There's something strangely captivating about the death of a movie star. Even if the person's been sick for a while, it always feels sudden and unexpected. We see actors as ageless, forever enshrined in their most famous roles. We don't expect them to die. So when they do, we're hungry for information. Somehow we just have to make sense of their passing. But some deaths are harder to make sense of than others. That was certainly the case in the 1980s when a string of deaths of actors from the Poltergeist films left fans stunned.
Aside from their associations to the films, the deaths seemed disconnected. But for many, the coincidence was just too much to accept. There had to be an explanation, even if it stretched our understanding of the world and the simplest answer, the actors had become the victims of the very films that had made them stars. The Poltergeist films were cast. Hi, everyone, I'm Alastair Murden, and this is Superstitions, a Spotify original from podcast, why do we balk when stepping underneath a ladder?
Why does a broken mirror send shivers down our spines? Why do hotel floors skip the number 13? Belief in the supernatural does not belong to religion alone. Our world is a strange place full of unsettling patterns and idiosyncrasies we struggle to understand. It is here at the intersection of chaos and fate that we find superstitions. We'll tell stories illustrating the horror, the weirdness and the truth behind these beliefs. We'll explore how they began and what their continued existence says about the fragile human mind.
Today, we will be taking on the poltergeist curse, the belief that if you take a role in a Poltergeist film, you might follow one of the four cast members that died during or after filming. You can find episodes of Superstitions and all other Spotify originals from podcast for free on Spotify. Lights, camera, action after this. Everyone loves a good, scary movie, we love them because even if we're chilled to our very cool while watching, deep down we know they aren't real.
It's a fun form of pretend. But for those performers who acted in the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist and its sequels, the fun came to an abrupt end. For those of you that haven't seen Poltergeist.
I won't spoil the ending, but the set up goes like this. The feelings are typical nuclear family have their idyllic home life disrupted by an inexplicable phenomena. Glasses break, silverware, bends and chairs rearrange themselves.
But soon the ghost reveals its true evil nature and kidnaps the six year old daughter, forcing the family to find a way to get her back. That's the basic plot of the film, written and produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Toby Hooper. But the haunting might not have ended after the cameras stopped rolling.
The trouble began just a few months after the film was released, 22 year old Dominick Dunne, who had played the teenage Dana Freeling, was choked into a coma by her ex-boyfriend in the driveway of her Hollywood home.
She was initially placed on life support, but after a few days of no brain activity, her parents pulled the plug.
Six years later, 12 year old Heather O'Rourke, who played the young daughter in Poltergeist one, two and three, went to the hospital for what was thought to be a case of the flu. Her heart quickly went into cardiac arrest, and she died of septic shock. As it turned out, she'd been diagnosed with Crohn's disease the year prior to others who had been in Poltergeist, who also died shortly after the film's release. Julian Beck, who played a preacher, died of stomach cancer just after shooting wrapped.
Will Samson, who played a Native American shaman, died after undergoing heart and lung transplants. Both had been older and their deaths not as shocking as Dominique's and others. But that didn't stop rumors from arising that the film was coerced. Perhaps the spirits from the story made their way into reality and followed the cast members to their death. Perhaps it was just coincidence. Or perhaps I'll tell you a story about an attempt to remake the film and you can decide for yourself.
Meghan's call time was 11 a.m., but she arrived exactly at 10 45, she checked in with the set coordinator, a squat, grumpy looking man who squinted at his iPad screen. Megan began to give her name and show her ID as she always had in the past. But instead, the coordinator said it wasn't necessary. He knew her name and that she'd been playing the role of Dana Freeling. Megan felt a little thrilled that she'd gotten big enough for someone to have recognized her.
But then he looked her up and down and said, You don't look 16. Megan sighed. I'm told I look young on screen. She said she was used to it by now. Her agent had sometimes said that no matter how many scene study classes she took, student films she did, or hours she spent rehearsing for an audition. Her look twenty eight but five foot two and baby faced made her sometimes difficult to cast. To Megan, this felt like his excuse for not getting her more roles.
