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.

Poltergeist Movie
Photo: MGM / United Artists

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.

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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.

“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.”

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“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.