Hollywood, myth-infused home of the movie industry, is like any other town in that it has its share of curses and mysterious legends. Stories about cursed productions take on a life of their own, making horror movies in particular seem even more ominous and frightening than if they were just works of entertainment.
When a movie deals with the subject of demons, it is all too easy to believe in a curse. Be it superstition or not, many people believe that merely dealing with occult subjects, dabbling in them, is a sure way to invoke malevolent forces. The legend of the curse surrounding the film The Exorcist can be traced to promotional materials, specifically book tie-ins, including Harold Newman’s The Exorcist: The Strange Story Behind the Film. Blame might be more correctly placed on the book’s publishers, Pinnacle Books, for their marketing. Two fatal incidents related to the production are noted in Newman’s book. The most pertinent is the death of actor Jack MacGowran from influenza. It is something of a stretch to blame MacGowran’s death on The Exorcist, as he died four weeks after all his scenes had been filmed on another continent. Then there was the death of the brother of actor Max von Sydow, which the veteran actor learned of during the shoot. As with MacGowran, the death occurred in another part of the world, Scandinavia. It is even more of a stretch to blame this on The Exorcist.
Newman’s text is actually a bit more circumspect in its implications. As for near-fatal occurrences, the most dramatic is the one that opens Newman’s book, an accident that nearly claimed the life of Jordan Miller, the five-year-old son of actor Jason Miller (who played Father Damien Karras). Newman certainly has no problem with sensationalism or any hesitancy about spreading rumors. But he stops short of explicitly endorsing them (Newman 1974).
Critic Mark Kermode claimed that William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, “played up” these sorts of rumors, especially MacGowran’s death, presumably as a means of publicity. Questioned by interviewer Michael Doyle, Friedkin denied Kermode’s claim. “He’s wrong,” said Friedkin, before going on to elaborate: “I never ‘played up’ rumors of an Exorcist curse, although the idea of such a thing has been around almost since the beginning of [production on] the film. No, people like Ellen Burstyn played up those rumors, not me. I did everything I could to deny the existence of a curse and I don’t accept the idea now.” The director indicated that an actor expiring after a shoot was less unnerving than having an actor die on the set. “Yes, there were strange things that went on but there had been stranger and more troublesome events that have occurred on movie sets—like people dying during the course of shooting. An agnostic, Friedkin concluded, “Personally, I don’t believe in curses, but I’ve only mentioned them because you just asked me about The Exorcist curse—as many others have over the years” (Doyle 2013).
Despite such denials, Kermode seems to have had a reliable source in the late William Peter Blatty, who wrote and coproduced The Exorcist. Blatty was a believer in the afterlife and gave some credence to the notion of supernatural forces, yet he dismissed the much-ballyhooed Exorcist curse as purely Friedkin’s invention. Surprisingly, he does not accuse the director of inventing the legend for publicity purposes. Instead, he believes Friedkin needed an excuse to explain the production’s numerous and costly delays to impatient (and penny-pinching) executives at Warner Brothers. The motivation Blatty ascribes is faintly laughable, as it’s hard to imagine many cynical Hollywood producer-types being moved by a director blaming budget overruns on supernatural forces, possibly including the devil (Kermode 1998).
The curse as a publicity tool certainly reared its head with The Omen, an expensive attempt to rekindle the kind of unholy profits summoned by The Exorcist. Once again, we have the death of a movie star’s relative; in this case Gregory Peck’s son shot himself. This death has only a tenuous link since it occurred two months before Peck began the film. The movie was cursed from the beginning, if we are to believe Bob Munger, the religious adviser who came up with the idea for the film.
If Satan was indeed behind the Omen curse, then it was surely one of his cruelest curses, or most random, as it also involves mass death resulting from a plane crash. The problem with attributing the crash to a curse is that the plane was never actually used in the movie. It was scheduled to be used in the movie, but the producers decided to use a different plane for aerial photography, whereupon the original plane crashed upon takeoff, killing all on board. Satan, it seems, was unaware of the change in planes. If there was a curse, then that means a number of people were punished, not for being associated with the movie but for riding on a plane that was almost, but not quite, associated with the movie.
