surrounding the films’ curse.

Finally, in an effort to further creep out everyone involved, Sampson, the real-life medicine man who passed away due to circumstances mentioned above, performed an authentic exorcism after shooting wrapped up one night. One can only imagine how this made the other cast members feel.

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Den of Geek

Cursed Films: Inside the ‘Poltergeist Curse’

We speak with Cursed Films documentarian Jay Cheel about getting to the truth behind the grim 'Poltergeist Curse' legend.

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Poltergeist Movie

As a child of the ‘80s, the so-called Poltergeist curse looms largest in my memory amongst films supposedly plagued by supernaturally bad luck. And as a paranormal pop culture researcher, the fact real skeletons were used in the finale’s swimming pool scene makes the notion of a curse all the more compelling. As purely a storytelling device, a curse would make sense; it tracks. Of course there is most likely no truth to it either.

To be sure, there is indeed tragedy connected to the film. Most notable is the murder of 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne in November 1982–five months following the film’s June release–and the death of 12-year-old Heather O’Rourke during the filming of Poltergeist III due to complications from an undetected bowel obstruction.

The premature deaths of the two were enough to create the notion of a cursed franchise, which was only exacerbated by the revelation of the skeletons… plus the 2002 E! True Hollywood Story account of these events.

“[ Poltergeist ] was a film on heavy rotation in my household,” says Jay Cheel, the director and executive producer of Cursed Films , the new documentary series on horror streaming service Shudder. “And hearing about the death of Heather O’Rourke was a powerful thing, because I was a kid when I was watching those films.”

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Throughout the course of five episodes of Cursed Films , Cheel explores the odd coincidences and mishaps of Poltergeist , The Exorcist , The Omen , The Crow , and Twilight Zone: The Movie . He also examines the belief of curses, and speaks with religious experts, folklorists, film historians, and even an alleged exorcist and self-proclaimed witch.

Perhaps even more noteworthy though are Cursed Films ’ interviews with people directly associated with the movies. In the case of Poltergeist , that includes special effects makeup artist Craig Reardon–a man who has borne the brunt of blame for the alleged curse because he used human skeletons in the film.

Cheel says the notion of a Poltergeist curse is very personal to Reardon because he was in charge of those makeup effects. But the interview almost didn’t happen.

“When I first reached out to [Reardon], he was definitely not interested,” says Cheel. “His initial response was that he would sue me personally if we even mentioned his name in the series.”

Cheel explains that Reardon had taken part in the E! True Hollywood Story: Curse of the Poltergeist , and had a bad experience with that. According to the filmmaker, Reardon felt his interview was taken and shaped in a way to suggest that this curse was real. The artist agreed to the Cursed Films interview once Cheel explained the intent to have an honest conversation about his feelings toward the idea of Poltergeist being cursed.

“When people are suggesting choices he made could have potentially led to the deaths of actors involved in the production, he takes extreme personal offense to that,” says Cheel.

The resulting interview is impactful, impassioned, and rare because Reardon points out that using human skeletons on movie sets is part of a long tradition in Hollywood. He also emphasizes it is gratuitous, and ghoulish even, to trivialize the deaths of two people by connecting their tragedy to a curse.

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“I think he saw it as some cathartic opportunity to just lay it all out there,” reflects Cheel, as opposed to other interviews about the “curse” where interviewers are “more interested in all of the crazy stuff that happened on these sets, and lining all of those incidents up in a row so that it suggests something supernatural.”

However, while Cursed Films does not reinforce the notion of curses, it does explore it seriously. And some films, such as Poltergeist , tend to attract legends especially when the plot somewhat mirrors the curse stories.

“The more incidents attached to a film, the more power the story has,” he says, but adds that with Poltergeist , there is a source to the curse–at least for believers. The human skeletons used on set during filming led to the bad fortune.

“That mirrors the idea in the actual film of the Freeling family moving into this home that was built on top of a burial ground.”

“That is what gives it the most power and makes it the most interesting for people,” he adds. “That gets back to the idea of this weird fantasy of the stories we’re seeing on the screen bleeding off the screen into our reality and affecting us in strange ways.”

The Poltergeist franchise is most likely not cursed, but Cursed Films nevertheless offers a balanced perspective. By delving into the stories, and the untimely deaths of Dunne and O’Rourke, Cheel actually succeeds in lifting a curse of sorts, and allowing people like Reardon to finally have his say on the legends.

Aaron Sagers

Aaron Sagers | @aaronsagers

Aaron Sagers is a New York City-based journalist, author, and researcher of the weird, pursuing the cross-cultural connections of the paranormal across the globe for more…

poltergeist cursed films

Is the 'Poltergeist' Curse Real?

Superstitious legend holds that a number of strange deaths are connected to a 'curse' on the 'poltergeist' film series., barbara mikkelson, published jan 28, 1999.


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What is seen as an unusually large number of deaths have occurred among the former cast of the Poltergeist trilogy. This occurrence has given rise to the rumor the productions were in some way "cursed" due to the nature of the films themselves, as if the evil spirits conjured in the make-believe world of the cinema have since reached out into the real world to claim what they might see as their rightful victims.

A poltergeist in folklore is a noisy and destructive (but usually mischievous, not malicious) ghost held to be responsible for unexplained noises and movement of objects within a home. It is hypothesized poltergeists are drawn to homes in which there are prepubescent children, especially girls. Three horror films based on this form of lore comprise the Poltergeist trilogy:

poltergeist cursed films

Poltergeist (1982), Poltergeist II (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988). Each recounts an episode in the lives of the Freelings, a fictitious family who have the bad luck to take up residence in homes inhabited by spirits intent upon kidnapping their children or sending their kids to live in similar places.

Though coincidence is a much more likely explanation than a curse, there have been four deaths among the cast of this set of films: Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling), Heather O'Rourke (Carol Ann Freeling), Will Sampson (Taylor, a good spirit), and Julian Beck (Kane, an evil spirit). Though two of the deaths were foreseeable (expected, even), two others were not. It's the combination of the two unexpected deaths that lies at the heart of every rumor about a Poltergeist curse.

Dominique Dunne, the 22-year-old actress who portrayed big sister Dana Freeling in the first Poltergeist film (released in June 1982), died on 4 November 1982 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, four days after her boyfriend choked her into a coma from which she never awoke. Weeks earlier, Dunne had ended her abusive live-in relationship with Los Angeles chef John Sweeney, but on the night of 30 October 1982, he dropped by their former shared residence to plead with her to take him back. The conversation did not go as he'd hoped, and the encounter ended with him strangling her for what was later determined to be 4 to 6 minutes, then leaving her for dead in her driveway.

poltergeist cursed films

Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced in November 1983, and released in 1986 after serving only 3 years, 8 months of a 6½ year sentence. His short sentence and early release remain subjects of controversy.

Heather O'Rourke, the child actress who played Carol Anne Freeling throughout the Poltergeist series (starting when she was six years old), unexpectedly passed away at the age of 12 when she died of septic shock on 1 February 1988 at the Children's Hospital in San Diego. What had been thought to be a bout of ordinary flu launched her into cardiac arrest during the drive to the local hospital as bacterial toxins set loose by a bowel obstruction made their way into her bloodstream. Her heart was successfully restarted and she was flown by helicopter to the much-larger Children's Hospital, where she underwent an operation to remove the obstruction. The toxins rampaging through her system proved too much, however, and she died on the operating table.

poltergeist cursed films

The circumstances surrounding her passing rendered her death even more of a shock than it otherwise would have been, as she went overnight from a little girl who had the flu to a dead little girl who expired during a desperate operation to save her life. It's hard enough to accept that a child can die of an illness, let alone a healthy-looking youngster no one knew anything was wrong with. (That she looked healthy did not necessarily mean that she was. The year before her death she'd been diagnosed as having Crohn's Disease, a lifelong inflammatory small bowel disease which often first manifests in children and young adults.) Of course such an unexpected death would fuel rumors, especially when considered in conjunction with Dominique Dunne's murder only six years earlier.

O'Rourke had appeared in all three Poltergeist movies. Poltergeist III had yet to be released at the time of her death, leading to rumors that she had expired during shooting and a double was used to complete the picture in her place. O'Rourke's family and agent said at the time of her death her scenes for Poltergeist III had been completed several months earlier (back in June 1987), but writer/director Gary Sherman has maintained filming of Poltergeist III had not yet finished when O'Rourke died, necessitating script changes to complete the film in her absence.

The other two deaths connected with Poltergeist were of seasoned actors well into their careers, both suffering from serious illnesses that would in time take their lives. Because their deaths were not unexpected, only rarely is either mentioned in connection with the Poltergeist "curse."

Julian Beck, the 60-year-old actor who played the evil spirit Kane in 1986's Poltergeist II: The Other Side , died of stomach cancer on 14 September 1985 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York seven months before the film's May 1986 release. Unlike O'Rourke's death, his was not unexpected, as he had been battling cancer for 18 months.

poltergeist cursed films

Will Sampson, the 53-year-old Native American actor who portrayed the good spirit Taylor in Poltergeist II , died in a Houston hospital on 3 June 1987, about a year after the film's release. Sampson had received a heart-lung transplant six weeks earlier, and the cause of his death was ascribed to severe pre-operative malnutrition and post-operative kidney failure and fungal infection. It has been said he knew his chances for survival were small due to his weakened condition prior to surgery.

poltergeist cursed films

Like Beck, Sampson appeared in only one film in the series, Poltergeist II , released in May 1986. He was best known for his portrayal of the Native American psychiatric patient who feigned muteness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest .

Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive actress who filled the part of seer Tangina Barrons in all three Poltergeist films and reprised the role in the spin-off TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy , died in 2010. She passed away of natural causes at the age of 76, however, hardly the type of death one associates with a "curse" that supposedly causes unexpected and premature demises.

poltergeist cursed films

Although he was not a cast member, English film director Brian Gibson, who helmed Poltergeist II , died of Ewing's sarcoma at the age of 59 in 2004.

In a popular form of the rumor, one of the child actors is said to have come to an untimely end after the making of each film, one murdered, one in a car accident, and one of a mysterious disease. Though it's true actresses Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke have since died, Oliver Robins, the child actor who played their characters' brother Robbie Freeling in the first two films, is still with us. No child actor from the Poltergeist series was killed in a car crash or died just after Poltergeist II was completed.

