One of the more infamous yet unremarkable film anniversaries took place this past weekend in the form of Poltergeist III. Released in June of 1988, roughly four months after the death of its’ star Heather O’Rourke, the film itself contributes little to the pantheon of cinema history. However, its mere existence and the fervor surrounding her death caused quite the stir in this guy’s life. Combined with the feelings I had for this weekend’s new release Hereditary, I felt compelled to share another tale of how I’ve been shaped, in part, by movies throughout my life.
The original Poltergeist, one of my ten favorite films, introduced Carol Anne and the phrase “They’re here” to the world. I’ve experienced that movie as a child, a teen, a young adult, a parent, and now as a forty-something. Few films have the ability to get better over time, but that’s one that somehow improved without changing a thing. Most notably, though, director Tobe Hooper and writer/producer Steven Spielberg did such an amazing job of showcasing the Reagan-era parents of the time as fallible and routinely clueless, yet still somehow devoted. The film acts as a relic of recent history, and warned the Baby Boomers that if they didn’t pay attention, a literal (or figurative) hole would open up in the earth and swallow their possessions, their house, and their kids. Spielberg and Hooper knew what they were saying. My parents were much like Steve and Diane Freeling, and I was much like Robbie or Carol Anne- so when I saw the film at the ripe age of four (!!), I sensed the understanding that yes, my parents would also save me from the child-eating tree. I had nothing to fear except, well, my closet opening up and sucking me in.
The sequel (Poltergeist II: The Other Side) is fine, and gave 7-year-old me a handful of scares, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to the original, and had little impact on my life (save for a hesitance to drink tequila worms). This second sequel, though, lacks the cohesive story of the first, the campy gore of the second, and well, is missing most of the Freeling family. For reasons I can only assume have to do with a dearth of ideas and/or contractual obligations demands, this film has no Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, or Oliver Robins. Veteran actors Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen play Carol Anne’s uncle and aunt, and their apartment is up in a Chicago high-rise. For whatever reason, Steve and Diane feel it is now safe to let their daughter out of their site. Obviously, that follows as a poor decision. Kane, other-worldly villain behind the whole trilogy, has no problem following Carol Anne, and you can imagine what ensues.
Again, Poltergeist III as a film is completely forgettable. What sticks with me is how I felt following the death of Heather O’Rourke. In 2018, it would only be a matter of minutes before a good portion of the population knew of a celebrity’s death, but in June of 1988, shortly after the new film’s release, I knew nothing of O’Rourke’s passing. I visited my grandmother one day, and upon her kitchen table I very clearly remember a People magazine cover with the headline “Heather O’Rourke’s Mom: My child didn’t have to die”, and a small photo of the 12-year old actress. My heart sank to the floor. 9-year-old me, who had experienced the light pain of losing an unborn sister the year before (per my parents’ explanation), finally realized that even kids can die.
Oh sure, I should never have been so naive, and if I had just done some reading, I’d have been keen to mortality much earlier. Child Me just felt there was something so wrong about “God letting Carol Anne die”, and even the need for the studio to proceed with the film’s release even though it was clear that cast and crew had been shaken. I remember saying a little ‘prayer’ of sorts that night for Miss O’Rourke, probably along the lines of “I hope you stay safe up there” and “please look out for me”. She was just an angel to me- that sister I never got to protect, and she was gone.
It was at that point in time when I started to wonder if what adults told me was actually true. After all, as her mother Kathleen O’Rourke pointed out in that 1988 People article, if physicians can misdiagnose someone to the point where they died, how could I trust them? The kid that was already mortified of needles? I was surely a goner if I ever went back to the doctor. Furthermore, if Carol Anne, the child whose parents risked their own lives to save, could actually die, how strong could that bond have been? Would my parents give up on me if I was taken? Were there real-life people like the Kane of this series? For a good time thereafter, I no longer felt infallible. I no longer felt that I could be anything I wanted to be.
As you can see, 9-year-old me was never quite clear where the line was to be drawn between story and reality. One always informed the other. On the other hand, her passing eventually provided a valuable, long-lasting lesson to me- to always hold close that which you find dear. A standard, if not difficult illness like Crohn’s Disease (O’Rourke’s original diagnosis) could take a turn, and you could find a loved one, or yourself, in real danger. This has all evened out, of course. Maturity, time, and experience have helped draw the line between the anxiety of death and the acceptance of mortality. It was the Poltergeist franchise, of all things, that provided the stark and visual definitions of safety and danger for me. Most films simply mark time, never leaving an imprint. As the third film in this franchise turns 30, as unmemorable as it may be, it does help serve as a precious reminder to value this life, and to never, ever give up on those that you love.