Horror movies are scary enough as it is, but there have long been sinister rumors that make some of them even more so. It seems that at times there are allegedly dark forces that lurk in the background of a few of these films, permeating them and casting a shadow over them that can extend its claws into mishaps, misfortune, bizarre phenomena, and even death. Horror movies in particular have a long history of being plagued by eerie series of events behind the scenes. What is it about these films that draws these unfortunate tales about them, and are these really instances of some forces beyond our understanding clinging to these movies to push them from horror films into the realm of just horror? Let us take a look at a few of the scarier movies ever made and the supposed ominous curses that have circled them, making them transcend the line between fiction and reality to make them seemingly much more than just spooky films, and causing them to burst forth from nightmares into the real world.
As we will see, horror movie curses seem to have a particular knack for congealing around stories concerning demons, and if the legends are to be believed these types of films may just actually draw in these dark forces like moths to a flame. We start with one of the most well-known movies about demons, indeed one of the most well-known horror movies, period. Widely lauded as one of the scariest movies ever made, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, has become one of the most beloved and well-known horror films of all time, influencing popular culture and the horror genre ever since its release. Based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty and released in 1973, The Exorcist perhaps needs no introduction, but for those of you have been living under a rock for the past few decades it follows two priests as they battle to free an innocent young girl from a harrowing possession by evil demonic forces. Besides being a masterclass in horror filmmaking and having far reaching influences on the genre, spawning countless sequels, spinoffs, and imitators, to the point that it was selected in 2010 by the Library of Congress to be preserved as a work that is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," The Exorcist also has the distinction of having one of Hollywood’s most famous alleged evil curses hanging over it. Indeed, it seems that behind the scenes of The Exorcist was at times just as frightening as anything happening on the screen, with a long list of bad luck, mishaps, freak occurrences, and deaths associated with the movie.
With this particular purported curse, there are so many weird things surrounding it that it is hard to even know where to start. Production was beset by numerous setbacks since before filming even began. Director after director, including such notables as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, all inexplicably turned the film down, and when one was finally found the troubles were only just beginning. On-location filming for the scenes set in Iraq met with harsh heat and sickness that ran rampant among cast and crew, which delayed production considerably. During filming, there was also an inordinate number of inexplicable on-set fires that seemed to spring up out of nowhere for no discernible reason, including one which burnt down the entire set of the house portrayed in the movie, which bizarrely left only the room of Regan’s bedroom, where the possession scenes are mostly filmed, untouched. There were other accidents on set as well. Actress Ellen Burnsteyn suffered a permanent back injury in a scene in which her character struggles with the possessed Regan, and the actress who played Regan herself, Linda Blair, also received a back injury when the harness meant to make her maniacally flail around malfunctioned. In yet another freak accident, the young son of one of the actors was hit by a motorbike on set and had to be hospitalized. Indeed, these accidents got so numerous that there were several actual exorcisms performed while filming, due to the ever widespread belief among cast and crew that the production was actually cursed and that maybe something did not want the film to be made.
In addition to the various freak accidents and mishaps on set, there were also the mysterious deaths that surrounded the production. One of the most well-publicized of these was the death of actor Jack MacGowran, who played the director Burke Dennings in the film and died of influenza shortly after filming wrapped up. In fact, two of the actors who played two characters who die in the film also died in real life shortly after the movie was completed, as well as actress Valsiliki Maliaros. In total, 9 cast and crew associated with the production would die during and just after filming. Other weird deaths were relatives of cast and crew who were working on the film, including actor Max von Sydow’s brother and the grandfather of actress Linda Blair, who played the possessed child in the film.
