As we approach the Halloween season, there’s no better time to revisit one of the most classic horror films of all time: Poltergeist. Co-written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper in 1982, Poltergeist was the highest-grossing horror film that year.
However, despite the film’s unique plot, the mystery of the film and the unique circumstances surrounding its cast have interested us for the past 40 years.
While the 1980s launched the cult following of several notable horror franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, it cemented Poltergeist as one of the most enduring horror films in the decades following.
And, famous phrases like “They’re here,” have been giving us chills ever since. Check out some interesting details about the film below, including what the rest of the cast is up to in 2022:
What is the Movie About?
Steve and Diane Freeling are a normal family living in Cuesta Verde, California with their three children: Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne. Soon, their quiet, normal lives are upended when their youngest daughter, Carol Anne, starts talking to the family’s TV. Filling the screen with static, a hand emerges from the TV and that’s when the chaos starts.
In the following days, weird stuff starts happening around the Freeling house. While mild at first, the paranormal acts get increasingly more violent and dangerous, with Robbie being targeted by an outdoor tree and Carol Anne being sucked into a portal inside one of the family’s closets. While the family searches for Carol Anne, they soon hear her voice calling out from the TV.
After calling a parapsychologist and medium for help, the family soon learns that their house was built above a former cemetery. The medium identifies these restless souls, along with a darker spirit she calls “The Beast,” who is trying to infiltrate Carol Anne to block the other spirits from crossing over.
With some clever planning and maneuvering, Diane rescues Carol Anne from inside the portal, however, “The Beast” tries to instead capture her, dragging her into their pool where skeletons and coffins start popping up. Running back into the house, Diane grabs the three kids and she and her husband learn that only the tombstones of the former cemetery were moved, not the bodies buried beneath them. They escape the house shortly before it explodes into the portal.
Is Poltergeist Based on a True Story?
Sort of. Poltergeist was loosely based on the paranormal experiences that occurred at the Herrmann House back in 1958.
It all started on February 3, 1958, when Lucille Herrmann and her two children started hearing noises throughout the house. Soon, they discovered that not only were the bottle caps from household cleaning products and other items throughout the house missing, but the contents of those bottles were bursting and leaking everywhere. Strangely, one of the bottles that was tipped over was holy water.
Lucille quickly called her husband, James, to let him know of the strange happenings, but she was quickly dismissed. James didn’t think it was a big deal. Or, at the very least, assumed it was a harmless prank brought on by his curious son, Jimmy, who loved science and experimentation. When James was unable to find a logical reason for the bursting bottles, he called the Nassau County, NY Police Department where an eight-week investigation took place to try and deduce the cause of the strange activity.
During the investigation, the family noticed a porcelain doll move on its own, which ultimately led them to contact their local church for help. The priest assigned to the house, Father William McLeod, blessed the home. The Herrmann House case sparked national attention, but on March 2nd, 1958, the paranormal activity stopped. No definitive proof of what caused the popping, or objects to fly has ever been determined.
The parallels between what the Herrmann family experienced in 1958 were famously attributed to being the inspiration for Poltergeist nearly three decades later. However, others claim it was inspired by events in the late-1800s, in Denver, Colorado. During a massive expansion, the local government wanted to relocate a cemetery, and the contractor assigned to the project secretly just moved the headstones, leaving the bodies where they were until construction on the new building started. By that point, it was too late and the bodies remain in unmarked graves to this day.
While the details in Poltergeist are, of course, more exaggerated, the film may have never seen the light of day had it not been for the ghostly interactions the Herrmanns faced all those years prior or that contractor’s decision to reduce his workload.
As briefly mentioned earlier, Poltergeist was the highest-grossing horror film in 1982, raking in a whopping $6,896,612 on opening weekend. It also placed eighth among the highest grossing films out of the entire year.
Much of its early success was attributed to its use of special effects and filming style. At the Academy Awards, the film was nominated for three Oscars including those for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing Effects, and Original Score – a rarity for a film in the horror genre.
The Poltergeist Curse
While the film is enigmatic all on its own, much of its appeal (at least in later years) has had to do with what people have dubbed the “Poltergeist Curse.”
Throughout the filming of this franchise and after its release, multiple cast members died in rather strange circumstances. Perhaps, the most notable was the star of the movie, Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne. She passed away at just 12 years old after the filming of Poltergeist III. O’Rourke’s death was attributed to congenital stenosis of the intestine.
Other cast members, including Domonique Dunne, who played Carol Anne’s older sister, Dana, in the original film was tragically murdered by her partner just a month after the film’s release.
However, it wasn’t just the tragic and very untimely deaths of the film’s cast that led to the belief of the “Poltergeist Curse”; Steven Spielberg reportedly used real-life, human skeletons during the filming of the first movie, later revealing the truth to actor JoBeth Williams, who was forced to spend days around them shooting the infamous pool scene.