An extreme version of the "curse" rumor asserts everyone who appeared in these movies is now dead. That news must come as quite a shock to numerous thespians, most notably Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Jo Beth Williams (Diane Freeling), and Tom Skerritt (Bruce Gardner), all of whom think they're still alive and continue to ply their trade in movies and television shows despite their deceasedness.

The February 2015 release of trailers for the upcoming a Poltergeist reboot/remake (with different cast members) prompted renewed interest in the original trilogy's supposed "curse."

Arnold, Roxane.   "Strangled Actress; Did Slayer's Penalty Fit His Crime?"     Los Angeles Times.   3 December 1986   (p. A1).

Associated Press.   "Poltergeist Actress in Coma After Being Choked on Coast."     The New York Times.   1 November 1982   (p. A17).

Associated Press.   "Dominique Dunne, Actress, Dies After Being Choked."     The New York Times.   5 November 1982   (p. D19).

Associated Press.   "Slayer of Actress Sentenced to 6 1/2-Year Maximum Term."     The New York Times.   13 November 1983   (p. A28).

Folkart, Burt.   "Role in Cuckoo's Nest; Will Sampson, Gentle Indian Giant, Dies."     Los Angeles Times.   4 June 1987   (p. A24).

Folkart, Burt.   "Poltergeist Star Heather O'Rourke Dies at Age of 12."     Los Angeles Times.   3 February 1988   (p. A3).

Freedman, Samuel.   "Julian Beck, 60, Is Dead; Founded Living Theater."     The New York Times.   17 September 1985   (p. B6).

The San Diego Union-Tribune.   "Heather O'Rourke, 12, Dies, San Diego Actress."     2 February 1988   (p. A3).

United Press International.     2 February 1988   California; Regional News.

By Barbara Mikkelson

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Gary Sherman in Cursed Films (2020)

A series of untimely deaths connected to the making of the Poltergeist films inspire rumours that the production was cursed. Supernatural suspicions are stoked by rumours that real human ske... Read all A series of untimely deaths connected to the making of the Poltergeist films inspire rumours that the production was cursed. Supernatural suspicions are stoked by rumours that real human skeletons were used during the making of the film. A series of untimely deaths connected to the making of the Poltergeist films inspire rumours that the production was cursed. Supernatural suspicions are stoked by rumours that real human skeletons were used during the making of the film.

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Cursed Films (2020)

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Poltergeist's Haunting Real-Life Curse Explained


There are many things you can do in life that may drastically decrease your life expectancy. Hanging out around nuclear waste or flavoring your dinners with lead-based paint chips are just a few examples. But one thing most people wouldn't put at the top of their "avoid at all costs" list is "star in a movie." After all, how dangerous could it be to stand in front of a camera and act for a living? Of course, there are plenty of examples in Hollywood that go against this assumption, and the cast members of the Steven Spielberg-written and Tobe Hooper-directed film "Poltergeist" might also feel differently about the riskiness of their jobs. After all, this famous supernatural flick has long been thought to be the subject of a very nasty — and deadly — curse .

The original "Poltergeist" came out in 1982. It tells the story of the Freelings, an average family who move into a new home in California. They quickly realize that the house is not as cozy and inviting as it first seemed, and their youngest daughter Carol Anne begins to communicate through the television with an otherworldly entity. This entity is, of course, a poltergeist (title alert!), and it starts to cause a whole lot of problems for the Freelings, eventually leading to the kidnapping (but safe return) of their daughter and total and utter destruction of their brand new home. There's a lot going on in the story involving cursed burial grounds and undeveloped swimming pools, but one of the most interesting and infamous things about the film is the curse that seems to have followed its cast and crew members from the moment Hooper yelled, "Action!"

Tragic Deaths

The most shocking thing about the "Poltergeist" curse is the number of deaths that occurred amongst the cast members. None of the deaths mentioned here happened during filming, but the simple fact that many of them happened at all is kind of hard to wrap your mind around. One of the most infamous deaths is that of Heather O'Rourke, who played the youngest daughter Carol Anne throughout the entire "Poltergeist" trilogy. Her death occurred after the third film wrapped. O'Rourke, who was 12 years old at the time, was wrongfully diagnosed and treated for Crohn's disease, but eventually succumbed to complications from an undiagnosed intestinal abnormality. Her death was tragic and unexpected.

A few years prior to O'Rourke's death, her co-star and older sister on screen, Dominique Dunne, was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Angry about their break-up, he went to her house one night to talk about the situation and ended up strangling her. She was 22 years old, and her death should never have happened. Dunne is not the only cast member to be murdered, however. Lou Perryman, who starred in the minor role of Pugsley in the original film, was murdered with an ax in his home by a young man recently released from prison. The killer had no previous connection to Perryman, and he claimed to be intoxicated and no longer taking his prescription medications at the time, which caused him to go into a murderous rage. 

Other cast members died from various pre-diagnosed illnesses. These deaths feel a little less "curse"-driven since they were known about before filming, but that doesn't change the fact that their lives ended shortly after working on the films. There were also a few near-death experiences by cast members. Ryan Lawson, who played the part of Ryan in the first film, was in a horrific plane crash that killed 27 of the 51 people on board, and Oliver Robbins, who played the brother Robbie Freeling,  was nearly strangled to death by that terrifying clown that actually malfunctioned on set. If it wasn't for Steven Spielberg's quick thinking , Robbins may not be here to tell the story today. That's a whole lot of death and trauma associated with one spooky movie. Poltergeist or no poltergeist, this famous film franchise definitely seems cursed.

The Curse Lives On

Cursed film sets are more common than one might think. The sets of "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby," and "The Omen," have all been said to harbor nasty amounts of bad luck. Usually, these "curses" tend to occur on the sets of horror movies, leaving one to wonder whether or not playing around with the stories of ghosts and possessions and death is really such a good idea. Of course, a lot of these so-called curses are probably nothing more than just really bad luck that also happens to have exceptional timing. But it is interesting to wonder about supernatural possibilities that may be at play. 

The "Poltergeist" curse is a tragic one — so many people lost their lives in brutal and devastating ways — and it also seems to have followed the franchise onto the set of the 2015 remake. Bloody Disgusting reports  that while this version of the curse is mild compared to the one that terrorized the trilogy's original cast, it still had some spooky things up its sleeves. The house where filming took place was apparently haunted (and chosen by the director Gil Kenan for this particular reason, so, in some ways, he was asking for weird stuff to happen), and Kenan also claims to have lived in another haunted house for the duration of the shoot. In a Reddit AMA, he said that "the house that [he] rented during filming was straight-u p legit haunted by a female spirit dressed in black." Take that along with everything that happened to the original "Poltergeist" cast and crew, and I'd say that the curse is still alive and waiting for its next big blockbuster to haunt. 

Cursed Films: Is the biggest Poltergeist theory true?

By sandy c. | apr 9, 2020.

Cursed Films. Image Courtesy Shudder

Shudder has dropped two more episodes of the new series Cursed Films, Poltergeist and The Omen. But Poltergeist is the stand out because of one wild theory. Is it true?

Cursed Films dropped on Shudder  on April 2, with “The Exorcist.” The five-part documentary series exposes theories behind some of the most popular horror films that have long been surrounded by legends and curses. From strange bombings that happened while filming  The Omen  to creepy plane accidents that carried members of the movie crew, these are very strange tales!

However, it’s one of the latest episodes, “Poltergeist,” that truly has us scratching our heads! According to  Cursed Films: Poltergeist , real skeletons were used in the making of the movie. Say what? It’s insane to think about, I know. But this is actually not a new claim. Reports that real skeletons were used have been around for years.

Snopes  has reports and interviews from the design team and  Poltergeist  cast where they share that the skeletons are, in fact, very real. There’s a scene in the film where Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) is dragged by skeletons in a muddy pool. According to the source, while filming, Williams believed the skeletons were props.

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Williams recalls, “I thought [the skeletons] were plastic, but later found out they were real skeletons. It was a real nightmare.” Imagine that! It’s easy to see why the cast wasn’t aware until after.

MORE:  5 shows to watch on Quibi

In  Cursed Films: Poltergeist,  several members of the crew share their frightening experiences and once again reveal that the skeletons were very real. As it turns out, the budget to make realistic props to use for various takes just wasn’t there, so the crew bought real skeletons from a medical and science supply company back in the 1980s.

Supposedly, many other films, especially low-budget features, did the same thing. It makes you wonder! Watch  Cursed Films: Poltergeist  today.

Next. 7 movies to watch on Netflix in April 2020. dark

The first three episodes of Cursed Films  are now streaming on Shudder . 

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Is the Poltergeist Movie Franchise Cursed? The Myth, Explained

Updated on 10/28/2022 at 1:25 PM

Poltergeist movie franchise curse

From " Halloween " to "A Nightmare on Elm Street," there's no shortage of iconic horror movies from the '70s and '80s that launched long-running franchises. Still, "Poltergeist" stands out among the rest because of its cult following — and many of those fans believe the Poltergeist franchise is actually cursed.

A reboot of the classic 1982 horror film "Poltergeist" came out in 2015, but let's be honest: nothing could compare to the original. While no horrific accidents occurred on the set of the most recent movie (that we know of, anyway), there are plenty of rumors of a curse on the original film trilogy's cast .

The movie revolves around a suburban family who moves into a new home and begins to notice strange things involving their 5-year-old daughter, Carol Ann. Turns out, menacing spirits are haunting the house, and while their interactions seem harmless at first, their true evil nature is soon revealed when Carol Ann goes missing, and her desperate parents turn to an exorcist for help.

Read on to find out about the mysterious events that have made people speculate that the Poltergeist movie franchise may be the most cursed series in Hollywood.

It All Began With Human Skeletons

One of the most famous scenes features JoBeth Williams's character, Diane, falling into the family's pool filled with skeletons. What you might not know is that those skeletons are actually real — at least the "Poltergeist" cast didn't. "In my innocence and naiveté, I assumed that these were not real skeletons," Williams said in a 2006 episode of TV Land's "TV Myths and Legends." "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 because it's far too expensive to make fake skeletons out of rubber."