Director Richard Donner scoffed at any supernatural notion: “I say no, it’s just an incredible coincidence. There are those that would like to think about it, that it’s something more. And when the publicity department at Fox got their hands upon it, we all said, yes, it’s The Omen, because we’re all selling our movie” (Curse or Coincidence? 2006).
Movie rumors are sometimes spread by shadowy sources. The tabloid National Enquirer used anonymous sources in a story about mysterious events relating to the Poltergeist movies.
An unnamed source, supposedly “close” to the series, was quoted thus: “The films have been plagued by such problems and tragedies that it really makes you wonder if somebody—or something—was trying to tell us something” (George et al. 1988). This source could have been anybody from a studio executive to a lowly crewmember to someone in the publicity department. Or, given the Enquirer’s track record, the quote could have been fabricated.
Certainly the films are associated with a number of untimely deaths. But if someone was trying to send an occultic message, who were they and what was the message? Urban legends provide a partial explanation. When word got out that the skeletons seen in the original film’s climax (described below) were actual cadavers, a story began that the misuse of corpses was at the root of the resulting occurrences. This explanation is ironic, in that the movie uses similar disrespect for corpses to explain the poltergeist activity.
Actress JoBeth Williams seems to have been a major factor in spreading these rumors. While chatting on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show to promote Brian Gibson’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Williams claimed that actual corpses were her costars in the original film. In Poltergeist, Williams falls screaming into a swimming pool full of muddy water and grotesque skeletons. Production of the second film was only rescued from preternatural turmoil because the filmmakers called in an Indian shaman to the cave that provided the setting for the film’s climax. He performed a ceremony that apparently appeased the spirits, temporarily at least. In more recent interviews, Williams often reminisces about coming home from the first film to find the picture frames on her wall mysteriously slanted.
Williams has admitted being terrified during the swimming pool scene—attributing her fear not to the fact that she was swimming with corpses but because she feared electrocution. It seems bizarre that real corpses would be used in an expensive Hollywood production, yet the film’s makeup artist, Craig Reardon, swore under oath that thirteen of the swimming pool corpses were real (Furtney 2013).
Author James Kahn, enlisted to write the novelization of Poltergeist, claimed to be haunted by “actual poltergeist events” while writing the novel, or so he has been quoted by the National Enquirer. When asked directly, the author is not quite so dramatic: “I’m not really a believer in paranormal experiences, as such,” he told me in a 2013 Facebook message.
When little Heather O’Rourke (the girl famously depicted with her hands on a haunted television on Poltergeist posters) died from a bowel defect at the age of twelve, the National Enquirer didn’t wait long to attribute the actress’s death to a supernatural cause. The most popular U.S. tabloid cited “bizarre events on the sets of the films—including vanishing scripts and mysterious problems with a sound track.” Apparently disappearing scripts were a recurring theme on the first film, with the copies belonging to actresses Zelda Rubinstein and JoBeth Williams all vanishing at some point.
The sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, led to more mysterious script disappearances. Actor Will Sampson, of the Creek Nation, performed a spiritual ritual to cleanse the house used for shooting of unclean spirits. Supposedly this was due to his conviction that the house was full of mysterious malign threats, but the act nonetheless has the air of a publicity stunt. Julian Beck, a legend of bohemian theatre, died at the age of sixty, soon after filming his creepy portrayal of an evil reverend. Beck had been diagnosed with abdominal cancer at least a year before, so his death was hardly unexpected (Folkart 1985).