Another member of the cast (who later died) performed an exorcism one night after filming concluded.
Many people believe it was Speilberg’s decision to use human remains in the filming that led to the strange and frightening happenings that plagued the cast both onset and beyond. As to be expected, not every cast mentioned below has a happy ending.
JoBeth Williams as ‘Diane Freeling’
Now 73, JoBeth Williams has had a long career in Hollywood. After wrapping up the Poltergeist films, Williams enjoyed major success in films such as The Big Chill and on the small screen with performances in Adam and Baby M, both of which earned her an Emmy.
In years since she has had minor recurring roles on shows like Hart of Dixie, Station 19 and Private Practice. She was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2010.
Heather O’Rourke as ‘Carol Anne Freeling’
Poltergeist was O’Rourke’s first film, and even though her rise to fame was cut short at the age of 12, known as the “Poltergeist Girl,” she was widely recognized everywhere she went and she had several prominent roles in major sitcoms such as the New Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days.
(photo: Ben Churchill)
O’Rourke had been working in Hollywood since she was 3, having been featured in Mattel and McDonald’s commercials. She died on January 31, 1988 of congenital stenosis of the intestine.
She is buried in the same cemetery as her Poltergeist co-star, Dominique Dunne.
Craig T. Nelson as ‘Steve Freeling’
Perhaps the most well-known actor from the original cast, Craig T. Nelson has been a part of many prominent shows and films including Coach, Parenthood, Grace and Frankie, Young Sheldon, Silkwood, and the Incredibles.
Nelson continues to act, most recently finishing up production on the film, Book Club 2: The Next Chapter, which is set to be released sometime in 2023. He is married with three children.
Beatrice Straight as ‘Dr. Lesh’
Though her acting credits were limited, Beatrice Straight carved a name for herself on the stage, earning her a Tony award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 1953.
She was nominated for The Dain Curse in 1978 and won an Academy Award for her role in the movie Network in 1976.
Straight’s last acting credit was in 1991 and tragically, she passed away a decade later on April 7, 2001. She had two children.
Dominique Dunne as ‘Dana Freeling’
Before landing the role of Dana in Poltergeist, Dunne had bit parts in shows like Children’s Mystery Theater, Fame, and Hart to Hart.
Her first prominent role was in Poltergeist, however, 19 days before her 23rd birthday (and only a month or so after the film’s release) she was strangled and left for dead by her boyfriend.
Five days after his vicious assault, Dunne (who had been considered brain dead as a result of the attack) was taken off life support.
Oliver Robins as ‘Robbie Freeling’
Robins’ career has been up and down since starring in Poltergeist, having small parts on shows like The Twilight Zone and Man Overboard.
After Poltergeist 2 in 1986, he stopped acting and directed his energy behind the camera. When he was 15 years old, he wrote, directed and produced ‘The Crystal’, which won first prize at the Les Mesnil-le-Roi Film Festival.
Oliver also turned his attention to academics and attended and graduated from USC’s Film School.
In 2000, he wrote and directed a direct to video movie, Dumped. In 2019, he returned to acting in the movie Celebrity Crush, which he also wrote and directed.
As of 2022, he is still acting, most recently starring as Rudolph Meyerstone in the comedy, Hollywood Laundromat.
Martin Casella as ‘Marty’
In terms of acting, Casella’s final credit was playing a policeman in the TV movie, Turner & Hooch in 1990. After he quit acting, he turned toward writing and has since written several plays including Saint Heaven and Play it Cool.
His most famous play, The Irish Curse had a critically-acclaimed run off-Broadway.
Richard Lawson as ‘Ryan’
Nearly a victim of the “Poltergeist Curse,” Lawson was in a plane crash in 1992. Both he and his wife survived the devastating fall.
With credits dating back to the early 1970s, Richard Lawson guest starred on many shows before landing the role of Ryan on Poltergeist. His credits include Buffalo Soldiers, Coming Home, Good Times, and All in the Family ( to name a few).
Lawson’s long career is still in high gear. He most recently wrapped up production on Chaaw and Black Terror and is currently working on another film titled Unlawful Duties, which is currently in pre-production.
Zelda Rubinstein as ‘Tangina’
While filming, Rubinstein was said to have experienced visions that have been attributed to the other strange events that occurred on set.
After Poltergeist, Rubinstein enjoyed stints on Santa Barbara, Picket Fences, Chock, and Sinbad: The Battle of the Dark Knights.
Though she played Tangina in the Poltergeist movies, she played Christine in the short-lived TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy.
She passed away in 2010 from a heart attack at the age of 76.