But now she had a major supporting role in the highly anticipated remake of Poltergeist. She wasn't necessarily a horror fan, but she had a paycheck that allowed her to quit her job as an instructor at a trendy Palazzi studio. No more posting photos of herself wearing matching spandex outfits on Instagram, no more managing shifts with auditions. And she had a trailer, her own trailer, with her name on the front and all. Megan pulled out her phone and took a picture of the door.
She had finally gotten her big break. After hair and makeup, Megan grabs a cup of green tea from craft services, a few other cast members said hello and she chatted briefly.
But she had no real intention of talking to anyone. She needed to prep for her first scenes filming that afternoon when she got back to her trailer. A man was leaning on the door, blocking the entrance. He was probably about her age, but had a beard that made him look a tad older than her. He wore dirty vans and held a vote pen between his lips. She recognized him as Barrett Jones, an up and coming young actor who was playing her father in the film.
Casting is weird. She thought you want to make a bet? He asked. Megan wanted him to go away so she could prepare for her scenes on what she asked, hoping her clipped tone would signal that he should leave.
Which one of us is going to die first, he said with a devilish smirk. Megan rolled her eyes, he was talking about the curse, she knew about the poltergeist curse, of course, her agent had laughed about it over the phone, said she couldn't afford to turn down the opportunity, but he'd have a doctor on standby just in case something went wrong.
Come on. It'll be fun, said Barrett. What about her? He pointed to the hair and makeup trailer where the seven year old actress playing Carolann was being led by her handler. Her name was Zoe, and she'd been cast because she had eight million subscribers to her YouTube channel toys with a Z. I'll bet she's first, he said. After a brief pause. He said, You'll turn. Megan didn't want to play this game. It's nice to meet you, Barrett, but I have sides to look over.
I look forward to working with you shortly. He graciously stepped outside, allowing her to walk up to the door. He was annoying. She thought, though it didn't make him any less charmingly cute. She was thinking about why he'd come to talk to her. When she turned into her trailer and saw a skeleton sitting in her chair, Megan screamed from outside.
She heard Barrett laughing. Did you like your welcome basket? He asked. Megan caught her breath. It was just a prop, nothing but a flimsy piece of plastic. She asked Barrett to get it out of there at once, and he obliged, taking his bony friend with him.
She seethed. He wasn't cute at all, just immature. The first scene being filmed was uncharacteristically also the first scene in the movie, the director whose real name was Henry, but he went by the French. Omri was an eccentric man who had once won a best directing award at Cannes. He'd since been doing nothing but low budget horror and often said that Poltergeist was his Holy Grail, except he had decided to change a few things from the original. Instead of a suburban ranch home, he wanted to shoot at an ultramodern estate in Beverly Hills.
Instead of having the young daughter staring into a TV, he wanted to have her staring into a glittering nest thermostat, whatever that meant. He thought the changes would make it more modern, more edgy.
Megan was just supposed to walk down the floating staircase with the family and react to how strangely the young girl was acting.
It was a simple enough scene, but after her first take on RECALDE cut through his head, set down viciously and rounded on her. You look blander than deli meat when you walk up behind your sister. Why? She tried to answer that it was just first take jitters, he hadn't let them rehearse after all, but he shushed her. Just put some emotion into your face. He said he turned to the crew and bellowed Reset.
Megan quickly moved back to her starting position, her toes edging the top step, she tried to deepen the emotion for her character. She'd always been trained to work from her imagination, not memory, so as not to get lost in reality.
So she closed her eyes, relaxed her body and pictured herself in a small, dark room, fleshy insects crawling up her arms.
She felt herself shiver and took the stairs step by step.
But Henry didn't like this take either. You should be deeply terrified, he said, feel it in your bones, he yelled action and they all began again.
But the next wasn't right either, nor the next. After that, bye. Take 15. The crew was growing restless. At this rate, they'd be running past meal break once again. Megan Resat at the top of the glass stairs. She'd have to try something different instead of imagining herself getting trapped in a tiny room, as she usually did to elicit fear, she turned to Barrett and asked him to scare her. But he only laughed. Just relax, he said, stepping forward again.
This was her last shot. She could feel it. She followed him.
Careful not to miss a step as she walked. They were glass and hard to see. She tried hard again to feel fear and show it on her face, especially as the whole family stood behind the little girl staring into the screen of the digital thermostat.
