Heather O’Rourke’s Tragic Death Didn’t Stop the Studio From Finishing ‘Poltergeist III’

When Poltergeist hit the theaters in 1982, it quickly became a classic in the world of horror. The image of little Carol Anne (played by Heather O’Rourke), sitting in front of a staticky TV screen, intoning “They’re here” in an eerie voice was unforgettable. 

Heather O'Rourke In 'Poltergeist'
Heather O’Rourke in ‘Poltergeist’ | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

The success of the original installment led to two more movies, although neither of them had the same impact as the first. But before Poltergeist III finished filming, a tragic event shook everyone working on the set. O’Rourke unexpectedly died, and the director and crew didn’t want to carry on with the project. But in the end, they didn’t have a choice. 

Heather O’Rourke was only 12 when she died

Although the third installment in the Poltergeist franchise wasn’t supposed to be the final one, the death of O’Rourke changed the plan. The New York Times reports that she died in 1988, just as they were almost done shooting the movie. 

O’Rourke had been misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and she seemed to have a congenital bowel disorder that led to an acute bowel obstruction. After an emergency flight to a hospital for surgery, she developed sepsis and was unable to recover.

At 12 years old, O’Rourke already had a career that spanned years. She was only five when she landed the role of Carol Anne in the first Poltergeist movie. The success of the film led to other appearances, including the TV shows Webster, Still the Beaver, and Happy Days

Because her life was cut short, no one will ever know what she would have become as an actor. But at the time of her death, her part in the Poltergeist movies was still her biggest role. At that point, director Gary Sherman had to decide what to do with her final film. 

Gary Sherman and crew didn’t want to finish the movie

When O’Rourke died, filming was almost done on Poltergeist III. According to ScreenRant, her loss left Sherman and the crew members shaken. They didn’t want to finish the movie without her, feeling that it would be disrespectful to her memory. 

However, MGM, the studio that produced the franchise, wouldn’t allow them to abandon the project. They said that everyone involved was contractually bound to complete it. To film the last few scenes, they hired a body double to stand in for O’Rourke. 

When the movie was released, they included a note dedicating it to O’Rourke. The solution wasn’t satisfactory for Sherman, and years later, he stated that he wishes he’d never been involved with the movie. 

The movie didn’t do well at the box office

The huge success of the original Poltergeist, combined with a macabre interest in O’Rourke’s final film, still wasn’t enough to propel Poltergeist III to box office success. ScreenRant reports that neither the second nor the third installments of the franchise lived up to the first movie. Poltergeist III was not only a box office dud, but it was also widely panned by critics.

Unfortunately, it has lived on in movie lore for a different reason. O’Rourke’s death was the fourth one associated with the franchise. Although two of the deaths weren’t unusual (Julian Beck died of stomach cancer and Will Sampson died of kidney failure), a rumor started that the movies were cursed. People who were involved with the franchise dismissed this theory, but this didn’t stop it from taking hold. 

Ultimately, O’Rourke’s death was simply a tragic event. But her role as Carol Anne lives on as one of the iconic characters in modern horror movies. 

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