Months After the Release of the First Film, a Star Was Murdered

"Poltergeist" was released in June 1982, and in November of that year, 22-year-old Dominique Dunne, who played Dana (the family's older daughter), was murdered. Dunne was strangled in her own driveway by her abusive ex-boyfriend and was removed from life support five days later.

An Exorcism Was Performed on the Set of the Sequel

Concerned about the use of real skeletons on the set of the first film, Native American actor and "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" star Will Sampson performed an exorcism on the set of the second film in 1984. According to Williams, he went to the set late at night by himself to do it. The next day, the cast supposedly felt relieved.

2 Cast Members Died Within Years of the Sequel

Julian Beck, who starred as Kane in "Poltergeist II: The Other Side," died of stomach cancer at age 60. He was diagnosed before he accepted the role, and he died in September 1985, months before the film came out in theaters. In June 1987, Sampson, the actor who performed the exorcism, died of malnutrition and postoperative kidney failure at age 53. While their deaths may not seem so unusual, some fans still believe they're connected to the curse.

Poltergeist's Young Star Died at 12

Poltergeist's iconic young star Heather O'Rourke (aka Carol Anne, who said the famous "They're here" line) was incredibly young when she died of cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal issue. She died in February 1988 at 12, several months before the release of "Poltergeist III," the final chapter in the original series.

A Cast Member Barely Escaped Death

Richard Lawson was aboard USAir Flight 405 when it crashed into Flushing Bay in March 1992. A total of 27 people (out of the 51 on board) were killed. Lawson survived, but the event is yet another reason people claim the movie brought bad luck to its cast.

In 2009, a Second Cast Member Was Murdered

Lou Perryman played the small role of Pugsley in the original film. He was 67 years old when a recently released ex-convict killed him in his own home with an ax.

What do you think — is it a curse or simply a series of terrible events?

  • Poltergeist
  • True Stories

The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Poltergeist Cast

The Freelings frantically search for Carol Ann in 'Poltergeist' (1982)

"They're heeeeere !" Who can forget those chilling words from little Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) as ghostly apparitions projected out of a television and into the Freeling family household in the classic 1982 horror film  Poltergeist ? "The TV People" led by the evil Reverend Kane (Julian Beck) would go on to terrorize audiences (as well as the Freelings) in three movies, including 1986's Poltergeist II: The Other Side  and the final film in the trilogy, 1988's Poltergeist III .

All three films are filled with memorable, spine-tingly moments such as the hideous clown doll that pulls Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robins) under his bed, or perhaps the nightmarish tree that smashes through his bedroom window and literally tries to devour him. Another etched-in-brain scene for many is from the second film, when Steve ( Craig T. Nelson ) swallows a possessed worm while guzzling a bottle of tequila, which leads to him eventually vomiting out an H.R. Giger monstrosity. What happens in these movies is truly the stuff of nightmares, but to many, it's what happened in real life to some of the cast members that's far more tragic.

Even if you're just a casual moviegoer or horror fan, you've probably heard of "the Poltergeist curse." It's been the subject of many online articles, TV specials and mini-documentaries, including E! True Hollywood Story: Curse of the Poltergeist and most recently, episode three of Shudder's Cursed Films . Sadly, four lead actors from the trilogy all suffered deaths within a six-year span following the original film's release, leading many to believe that the movie sets were somehow cursed. This led to other various myths and exaggerated claims about what happened on the set — but before we get into that, let's look at the four main deaths that paved the way for the now infamous curse.

Dominique Dunne

Perhaps one of the most grisly and tragic deaths was that of 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne, who played the eldest sister in the first film, Dana Freeling. Her character was mentioned in Poltergeist II as being off to college, but the reality was, any ideas screenwriters might have had for her character in the sequel had to be scrapped entirely due to Dunne's untimely death just months after the original movie was released. 

On the evening of October 30, 1982, Dunne was brutally strangled by an aggravated ex-boyfriend. The assailant, identified as sous chef John Sweeney, showed up at her West Hollywood home in hopes of repairing their relationship and moving back in with her. An argument erupted on Dunne's driveway, where the deadly attack took place. When police arrived at the scene, Sweeney was quoted as saying "I've killed my girlfriend!" 

At the time, Dunne was still alive; she was rushed to Cedar's-Sinai Medical Center, where she remained in a coma for five days and never regained consciousness. On November 4, 1982, just three weeks before what would have been her 23rd birthday, she was removed from life support and pronounced dead. Dunne was considered a rising star at the time and had just landed the role of Robin Maxwell in the 1983 science-fiction miniseries  V , which she was rehearsing for the night she was assaulted.

Julian Beck

Arguably one of the creepiest villains in horror history is Reverend Henry Kane, the human form of "The Beast" played by thespian Julian Beck. He's the gaunt, 19th century-looking cult leader who spends most of Poltergeist II trying to infiltrate the Freeling residence and abduct Carol Ann — and yes, he's also the same dude who possessed the aforementioned tequila worm. Even though he completed principal photography of the film, Beck would never live to see the theatrical release of Poltergeist II since he passed away on September 14, 1985 — during the film's post-production period and a full eight months before its premiere. 

Unlike Dominique Dunne's shocking murder, Beck passed away after a long battle with stomach cancer, something he had been diagnosed with in 1983 . So while his death is certainly unfortunate, it also definitely wasn't out of left field. Beck was dying of stomach cancer during the production and the entire crew was well aware of his diagnosis. Some believe it even influenced his chilling final performance in a film.

Will Sampson

Some remember actor Will Sampson as Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest , but horror fans know him as Taylor, the Native American shaman from Poltergeist II . Sampson passed away due to post-operative kidney failure following a heart and lung transplant. Again, this is another death of a cast member that eerily occurred not long after the release of a Poltergeist movie. Sampson passed away on June 3, 1987 , but much like Beck's situation, he had a preexisting medical condition. Sampson suffered from scleroderma, a chronic degenerative condition that caused him severe malnourishment and other complications with his heart, skin, and lungs. He was only age 53 at his time of death.

Heather O'Rourke

The most well-known death that sparked and fuels the " Poltergeist curse" fire to this day was the shocking loss of Heather O' Rourke, who played Carol Ann — the young, angelic face of the entire franchise. During production of Poltergeist III in 1987, O'Rourke was undergoing treatment for Crohn's disease, which would turn out to be a misdiagnosis. In the third episode of  Shudder's   Cursed Films docuseries, director Gary Sherman shares several memories and speaks very fondly of the young actress, saying that, aside from O'Rourke's "chipmunk cheeks" — a side effect caused by the bowel inflammation medications she was taking at the time — she remained in high spirits and overall seemed physically fine and enjoyed her time on the set. Little did he know or anyone else know that something fatal was brewing within. 

Fast forward to January of 1988, when O'Rourke became severely ill and her health started deteriorating at an alarming rate. On February 1, 1988, she was rushed to the hospital, where she  ultimately died due to septic shock caused by undetected intestinal blockage. This blockage ruptured and the toxins released in her body proved to be too much. During an operation the 12-year-old O'Rourke was undergoing the same day of her death, it was also revealed that she did not have Crohn's disease, but an acute bowel obstruction due to a congenital stenosis — something that could've been surgically corrected had it been detected sooner. With only four months until the film's release, her death caused the studio to force Sherman to shoot an entirely new ending using a double, something the director was strongly against. He preferred that the movie not be released at all, but MGM ultimately had its way. O'Rourke's tragic end would be the fourth death of a Poltergeist major cast member in a six-year span.

Lou Perryman

While the deaths of Dominique Dunne, Julian Beck, Will Sampson, and Heather O'Rourke are seen as part of the supposed "curse," there is another death that some fans like to bring up to further pile on the evidence, but it happened 17 years after the release of the original movie and it's very likely someone you don't recall seeing. Actor Lou Perryman, who had a very minor role as a construction worker named Pugsley, was gruesomely murdered in his home by Seth Christopher Tatum — an ex-con with a history of mental health problems. On April 1, 2009 , Tatum was on the run after a violent altercation with his mother's ex-boyfriend when he randomly came across Perryman's home (the two had never met) and killed him. His reason? Just to steal his car. The case was settled two years later when the killer, who'd stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder shortly before the murder, was sentenced to life in prison .

Oliver Robins is alive and well

It's apparent there's a lot of real-life death surrounding the Poltergeist movies, and while some like to believe it has to do with a curse, others believe it's simply a string of unfortunate coincidences. You might also hear other false or exaggerated Poltergeist myths, such as all three kids from the original film died, which is totally untrue. Robbie Freeling, played by Oliver Robins, is alive and well. In a 2015 interview with the Daily Mail , when asked about the strange deaths surrounding the franchise, he told them he believes there is no curse. "To be completely honest, I don't think anyone that was involved in the movie ever really took the curse seriously. There is no curse — it is just tragic coincidences," he said. "People may try and connect the dots and make something out of it, but they are possibly going to make connections that probably aren't there. They do make for great spooky stories, but at the end of the day, they really aren't true."

Did real human skeletons cause the curse?

If there is a Poltergeist  curse, what caused it? One widely-discussed theory is the fact that real skeletons were used by the effects crew in the first two movies, most notably in the muddy swimming pool scene from the original with Diane Freeling, played by JoBeth Williams. Desecration of human remains plays a big role in the first film as the probable cause of the Freelings' pesky poltergeist problem. How ironic would it be if these real skeletons somehow jinxed the cast? This theory doesn't exactly hold up, though — Williams is still alive and well, as is daddy Freeling himself, Craig T. Nelson.

One man who is strongly against the notion that these real skeletons led to the deaths of the actors is special make-up effects artist Craig Reardon, who worked on Poltergeist . "The subject of the skeletons that were used in Poltergeist , to my utter amazement has created sort of an online mythology, and not a pretty one," said Reardon when interviewed for Shudder's Cursed Films . "Apparently, there's a contingent of people out there who believe that the fact that real human skeletons were used are some kind of pretext to 'explain' why two actresses that worked in the film subsequently died, which is not only just conceptually ridiculous, but is personally offensive to me."

As Reardon went on to point out, "human skeletons have been used in movies for years and years." Examples cited in his interview include  House on Haunted Hill  and the 1931  Frankenstein.  "No low-budget B film is gonna pay anybody to sculpt a human skeleton when all you had to do was go to a biological supply house and get a human skeleton. You know, wake up and small the budget. That's really the way it worked," he added. "The idea of having a few of them on the set of Poltergeist and killing two lovely young girls is a pretty pernicious idea."

