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Heather O'Rourke

O'Rourke in her last production, Poltergeist III
Born December 27, 1975(1975-12-27)
San Diego, California, USA
Died February 1, 1988 (aged 12)
San Diego, California, USA
Other name(s) Heather Michelle O'Rourke[1][2]
Occupation Actress
Years active 1982–1988
Official website

Heather O'Rourke (pronounced /hɛ.θʌr ɵ.ruːk/)[3] (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988)[4] was an American child actress who played Carol Anne Freeling in the Poltergeist film trilogy and made several television guest appearances.


Personal life

O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975 in San Diego, California, the second daughter of Kathleen O'Rourke.[4][5] Before O'Rourke's death in 1988, her mother married James "Jim" A. Peele.[6] The family, including O'Rourke's older sister Tammy, lived in Lakeside, California at the time of her death.[3]


In a contemporary interview with American Premiere magazine, Steven Spielberg explained that for he was looking for a "'beatific' four-year-old child...every mother's dream" for the lead in his 1982 horror film Poltergeist. While eating in the MGM commissary, the Academy Award-nominated director saw a five-year-old Heather O'Rourke having lunch with her mother while sister Tammy O'Rourke was shooting Pennies from Heaven. After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered Heather the Poltergeist role; O'Rourke was signed the very next day, beating out Drew Barrymore[7] for the role.[4][5][3][8]


The Poltergeist films

In the Poltergeist trilogy, O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities. The New York Times noted that she had played the key role in the films and commented, "With her wide eyes, long blond hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence."[5] During the production of the original Poltergeist, Spielberg twice accommodated the child actress when frightened. When scared by performing a particular stunt, Spielberg replaced O'Rourke with a stunt double wearing a blond wig; and when disturbed by the portrayal of adult abuse toward the child characters, Spielberg did not require she perform the take again.[9] For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between US$35,000—$100,000.[10] Though O'Rourke played the role in all three films,[1] the Carol Anne character was the only member of the Freeling family to recur in the third film, Poltergeist III.

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O'Rourke's delivery of the lines "They're here!" in the first film, and "They're baa-aack!" in the second (that film's tagline), placed her in the collective pop culture consciousness of the United States.[4][11]

Television work

After her work in 1982's Poltergeist, O'Rourke secured several television and TV movie roles. In April 1983 she starred as herself alongside Morey Amsterdam and well-known Walt Disney animated characters in the hour-long television special, Believe You Can ... and You Can![12][13] She also appeared in CHiPs, Webster, The New Leave It to Beaver, Our House, and had a recurring role on Happy Days as Heather Pfister. In the television movies Massarati and the Brain and 1985's Surviving, she played Skye Henry and Sarah Brogan respectively.[1][5]


O'Rourke became ill in early 1987 and was misdiagnosed by Kaiser Permanente Hospital as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed medicine to treat the Crohn's, which allegedly "puffed up [her] cheeks."[3] On January 31, 1988, O'Rourke was ill again, vomiting and unable to keep anything down. The next morning she collapsed while trying to leave for the hospital and her stepfather called paramedics. O'Rourke suffered a cardiac arrest en route to the hospital, and after resuscitation was airlifted by helicopter to Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego,[3] where she died.

Speaking to reporters, O'Rourke's manager David Wardlow initially announced that it was believed O'Rourke died of influenza.[14][15] However, hospital spokesman Vincent Bond announced that O'Rourke died during surgery to repair a congenital acute bowel obstruction (stenosis of the intestine)[16] complicated by septic shock;[5][17] this report was corroborated by the San Diego County coroner's office on February 3, two days after her death.[18] Later reports changed the specific cause of death to cardiac arrest caused by septic shock brought on by the intestinal stenosis.[16][19]

Plaque marking O'Rourke's interment

O'Rourke was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery on February 5, 1988. Mourners included Henry Winkler, Linda Purl, and Rick Schroder.[20] Her tomb is a scheduled stop for "Haunted Hollywood" tours.[21]