College-age Dominique Dunne was strangled by her ex-boyfriend right after making the first Poltergeist, but fate allowed little Heather O’Rourke to live to make two sequels. If some supernatural force wanted her dead, why would it wait so long? Why would it single out the two young girls of Poltergeist but allow the boy, Oliver Robins, to live? What supernatural criteria are at work here? Robins is on record as not believing in the curse. As he put it:
There wasn’t anything abnormal from any other set I’d ever been on. There are always technical problems, but people always want to bring those elements together because it’s a ghost movie and it’s easy to connect the dots. People want to believe it’s haunted or it’s cursed, when the fact is those same things happen on almost every other set. For instance, they said on one of the Poltergeist installments the film got fogged. Well, that happens all the time; when I was in film school that happened to me all the time. It’s just a technical error, you know. Of course it’s fun to talk about because of the ghosts in the movie. (Rob 2009)
Nor does Steven Spielberg believe in the legend. Asked by People if anything eerie happened on the set, he answered:
No. But this wasn’t a demonic possession movie like The Exorcist. This was more about aspects of life after death. Sure, lights fell, and people bumped into each other on darkened sets. And people fell into the swimming pool next to the house the main characters lived in. But those kinds of things happen on a Neil Simon film. (Calio 1982)
Some movies are said to be cursed in some vague way due to unfortunate circumstance. Rebel Without a Cause is sometimes called the most cursed film of all due to the high number of deaths associated with it—deaths of actors that is. Yet these deaths occurred years after the film was released. Nick Adams died in 1968 and Sal Mineo in 1976. The last death, Natalie Wood’s, occurred almost three decades after Rebel was shot. Director Nicholas Ray went on to live another two and a half decades, though by then his career was long decimated by a life of self-destruction. But if there is a curse on Rebel Without a Cause, why? Is God punishing the filmmakers for their wild lifestyles? If so, why did Dennis Hopper, no stranger to excess himself, go on to live for decades, eventually staging one of Hollywood’s biggest comebacks in the eighties? Hopper is practically the only member of the youthful cast not to be bisexual, giving God’s wrath a Sodom and Gomorrah-like overtone, if indeed he is the deity responsible for all this senseless dying.
Brandon Lee’s death on the set of The Crow might be easier to write off as one more movie accident were it not for the eerie parallels with the death of Lee’s father, martial arts great Bruce Lee. Bruce’s death was already shrouded in mystery. For the world’s greatest athlete to suddenly die of a brain embolism at a young age was too much for some fans to take, and rumors spread that he’d been felled by a “death touch,” assassinated by traditionalists outraged that Lee had spread their secrets in the West (Halland 1985).
The idea of martial arts gangsters sneaking an assassin onto a North Carolina movie set and taking out a budding action star is ridiculous but theoretically possible. Yet no evidence of foul play has ever turned up. As far as can be determined, a crew member simply loaded a gun with a real bullet instead of the fake he was supposed to use. New Line Cinema’s cost-cutting non-union tactics, built on a foundation of fatigue-inducing sixteen-hour shooting days, were a recipe for disaster when combined with dangerous stunts, and had already led to the electrocution of a carpenter and the disfigurement of a construction worker’s hand.
Even unmade movies are the subject of mystery-mongering lore. A humorous story about an Eskimo is the unlikely source of the most famously cursed unmade script of all. Todd Caroll of National Lampoon adapted a satirical novel by Mordecai Richler, The Incomparable Atuk, into a film script. Dwarfish and fat, the embittered ex-preacher standup comic Sam Kinison was about as unlikely as a movie star can get. The film was shut down after a single day of New York shooting in February 1989. No mysterious force was behind the film’s cessation. Kinison never bothered to read the script, telling friend Joey Gaynor he’d read it when he got to the set. He must not have liked what he read. Shutting down production was an extremely risky act on Kinison’s part, as breach of contract does not sit well with the studios. United Artists slapped Kinison and his manager Elliott Abbott with a lawsuit, demanding $4.5 million in actual damages plus another million in punitive damages (Variety 1992).The suit dragged on into 1992, forcing the comedian to put on a fundraiser to raise one million dollars in order to pay off a settlement with the studio (Variety 1992).
None of this is particularly eerie, but here’s where curse lore comes in, taking the form of a story that the Atuk script means certain death—that it in fact killed not only Kinison but also other comic actors who had considered the role. It seems that John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley were also victims of Atuk. Keep in mind that Kinison didn’t die until three years after the one-day shoot, making this a somewhat delayed curse.