She could see only at the edge of her vision, shaking his head. Now she really was afraid, afraid she was going to be fired. On her first day of filming, she put her hand on Carolann shoulder, trying to connect to the scene, but fighting to hold back tears.
If she cried here on Rry would surely think something was wrong with her and she would be fired. Her heart rate quickened and her breaths grew short and tight. She felt a panic attack coming and she couldn't stop it in front of her.
The thermostat six and five were fading into the background and she couldn't tell if it was the scripted glitch or she was having a sort of mental breakdown. She was going to faint, she thought, and then all of the lights went out. Up next, Megan spends a night in the house. Hello, listeners, Alistaire here, it's the spookiest season of the year. And podcast network has many chilling surprises lined up for you, starting with its newest original series, a show that I host called Haunted Places Ghost Stories.
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Now back to our story. Megan gasped, she was absolutely petrified, suddenly standing in the darkness with her co-stars, all of the lights, including the satellites, had gone out. Her co-stars began to wander off. Megan looked around for Barrett, but wasn't surprised to find that he had already disappeared on Reed, the director was beside himself. He turned to the crew and snapped, fine. It's a sign I'll use the garbage. We already have went on.
He didn't say anything to her. Megan was relieved. She knew she didn't have it in her to go again. Most of the crew and cast were heading out of the house to the set parking lot where they'd be shuttled back down to their trailers. She looked around for Barrett but didn't see him until she was outside. He was coming out of the garage holding a screwdriver in his hand. She stared at him for a moment, finding it odd.
But she stared a little too long because he soon caught her eyes and jumped right into her golf cart. She asked him why he'd been in the garage of all places. Apparently, someone flipped the switch on the electrical box, he said, winking. Megan almost smiled. The next day, they were supposed to shoot a scene in which an earthquake struck the house, Megan felt much more prepared this time. But within moments of stepping onto set, Hornery pulled her aside and told her that he cut her lines from the scene.
Megan felt like an absolute failure. She hadn't had very many scenes to begin with, which made each one all the more important. To make matters worse, the next scene she would film was her most pivotal. It was the scene where Carolann Spirit would communicate with the family through the ceiling. Megan's character was supposed to sit in a chair, terrified, screaming and sobbing. If the director didn't get a shot of her he liked, she'd end up looking like nothing but a background actor.
In the final cut of the film, she had to do something, so she resolved to stay through the afternoon and talk to Honourary about how she could do it better. After the next meal break, she went straight to Honourees Trailer and knocked on his door. No Solicitors', he said, to which Megan replied that she'd simply come to talk about her role. He opened the door wearing an all white sweat suit and holding a smoking stick of sage. She waved some of the smoke aside and said, I want to get you what you're looking for on my next scene.
How can I best prepare?
He narrowed his eyes and poked her in the chest. You need to feel the fear in here, he said. Not in your head. Don't prepare, just live it.
Megan scowled, frustrated by his abstract answer. But I feel better when I'm rehearsed. He smudged his sage into a bowl. You asked for my advice. So here it is. I chose the house for a reason. They say it's haunted. Spend the night here tonight. Let the space itself envelop. You believe in its ghosts.
Megan, thank Tonry for his time and turned away. His idea was ridiculous. True actors prepped by studying the story and the characters and then working from their imaginations, not by wearing themselves out, having sleepovers on set. But she was desperate. She couldn't go back to her old life, not when she'd come so close to her dream. And honoree was the director. If he wanted her to spend a night in the house, then that was what she was going to do.
That night, Megan brought pajamas, a toothbrush and a book back to the set, she worried she might have to talk her way through security, but somehow the gate was already open and the house unlocked, as if waiting for her.
She pressed the steel doors open and walked inside a few set lights and see stands remained in the living room where they'd be filming. The next morning, everything was dark. Moonlight flooded through the skylights and glistened on the white concrete flooring. It was shivering cold, so she turned the nest thermostat up to 74 degrees.
She wanted the halls looking for a room to spend the night, and she found a small one just off the kitchen with bare walls and a plain platform bed. She wasn't sure what to do. She hadn't exactly come up with a plan to scare herself. She'd been counting on the house to do that for her. She took out her phone thinking she'd check her emails for any script changes while waiting.