On May 25, 1988, Sanford M. Gage, the O'Rourke family attorney, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Diego. O'Rourke had been seen by doctors at Kaiser since birth, and the suit claimed that they failed to properly diagnose her long-standing small-bowel obstruction: had they not simply treated her for Crohn's disease with prescription drugs, she could have been cured by means of a simple operation;[22][23] and this misdiagnosis caused O'Rourke's death.[24] Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman Janice Seib responded "We have reviewed the case extensively, and we believe that the diagnosis and the course of action taken by our physicians was entirely appropriate. It's a very complex case, complicated by a number of factors, and not given to any simple answers."[3] The case went to arbitration and was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.[25]

Lasting ramifications

O'Rourke's death complicated MGM's marketing for her last work, Poltergeist III, out of fear of appearing to be exploiting her death.[26] Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen, O'Rourke's co-stars, were discouraged from giving interviews about the film to avoid questions about O'Rourke's death.[27] O'Rourke died before the theatrical release of Poltergeist III, which was dedicated to the young actress.[28]

O'Rourke's death (as well as four others) has been attributed to a supposed curse on the Poltergeist films and those associated with them; this urban legend supposedly stems from a real human skeleton used as a prop in the first film.[11] According to backstage personnel, the ghost of O'Rourke herself haunts Paramount Pictures' stage #19, whereat she filmed episodes of Happy Days.[29]

On September 26, 2008, DirecTV began airing a national TV advertisement developed by Deutsch; directed by Erich Joiner and cinematographed by Daniel Mindel,[30] the advert features O'Rourke's famous "They're here!" scene from Poltergeist blended with contemporary footage of her co-star, Craig T. Nelson, intended to mimic the film. After the advertisement drew criticism from bloggers and columnists for exploiting O'Rourke,[31] DirecTV responded in a Q&A session with readers of The New York Times. Jon Gieselman, DirecTV's senior vice president for advertising and public relations, explained that O'Rourke's family "was involved in the spot from start to finish [and that] Heather’s mother not only approved, [...] she also commented that Heather’s inclusion was a wonderful tribute to her daughter."[32]