The troubles and bizarre events plaguing The Exorcist would not stop even after it was released. At the film’s premiere at the Metropolitan Theater in Rome, the weather turned out to be rather terrible, with torrential rain and lightning making everyone in attendance miserable. Shortly after the guests had filed into the theater, a bolt of lightning struck one of the two 16th century churches that stood nearby, dislodging an 8-foot long giant cross which then crashed into the plaza right in front of the theater with a thunderous boom that sent the movie goers into a panic. When the film was officially widely released into theaters, there were immediate repercussions, as a flood of complaints started coming in of people feeling dizzy or nauseous during screenings, fainting, having seizures, or experiencing potent panic attacks. One woman, who was so disturbed by the film’s scary imagery that she decided to leave the theater, tripped on her way out and fell down to break her jaw. Indeed, the movie was blamed for a slew of suicides throughout the 1970s, with some suggesting that this was either due to the gruesome imagery of the movie being too much to handle for some people, or attributing it to the notorious curse supposedly surrounding the production. The famous evangelist Billy Graham was so convinced that the film was cursed that he went as far as to suggest that the celluloid itself was somehow imbued and saturated with the power of evil and the Devil.
In addition to all of this was the profound mental breakdown of actress Linda Blair in the years after the film’s release. The once promising child star went on to be arrested on drug charges in 1977, and often ranted about how disturbing the whole production had been for her and others involved, to the point where she escaped acting, became a recluse, faded into obscurity, and vowed to never have children. Years later, the series would accrue even more creepiness when it was found that the American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was obsessed with The Exorcist films, in particular The Exorcist III, which he allegedly would incessantly watch over and over again before killing his victims. Indeed, the supposed curse of The Exorcist is so bizarre and covers so many strange occurrences that there was a whole 2-hour documentary devoted to it. Were these all just spooky coincidences, or was there some genuine demonic force operating in the background here? Whatever the answer may be, it certainly makes an already chilling movie that much scarier.
Following in the same vein as The Exorcist was another movie about demons and possession that too would go on to become a classic of the genre. In 1976, audiences were treated to yet another dose of demonic horror when The Omen, directed by Richard Donner and starring Gregory Peck, was released. The film follows the struggle of a family coming to the stark realization through an unfortunate series of mysterious events and ominous deaths that their young adopted son is in fact the Antichrist. The film was a major commercial and critical success, earning two Academy Award nominations and winning an Oscar for Best Original Score for Jerry Goldsmith's haunting, iconic score, as well as going on to spawn two sequels. It also has become known for strange events surrounding it that are every bit as spooky as the movie itself.
The weirdness was already starting when producer Harvey Bernhard heard the idea for the film from his friend Bob Munger back in 1973, years before the production would even start. Bernhard liked this idea, mentioned by Munger in passing, so much that he went through great lengths to get it put into production. Apparently, Munger became increasingly overcome by a sick feeling of dread at the thought of the movie actually being made, which became more unbearable as screenwriter David Seltzer worked away on the script and the movie creeped closer to actually being put into production. Munger became so upset with the thought of his idea being made into a film that he would years later claim that he had warned Bernhard about it, saying:
I warned Harvey at the time. I said, 'If you make this movie you're going to have some problems. If the devil's greatest single weapon is to be invisible and you're going to do something which is going to take away his invisibility to millions of people, he's not going to want that to happen'.
It would turn out that perhaps he just might have been right, and the grim warning would become somewhat prophetic. Just two months before filming started, the star of the movie, Gregory Peck, was confronted with the tragic news that his son had committed suicide by shooting himself. When Peck was on his way to London in the wake of this sad news, the plane he was flying in was struck by lightning in a frightening but ultimately nonfatal ordeal. The wrath of lightning would prove to be a common occurrence, as at various points throughout the production screenwriter David Seltzer would also be flying in a plane which was struck by lightning, as would executive producer Mace Neufeld in yet another separate incident. Indeed, producer Bernhard was nearly struck by lightning while walking down a street in Rome, with the bolt barely missing him.