Zelda Rubinstein slams the curse

Perhaps one of the most famous Poltergeist characters of all, arguably only second to Carol Ann, is the clairvoyant ghost-vanquisher Tangina "This house is clean" Barrons, played to perfection by Zelda Rubinstein, who passed away at the age of 76 in 2010 due to complications that followed a mild heart attack. Most never consider her death part of the curse due to her age, cause of death, and how far removed it was from the close string of deaths between 1982 and 1988. And that's likely how she would want it. Much like Oliver Robins, Rubinstein always felt the idea of a Poltergeist  curse was just superstitious nonsense. In fact, you might even say she found it to be downright preposterous. 

In a 1988 interview during a Showbiz Today segment on CNN, she candidly spoke about the curse in her signature gracious manner but ended it on a classy yet blunt note. "I owe it to Heather to present her case, as most honestly and lovingly as I can. I loved this child very much and I am still very grieved at her passing," said Rubinstein. "Heather died because of an undetected, congenital, anatomical defect. Julian Beck died from cancer in his mature years. Will Sampson passed away after receiving a heart and lung transplant. It's my understanding he had an environmental disease. And Dominique Dunne died at the hands of an extremely ill-directed, passionate boyfriend. These are reasons, I do not call this a jinx. I think that it's pretty much a courtesy to put to an end this superstitious crap ."

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Inside the real-life curse behind one of the world’s scariest movies

‘poltergeist’ was inspired by a true haunting of a suburban home, but annabel nugent discovers it was also beset by terrifying behind-the-scenes chaos, both during and after filming. here, she asks, was it all a morbid coincidence or was something scarier at work, article bookmarked.

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<p>Stranger than fiction: the real-life events surrounding Tobe Hooper’s release were more harrowing than the film itself </p>

Stranger than fiction: the real-life events surrounding Tobe Hooper’s release were more harrowing than the film itself

O ver four decades since its release, Poltergeist remains a Halloween go-to. Come spooky season, horror devotees in search of sure-fire scares inevitably reach for Tobe Hooper ’s movie about a picture-perfect family tormented by malevolent spirits. Between the swimming pool of skeletons, a cackling clown doll, and a portal in the closet, there are plenty of frights to go around. Dodgy CGI notwithstanding.

Off camera, though, murder and illness led to real-life deaths far scarier than anything seen on screen – and before the cameras even began rolling, tensions were reportedly running high.

The nature of Hooper’s involvement in the film has been debated since its 1982 release. Many have claimed that Steven Spielberg had a hand in directing the movie that his official credits – as co-writer and co-producer – don’t account for. While the question of directorial authorship is yet to be answered (after the film’s release, Spielberg published an open letter publicly crediting Hooper for his work and thanking him for his “openness”), such reports of a power struggle on set only fed rumours of the film’s gruelling production, which involved accidents, tragic cast deaths and the use of actual human remains. The fact Spielberg apparently based his harrowing story on real-life events did not help to dispel rumours of a so-called curse on the film.

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The Poltergeist Curse: Exploring The Horror Franchise's Tragic Real Life Legacy

The true tragedies associated with the horror classic.

Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist

One of the most terrifying haunted house movies of all time is the 1982 favorite from producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist – in which a family is forced to contend with malevolent spirits that have infiltrated their home and abducted their young daughter into the netherworld. Even more unsettling than the bizarre supernatural events that take place in the classic horror movie and its sequels are the real-life tragedies that have affected multiple people involved with the films.

Because there have been so many heartbreaking deaths related to the hit horror movie franchise – not to mention a few claims of unexplainable circumstances on set – fans have speculated that the films are hexed by what has come to be known as the “ Poltergeist Curse.” We would like to make it clear that we do not believe in such a thing, but also cannot deny that the Poltergeist movies have a very sad and strange legacy associated with them. The following is a timeline of this genuinely haunting history, starting with a few unusual details that some say are the cause.

The Alleged Origins Of The Poltergeist Curse

In one of the most iconic moments from the original Poltergeist , Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) falls into her unfinished swimming pool and struggles to climb herself out as rotting, human remains from the cemetery her house was built upon rise out of the muddy waters and surround her. As Williams would recall in a 40th anniversary retrospective by Vanity Fair , it was not until after she was finished shooting the already stressful sequence when she learned that the skeletons she was sharing the pool with were real.

This behind-the-scenes horror movie fact is certainly shocking by today’s standards, but using real cadavers was actually a common practice in Hollywood at the time, considering they were cheaper to purchase than fake ones were to build. However, as discussed in the docuseries Cursed Films — one of the best TV shows on Shudder — fans have theorized that real, angry spirits were attached to those skeletons and would become the cause of eerie things that happened on set and after production.

For instance, in an episode of E! True Hollywood Story that explores the legacy of the “ Poltergeist Curse,” crew members recall facing unusual mishaps while filming 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side , which continued the use of real skeletons. Craig T. Nelson, who reprises the role of Steve Freeling in the sequel, also describes in the episode how his co-star, Will Sampson, sensed that there was a malevolent presence disturbing the production and personally conducted an exorcism on the set. The Incredibles star claims that the production did not suffer any further setbacks from that moment on.

The Death Of Dominique Dunne

Poltergeist is also remembered as the first feature-length film to star Dominique Dunne (younger sister of Academy Award nominee Griffin Dunne) as the Freelings’ oldest daughter, Dana. Unfortunately, it would also be her last film, as the actor was murdered only a few months after the movie was released.

As the New York Times reported in November 1982, the 22-year-old had been strangled into an unconscious state, and she was held on life support for five days before she passed. Dunne’s former boyfriend, then-26-year-old chef John Sweeney, admitted to investigators that he was the one who choked her in response to an argument over moving back in together. The following year, Sweeney was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which the actor’s father, frequent Vanity Fair contributor Dominick Dunne, mentioned in a 2008 article for the magazine in detailing his account of the trial.

Julian Beck Died Shortly After Finishing Poltergeist II

In Poltergeist II: The Other Side , a movie our own Rich Knight was terrified of as a child , the Beast who taunted the Freelings in the first film takes the form of a preacher calling himself Reverend Henry Kane – which is easily the most iconic film role by Julian Beck. Unfortunately, according to the New York Times , the villainous part would also mark his last big screen appearance, having passed away at the age of 60 just a few months after the sequel wrapped in 1985.

While some theorists have often considered the theatre actor’s death to be further evidence of the curse, the Los Angeles Times ’ report of his passing mentions that he had previously been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1983. Knowing that he was near the end of his life and suffering from a painful illness while portraying the decrepit Kane makes his already chilling performance even more unsettling.

Poltergeist II Star Will Sampson Succumbed To Various Health Complications

Julian Beck was not the only Poltergeist II star who passed away not long after working on the film. The aforementioned Will Sampson, who played a Native American shaman who tries to help the Freelings named Taylor, died in June 1987 at the age of 53. 

According to the Herald Journal (via Google News ), the actor – who had previously been diagnosed with scleroderma – passed 43 days after an otherwise successful lung transplant. He was suffering from malnutrition, a post-operation infection, and kidney failure of an unknown cause that lapsed him into a 10-day coma. Sampson made his major acting debut as part of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest cast as “Chief” Bromden in 1975 before going on to star opposite Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales the following year and in the 1977 creature feature Orca .

Heather O’Rourke Passed Away At 12 Years Old

Easily the most memorable character of the Poltergeist franchise is the malevolent spirits’ young, primary target, Carol Anne Freeling – played by Heather O’Rourke. The child actor’s promising career was sadly cut short after her doctors failed to detect a long-standing bowel obstruction that led to the 12-year-old’s death in 1988, according to the Los Angeles Times .

Similar to her Poltergeist II co-star Julian Beck, O’Rourke had finished shooting the third installment of the franchise, 1988’s Poltergeist III , shortly before her passing. However, the sequel’s director was reluctantly forced to reshoot many of her scenes with a double, as he recalled in Cursed Films , which can be viewed with a Shudder subscription .

In 2015, MGM released a remake of Poltergeist that – as director Gil Kenan admitted in a Reddit AMA thread – experienced a few on-set electrical problems, but has no tragedies associated with it (unless you count its not-so-favorable reviews ). Therefore, we believe there is no quantifiable reason to suspect that any unfortunate events remotely related to this franchise are the result of a curse and the films are perfectly safe to enjoy today... if you are not too scared, that is.


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Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.

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What Is The 'Poltergeist' Curse? Is Spielberg's Beloved Horror Film Truly Hexed?

Why have so many actors featured in the "Poltergeist" franchise suffered from mysterious deaths?

poltergeist cursed films

A house built on an ancient Native American burial ground. A child who travels to the great beyond. Spiritual mediums battling the forces of evil. And most bizarrely of all, a handful of mysterious deaths.

Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's 1982 film "Poltergeist" is a beloved horror classic. Using inventive special effects and compelling character development, the movie is frequently ranked amongst the greatest entries into the genre of all time. "Poltergeist" would go on to spawn several sequels (and a critically reviled reboot) — but each attempt at continuing the franchise is met with considerable fear. That's because many fans of the film believe these scary movies, in reality, are cursed. So what is the "Poltergeist" curse... and is it true?

The original "Poltergeist" trilogy tells the story of the Freeling family and their terrifying encounters with the supernatural. Gifted with a magical essence, the youngest daughter of this average suburban household, Carol Anne, is relentlessly pursued by a cavalcade of malicious spirits, including that of a sadistic doomsday cult leader named Kane.

poltergeist cursed films

JoBeth Williams looks on as Craig T. Nelson holds Oliver Robins in a scene from the film "Poltergeist," 1982. Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

The legend of the so-called Poltergeist Curse began the same year the first movie was released. Actress Dominique Young, who made her debut in "Poltergeist" as the elder sister of Carol Anne, was strangled to death by her former boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney, in the wake of an argument between the two. According to a New York Times article at the time , Dunne was put on life support after the attack from her former beau but passed away five days later. Sweeney would go on to be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, sparking outrage amidst the perpetrator's family, who had hoped less serious charges would be pursued, according to a 1983 article from The Freelance Star .

