As an angelic little blonde girl in 1982, Heather O’Rourke spoke one of the most famous horror movie lines ever: “They’re here.”
The movie was the mega hit Poltergeist. Heather would go on to star as Carol Anne in the sequel, where she declared, “They’re back.” But in 1988, at the age of 12, before Poltergeist III came out, Heather died in mysterious circumstances.
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Heather had a classic Hollywood story of being discovered. She was eating lunch with her mum Kathleen, while waiting for her older sister Tammy, who was a dancer in the movie Pennies From Heaven. Steven Spielberg, who was looking for a “beatific” four-year-old to star in his upcoming horror movie Poltergeist, spotted her. He asked her into his office, and tested her acting ability.
“He wanted me to be afraid of this pink fish and this purple pig and all that,” Heather later explained.
The next day, Heather was signed on to star in Poltergeist, scoring the role over Drew Barrymore. The movie is about a couple with three children who move into a house inhabited by spirits. The youngest child, Carol Anne, can hear the spirits through the TV set. She is sucked into a portal to another dimension, but later rescued.
Oliver Robbins, who played Carol Anne’s brother Robbie, says he and Heather were like “brother and sister” on set.
“She was precocious and a very intelligent girl for someone who was only five years old,” he told Daily Mail Online in 2015.
Following the massive success of Poltergeist, Heather was offered other roles, guest-starring in classic '80s shows Webster and CHiPs and scoring an ongoing role in Happy Days as the daughter of Fonzie’s (Henry Winkler) girlfriend. Her manager, Mike Meyer, said she had the ability to memorise a 60-page script in an hour. Heather’s earnings meant that her family could move from a trailer park to a three-bedroom house in the woods in Big Bear, California.
Poltergeist II came out in 1986. It was in 1987 that Heather started getting sick. After numerous trips to the doctor, she was told she had the parasite giardia, probably picked up from the well water at her house in the woods. She was treated for that, but later diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and put on cortisone. It gave her a “chipmunk cheeks” look that she was self-conscious about.
That same year, Heather shot Poltergeist III. Director Gary Sherman tells the Shudder documentary series Cursed Films that he “absolutely adored” her.