Movie curses have long been the urban legend of superstitious fans of cinema for decades, adding some real-life mystery and terror to fictitious fantasy tales. Often emerging from the sets of horror films, both William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Richard Donner’s The Omen experienced haunting goings-on behind the scenes, from a fire burning most of the set on The Exorcist to multiple cases of general chaos for the cast of The Omen. Though perhaps one of cinema’s most eerily plausible curses was from the set of 1982s Poltergeist, where several cases of supernatural bad luck caused a handful of cast members to lose their lives.
Headed up by Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, and written by Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg, this 1982s domestic horror film plays on the everyday fears of suburban life, setting the film in an overly normal American home. Occupied by the Freeling family that consists of mum, Diane, dad, Steve, and three children, Dana, Robbie and Carol Anne, Hooper’s film goes about splitting this typical family dynamic in two, causing disturbing rifts in the safe structure of the home.
With supernatural horror rife throughout the film, there is too much real-life tragedy connected to the film, most notably the murder of 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne in 1982, five months following the release of the movie. Later in the film series, 12-year-old Heather O’Rourke also tragically died from an undetected bowel obstruction, with both her and Dunne’s deaths being linked to the use of real-life skeletons in the swimming pool scene that bookends the film.
Some have, therefore, wrongly pinned the blame for the alleged curse on special effects artist Craig Reardon, who has since stated: “I think the idea of a ‘curse’ having plagued Poltergeist cynically capitalises…on a few real-life tragedies as well as real-life transitions”. Reardon’s words come from Cursed Films, directed by Jay Cheel, a brand new documentary series distributed by Shudder in which Cheel attempts to get to the bottom of some of cinema’s most infamous movie curses.
“When people are suggesting choices he made could have potentially led to the deaths of actors involved in the production, he takes extreme personal offence to that,” Cheel rightfully outlines. The story of the film’s tragedy is so notorious that to be linked to its crimes in any way is totally damning, so Reardon is quick to quell the myths, pointing out that the use of human skeletons on movie sets is simply part of a long tradition in the film industry.
This is the fact, however, that remains the most pertinent, in particular, the suggestion that it was the use of real skeletons themselves that sparked the curses activity, “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,” documentarian Jay Cheel comments.
Continuing, Cheel notes that this is the appeal for modern audiences, it “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”.
This wish for fictitious content to materialise into the real world is entirely believable, as we now crave a new interactivity with our content, one which doesn’t end when the film does. Just like with true crime stories, with a movie curse, there will forever be questions unanswered.