Next in the string of spooky deaths was that of Julian Beck, who played the aforementioned apocalyptic prognosticator Kane in "Poltergeist II." Beck would not live to see the release of the sequel, which would be his final film: He passed away at the age of 60 after a battle with stomach cancer on September 14, 1985, according to The New York Times .

A third death of an actor associated with the film started rousing spectral suspicions. Will Sampson had played a kindly ghost named Taylor who protected Carol Anne in the second film of the series. He died on June 3, 1987, after a lengthy illness caused by a chronic degenerative condition, according to The Herald Journal . He was 53 years old.

Not long after that, Heather O'Rourke, the young actress who played protagonist Carol Anne in all three films, would pass away rather suddenly. Doctors had been attempting to repair an acute bowel obstruction caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine, but could not save the young thespian in time, according to the LA Times . O'Rourke was pronounced dead on February 1, 1988. She was 12 years old.

There was one other death as well: actress and activist Zelda Rubinstein, who played the plucky, diminutive psychic in the three original films, passed away from natural causes at the age of 76, according to CNN . Her death is not usually connected to the so-called curse, as she was not exactly cut down in her prime.

The shocking nature of O'Rourke's death solidified for many that something suspicious was afoot. Rumors about which members of the cast would die next began swirling about (and were more difficult to debunk before the advent of the internet): For a time, some mistakenly believed that Oliver Robins, the actor who played Carol Anne's brother Robbie Freeling in the first two films, had died in a car crash or had been mistakenly strangled by the mechanical clown doll in the first movie, according to Snopes , a fact checking website that covers urban legends, and Bloody Disgusting , a website that covers horror films. A more extreme version of the rumor had some claiming that every actor who played a main character in the film had died. This, also, is patently untrue: Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling), Jo Beth Williams (Diane Freeling), and Tom Skerritt (Bruce Gardner) are all very much alive.

When "Poltergeist" was rebooted in 2015, some wondered whether the stars would be safe. Although the movie was widely panned , it turns out no one has perished (yet!) as a result of their involvement. That being said, director Gil Kenan noted some paranormal phenomena during filming.

"Lights that could turn on anywhere else in the neighborhood would blow out the second you’d try to light them on [the set],” Kenan wrote in a Reddit AMA . “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."

“The house that I rented during filming was straight-up legit haunted by a female spirit dressed in black,” Kenan continued. “And I became aware of her within the first few days of staying in the house. And only after I left did I receive a call from the previous owner, who had moved back in, who was terrified by the goings on in the house, and wanted to see if I had experienced any of it. So it was an incredible real-life inspiration for filming that followed me home.”

A series of relatively explainable deaths does not a curse make, but superstitions run wild in Hollywood, where the span and scope of the "Poltergeist" legend has grown in the audience's imaginations. In a series about the terror of the afterlife, fans have obviously let their fears run wild into the real world.

[Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images]

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Documentary to explore ‘poltergeist’ movie curse.

'The Curse of Poltergeist' will attempt to unravel the mystery that surrounds the spooky franchise.

By Mia Galuppo

Mia Galuppo

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'Poltergeist' Movie Curse: Documentary to Explore Actor Deaths

The ghosts weren't the only scary things in Steven Spielberg 's Oscar-nominated screenplay.

Producer and filmmaker Adam Ripp wants to get to the bottom of the supposed curse that has plagued the cast of the Steven Spielberg -produced Poltergeist film series.

Ripp is directing The Curse of Poltergeist , which his company, Vega Baby, is financing and producing alongside Indonesia-based MD Pictures. He’s set to start shooting in November.

The documentary will focus on the life and experiences of Poltergeist actor Oliver Robins , who played Robbie Freeling in the first and second installment of the franchise, as a way to explore the tragedies that have befallen those involved with the films.

“It will be a journey into the unknown as I attempt to understand the meaning behind the tragedies surrounding the movie,” said Robins, of the The Curse of Poltergeist. “It’s something that will hopefully bring closure to a dark chapter in my life.”

Many of the actors involved in the project have met dreadful ends, including Dominique Dunne who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, and young star Heather O’Rourke , who died at the age of twelve of acute bowel obstruction right before the third film was released.

In 2002, the curse was the focus of an  E! True Hollywood Story .

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Screen Rant

10 cursed movies (& the truth behind them).

Some of Hollywood’s most iconic movies are rumored to be cursed, but here’s the truth behind ten cursed films and the tragedies behind them.

Some of Hollywood’s most iconic movies are also rumored to have "cursed" productions. Due to a combination of urban legends and well-known unfortunate accidents on the set of these films, the curse behind a movie’s making becomes as popular as the movie itself. Many of these films are considered cursed for tragic reasons involving injuries, fires, lightning, and death. From Superman to Poltergeist , these "cursed" movies make for sensational stories, but this list will also delve into the truth behind each movie’s supposed curse.

Chaos and misfortune are common in any film production, yet the most famous troubled productions lead audiences to believe a movie is cursed. For this list, "cursed" refers to a movie’s troubled and tragic film set or the horrific events that occurred after a film’s release. Some of these cursed movies include events that can be violent, graphic, and triggering. Whether these events are coincidences or signs of a curse is solely for the reader’s interpretation, but this list will attempt to explain a movie’s curse and its truth.

The Omen is a film about a couple who unknowingly adopt a child who’s the Antichrist. Unexpected deaths and misfortune surround the child in the movie, but death and misfortune also surround the movie’s production. The producers were allegedly warned that if they were going to make a film about the devil, do not be surprised if the devil tried to stop it. The Omen ’s cursed movie troubles started in pre-production when lead actor Gregory Peck’s son died of suicide two months before filming began. Then, as Peck and another producer flew to London to start filming, both planes were struck by lightning.

When The Omen ’s filming started, the production saw plenty of unfortunate events. A plane that was meant to be used for aerial shots was switched at the last minute, and the initial plane the crew was meant to board reportedly crashed, killing everyone on board. One memorable scene featuring angry baboons at the zoo required an animal trainer. Unfortunately, the animal trainer was killed by a tiger the day after filming. The Omen ’s closeness to tragedy can be viewed as accidents and even lucky circumstances in the film’s favor, but the events gave the film more notoriety, as some viewers believe The Omen ’s production is cursed to this day.

The Superman curse refers to violent tragedies for actors who played the famous DC Comics character. The curse was initiated when George Reeves played Superman in the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman . In 1959, Reeves died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The curse continued with ±, who played Superman in the late 70s and 80s in four classic Superman films. In addition, Reeve suffered a horse-riding injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The two terrible tragedies involving the Superman lead actors created the urban legend of the Superman curse, but many other actors have played the iconic character in television and film without injury.


Poltergeist continues to be a horror staple and encapsulates 80s suburbia while delivering constant chills, but the most chilling part of Poltergeist is what happened behind the scenes. The Poltergeist set is infamous for using real human skeletons in its memorable reveal that the Freeling family’s house was on a native burial ground. The irony is that many believe that the film’s use of real skeletons caused the Poltergeist curse and premature deaths of the film’s actors.

Dominique Dunne, who played the family’s eldest daughter Dana was murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend five months after Poltergeis t’s premiere. The film’s youngest and arguably most iconic star, Heather O’Rourke, shockingly died of cardiac arrest at 12 after an unknown genetic intestinal issue. While the film continues to find new horror audiences each year, Poltergeist ’s story is now synonymous with its unfortunate deaths. O’Rourke may have passed, but her delivery of the famous line " They’re here !" lives on in cinema forever.

The Crow ’s curse is due to the death of its star, Brandon Lee. The movie is about a man returning from the dead who encountered the worst accident during production. Brandon Lee, the son of famous martial artist Bruce Lee, was killed on set after a bullet in a prop gun was fired and mortally wounded the actor. This horrific incident and the film’s source material caused rumors of The Crow being cursed , but experienced film crews view the troubled production as a preventable accident. The Crow ’s firearms specialist was relieved early that day, and the tragedy serves as a warning to movie studios that cut costs at the expense of safety.

Unlike other cursed films that completed production, Atuk (Inuit for "Grandfather") and its curse have remained in development for forty years. The unfilmed American comedy is based on the novel The Incomparable Atuk and is about an Inuit hunter who ends up in the big city. Urban legend claims that the film is cursed due to the deaths of many actors who have shown interest in the lead role. Some of these actors include John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, and Sam Kinison. While these actors suffered all too-soon deaths, one could also attribute Belushi, Farley, and Kinison’s deaths to substance abuse before their interest in this unmade film.

Rosemary’s Baby

Filmmaker Roman Polanski’s personal tragedy after Rosemary’s Baby is possibly more famous than the film itself. Rosemary’s Baby is about a pregnant young woman who suspects her elderly neighbors of being part of a Satanic cult that wishes to harm her baby. The film received rave reviews but was overshadowed by an event eerily similar to another rising cult in the late 1960s: The Manson Family.

The Manson Family members followed Charles Manson, a man they believed to be a manifestation of Jesus Christ. While initially immersed in hippie culture, the cult turned violent after increased drug use and an obsession with Hollywood. A year after Rosemary’s Baby was released, the Manson Family broke into Polanski’s house while he was away. They brutally murdered five people residing in the house, including Polanski’s pregnant wife and Hollywood star Sharon Tate. The high-profile murders shocked the world. Some believe Rosemary’s Baby to be cursed in its creepy similarities to cult and pregnancy, but one of the murderers claimed that they simply wanted to make national headlines.

The Passion Of The Christ

While The Passion of the Christ followed Jesus Christ’s last days alive, the biblical drama had many unfortunate accidents during its production that led to people thinking the film was cursed—the accidents on set primarily focused on Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus. Caviezel suffered hypothermia, pneumonia, a dislocated shoulder and was struck by lightning while filming Passion of the Christ . The film’s depiction of Jesus’ suffering was criticized as excessive and inaccurate, with some claiming this depiction was a reason behind the curse. But Caviezel believes his time in The Passion of the Christ is more of a blessing than a curse.