Suddenly, she heard the front door slide open, her heart jumped and her fingers froze over her phone screen, but her first instinct was to calm herself down. It was probably just overnight security or the locations person checking on the house. She thought she stopped herself. She was here to scare herself. She remembered to experience the terror of a supernatural encounter rather than brushing off the sound with a rational explanation. Why not consider the alternative? What if it really was a ghost?
She stood up and walked slowly, using only the moonlight to guide her back to the front hall. The darkness would scare her, she thought, and she let her breath grow heavy. And as she approached the hall, she heard footsteps which made her feel both frightened and exhilarated. She froze as a figure, rounded the corner. But it was just Barritt Megan's side. The moment ruined. What are you doing here? She asked. He was staring at the thermostat, holding some sort of remote checking for poltergeists, he said.
Megan rolled her eyes, but he didn't seem to notice. You know how honourees said the house was haunted? He asked. Megan nodded, and he continued. Well, turns out there was a construction fire while this place was being built. People died and rumor has it the rich owners buried the bodies in their upstairs closet. Megan glanced upstairs and saw only more darkness. And do you think there are actually ghosts here? She said. But when she turns back around, he was gone.
There wasn't even a hint of movement in the gloom. Megan grew anxious, surely 10 minutes in an empty house couldn't have made her hallucinate. No, that would take weeks unless her imagination had willed it. It was dark in the house and she could barely see. She went to turn on the lights but couldn't find any switches. And the thought of looking upstairs made her grow cold with fear.
She turned back to check the thermostat again, maybe also controlled the lights, she thought, but it wasn't quite working. The whole screen was flickering and making a strange noise. Maybe she was seeing things, but when she smacked the device with her palm, it went back to normal, just a glitch.
Megan took a deep breath, scolding herself for letting Barath get in her head.
She tried to forget his words, refocusing on what mattered the script, the story, the character, her career. That was why she was here. It almost worked, thoughts of Barrett evaporated from her mind, and then a cool blue light started flickering from the upstairs hall.
It went on and off, casting shadows that went through the glass stairs to the floor below. Her whole body tingled, her mouth watered. This was fear she thought it made her want to run out of the house, but she stood frozen, she couldn't run, this was what she had signed up for. She had to chase the terror to embrace it. So she took a few steps and grabbed the railing foot by foot. She walked upstairs. It was hard to see in the dark, but she felt for the edge of each step.
The light flickered from down the hall, looking wispy and almost wet along the marble flooring. She walked towards it, her heart pumping faster.
It seemed to rise and thickened as she approached, as if she was walking through fog.
The light was coming from underneath a heavy metal door in a large bedroom. The closet, she thought. She called out hello, but got no response. The light flickered once more, then stopped. Morgan stood before the door, staring, her breath was so heavy, she was practically panting, her underarms and hands were clammy. Every atom in her body was telling her to turn around and run home, but she knew what she had to do.
So she slid the door open. The closet was dark and windowless, the air thick as if it hadn't been entered or aired out in months. Megan walked forward, her hands outstretched, when she hit a wall. She turned to her right and bumped something with her feet.
The light flickered on.
Megan looked down. Nearly half a dozen skeletons were piled on the floor beside her. Megan screamed and jumped backwards, but the light flashed off again, and she was momentarily plunged back into darkness. She shut her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself. She was on the verge of hyperventilating. They aren't real, she told herself. This was another one of barrat sick pranks. The lights flickered on once more, and Megan forced herself to look back down at the skeletons.
They weren't real. They were props. They were different from the skeleton Baratz had left in her trailer. Whoever had painted them had done a good job. They were covered in unbelievably realistic brown and yellow stains. Tentatively, she crouched down and felt for one of their feet, but immediately recoiled. The bone was rough and porous, not at all smooth like she'd expected, Megan swallowed hard, not knowing whether to run or cry.
She didn't know what to believe anymore if it was real or a prank.
It didn't matter either way. Her heart was racing. She felt more terrified than she had in her entire life. It was working. But she could push it further. She backed away from the skeletons until she was standing by the door of the closet, she slowly slid it shut. For a moment, Megan panicked. The room felt so tiny, but she couldn't stop now. She sat down and leaned back against the skeletons, feeling their limbs all around her.
