Cursed Films is a five-part documentary series that explores the myths and legends behind some of Hollywood’s notoriously “cursed” horror film productions. It is produced and released exclusively on Shudder, AMC’s premier genre streaming platform. Cursed Films reveals the events that haunted these productions through interviews with experts, witnesses, the cast, directors, and producers who lived through the real-life events. In its debut episode, “The Exorcist,” we got to see how the series aims to not only answer if the films were really cursed, but to dig deep into the facts around the events that led to urban legends. Now, in episode two, Jay Cheel tackles Poltergeist.
After the last episode, it’s clear that if you’re just looking for shocks and verification of fan theory curses, this isn’t the docuseries for you. That said, what Cursed Films does in this episode is solidify that the series aims to shine a light on what people bring into these urban legends and the impact that causes on the casts and crews of those films. This is no truer than when you look at the tragedy that surrounded the Poltergeist franchise. While the film franchise is believed to be cursed because of human skeletons on set, something that episode quickly debunks by explaining that human skeletons have been used across Hollywood, this episode offers the very tragic and human stories of those involved and by doing this made me regret every conversation I had about this “cursed film.”
While the human skeletons are the fun fact, the many deaths of different cast members are what macabre horror fans are drawn to when discussing the Poltergeist franchise’s history. Over the course of three films, four of the cast members passed. Will Sampson died from a chronic heart condition and Julian Beck from cancer, both older in age. Their deaths are a part of the legacy but rarely receive the amount of attention that the others do. While they’re no less a tragedy, for the cast and crew of Poltergeist, the talk about curses is seen as complete disrespect given the deaths of Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke. Dunne was a young woman from a family of actors who was killed by an abusive ex-boyfriend and O’Rourke was a child who was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s Disease which led to her death.
Having listened to true crime, I knew the background of Dunn’s death but watching those who knew her discuss it, it hit with an all-new weight. It wasn’t just because of her murder, it was because Cheel focused on those close to her, those who worked with her, who knew her, and those who were hurt by fans dismissal of her murder to just a curse. The same was true for the loss of O’rourke during the filming of Poltergeist III. When speaking with the director and others involved, it was clear how much each death had affected them and specifically how O’Rourke’s led the director, Gary Sherman, to attempt to cancel the film.
As a viewer and a horror fan, watching their pain on screen highlighted the human toll of fan urban legends. It hurt them to talk about the “curse” and to see their friends reduced to just an urban legend for fans to gossip about. In fact, I needed to stop the episode during this section, reflecting on how many times I had contributed to this narrative, and just how much I missed the forest behind the trees when discussing the tragedy of the franchise. It was tragedy, not a curse, and it deserves that respect.
Beyond discussion around the deaths of the cast, Cheel also dives into how fans imbue screen-used objects with power, fear, and more. Additionally, he includes a look at how the house used in Poltergeist has become a spot of pilgrimage for horror fans of every age. As I was watching, I brought back to my time in grad school studying the power of pop culture on people’s lives and how some have religious attitudes towards it. For this episode of Cursed Films, it’s clear that there are sacred objects for fans and that the pilgrimage that give them a sense of completion and identity in the fandom. This fits into how David Chidester presented pop culture as religion in his book Authentic Fakes which explores the religious dimensions of American popular culture in unexpected places from baseball, the Human Genome Project, rock’n’roll and more.
Overall, Cursed Films is a necessary series for horror fans, and in episode 2, “Poltergeist,” it offers up the human cost to fan exaggeration that I never expected. There isn’t a moral plea to stop with cursed myths, but there is a presentation of reality on set that pushes against our ideas as fans and leaves us to decide on what conversation to be involved in.
The final episodes in this docuseries on The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie, will air April 16, 2020, exclusively on Shudder.
Cursed Films, Episode 2 - "Poltergeist"
Cursed Films is a necessary series for horror fans, and in episode 2, “Poltergeist,” it offers up the human cost to fan exaggeration that I never expected. There isn’t a moral plea to stop with cursed myths, but there is a presentation of reality on set that pushes against our ideas as fans and leaves us to decide on what conversation to be involved in.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.