So many lightning strikes on so many associated with the filming seems odd enough, but the ominous incidents would only get more intense. Filming was also plagued by car crashes, as several cast and crew were involved in automobile accidents during the shoot, including Peck and the director himself. Even more frightening was a bombing by the IRA that blew up portions of the hotel where the director and producers were staying during filming in Ireland. In another disconcerting incident, a plane that had been reserved to fly Peck and other cast members as they were working on location in Israel was switched to another carrier at the last minute, and the flight that they were originally scheduled to take ended up crashing spectacularly to kill all onboard. Other mishaps during production included various freak accidents experienced by the stunt men, and the severe mauling of one of the film’s animal handlers by the trained Rottweilers that had been used for one of the movie’s scenes, in which a pack of ferocious feral dogs chase two of the main characters through a cemetery. These incidents served to be very eerie and unsettling for cast and crew, and producer Bernhard even went as far as to start wearing a prominent cross around when he was on the set. Years later he would say of this:
I wasn't about to take any chances. The devil was at work and he didn't want that film made. We were dealing in areas we didn't know about and later on in the picture it got worse, worse and worse.
Even after filming wrapped up the alleged curse of The Omen would seemingly not relinquish its grip. One of the film’s animal handlers died a mere two weeks after filming was wrapped up, when he was pulled into a lion enclosure by one of his own trained lions and viciously mauled to death. Two other crewmembers would also go on to be involved in bizarre accidents just one year after The Omen’s release, oddly while both working in Holland on the World War II film A Bridge Too Far, directed by Richard Attenborough. In one incident, stuntman Alf Joint fell and was hospitalized while performing a simple routine stunt he had done hundreds of times before, and later he would claim that he felt as if he had been pushed by an unseen force.
Even more sinister was what would happen to the Omen’s Visual Effect Supervisor, John Richardson, while working on the same film. Richardson had been responsible for some of the most noteworthy, unforgettable, and imaginatively gruesome moments of carnage in The Omen, among them an iconic scene in which the character of a photographer, played by actor David Warner, is brutally decapitated by a flying sheet of glass. In an accident with an eerie similarity to that scene, Richardson was driving in the Netherlands along with his set assistant for A Bridge Too Far, Liz Moore, when the two were involved in a horrific head-on car accident in which the wheel of the car sawed up into the passenger seat to practically cut Moore in half, beheading her and leaving a mortified Richardson in a state of disbelief and shock. Spooky rumors that have popped up in the years since allege that Richardson stumbled out of the totaled vehicle and noticed a sign that announced that they were 66.6 km from a Dutch town called Ommen.
It seems that the curse of The Omen went beyond even all of this to hang over the 2006 remake of the film, directed by John Moore, which was also beset with several weird events during production. The director claimed that two days of filming were lost and that the malfunctioning camera had displayed the message “Error 666,” which was odd considering that was this was not a message it had ever been programmed to show. Other incidents include actor Liev Schreiber being bitten by a dog on set, as well as co-star Pete Postlewaite’s brother dying of a heart attack during a card game, allegedly after drawing three sixes. To this day Moore insists that something supernatural and evil was hanging over the production, and discusses some of these strange phenomena in the DVD commentary for the film.
Another of the most notorious supposed real-life curses behind a movie was linked to yet another story involving demons and possession, which came out before either The Exorcist or The Omen, and was one of the movies that pioneered the popularity of such stories. 1968 saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby, a film directed by Roman Polanski and produced by William Castle, which follows the story of a young pregnant wife whose husband makes a pact with devil worshippers to trade his unborn child to Satan for success in his career. Despite the fact that the film’s producer, Castle, was up until that point most well-known for B-movie schlock and gimmicks such as vibrating seats, with the help of the up and coming young Polanski at the helm the movie was released to massive critical success, catapulting Castle into respectability and it remains highly regarded as a horror classic, winning awards, being selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, becoming a fixture on countless “Scariest Movies” lists, and spawning numerous imitators.