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Twilight Zone: The Movie 's set accident is one of the most tragic in film history. The movie was meant to be a tribute to the 1960s television series and had significant talent behind the scenes. Steven Spielberg, George Miller, Joe Dante, and John Landis directed four different segments for the film, with Spielberg and Landis also serving as producers of Twilight Zone: The Movie . Unfortunately, while the film was intended to honor the Twilight Zone series, it became its own cautionary tale.

Landis’ segment, "Time Out,'' starred Vic Morrow as a prejudiced man who gets taken back in time to experience the historical dangers of prejudice—one particular scene called for Morrow’s character to rescue two children from a helicopter chasing after them. Unfortunately, during filming, the helicopter flew so close to the ground that it spun out of control, decapitating Morrow and one of the child actors and crushing the other child to death. Landis and the segment producers were criticized for illegally hiring child actors and utilizing them in such a dangerous scene. While Landis avoided a conviction for manslaughter, Spielberg ended his working relationship with Landis after the incident.

Rebel Without A Cause

Rebel Without a Cause is a cinema classic, but the James Dean film also carries the title of being cursed due to the premature deaths of its three main stars. The coming-of-age drama featured James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood as teenage outcasts who bonded in a world with parents and leaders that didn’t understand them. Rebel Without a Cause was praised for its portrayal of clashing generational values and each of its lead performances, but the stars never got to see the full legacy of their film.

The most horrific aspect of each star’s premature death is the violent nature of their demise. Dean died in a head-on car collision a month before the film’s release. In the 1970s, Mineo was stabbed to death by a mugger outside his apartment. The most mysterious death was Natalie Wood’s, who reportedly drowned while on a boat trip with her husband, Robert Wagner, and friend, Christopher Walken. Wood’s floating body was found a mile from the boat, but the autopsy also showed bruises on her. Wagner claimed Wood and he had an argument that night but maintained he had no part in her death.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist is considered one of the most frightening horror movies in history, but the set of The Exorcist had its own share of terror. While anything can go wrong during a movie’s production, events seem to go especially wrong during a horror movie’s production. The movie about a young girl experiencing demonic possession suffered production delays after an unexpected fire burned down the set. The one part of the set that reportedly survived the fire was the young girl’s bedroom, where the exorcism occurs. Ellen Burstyn also suffered a back injury on set that left her on crutches for the rest of the film’s production.

These dangerous events led to an actual priest blessing the film set. Unfortunately, the blessing did not extend past the film shoot as two actors, Jack MacGowran, who plays a film director, and Vasiliki Maliaros, who plays Father Karras’ mom, both died just before the film’s release. The troubled production and deaths surrounding the film sparked rumors about The Exorcist being a cursed movie . Yet The Exorcist is one of the top-grossing and critically successful horror films to this day and, like many films on this list, possibly benefits from its label as cursed.

Cursed Movies: Poltergeist and Other Deadly Productions

From on-set tragedies to alleged curses, Hollywood is full of mystique, wonder, and lore regarding many of cinema’s most famous and infamous pictures.

From on-set tragedies to alleged curses, Hollywood is full of mystique, wonder, and lore regarding many of cinema’s most famous and infamous pictures. Sometimes the often fatal productions of these films can attract more attention and intrigue than the finished products themselves , with many people believing them to be ominously cursed.The entertainment industry has certainly had its fair share of scandals, misfortunes, and conspiracies, many of which are forever associated with these noteworthy projects. While such notions can oftentimes be easily written off as merely a coincidence, some examples of curses and calamity in film are a little harder to rationalize.Notorious horror flicks like Poltergeist and The Omen were plagued with bizarre and heartbreaking occurrences, while the shocking on-set death of Brandon Lee during production of the original 1994 version of The Crow stunned both the world and show business. The incident mirrored the more recent 2021 Rust shooting involving Alec Baldwin and cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, in which the actor accidentally killed the artist after firing a prop gun.The death of Hutchins sparked a debate on occupational safety in the film industry and the use of real guns as props. Let’s take a closer look at Poltergeist and other seemingly cursed, deadly movie productions.

7 The Conqueror

Dick Powell’s 1956 epic film The Conqueror stars cinema legend John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, as he battles against Tartar armies and for the love of their princess Bortai. The picture was shot near St. George, Utah, which is 137 miles downwind from the U.S. government’s Nevada National Security Site where 11 nuclear weapons tests occurred in 1953. Following the completion of The Conqueror, cancer ran rampant among both the cast and crew members and would continue to affect those a part of production for years to come. Of the 220 crew members for the film, 91 developed cancer during their lifetime with 46 dying from it.

Director Dick Powell died of cancer in 1963, seven years after completion of the product. John Wayne died in 1979 from stomach cancer, though he himself blamed the diagnosis on his six-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendáriz both succumbed to cancer and cancer-related illnesses, with Hayward passing away in 1975 from brain cancer and Armendáriz taking his own life when he discovered he had terminal neck cancer.

Filmmakers were aware of the hazardous set and famed producer Howard Hughes felt so guilty he bought every print of the film for $12 million and kept it out of circulation for many years. Controversy still exists whether radiation from the nearby nuclear site is to blame or if simple statistics and odds were at play.

6 Twilight Zone: The Movie

The 1983 sci-fi horror anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie features four segments inspired by the iconic Rod Serling TV show. Its production and overall legacy is marred by the tragic helicopter accident that claimed the lives of lead star Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen around 2:30 a.m. on July 23, 1982.

The two illegally-hired children were in violation of California law, which prohibits them from working at night or in proximity to explosives; the segment’s director John Landis had been on set during the accident. The night scene called for Morrow to carry the children across the river while being chased by American soldiers in a hovering helicopter, but a rotor failed which caused the low-flying helicopter to spin out of control; Morrow, Lee and Chen were killed instantly.

In addition to the deaths of the three actors, six helicopter passengers were injured in the traumatic accident. Director John Landis, associate producer George Folsey Jr., the production manager, helicopter pilot, and the explosive specialist were all tried and acquitted on charges of manslaughter in a nine-month trial that lasted from 1986 to 1987. Producer and co-director Steven Spielberg was so disgusted and outraged by the handling of the situation that he ended their friendship and publicly called for the termination of the New Hollywood era, where directors had almost complete control over film. Following the tragedy, new procedures and safety standards were imposed in the movie industry.

Arguably one of the most bizarre and spine-tingling alleged film curses is that of Atuk , a screenplay for a fish out of water comedy. It was intended to be a film adaptation based on the 1963 Mordecai Richler novel The Incomparable Ark, which tells the story of a proud and fierce Inuit hunter who tries to adapt to life in the fast-paced New York City.

The script was written by Tod Carrol and the project had been circulating since the 1970s, with many Hollywood producers and studios showing interest in the film. An urban legend has been linked to Atuk, with an alleged curse having killed all the actors who have expressed interest in the lead role. Four of the actors attached to the comedy all met untimely ends: John Belushi, Sam Kinison, John Candy, and Chris Farley.

The first “victim” of the curse was Saturday Night Live legend John Belushi, who read the script in 1982 and was extremely interested in portraying the character. He was set to headline the project just months later but on March 5, 1982 the beloved funnyman died from a drug overdose at 33. Following the death of Belushi, the ribald comedian Sam Kinison got his hands on the script and was set to star but was fired over rewrites and creative control; he passed away in a car accident on April 10, 1992.

Related: Best Films Based On SNL Skits, Ranked

The charming John Candy and Chris Farley later became attached to the project but died before production began; Candy from a heart attack and Farley a drug overdose. Screenwriter Tod Carrol dismissed rumors of a curse in 1999. Coincidence or not, the so-called urban legend is quite eerie and Atuk remains in production hell.

Son of martial arts icon and film star Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee portrays a murdered musician who is resurrected to avenge the deaths of himself and his fiancé in 1994’s The Crow . Tragedy struck production when the 28-year-old Lee was fatally wounded during a scene in which his character Eric Draven is shot after witnessing his fiancé being assaulted.

Actor Michael Massee’s character Funboy fires a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 629 at the actor as he walks into the room; the prop assistant was unaware of the rule for inspecting all firearms before and after any handling so that the barrel was not checked for obstructions. A bullet from the dummy round was trapped in the barrel and caused the .44 Magnum bullet to be fired virtually with the same force of a live round. Lee was struck in the abdomen and succumbed to his injury after six hours of unsuccessful emergency surgery.

Michael Massee was traumatized by the accident and took a year off from acting, never seeing the film. Twelve years later during an interview in 2005, the actor revealed he still had nightmares over Lee’s death and the event, saying “I don’t think you ever get over something like that.” The heartbreaking death of Brandon Lee mirrors that of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who died when a gun being used as a prop was fired by Alec Baldwin on the set of the Western film Rust. After the shooting, Lee’s family tweeted, “Our hearts go out to Halyna Hutchins and to Joel Souza and all involved in the incident on Rust . No one should ever be killed by a gun on a film set. Period.”

3 The Misfits

John Huston’s 1961 American Western The Misfits centers on a divorcee who falls for an aging cowboy struggling to maintain his romance-free lifestyle in the Northern Nevada desert in 1960. The picture famously stars Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift and was based on the screenplay by Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband at the time. Production was plagued by 100 degree Fahrenheit heat, constant script revisions, and the breakdown of the playwright and movie star's marriage.

Despite not being a commercial success upon release, The Misfits was critically lauded for its gifted leads’ performances and unique script; despite such a warm reception the Western’s reputation was marred by the deaths of its three beloved stars, each of which died shortly after production was completed.

Related: These Are the Best Marilyn Monroe Movies

“The King of Hollywood” Clark Gable died on November 16, 1960 at the age of 59 from a heart attack, just 12 days after finishing The Misfits. Though the silver screen legend had been an avid smoker since his teenage years, his wife Kay Williams believed the film’s intense production and on-set tension was a big factor in his death. The blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe notoriously hated the picture, having disliked that Miller based the role partly on her life as well as his frustrating constant re-writes. The twentieth century pop culture icon died from an accidental barbiturate overdose on August 4, 1962 a year-and-a-half after filming; The Misfits was both her and Gable’s last completed film.

Montgomery Clift passed away just six years later on July 23, 1966 from a heart attack among other health issues. His live-in personal secretary Lorenzo James revealed that The Misfits was on television the night he passed and asked if he would like to watch, to which Clift firmly replied, “Absolutely not!”

