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This month, I am personally celebrating my mom’s 50th birthday by seeing a film in theaters that’s turning 40. The film that got me started with horror. The film that is the ultimate starter-horror with its PG rating, mild scares and whole lot of heart. The title gives it away, we’re talking about Poltergeist.
The Steven Spielberg produced and written; Tobe Hooper directed flick from 1982. A true treat to any moviegoer as it is tame in its scares but deep and rich in its story. It’s a film that has stood the test of time and didn’t even receive a smudge from its terrible remake (what a waste of Sam Rockwell). However, with genius and heart comes tragedy, which struck in the real life of those involved in the film. We’re going to be going over all of that as we jump into this legendary void of Poltergeist.
Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg: an interesting account
One of the rumors that have stuck around throughout the years is that Steven Spielberg actually directed majority of Poltergeist. I mean, it makes sense–the film does have that Spielberg charm. However, there’s more to this story as another iconic film is celebrating 40 this year as well. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial was being filmed at the same time as Poltergeist right next door. Believe it or not, that was the script that Spielberg tried to get Tobe Hooper to direct. Having been impressed with his directing in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he wanted him for a project and offered the fully fleshed out script of ET rather than the half-baked idea of Poltergeist.
Shockingly, Hooper turned the script down as he was seeking out a film about ghosts rather than aliens. There was a script that Spielberg had been aware of back in his Close Encounters days called ‘Night Skies’ which would then become the framework for Poltergeist. Spielberg took up the entire helm of ET and offered Hooper the job of directing Poltergeist, which he accepted. Due to ET being the bigger budget, Spielberg was contracted to focus his efforts on that film despite the second project occurring at the same time.
Spielberg did not take the reins however due to conflict, but rather partnership. Tobe Hooper would set up the shots, Spielberg would make adjustments and that was that. Spielberg remains adamant to this day that Hooper deserves the credit for director and that it is Hooper’s project as much as it is his. That is the true answer to this day.
Tragedy on Set: The Infamy Behind Poltergeist
There are two major tragedies tied to this film and its series (though more have occurred). It is known for being one of the ‘cursed’ sets–The Exorcist is the most notorious for its cursed nature. There are two incidents that have tainted its legacy despite neither happening on set.
Dominique Dunne had a blooming career. Poltergeist was her first theatrical role and her role as Dana Freeling, the teenage daughter, got quite a lot of screen time. She lined up a role in V, the popular sci-fi miniseries from 1983. On October 30th, 1982, she was rehearsing with V costar David Packer–a few weeks before is when she cut ties with her abusive boyfriend John Sweeney. There had been multiple violent episodes between the two, and Dunne had finally fled and broke it off after a friend walked in on Sweeney choking Dunne after a heated argument.
Sweeney showed up at her house, saying he only wanted to talk it out. After she went outside to talk, Packer heard them start to argue, then heard two screams and a thud. He went outside and saw Sweeney over Dunne, strangling her. At the hospital, Dunne was declared brain dead and taken off life support. Sweeney was charged with voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Production of V moved on yet used some footage of her for a cameo and dedicated the entire series to her memory.
The other tragedy lies in the legacy of the other leading lady: Heather O’Rourke. O’Rourke was merely five years old when she was cast as Carol Anne Freeling and garnered a Young Actor award for her performance. After Poltergeist’s reception came in, it was time for a sequel. However, shortly after the release of Poltergeist II, O’Rourke was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease after contracting giardiasis–a parasite that attacks the intestines and may produce similar symptoms–from well water at her house. They prescribed her cortisone which causes her tissues to swell and led to a fatal constriction of blood vessels in her intestines.
O’Rourke began feeling flu-like symptoms which devolved into cardiac arrest on January 31st, 1988. She was revived by medics shortly after and was flown to the San Diego Children’s Hospital for emergency surgery. After surviving surgery, she went into cardiac arrest again in the recovery room. Despite 30 minutes of CPR, she passed. She was barely twelve years old.
Many consider the Poltergeist set cursed. While there are paranormal whisperings of events that occurred on set, it was these tragedies with their unnatural circumstances that have the most substantial evidence of any curse. Dunne’s murderer getting off with manslaughter. O’Rourke’s misdiagnosis at the most inopportune time. These are weird cases, but mostly tragic.
A Lighter Note: Fun Facts about Poltergeist
With a mix of controversy and curses, I thought it would be nice to close this article with some fun facts. I mean, we have reason to celebrate, Poltergeist turns 40 this year!
Five Fun Facts
- The film actually started as a sequel of Close Encounters of the Third Kind but split off from its source material rather quickly. Seems like the aliens went to E.T. instead.
- Heather O’Rourke was incredibly mannered on set–however, there was one scene that she was not fond of. The scene when she is sucked into the closet and hanging on by the headboard upset her severely. They got the shot of her looking back and screaming, but shortly after she burst into tears. Spielberg promised her she would never have to do that scene again. Therefore, a body double was used for the rest of the scene.
- The two main scares in this film are actually inspired by Spielberg’s real childhood fears. The tree is based off of a tree that cast shadows into his childhood bedroom and the clown–well the clown is self-explainable to anyone who suffers from coulrophobia (like me).
- The tree scene was actually filmed in reverse. Opting to have Oliver Robins spit out rather than swallowed made the final result look better. It also shortened the time the actor had to be in the tree itself–I declare that a win-win.
- Most know that the pool scene contained real skeletons. However, when filming that scene, the pool was surrounded with live wires and electrical equipment. JoBeth Williams refused to get in the pool until she was guaranteed safety from possible electrocution–a very reasonable request. Spielberg insisted total attention of the crew. When met with lukewarm enthusiasm, Spielberg got in the pool with Williams to ensure her safety. It also helped her feel more comfortable filming the scenes.
Poltergeist was my first horror movie, and it remains as one of the best of the genre. I think what makes Poltergeist unique is it is packed full of heart. The family dynamic is front and center in this film. Despite the short runtime, you care about the characters and want this family to be okay. The 2015 remake is not worth the watch as this whole dynamic was missing. It also lacked the brilliant practical effects that the original has. Anyways, happy 40th birthday Poltergeist. You can rent Poltergeist on Amazon Video or if you want to support the physical media movement, buy it physically here.
Anyways, thanks for spelunking this void with me. If you’re new to the Void of Celluloid, welcome. Feel free to spelunk some other voids while you’re here and follow me on other platforms by clicking the buttons below. Love Poltergeist? Check out the custom sticker here on Redbubble designed by yours truly. We post regularly and stay up to date about what’s going on in horror today, reflect on what went on yesterday, and plan for a better, horrific tomorrow. See ya next time.