She closed her eyes. The skulls were so close to hers, she could almost feel them whispering, Help me, help me.
She imagined them saying she wanted to cry. She was so scared. But she let herself get to her breaking point just before she cried and her eyes were pink. Then she jumped up, pushed out of the room and walked to the top of the stairs. She pulled out her phone and hit record. She would repeat yesterday's scene and show on. She could look afraid. She thought of being in the closet again with the skeletons and shivered. She took a step forward, her phone in front of her to start the scene, but she forgot to look down and slipped on the stairs.
The next day, an associate producer opened up the house for filming, he saw the thermostat first. It was set at 74 when he knew the director wanted it at 65 specifically.
So he turned it down, switched on the lights. And so the supporting actress crumpled in a pool of blood on the floor. Her face full of terror. Poltergeist is a horror classic, and the supposed curse might be part of why its legacy has continued even to this day. The idea of a first film adds to that Hollywood mystique. But even though many still believe the film is cursed, there's no agreed upon explanation for what might have caused the curse in the first place.
One theory has to do with the use of a certain prop. There's a scene in the movie where the mother, Diane Freeling, runs around the rainy, muddy backyard but slips into the hole in the ground where the pool used to be. She's greeted by a group of skeletons, and the actress Jo Beth Williams, looks genuinely horrified during the entire scene.
The thing is, it may not all be acting. Jo Beth claims that either Spielberg or director Tobey Hooper used actual human skeletons as props for the set. So she was actually swimming in a pool of human remains. Some believers argue that by using real skeletons, the spirits were somehow disturbed and went back to haunt the cast members. But the use of real skeletons was kind of the norm at the time. Buying from medical supply companies was much cheaper than creating plastic ones.
And many other horror movies like House on Haunted Hill and Frankenstein also used real skeletons. Those films aren't cast. So why Poltergeist?
It could have something to do with the subject of the film itself. Poltergeist The Spirit is known for being nuisances or tricksters, and the director of the 2015 reboot, Gil Keenan, did say that there were some odd occurrences around the set. Lights would just stop working for no apparent reason. GPS signals for aerial drones got scrambled. He was pretty confident that the house they used was actually haunted by a female spirit dressed in all black. One explanation suggests that the curse is all in our heads and yet entirely real.
Some paranormal experts think that poltergeists are the result of the emotions and imaginations of troubled individuals built up during times of stress set. Life is notoriously difficult, long days, high stakes and a lot of moving parts. And acting as a profession demands a high level of imagination, which for some actors, can prove difficult to separate from reality. During the making of the second film, it's rumored that so many strange things happened on set that the cast and crew really did believe in the curse.
One of the actors, Will Samson, went back to the house at night to perform an exorcism on set. Some say he did it to ease others fears about the set. Some say he did it with the intent of scaring his cast mates. Silly why? And whether or not it actually worked. We don't really know. But Will died just a year later, which only fuelled more superstition. The final theory to explain the curse is both the most expected and the least exciting, it was probably best said by psychologists can drink water.
And Neil Daniel, who wrote Endorsement of curses, may stem from the desire to make sense of the world and ascribe meaning to chaos.
The death of multiple actors, including a child from a single film series, is very chaotic, so chaotic that it could lead widespread audiences to imagine a curse or perhaps to create a poltergeist for us, the audience. The curse is part of the entertainment we want to believe as long as we're not the one starring in the next reboot.
Thanks again for listening to superstitions. We'll be back on Wednesday with a new episode, you can find more episodes of Superstitions and all other Spotify originals from podcast for free on Spotify until next time. Be wary of the things you cannot explain.
Superstitions was created by Max Cutler and as a podcast studio's original, it is executive produced by Max Cutler Sound designed by Kenny Hobbs with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Bruce Kaktovik.
This episode of Superstitions was written by Stacey Lee Niemiec with Writing Assistants by Alex Garland.
Andrew Cole. I'm Alistair Murden. Remember to join me every Thursday for the all new series, Haunted Places, Ghost Stories. Don't miss the most chilling spirits ever imagined by authors from around the world. Follow haunted places, ghost stories free on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.