As far as I can tell, the story of the Atuk curse can be traced back to Doug Draizin, the producer who first offered the screenplay to Kinison. Draizin seemed to have a meager foundation upon which to build his reputation, so an association with a spooky curse was better than nothing (not surprisingly, the producer declined to clarify things for this article). Draizin took his story to the mainstream on Hollywood Ghost Stories, a 1998 AMC TV special hosted by William Shatner. Shatner described the screenplay as “a screenplay that’s to die for” before relating a legend claiming that John Belushi was considering the project during his final days. Yet Bob Woodward’s Wired: The Fast Times and Short Life of John Belushi, which details the actor’s last days in labored detail, makes no mention of the project. At the time of his death, Belushi was hellbent on pushing a romantic comedy called Noble Rot, even as studio honchos wanted him to take the low road and do a comedy called Joy of Sex. Atuk doesn’t appear to have been a serious contender for the actor’s attention, if indeed he even read it.
Similarly, an unfilmed adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is the subject of occasional arcane speculation due to the deaths of actors who were at one time connected with it, however briefly. Once again, John Belushi is the original victim of this curse, followed by the likes of John Candy, Divine, and yes, Chris Farley (Lippman 1999). At least in this case, Belushi’s involvement was confirmed by manager Bernie Brillstein, whereas I can find no concrete evidence the actor was ever considering Atuk or that there was ever serious interest in the project until the script was presented to Kinison.
Maidee Walker, a writer who was shopping the script around town, later admitted, “I interviewed every fat actor in Hollywood” for the role. The problem with this curse story is that the script has also attracted a number of actors who are still with us, such as Will Ferrell, Jack Black, John Goodman, and Josh Mostel, as well as one comic, Jonathan Winters, who lived to a ripe old age. Also there is the rather obvious point that the actors who died early lived rather unhealthy lifestyles.
We all like to attach special significance to the events in our lives to make our lives appear unique. We like to see ourselves as worthy of attracting preternatural attention, rather than merely being victims of harmless pranks, theft, or our own forgetfulness. This is true even of famous actors with disappearing scripts. The human tendency is to find significance of some kind, religious or occult, to things that would otherwise be written off as mundane or coincidental.
This is true of anyone: famous actors, less famous crew members, on down to journalists and anonymous fans. If such stories can provide good publicity for a movie franchise, so much the better. As long as a curse or similar mysterious story provides an element of the eerie and keeps interest in a movie series alive, these stories will live on in the public imagination.
- Calio, Jim. 1982. Steven Spielberg’s musings on Poltergeist. People (November 1).
- Curse or Coincidence? featurette. 2006. The Omen Collector’s Edition, (DVD). Twentieth-Century Fox Studios.
- Doyle, Michael. 2013. Is there someone inside you? Rue Morgue 140 (December).
- Folkart, Burt A. 1985. Julian Beck, 60, living theater founder. Los Angeles Times (September 18).
- Furtney, David. 2013. Craig Reardon on the film’s makeups. Poltergeist: The Fan Site. Available online at http://www.poltergeist.poltergeistiii.com/reardon.html.
- George, Jerome, Sam Rubin, and Michael Glynn. 1988. The Poltergeist curse: Child star Heather O’Rourke’s death is the latest tragedy to haunt horror movie series. The National Enquirer (February 23).
- Janet Halland. 1985. The death touch. Black Belt 23(6) (June).
- Kermode, Mark. 1998. Lucifer rising. Sight and Sound (July).
- Lippman, John. 1999. “Confederacy of Dunces” adaptation remains mired in rewrites and handovers. The Wall Street Journal (September 30).
- Newman, Howard. 1974. The Exorcist: The Strange Story Behind the Film. Pinnacle Books, Inc.
- Rob, G., 2009. Icons of Fright, Fright Exclusive Interview: Oliver Robins! Available online at http://iconsoffright.com/news/2009/02/fright_exclusive_interview_oli.html.
- Variety. 1988. February 26.
- ———. 1992. August 12.