Unlike the other films mentioned here so far, the production of Rosemary’s Baby itself went off mostly without a hitch, although Castle became more and more convinced that there was something ominous, a certain sense of dread, hanging over the set. It was not until after the film’s release that things became truly bizarre and unnerving, and strange events would start to plague those involved with the film. It started with a deluge of bitter, hate fueled letters from viewers received by Castle which denounced the movie and ranged from accusing him of Satanism and witchcraft to earnest wishes laced with vitriol that he would die and rot in Hell. At one point, the increasingly disturbed Castle would receive around 50 of these venomous, hateful letters a day, to the point that he actually began to start fearing for his life, and he started to really believe that the movie was emanating some sort of dark force, once proclaiming that he had “unleashed evil upon the world.” In the midst of this flood of hate mail, Castle came down with a painful bout of kidney stones and was hospitalized. Of course he blamed his deteriorating condition on the film, and over the next few months he would be in and out of the emergency room in excruciating pain, to the point that he famously exclaimed during one such visit “Rosemary, for God’s sake, drop the knife!”
As Castle became more and more paranoid and fearful of the film he had created, he found much to his horror that Krzysztof Komeda, the 38-year old Polish composer who had created the haunting score for Rosemary’s Baby, had been hospitalized in the very same hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage, which would ultimately kill him with a blood clot to the brain. Eerily, the character of Rosemary’s friend in the movie, Hutch, dies of the very same thing. This death and the uncanny coincidence associated with it, as well as the increasingly threatening letters he was receiving and his chronic urinary tract issues, caused Castle at one point to lament:
The story of Rosemary's Baby was happening in life. Witches, all of them, were casting their spell, and I was becoming one of the principal players.
The death of Komeda was by no means the end of the supposed curse, and in fact it would only get more frightening as it set its sights on the director himself, Roman Polanski. Rosemary’s Baby had been Polanski’s big break, and its resounding success had shot his popularity into the stratosphere. In addition to practically overnight becoming one of the most talked about directors in show business, he was also expecting his first child with his beautiful wife, budding actress Sharon Tate, who was 8 months pregnant. It seemed that things could not have possibly been any better for Polanski, but this elation and happiness were not to last.
On August 9, 1969, Tate and some friends, hairdresser Jay Sebring, Katie Folger, and screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski, were having a party at her home in Benedict Canyon while Polanski was away on business. At around midnight, a drugged up group of women led by a Tex Watson arrived at the home after having been ordered to kill by their leader, the notorious Charles Manson. The group cut the phone lines and then proceeded to make a grand entrance before the terrified party goers, with Watson reportedly dramatically announcing “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business,” before they went to work stabbing Tate and her friends to death. As Tate lay dying on the floor in a pool of blood, she is said to have begged for the group to spare the life of her unborn child, after which she was killed by one of the cultists, Susan Atkins, who drank Tate’s blood and went on to use it to write “Pig” on the walls of the home. It was a gruesome, sickening crime that would shock the nation, cement Manson as a bona fide psychopath, and which would forever haunt Polanski. The murders also fueled speculation that the curse of Rosemary’s Baby had led the killers to the house and even the more far out conspiracy theory that Polansky had made an actual deal with the devil in order to gain his newfound fame, just like the character in his movie.
A more tenuous, yet nevertheless intriguing connection to this supposed curse is the death of Beatle John Lennon, who happened to be friends with Polanski. Already creepy is the fact that Charles Manson would claim that he had gotten the idea for his murder spree from messages he claimed were hidden in The Beatles’ White Album. Even creepier is the fact that John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived in the Dakota Building, which had been chosen as the location for the building in Rosemary’s Baby due to its distinctive gothic appearance. It was outside of this building where in 1980 Mark David Chapman would shoot Lennon dead, right there where Rosemary’s Baby had been filmed. Chapman is said to have prepared for the deadly attack by listening to Beatles’ records over and over again while naked and praying for demons to enter his body to give him the power to kill. Although Lennon’s death does not seem to be very strongly linked to Rosemary’s Baby, it is still considered by many conspiracy theorists to fall under the umbrella of the film’s alleged curse.
