Since its release more than 35 years ago, Poltergeist has scared generations of moviegoers and given parents a new reason to warn their kids about sitting too close to the TV. Part of the film’s lasting success is owed to its iconic visual effects and makeup work. However, for some movie fans, the legacy of the film’s makeup effects extends beyond the sheer stomach-churning terror stirred by watching a paranormal investigator pick apart his own ghostly visage in a mirror. Instead, they blame one effect in the film with inspiring a real life “curse.”
The “Poltergeist Curse” is well-documented, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: human skeletons were used on set leading to a string of tragedies, starting with the murder of actress Dominique Dunne and including the untimely death of child star Heather O’Rourke. Those two sad examples alone are a lot to ascribe to a simple production decision. In order to learn more about Poltergeist, its makeup work, and the curse it supposedly helped inspire, Bloody Good Horror reached out to Craig Reardon, the film’s special effects makeup artist.
Bloody Good Horror: When did you first start hearing about the so-called “Poltergeist Curse?”
Craig Reardon: A few years back.
BGH: What are you overall impressions on the idea?
CR: I think this specific question begs a general response. I don’t believe in “curses,” period. Oh, I enjoy them in horror movies and comic books. But real life isn’t the same thing. Just as ghosts don’t really exist and dead people don’t crawl out of their graves. Horror movies like to deal in things like “curses” because they appeal to our sense of fun. Human beings sometimes have a pretty weird sense of fun. They LIKE to be scared, and they like to pretend that there are things which have huge consequences but cannot be explained by science. I don’t believe that.
BGH: I remember seeing Poltergeist as a child and having it scare the heck out of me. My memories of the “Poltergeist Curse” amazingly seem to go back almost as far. To what do you attribute the dogged persistence of these rumors?
CR: I think the idea of a “curse” having plagued Poltergeist cynically capitalizes – as the damned thing still persists – on a few real-life tragedies as well as real-life transitions. I’m talking about death, of course ... including untimely death, including murder. In the latter category, I refer to the outright tragedy of Dominique Dunne, a young lady I talked to one day on the set and found to be intelligent and friendly, who was strangled to death by her deranged boyfriend. This hit me, hearing about it on TV, like a bombshell, as I’m confident it did anyone who’d actually worked on the movie. To see it fuel a “curse,” however is worse than shocking, it’s disgusting. Then, people throw in the tragic and untimely death of Heather O’Rourke, a sweet little girl who died of an intestinal disorder. That’s a scientific reason for death. Is it entertaining? It is “mysterious” like curses are? No, it’s merely horribly unfortunate, cruel, arbitrary, and unkind. But such things really happen, and sadly it happened to Heather O’Rourke, before she ever really got to grow up. People also add in the relatively untimely deaths of Julian Beck (Poltergeist 2 actor who died at age 60 of stomach cancer) and Will Sampson (Poltergeist 2 actor who died at age 53 from complications caused by heart and lung surgery). What’s the connection between these things and a movie full of obviously contrived supernatural hogwash? I’m not saying horror films aren’t entertaining; I AM saying they’re all hogwash. We just quietly set that aside in our minds when we watch them.
BGH: It seems most people who talk about the Curse attribute it to the use of real skeletons on the set. Can you tell me about this? What were the logistical reasons this route was chosen?
CR: And this is the thing that makes me somebody’s worst enemy, because this is laying their horse manure at my doorstep. I’m going to describe very simply what the “real skeletons” were all about. The skeletons I ordered in 1981 were featured in the catalog of a company that provides biological supplies. They came wired together for display in classrooms and included a metal stand and a vinyl cover. I ordered about 12 or 13 of them. Please try to contain your horror at the number 13! Alternatively, the company also offered plastic skeletons for the same purpose: classroom study. The drawback was that the plastic skeletons were really all replicas of one original sculpture or mold, whereas, the real skeletons were all different. This was pointed out in the catalog. Also, the plastic skeletons were actually more expensive, presumably because of the materials and labor required to produce one of them. For these reasons, purchasing the real skeletons was a no-brainer, and so I did. I did not have a huge budget on Poltergeist, in case anyone's interested in reality outside of make-believe curses.
The real skeletons, when delivered, proved to be an ideal choice, as they were indeed all “individuals” (because they WERE once individuals) and were quite different from one another in many respects. This lent itself perfectly to the task at hand. These were not “actual corpses,” as I’ve seen them described online. The very clean classroom skeletons I received were turned into semi-realistic – we aimed for an exaggerated E.C. Comics, i.e., Tales From the Crypt look versus strict realism – “corpses.” Myself and my collaborator Michael McCracken achieved this by means of melodramatic sculpture and exaggerated textures and colors.
BGH: I have heard this technique – utilizing classroom skeletons – was used in other films. Yet, “Poltergeist” is the only one seemingly cursed due to it. Based on your experiences in makeup effects and Hollywood, how common is or was this practice?
CR: Extremely common. Common as rocks. Here’s one example: 1931’s Frankenstein. It begins with a lecture by Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) in an operating theater and classroom in which he carries forth about the human brain. There is a conspicuous human skeleton in this scene, suspended from a stand. At one point it gets bumped and bounces gently up and down, provoking laughter. That skeleton is EXACTLY the same as the ones that I ordered for Poltergeist.
BGH: One popular part of stories on the Curse is that actor Will Sampson performed a ritual on the set of Poltergeist 2 to banish the “shadow” from the sequel. What were your experiences like on the set of the first film? Was there anything supernatural - other than what we see on film - or was it like many other sets you’ve worked on?
CR: The only shadow I can think of was the apparently lousy script for Poltergeist 2 and the fact it was only made to cash in on the success of the first one! As for your second question, Poltergeist was a film like any other film. All the “supernatural” incidents were in the script and created one at a time, brick by brick. No hocus-pocus, no spooks, no supernatural anything. Just a ton of pressure to get it done and get it done fast and get it done right. Same as on every film.