2 Poltergeist

Tobe Hooper’s 1982 supernatural horror flick Poltergeist follows a suburban family whose home is invaded by malevolent spirits that abduct their daughter, and was written and based on the screenplay by Steven Spielberg (with one of the best horror movie trailers ever ). The classic picture has a lot of darkness associated with it, as two of its promising young talents met heart-wrenching untimely deaths.

hild star Heather O’Rourke shined as Carol Anne Freeling in the freaky horror installments, but sadly passed away from septic shock before the release of Poltergeist III; she was just 12-years-old. Her on-screen big sister Dominique Dunn was tragically strangled-to-death by her ex-boyfriend, dying at 22 from her injuries five days later on November 4, 1982.

Related: Poltergeist Curse Exposed in New Documentary

Aside from these heartbreaking deaths, Poltergeist was plagued by weird incidents and revelations, such as the fact that real skeletons were used in a frightening water scene involving JoBeth Williams’ character. Many superstitious fans of the film believe that is how the Poltergeist “curse” originated. In the first film, Oliver Robins was nearly strangled by the animatronic clown that tormented his character Robbie; Steven Spielberg saw what was happening and managed to free Robins just in time.

Actor Richard Lawson survived a plane crash in 1992 that claimed the lives of 27 of its 51 passengers; he was gifted a first class seat after giving his autograph which ultimately saved his life, as the person in his original seat died. The prodution got so spooky that Poltergeist II actor Will Sampson, a real-life shaman, performed an on-set exorcism to rid the place of “alien spirits.”

Being a film depicting the Antichrist , it’s no wonder that the 1976 supernatural classic The Omen was marred by scary and downright blood-chilling incidents; it is arguably one of the most cursed pictures of all time. Lead actor and revered cinema star Gregory Peck experienced a devastating family tragedy right before production began, with his eldest son dying by suicide. When Peck took off for London in September 1975 for the film, his plane was struck by lightning that caused an engine to catch fire and almost made it come dangerously close to crashing.

Ominously, a few weeks later executive producer Mace Neufeld’s plane was also struck by non-fatal lightning, and screenwriter David Seltzer was just barely missed by a lightning strike in Rome. Even more frightening, Neufeld and his wife were staying at the Hilton Hotel in London when the Irish Republican Army blew it up; thankfully they were not in the hotel at the time.

Undeniably the most eerie and distressing occurrence to plague The Omen was when special effects designer John Richardson was driving with his assistant Liz Moore in Holland while working on the film A Bridge Too Far, when his car crashed. Liz Moore was disturbingly beheaded in a manner that was chillingly similar to the death scene Richardson helped create special effects for in The Omen. More sinisterly, the crash occurred on Friday the 13th, and after crawling from the wrecked car, Richardson reportedly saw a Dutch road sign near the accident that read: Ommen, 66.6 km. Talk about cursed.


Where To Watch 'Night Swim': Find Showtimes For The Haunted Horror Film

Posted: January 5, 2024 | Last updated: January 6, 2024

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'you should have left' (2020), 'the conjuring' (2012), 'poltergeist' (1982).

If horror history has taught us anything, it's that we should fear the water. From 1954's Creature From the Black Lagoon to 1975's Jaws to modern-day classics like The Shallows and the sinister water bed scene in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It , one thing is clear: water is spooky. Universal Pictures 's newest horror, Night Swim , follows the story of a family who is terrorized by an evil spirit that seems to come from the swimming pool of their new home. The movie is co-written by Bryce McGuire and Rod Blackhurst , who are expanding their 2014 short film Night Swim into a full-length feature. The original short was only five minutes long and was filmed in the backyard of musician Michelle Branch . Not only did McGuire and Blackhurst draw inspiration from Creature From the Black Lagoon and Jaws , but also 1955's The Night of the Hunter and 1989's The Abyss . In addition to co-writing, McGuire directed the film, which was produced by Jason Blum ( Get Out ) and James Wan ( Saw ).

After their short film went viral on YouTube in 2014, Night Swim was introduced to horror veteran Wan, who agreed that it could be made into a full-length feature . The film stars Wyatt Russell ( The Woman in the Window ), and Kerry Condon ( The Banshees on Inisherin ), who recently sat down with Collider to discuss their horror influences , why audiences seem to crave the genre year after year, and if they're now afraid to go swimming. The film also stars Amélie Hoeferle ( Better Call Saul ) and Gavin Warren ( The Unbreakable Boy ) as Russell and Condon's children. Other cast members include Nancy Lenehan ( Catch Me If You Can ), Ben Sinclair ( High Maintenance), Jodi Long ( The Hot Chick ), and Ellie Araiza ( Legion ). Creeping into theaters very soon, Night Swim is sure to make you think twice before closing your eyes in your next game of "Marco Polo."

Feature length version of the 2014 short film about a woman swimming in her pool at night terrorized by an evil spirit.

What Is The Release Date for 'Night Swim'?

Night Swim hits theaters on January 5, 2024 . To purchase tickets in advance, see the links below.

Is 'Night Swim' in Theaters?

Night Swim will be released exclusively in theaters on January 5, 2024.

Find Showtimes for 'Night Swim'

To reserve your tickets early for Night Swim , check out the links below:

  • Official Website
  • Regal Cinemas
  • AMC Theaters

Watch the Trailer for 'Night Swim'

Check out the trailer (and the unusual family pool) below:

Usually, the scariest thing we find in the pool filter is a dead squirrel, but this is not the case in Night Swim 's trailer. Set to Billie Eillish's song "Bury a Friend," the trailer shows audiences something much more sinister trapped in the pool filter and the rest of the strange happenings that follow its renovation.

More Haunted Home Movies Like 'Night Swim'

Looking for more haunted houses to explore? See the list below for more homes to investigate.

A mysterious email advertising a house in a remote location. The decision to pack up and take a getaway. These are the events that cause married couple Theo ( Kevin Bacon ) and Susanna ( Amanda Seyfriend ) to take their daughter Ella ( Avery Essex ) on a trip and stay in a house in the Welsh countryside. While at first, the home seems anything but unusual (if not a bit bland), it doesn't take long for this family to realize that this isn't the Airbnb of their dreams. Things become increasingly unsettling as they discover the house is several feet longer on the interior than it is on the exterior. Ella notices shadows on the walls, and someone begins writing in Theo's journal, warning him to leave, and then telling him it's too late. When the couple realizes that neither of them sent each other the initial email about renting the home like they previously believed, their suspicions reach an all-time high. Now that this family wants to leave, it may be too late. Directed by David Koepp (screenwriter of Jurassic Park ), and based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann , critics applauded Bacon's performance and the creepy atmosphere created by Koepp and the filmmakers.


A film that spawned a mega-successful franchise, The Conjuring tells the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren ( Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga , respectively) as they are called to the home of the Perron's, who are being terrorized by an evil presence in their home. The story is based on the real-life Ed and Lorraine , who worked as paranormal investigators and founded the New England Society for Psychic Research in the 1950s. The famous paranormal pair were also the inspiration for The Amityville Horror franchise. Directed by James Wan, and with a stunning performance by Lili Taylor ( American Crime ) as Carolyn Perron, the film also stars Ron Livingston ( Office Space ), Joey King ( The Act ), Shanley Caswell ( NCIS: New Orleans ), Mackenzie Foy ( Interstellar ), and Hayley McFarland ( An American Crime ). The Conjuring premiered in 2012 and blew audiences away as it scored $320 million at the box office and spawned an entire universe, including The Conjuring 2, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It , The Nun , and The Nun II .


"They're here..." Any horror fan will know that iconic line from 1982's Poltergeist , which tells the story of the Freeling family as their house is haunted by demonic ghosts. The film stars Craig T. Nelson ( Young Sheldon ) and JoBeth Williams ( The Big Chill ) as Mr. and Mrs. Freeling, with Dominique Dunne ( Breaking Away ), Oliver Robins ( Airplane II: The Sequel ), and Heather O'Rourke ( Poltergeist II: The Other Side ) playing their three children. Upon the arrival of parapsychologist Dr. Lesh ( Beatrice Straight ), the Freeling family attempts to face this otherworldly evil head-on. Written by Steven Spielberg ( The Fabelmans ), Michael Grais ( Poltergeist 2015 ), and Mark Victor ( Starsky and Hutch ), the film was directed by Tobe Hooper ( Texas Chainsaw Massacre ) and nominated for three Academy Awards . The eighth highest-grossing film of 1982, Poltergeist generated two sequels, premiering in 1986 and 1988, respectively, with a remake that came out in 2015. While none of the latter films found the critical or commercial success of the original, Poltergeist stands as a horror classic .


Where To Watch 'Night Swim': Find Showtimes For The Haunted Horror Film

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Mickey Mouse copyright expiration inspires horror movies, video games and memes

Mickey Mouse will appear in new, non-Disney creative works after 95 years of copyright protection of the character expired on Jan. 1. With this, early versions of Mickey Mouse are now part of the public domain and non-Disney creators can use them in their own for-profit works.

Just in the last two days, independent video game creators and film directors have announced two horror movies and a video game featuring the character, while memes are spreading online showing Mickey in absurd and inappropriate scenes, including nautical accidents and terrorist attacks. 

The quick capitalization on Mickey’s updated copyright status is the most recent example of how iconic pieces of intellectual property can be quickly remixed and recycled in the digital age for art and profit.

1928’s “Steamboat Willie” and “Plane Crazy” were the first two Walt Disney Animation releases to feature Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and the former was the first moving picture synced to sound. The characters were first protected under U.S. copyright law for 50 years, then Disney campaigned for and received extensions. 

As Disney’s grip on the intellectual property rights surrounding the earliest versions of Mickey Mouse have come to an end, creators have poked fun at the numerous possibilities that could come from the change.

As with previous notable public-domain entries , horror and violence characterized the first announced works utilizing public-domain Mickey. Writer Simon Phillips posted a trailer for “Mickey’s Mouse Trap” on YouTube on Jan. 1, which features scenes from “Steamboat Willie” as well as the tongue-in-cheek tagline “The Mouse is out.” Horror parody director Steven LaMorte also announced a second untitled “Steamboat Willie” horror movie, Variety reported .