Castle would spend the rest of his days regretting producing the movie which had made him famous, and was purportedly terrified of the film all the way up to his death in 1977. Even when Rosemary’s Baby was winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, the spooked Castle refused to attend or to bask in the limelight, more or less disowning the troubled film. When asked about why he had forsaken the movie and the accolades it had garnered him, Castle would say:
All my life I had yearned for the applause, approval and recognition of my peers. And when the awards were being passed out, I no longer cared. I was at home, very frightened of Rosemary’s Baby.
Demons don’t have the monopoly on famous movie curses, and indeed another of the most infamous of these revolves around a story about ghosts. Poltergeist is undeniably one of the classic horror movies of all time. Directed by Tobe Hooper and written and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, it follows the struggles of a suburban family, the Freelings, dealing with a terrifying invasion by malevolent spirits and the kidnapping of their young daughter by these phantoms, who are in thrall to a mysterious, menacing demon referred to simply as “The Beast.” The film is notable for its unnerving atmosphere and ability to exploit childhood fears, such as the fear of creepy dolls, the thing under the bed, and the scary tree outside the window, bringing them to life with some truly iconic scenes that served to do a good job of traumatizing children of the era (myself included.) When it was released in 1982, the movie was a huge hit, going on to be spun into two sequels and a remake. The film is also remembered for having one of the most notorious movie curses looming over it.
Things were creepy on the Poltergeist set before filming even really began. The rumor is that the filmmakers decided that rather than craft fake, plastic skeletons as props in various scenes, which would have been expensive to make, they instead opted to use actual real human bones. The skeletons were most famously used in a harrowing scene in which actress JoBeth Williams’s character finds herself at the bottom of a half filled swimming pool in a sludge of mud and human skeletons, which proceed to attack her as she tries desperately to crawl out of the watery grave. According to the actress, real human skeletons were used in this scene and the film crew did not inform her about it. In fact, it seems that producer Spielberg hadn’t really told anyone working on the film about it at the time. Williams would later say of the undeniably creepy situation:
In my innocence and naiveté, I assumed that these were not real skeletons. I assumed that they were prop skeletons made out of plastic or rubber . . . I found out, as did the crew, that they were using real skeletons, because it's far too expensive to make fake skeletons out of rubber.
Although these claims have never been proven, it has been suggested that the use of real human skeletons as props may possibly have been the catalyst for what was to come next, as it would become apparent that a dark force potentially hung over not only the original film, but indeed the whole series, leading to several bizarre deaths for those involved with filming and other oddities. The first death would occur just weeks after the release of the original film, when 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, Dana Freeling, was brutally choked by her boyfriend on the night of 30 October 1982. Dunne had been locked in an abusive relationship with a chef by the name of John Sweeney, and had actually kicked him out of their shared Los Angeles residence. On the night of the incident, Sweeney had allegedly stopped by to try to work things out, but the conversation had instead devolved into a huge argument in the driveway, ending with Sweeney savagely choking Dunne into unconsciousness and leaving her for dead right where she fell. Dunne would be rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she would remain unconscious for four more days before dying without ever waking up again. Sweeney was subsequently found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years of prison, of which he would only server 3 and a half. In another more recent development, actor Lou Perryman, who played a small role in the film, was savagely murdered in his own home by an axe wielding escaped convict in 2009.
There were other less tragic but nevertheless bizarre oddities orbiting the production of Poltergeist as well. In one incident, actor Richard Lawson, who plays paranormal investigator Ryan in the film, was flying aboard USAir Flight 405 in March of 1992 when the plane crashed into Flushing Bay, New York. Although Lawson survived the crash, 27 of the 51 people on board were killed in the disaster. Another strange series of events plagued actress JoBeth Williams during filming, when she claimed that the pictures hanging up in her home were always crooked when she returned home from filming.
