An ethereal blonde child star, Heather O'Rourke became an overnight star with her eerie delivery of the line, "They're heeeere" in "Poltergeist" (1982). Cast by Steven Spielberg himself, O'Rourke's Carol Anne was the youngest child of a family plagued by ghosts in the influential horror hit, and in many ways became the most important figure of the franchise. After recurring on "Happy Days" (ABC, 1974-1984), she returned for "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" (1986) and sparked a thrilling new catchphrase, They're baaaaack." Eerily self-possessed with platinum blonde hair and a precious intelligence, O'Rourke proved enormously effective as the supernaturally-attuned Carol Anne, but in real life was a sweet-natured, down-to-earth child unaffected by her stardom or her horror films. After filming "Poltergeist III" (1988), the 12-year-old actress, who had been misdiagnosed with Crohn's disease, died on Feb. 1, 1988 from complications surrounding an undiagnosed acute bowel obstruction. Her otherworldly demeanor, shocking death and the subject matter of the "Poltergeist" films added luster to the urban legend of a curse surrounding the franchise. Although her life and career were tragically cut short, Heather O'Rourke lived on in the popular consciousness and left behind a tantalizing glimpse of what her full potential could have been.
Born Dec. 27, 1975 in San Diego, CA, Heather Michele O'Rourke displayed a natural talent for performing, following in the footsteps of her older sister, Tammy. A veteran ad model and commercial actress by age five, O'Rourke made her screen debut in an episode of "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984). While waiting for her mother and sister, the latter of whom had earned a role as a dancer in the Steve Martin musical comedy "Pennies from Heaven" (1981), O'Rourke was sitting at a table alone at the MGM Studios Commissary when she caught the attention of Steven Spielberg. Telling him she was not allowed to talk with strangers, Spielberg waited in silence with her until her mother and sister arrived, and then interviewed them about the young girl.
Although he had been considering Drew Barrymore for the role, O'Rourke's precociousness, self-possession and otherworldly appearance stuck with Spielberg. Casting Barrymore in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), he cast O'Rourke as Carol Anne Freeling, the young daughter of a couple (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) whose home, built on an Indian burial ground, is host to an array of ghosts in "Poltergeist" (1982). In tune with the supernatural realm through the television and her plastic toy phone, O'Rourke's Carol Anne served as the heart of the movie and delivered its singsong, eerie catchphrase which became a pop culture touchstone: "They're heeeere." The film was an enormous success, and O'Rourke's character one of its most memorable elements, with scene-stealing psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein)'s often-imitated, whispery delivery of lines like "Carol Anne" and "go into the light" also entering the lexicon.
With her profile receiving an enormous boost, O'Rourke remained refreshingly down to earth, by all accounts leading a normal childhood of schoolwork, chores and family time when she was not working. She booked a role in the made-for-TV movie "Massarati and the Brain" (ABC, 1982), a guest spot on "CHiPs" (NBC, 1977-1983) and scored a recurring role on "Happy Days" (ABC, 1974-1984). For her recurring role on "Webster" (ABC, 1983-87; syndicated, 1987-89), she won a Young Artist Award, and she earned additional credits for TV movies like "Surviving: A Family in Crisis" (ABC, 1985). O'Rourke earned another box office hit and saw her Hollywood stock rise when she reprised Carol Anne for "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" (1986). Although critics found it lacking the depth and warmth of the first film, it proved a successful entry in the series with audiences, and once again O'Rourke served as its center, recapturing the public's imagination with her new spooky catchphrase, "They're baaaaack."
After guest spots on "Our House" (NBC, 1986-88) and "Rocky Road" (TBS, 1985-87), she recurred on "The New Leave It to Beaver" (CBS, 1983; Disney Channel, 1984-85; TBS, 1986-89) before commencing filming of "Poltergeist III" (1988). Unlike the first two films in the series, the spotlight left the Freeling family as a whole and instead shone solely on O'Rourke's Carol Anne, sent to an ultra-modern, mirrored skyscraper to live with her aunt and uncle (Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt) to escape her ghostly pursuers. Besides the reappearance of Zelda Rubenstein, O'Rourke was the only cast member to return, and the film was intended to give her a bigger showcase than had been required in previous installments. Tragically, this was not to be.
Misdiagnosed as having Crohn's disease in 1987, O'Rourke was on medication for the disease. On Jan. 31, 1988, at home after filming "Poltergeist III," O'Rourke became violently ill. The following morning, while preparing to leave for the hospital, O'Rourke collapsed. Resuscitated after experiencing cardiac arrest while being transported by paramedics, she was airlifted to Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. Surgery revealed that instead of Crohn's disease, she was suffering from an acute bowel obstruction caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine and complications from septic shock, which caused her death on Feb. 1, 1988 at the age of 12. Her parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which went to arbitration and was settled out of court.
O'Rourke's tragic and unexpected death added fuel to the urban legend of a "Poltergeist" curse and cast a pall over the release of "Poltergeist III" four months later. Studio executives minimized publicity so as not to be seen as profiting off of the tragedy, and a double for O'Rourke had to be used when they decided to reshoot the ending. Although her career was brief, O'Rourke left a long-lasting pop cultural impression, evidenced by a 2008 DirecTV commercial that blended archive footage of her in "Poltergeist" with new footage of Craig T. Nelson. Although the company described how the actress's family saw it as a tribute to her, the commercial drew widespread criticism for its allegedly exploitative nature. The silver lining to the sad story was that in 12 years of life, Heather O'Rourke achieved a pop culture resonance that continued to echo decades later.
By Jonathan Riggs