Independent video game studios also have planned releases that feature “Steamboat Willie” Mickey Mouse. A company called Nightmare Forge Games announced “ Infestation: Origins ,” a horror game with the character slated for 2024. A company called Fumi Games already had a game in the style of classic animation in the works called “Mouse,” with a gameplay trailer released last month. The trailer shows the point of view of a white-gloved cartoon mouse — a nod to the fact that it isn’t “Steamboat Willie” Mickey, because he didn’t get his white gloves until a year later.

Jennifer Jenkins, the director of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, wrote in a blog post Monday that Disney has become a symbol of corporate lobbying for longer copyright periods, while Disney itself has used public-domain works and characters to create many of its beloved animations. The tension appears to have fueled absurd memes about the copyright change.

Online creators have riffed on Disney’s reputation for tight brand control in memes that place “Steamboat Willie” Mickey in shocking situations, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the ship that blocked the Suez Canal in 2021, and the OceanGate submersible that crumpled underwater in 2023, killing five people. Other memes take a jab at Disney directly, like an “I am the captain now” meme that quotes the pirate hijacking scene in the 2013 film “Captain Phillips.” 

Many memes and other forms of parody featuring Disney characters were previously allowed under fair use , which is how shows like “The Simpsons” have produced skits that feature characters who look like Mickey Mouse. 

Jenkins also wrote that, while some newer Mickey Mouse character traits (like his high-pitched voice) aren’t likely able to be copyrighted, it’s a less risky bet for creators to repurpose the version of Mickey that has become public domain — the original.

The Walt Disney Company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kat Tenbarge is a tech and culture reporter for NBC News Digital. She can be reached at [email protected]


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‘The Curse’ Season 1, Episode 8 Recap: Exhausting

In a series full of painful-to-watch interactions, this week’s episode might be the most excruciating yet.

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A woman with straight-cut bangs and large star-shaped earrings stares off into space, obviously disturbed.

By Esther Zuckerman

Season 1, Episode 8: ‘Down and Dirty’

This week’s episode of “The Curse” is about friendship. Or maybe, more accurately, it’s about the concept of friendship and the trouble our protagonists seem to have with grasping it. Asher and Whitney call people “friends,” but that’s just empty language to them. They have no true sense of what it means to be a friend to someone else.

The backbone of the hour consists of one night in which Whitney and Asher have divergent outings. Whitney goes to a party that Cara is attending in a beautiful home hosted by an art collector, who also happens to be a military contractor. Naturally, there’s an ulterior motive to Whitney’s excursion: She has a camera trailing her to capture footage for the show of what her life is like away from Asher. At the same time, Asher and Dougie have dinner — a sort of apology meal on Asher’s part for having neglected their friendship.

The episode brings into focus just how transactional Asher’s and Whitney’s relationships are. Even their marriage is one of convenience. And we’re confronted once again with just how poisonous Asher and Whitney are to the people in their presence.

Dougie, who is so mired in loneliness and self-hatred that he craves whatever companionship he can find, has clearly come to despise Asher for what he sees as a dismissal of his feelings. So he has taken to torturing him with the barely concealed glee of a schoolyard menace. Cara, meanwhile, is starting to realize just how soul sucking it is to be beholden to Whitney at any price; indeed, taking Whitney’s money in last week’s episode has only tightened her bind, forcing her to pantomime her way through her revulsion. In a series full of painful-to-watch interactions, this week’s episode might be the most excruciating yet.

In some ways, Whitney should be at ease at the art collector’s gathering. These are her people: rich capitalists who use their interest in art to help mask their exploitation. But she doesn’t want to recognize herself in them. She needs to believe she is like Cara — an artist. So she tells her camera guy not to film the host, and she balks when she introduces herself to a group and a man tells her he works in private security.

Whitney parades around the room with a drink in hand, posing as she examines the art in the room, making sure the camera captures all of her angles. She approaches other guests hoping for interactions that will make her look good. Some play her game. Cara’s friend Brett ( Brett Mooswa ), having clearly heard about Whitney from Cara, decides to play the role of the wise and mystical Native American, and she eats it up. “That was so beautiful,” she says after his speech. “Can I give you a hug?” She’s unaware that when he turns away from her he is giggling to himself.

But Cara doesn’t find Whitney’s cluelessness as funny as Brett does, especially when Whitney tries to goad her into performing for the camera. Cara seems to know that she has put herself in an impossible position: Whitney’s money has obligated Cara to be cordial, but at a price that seems to exceed the $20,000 she received. Pretending to be Whitney’s friend helps Whitney believe they are artistically on the same level, which Cara and we as viewers know is not true. And while Cara’s good word, even if it’s fake, lends value to Whitney’s work, the association risks having a negative impact on Cara’s own standing in the art world and in her community.

Whitney feeds Cara lines she wants her to say about how she’s proud to have her work displayed inside Whitney’s homes, and Cara dutifully repeats them. Finally, however, she gets the opportunity to tell Whitney a little bit about how she really feels when Whitney asks her to explain her performance piece in the tepee way back in Episode 2 . Whitney still wants to know if she was supposed to eat the turkey Cara sliced.

“The slicing of the meat is me giving pieces of myself to people, whether I want to or not, and as a Native person that’s basically what you are doing every day,” Cara says. She adds: “Whether people choose to eat it is totally up to them. And you ate it.” As Whitney, Emma Stone’s face changes from an understanding smile into a grimace. Someone finally called her out to her face. Maybe that’s just what friends do.

While Whitney is learning some hard truths about herself, Asher and Dougie are engaged in an emotional battle of performative friendship. In a way, their date starts with Dougie’s interview with Asher, where he is quite evidently trying both to unnerve him and to catch him in linguistic traps that will make him look terrible in the edit. Dougie brings up details we have never heard about Asher before, among them that he came to New Mexico for another relationship, which ended before he got together with Whitney.

Although Asher is uncomfortable during the interview, he leans into congeniality at dinner with awkward attempts at niceties, saying things like “I’m happy you’ve been such a good friend to me” as Dougie throws back beers. And Dougie is hardly a victim. He is also a bully. During the interview, he brings up Asher’s embarrassing sexual proclivities; during their meal, he secretly orders chicken to the table, just to freak Asher out.

When Asher has to go to Abshir’s to change the battery in a smoke detector, Dougie comes up with a plan. He wants to see if Nala will curse him with the same chicken-related fate as Asher. If the chicken they have taken home from the restaurant — Dougie’s joke — disappears, then it worked. Asher is resistant, but Dougie forges ahead, essentially barging his way into Nala’s room under the ruse of needing to do housework. As he asks Nala to curse him, he grows desperate, crying. She screams for her father, terrified by this strange man weeping beside her bed.

It’s a sequence that’s almost hard to parse. Is Dougie genuinely sobbing? Is he doing this for Asher? Maybe he needs to believe in curses so he can have something to blame his awful life on? Regardless of his motives, Nala doesn’t fulfill his request.

When Asher and Dougie get back into the car, they start to fight. It leads to perhaps the most brutal exchange of the series so far. “Does this get exhausting,” Dougie asks, “cosplaying as a good man?” Asher replies, “Like you’re one to talk.” Dougie wants to know what that’s supposed to mean. Asher then coup de grâce: “I don’t know, ask your wife.” He quickly apologizes, realizing the cruelty of his blow. But something has shifted. Even the score sounds different. It is harsher and less eerie, like something out of a sci-fi movie.

As Asher moves to exit the car, he tries again to make amends. Dougie coldly agrees, saying, “We need more friends than enemies in this world, right?” His cute little axiom sounds like a threat, and at this moment Asher really doesn’t have any friends. Neither does Whitney.

And now Asher has two curses on his back: One from Nala and one from Dougie, who curses him as soon as he gets out of the car. While Nala’s might have been mostly child’s play, there’s deeper malice behind Dougie’s hex.

Notes from Española

It’s always a jolt when an episode begins with entirely new faces. This one started with some local kids who have learned that they can steal jeans with no repercussions. There might, however, be some repercussions for Asher and Whitney in the form of Fernando, who sees them as enabling crime.

Whitney has spent about $14,000 on the stolen jeans. Jeez.

Whitney’s baby voice as she whines to Asher after Fernando leaves is one of the most haunting, grotesque things I have ever heard. Props to Emma Stone for that.

Once again, Whitney has an interaction with the Española Sikh community, this time in the form of a man at the party who flirts with her. I’m starting to wonder if this is all going to end with her joining.

“Exhausting” is a term that keeps coming up. The experience of being Native in this country is “exhausting” to Cara; Dougie asks Asher if cosplaying as a good person gets “exhausting.” The performance of life is tiring, and “The Curse” is digging into that.

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‘The Curse’: Nathan Fielder Proves He Can Hold His Own With Emma Stone

By Alan Sepinwall

Alan Sepinwall

This post contains spoilers for this week’s episode of The Curse , which is now streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime .

Prior to this week, The Curse allowed the many problems in the Seigel marriage , and in the production of Fliplanthropy , to gradually simmer. With the penultimate episode, “Young Hearts,” all aspects of Whitney and Asher’s lives come to a full boil. 

But when Martha from HGTV arrives in Española, Whitney discovers a major flaw in her plan: the network bought an upbeat show about a happy couple trying to make the world a better place, and Martha wants no part of letting it turn into the reality TV equivalent of Scenes from a Marriage .

Martha also wants to downplay the gentrification angle, and all the talk about the local non-white communities, and just focus on Whitney’s passion for fighting climate change. This is a familiar line from executives, and not always an unreasonable one: you don’t want to overcomplicate things, especially at first. But it’s yet another example of Whitney surrendering her principles, one by one, in pursuit of this thing that she believes is finally going to make the world love her. 

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(*) Abshir and his family are again absent — the show is really not interested in them as characters, unfortunately — but it’s interesting to think about his nightmarish trip to the chiropractor compared to the posh spa where Whitney is preparing to get a relaxing massage.

Benny Safdie Admits Split From Co-Directing Brother, Not Sure They'll Reunite

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It is perhaps the most disturbing scene yet in a series that’s been full of them, and certainly the most intense. Nathan Fielder has the lightest acting resume of the main trio, but he’s terrific here going toe-to-toe with Stone, verbally bulldozing her while all she can do is try to absorb and understand everything he’s saying. 

It’s a terrific episode, easily the highlight of The Curse so far.

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