The deaths and weirdness would continue with the film’s sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, released in 1986, which would bring with it two more rather famous deaths and several other ominous signs. The first major death was that of actor Julian Beck, who portrays the evil ghostly preacher Rev. Henry Kane in the film. Beck, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer before filming began, would succumb to his illness in September of 1985, shortly before the film was released in theaters. In 1987, another cast member would die when Will Sampson, 53, who played a Native American shaman in the movie and is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as the mute Native American in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, passed away from complications related to a risky heart-lung transplant he had received 6 weeks earlier. Interestingly, during filming of Poltergeist II, Sampson had performed an actual exorcism on the set due to his increasing concerns about the alleged use of real skeletons as props in the first film. Other deaths somewhat related to the production of Poltergeist II are also sometimes attributed to the alleged curse. Zelda Rubenstein, who plays a psychic in the movie, was called to be informed that her mother had passed away during filming, and the director himself, Brian Gibson, died of Ewing's sarcoma in 2004.
By far the most talked about and well-known death linked to the Poltergeist series is that of young Heather O'Rourke, who portrayed the Freeling family’s youngest daughter, Carol Anne, in all three of the Poltergeist films and was inextricably linked to the series for her central, iconic role. Appearing in the first movie when she was only 6 years old, O'Rourke would be misdiagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1987 after falling ill. When she still became sick the following year even with treatment for the disease, doctors told her she merely had the flu, but this was not to be the case. When O’Rourke collapsed the very next day, she was rushed to a children’s hospital in San Diego where it was determined that she had an obstructed bowel. On 1 February 1988, just before the release of Poltergeist III, she would tragically die at the age of 12 during an emergency operation, and it was determined that she had actually been suffering from a congenital intestinal abnormality that had gone undiagnosed. The sudden death of this charming little girl, who was the face of the series and had up until then been so vibrant and healthy, shocked and saddened the public at the time. Adding a layer of bizarreness to this untimely death is an odd portent from the first film. In one scene, a poster can be seen on the wall of Carol Anne’s brother in the movie (Robbie, played by Oliver Robins), which reads "Superbowl XXII." The actual Superbowl XXII would be played 6 years later in 1988, just one day before O’Rourke’s tragic death and in the very same city.
The strange events, as well as the deaths of these cast members and crew, especially the fact that they were sometimes totally unexpected, have long given rise to the notion that the production of the Poltergeist movies was cursed. Indeed, at one point the urban legends and rumors surrounding this “curse” got so bad that some permutations claimed that one of the child actors died after filming each movie, as well as the preposterous rumor that EVERYONE who appeared in the movies has since died, both of which are untrue. Although the Poltergeist curse has over the years become infamous, is there anything to it, or is this all just coincidence or reaching for patterns that aren’t really there? Actor Oliver Robbins, who played the young son Robbie Freeling in the first film, gave his own thoughts on the whole “Poltergeist Curse” when he was asked about it years later in an interview with the Daily Mail:
To be completely honest, I don't think anyone that was involved in the movie ever really took the curse seriously. There is no curse - it is just tragic coincidences. With this curse mythology, I never spoke to Steven [Spielberg] about it, but I guess he thinks the events that took place were horribly tragic and awful but had no relation to the events that took place on set. People may try and connect the dots and make something out of it, but they are possibly going to make connections that probably aren't there. They do make for great spooky stories, but at the end of the day, they really aren't true.
Or are they? Are the phenomena, incidents, and deaths surrounding these troubled productions just connecting the dots, our psyche cued up by the horror portrayed on screen and seeking to imbue these movies with some form of horror in real life? Are these curses merely the product of spooky coincidences and forming nonexistent patterns and relationships between these movies and the weirdness and tragedies they just happen to have been befallen by? Or are there truly strange connections and insidious occurrences pervading these films, orchestrated by inscrutable mysterious forces that we may never fully understand and were perhaps never meant to? As long as these movie curses continue to be talked about, there will doubtless be those who wonder at the answers to these questions. Whether one believes in literal curses or not, and whether they really exist or not, one thing that seems certain is that knowing about these dire tragedies and creepy accidents behind the scenes imbues these films with a certain menace that alters the way one may view them, making these scary movies even scarier than they ever were before.