The new Poltergeist movie has us feeling nostalgic for the 1982 original

By Drew Mackie
May 20, 2015 12:50 PM

They’re baaaaack – and they’re rebooted.

In theaters Friday, May 22, the latest Hollywood horror reboot takes 1982’s Poltergeist – the chilling tale of a suburban family battling evil spirits – and updates it for 2015. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt step into the parental roles played in the original films by Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Although we’re excited for the new Poltergeist, its release has also made us nostalgic for the original movie and its sequels.

If you’re also feeling like you could use a catch-up with the Freeling family, have a read through our list of things you probably didn’t know about the original Poltergeist trilogy.

What a week to be a movie lover: Poltergeist hit theaters on June 4, 1982, and E.T. on June 11. Can you imagine seeing both for the first time, back-to-back? And can you imagine what it must have been like for Steven Spielberg, who directed the latter and wrote and produced the former?

One of the two persistent rumors about Poltergeist is that Spielberg directed it, not the man credited, Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame. It’s a long and involved story about Hollywood politics and the intricacies of filmmaking – it’s all recapped at length on this Poltergeist fan site – and nothing anyone says seems to put the matter to rest one way or the other.

Of course, the role ended up going to Heather O’Rourke. But Spielberg saw to it that audiences still got to see Barrymore in all her moppet-y glory anyway thanks to E.T.

Poltergeist scored nominations for Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score – but lost all three to E.T.

It sounds like an urban legend along the lines of the Three Men and a Baby ghost, but JoBeth Williams seemed to confirm the longstanding rumor that the skeletons were real when she discussed the scene on I Love the ’80s. It boggles the mind how that could be the case – where would one even buy skeletons? – but it’s almost notable in itself that Williams is saying it’s true.

Adjusted for inflation, Poltergeist raked in $209.8 million domestically, according to Business Insider. The No. 1 fright fest adjusted for inflation? Jaws.

The above clip is very much not PG movie material. But because the PG-13 rating didn’t come about until 1984, the movie’s creators appealed the initial R rating and got it reduced to what was then the next-lowest, ensuring that a generation of kids would be forever freaked out by bathroom mirrors.

The other rumor surrounding the Poltergeist movies is that a vaguely defined curse associated with the cast resulted in the deaths of four actors, including Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke, who played the Freeling daughters. Just try to talk about Poltergeist without someone bringing it up, no matter how silly or tacky it is or how much it diminishes from the real-life tragedies that claimed these actors’ lives.

The daughter of author Dominic Dunne and sister of actor Griffin Dunne, Dominique played the oldest Freeling daughter, Dana. She was rehearsing for the miniseries V with costar David Packer on Oct. 30, 1982, when her ex-boyfriend John Sweeney came to the house. Dunne and Sweeney argued, and he strangled her. Dunne, 22, never regained consciousness and was taken off life support on Nov. 4. Her character is not mentioned in the sequel.

In Poltergeist II: The Other Side, the Freelings are aided by a Native American medicine man, Taylor, played by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest actor Will Sampson. A year after the sequel hit theaters, Sampson died of complications from a long-term chronic degenerative condition that had left his body unable to recover from a heart and lung transplant. He was 53.

When people talk about the Poltergeist curse, they often mention that Julian Beck, who played the big bad in Poltergeist II, died during the filming. He did – on Sept. 14, 1985, of stomach cancer. However, Beck’s death wasn’t exactly unexpected: He actually signed on to the film knowing his cancer diagnosis.

The breakout star of the Poltergeist movies, O’Rourke died at age 12 as a result of a heart attack caused by a bowel obstruction that had been previously misdiagnosed. Her death was an unequivocal tragedy, and the fact that she died mere months before Poltergeist III hit theaters made the film difficult to promote. The L.A. Times reported that MGM Studios told the film’s surviving stars, Nancy Allen and Tom Skerritt, not to give interviews promoting the movie, just to avoid the appearance that anyone was trying to capitalize on O’Rourke’s death.

Plans were in place before O’Rourke’s death to reshoot the finale with different special effects, and when O’Rourke died unexpectedly stand-ins had to be used for the final cut of the film.

The graves for both actresses can be found in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Despite not getting mentioned at all in the second Poltergeist movie, Dunne’s character gets referenced in the third, albeit indirectly. Lara Flynn Boyle plays Carol Anne’s cousin, and she’s a “big sister” type to Carol Anne. Her character name, Donna, is similar to both Dunne’s given name and the name of her character in the first film, Dana.

Among their quibbles with Poltergeist III was a peculiar tendency for characters to cry out Carol Anne’s name incessantly. As this clip demonstrates, yeah, that name gets said a lot.

After actor Julian Beck died, voice actor Corey Burton stepped in for some of Beck’s post-production work. Burton has an extensive career including many Disney cartoons, but in the context of Poltergeist, it’s interesting to note that he’s now the voice of the Haunted Mansion’s “ghost host” who welcomes Disneyland-goers to the attraction.

Standing in contrast to the illogical “Poltergeist is cursed” theory is the fact that it sparked the Hollywood career of Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina the psychic. In this 1981 Huell Howser interview, Rubinstein was a complete unknown. Poltergeist was her first major movie, and she acted for more than two decades before her death in 2010 at 76.

For her work in the final film, Rubinstein got the unique honor of being nominated both for a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress and a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress. So your call, then?

Poltergeist: The Legacy ran for four seasons. It couldn’t have less to do with the Freeling family and their troubles, however. One episode, “The Reckoning,” did feature Zelda Rubinstein though – but not as Tangina.