  1. ^ a b c "Heather O'Rourke". The New York Times. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  2. ^ "Heather O'Rourke Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Sunnyvale, California, USA: Yahoo! Inc.. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Maury Povich. (1988) (YouTube). A Current Affair. [Television production]. WNYW, New York City, USA: 20th Century Fox. Retrieved 2009-02-09. 
  4. ^ a b c d Erickson, Hal. "Heather O'Rourke". allmovie. Macrovision. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  5. ^ a b c d e "Heather O'Rourke, 12; Starred in 'Poltergeist'". The New York Times (Manhattan, New York, USA: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.). 1988-02-03. 
  6. ^ "O'Rourke's Stepfather Sought In Child Support Case". San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California, USA): p. 1B. 1988-02-04. 
  7. ^ Simpson, Paul; Rodiss, Helen; Bushell, Michaela (2004) (Google Book Search). The Rough Guide to Cult Movies (2 ed.). London, United Kingdom: Rough Guides. p. 115. ISBN 9781843533849. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  8. ^ Spielberg, Steven; Royal, Susan (2000). "Steven Spielberg in His Adventures on Earth" (Google Book Search). Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Jackson, Mississippi, USA: University Press of Mississippi. p. 88. ISBN 9781578061136. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  9. ^ Brode, Douglas (2000). "Poltergeist" (Google Book Search). The Films of Steven Spielberg (2 ed.). Citadel Press. pp. 103–104. ISBN 9780806519517. Retrieved 2009-11-22. 
  10. ^ (Google Book Search)Money (New York City, USA: Time Inc.) 11: 140. 1982. ISSN 0015-8259. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  11. ^ a b (Google Book Search) People: Gone Too Soon: Remembering 65 Celebrities Who Died Too Young. New York City, USA: Time Inc Home Entertainment. 2007. p. 89. ISBN 9781933821177. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  12. ^ Cotter, Bill (2009-05-31) [1997] (Google Book Search). The Wonderful World of Disney Television: A Complete History. Disney Hyperion. p. 10. ISBN 9780786863594. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  13. ^ "Miss O'Rourke, Morey Amsterdam in TV special". Indiana Gazette. Associated Press (Indiana, Pennsylvania, USA): p. 5. 1983-03-19. 
  14. ^ "'Poltergeist' Star Heather O'Rourke Becomes Ill, Dies". The Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York, USA: Stephen A. Rogers). 1988-02-03. 
  15. ^ "Poltergeist` Actress, 12, Dies Heather O`Rourke Thought To Have Flu". The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina, USA: Ann Caulkins): p. 3A. 1988-02-03. 
  16. ^ a b Baker, Bob (1988-05-26). "Suit Blames Doctors in Death of Young Actress". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA: David Hiller): p. 35. 
  17. ^ Folkart, Burt A. (1988-02-03). "`Poltergeist' Star Heather O'Rourke Dies at Age of 12". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA: David Hiller): p. 3. "[Heather O'Rourke], the terrified youngster sucked into a spectral vacuum by supernatural spirits in the "Poltergeist" films, has died on an operating table at a San Diego hospital, it was reported Tuesday." 
  18. ^ Naunton, Ena (1988-02-04). "Child Actress's Death A `1-In-Million' Event". Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio, USA: Andrea Houston Mathewson): p. A14. 
  19. ^ "People". St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri, USA: Kevin Mowbray): p. 2A. 1988-05-26. 
  20. ^ "SERVICES HELD FOR CHILD STAR". Daily News of Los Angeles (Woodland Hills, California, USA: John McKeon). 1988-02-06. 
  21. ^ Epstein, Dan (February 2007). "Access Hollyweird" (Google Book Search). Revolver (San Francisco Bay Area, United States: Future US) (53): 89. ISSN 1527-408X. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  22. ^ Baker, Bob (1988-05-26). "Suit Filed in `Poltergeist' Actress' Death". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA: David Hiller): p. 2. 
  23. ^ Conconi, Chuck (1988-05-27). "PERSONALITIES". The Washington Post (Washington, D.C., USA: Katharine Weymouth). 
  24. ^ Speers, W. (1988-05-26). "Hospital Sued Over Child Star's Death". The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA: Brian Tierney): p. D02. 
  25. ^ Carroll, Richard (2005-03-07). "Battling over culpability, calculating the price of a life." (re-published). Los Angeles Business Journal (Los Angeles, California, USA: California Business Journals). ISSN 0194-2603. Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  26. ^ "Studio Unsure How To Market Latest 'Poltergeist' Movie". Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Kentucky, USA: Tim Kelly): p. J5. 1988-03-27. 
  27. ^ Cieply, Michael (1988-03-21). "MGM Ponders Selling of `Poltergeist III'". Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA: David Hiller): p. 6. Retrieved 2008-08-07. 
  28. ^ Van Heerden, Bill (2008-02-27) (Google Book Search). Film and Television In-Jokes: Nearly 2,000 Intentional References, Parodies, Allusions, Personal Touches, Cameos, Spoofs, and Homages (illustrated ed.). University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA: University of Michigan Press. p. 104. ISBN 9780786404568. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  29. ^ Rottman, Eric (February 2004). "Ghost World" (Google Book Search). Los Angeles (Los Angeles, California, USA: Emmis Communications) 29 (2): 20. ISSN 1522-9149. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  30. ^ Stasukevich, Iain (October 2008). "Short Takes: Paying Homage to Hit Films". American Cinematographer (Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA: ASC Holding Corp.) 89 (10): 10–14. ISSN 0002-7928. 
  31. ^ Glover, Anne (2008-10-16). "Critics cry foul over DirecTV ad featuring dead girl". ScrippsNews. Scripps Howard News Service (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA: E. W. Scripps Company). 
  32. ^ "Q & A with Stuart Elliott". The New York Times (New York City, USA: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.). 2008-10-27. Retrieved 2008-10-28. 

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