Heather O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988 was an American child actress who played Carol Anne Freeling in the Poltergeist film trilogy.
O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975 in San Diego, California, the second daughter of Kathleen O'Rourke. Before O'Rourke's death in 1988, her mother married James "Jim" A. Peele. The family, including O'Rourke's older sister Tammy, lived in Lakeside, California at the time of her death.
In a contemporary interview with American Premiere magazine, Steven Spielberg explained that for he was looking for a "'beatific' four-year-old child...every mother's dream" for the lead in his 1982 horror film Poltergeist. While eating in the MGM commissary, the Academy Award-nominated director saw a five-year-old Heather O'Rourke having lunch with her mother while sister Tammy O'Rourke was shooting Pennies from Heaven. After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered Heather the Poltergeist role; O'Rourke was signed the very next day, beating out Drew Barrymore for the role.
In the Poltergeist trilogy, O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities. The New York Times noted that she had played the key role in the films and commented, "With her wide eyes, long blond hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence." During the production of the original Poltergeist, Spielberg twice accommodated the child actress when frightened. When scared by performing a particular stunt, Spielberg replaced O'Rourke with a stunt double wearing a blond wig; and when disturbed by the portrayal of adult abuse toward the child characters, Spielberg did not require she perform the take again. For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between US$35,000—$100,000. Though O'Rourke played the role in all three films, the Carol Anne character was the only member of the Freeling family—and therefore the original cast—to recur in the third film, Poltergeist III.
O'Rourke's delivery of the lines "They're here!" in the first film, and "They're baa-aack!" in the second (that film's tagline), placed her in the collective pop culture consciousness of the United States.
After her work in 1982's Poltergeist, O'Rourke secured several television and TV movie roles. In April 1983 she starred as herself alongside Morey Amsterdam and well-known Walt Disney animated characters in the hour-long television special, Believe You Can ... and You Can! She also appeared in CHiPs, Webster, The New Leave It to Beaver, Our House, and had a recurring role on Happy Days as Heather Pfister. In the television movies Massarati and the Brain and 1985's Surviving, she played Skye Henry and Sarah Brogan respectively.
O'Rourke became ill in early 1987 and was misdiagnosed by Kaiser Permanente Hospital as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed medicine to treat the Crohn's, which allegedly "puffed up [her] cheeks." On January 31, 1988, O'Rourke was ill again, vomiting and unable to keep anything down. The next morning she collapsed while trying to leave for the hospital and her step-father called paramedics. O'Rourke suffered a cardiac arrest en route to the hospital, and after resuscitation was airlifted by helicopter to Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego, where she died.
Speaking to reporters, O'Rourke's manager David Wardlow initially announced that it was believed O'Rourke died of influenza. However, hospital spokesman Vincent Bond announced that O'Rourke died during surgery to repair a congenital acute bowel obstruction (stenosis of the intestine) complicated by septic shock; this report was corroborated by the San Diego County coroner's office on February 3, two days after her death. Later reports changed the specific cause of death to cardiac arrest caused by septic shock brought on by the intestinal stenosis.
O'Rourke was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery on February 5, 1988. Mourners included Henry Winkler, Linda Purl, and Rick Schroder. Her tomb is scheduled stop for "Haunted Hollywood" tours.
On May 25, 1988, Sanford M. Gage, the O'Rourke family attorney, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Diego. O'Rourke had been seen by doctors at Kaiser since birth, and the suit claimed that they failed to properly diagnose her long-standing small-bowel obstruction: had they not simply treated her for Crohn's disease with prescription drugs, she could have been cured by means of a simple operation; and this misdiagnosis caused O'Rourke's death. Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman Janice Seib responded "We have reviewed the case extensively, and we believe that the diagnosis and the course of action taken by our physicians was entirely appropriate. It's a very complex case, complicated by a number of factors, and not given to any simple answers." The case went to arbitration and was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
O'Rourke's death complicated MGM's marketing for her last work, Poltergeist III, out of fear of appearing to be exploiting her death. Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen, O'Rourke's co-stars, were discouraged from giving interviews about the film to avoid questions about O'Rourke's death. O'Rourke passed away before the theatrical release of Poltergeist III, which was dedicated to the young actress.
O'Rourke's death (as well as four others) has been attributed to a supposed curse on the Poltergeist films and those associated with them; this urban legend supposedly stems from a real human skeleton used as a prop in the first film. According to backstage personnel, the ghost of O'Rourke herself haunts Paramount Pictures' stage #19, whereat she filmed episodes of Happy Days.
On September 26, 2008, DirecTV began airing a national TV advertisement developed by Deutsch; directed by Erich Joiner and cinematographed by Daniel Mindel, the advert features O'Rourke's famous "They're here!" scene from Poltergeist blended with contemporary footage of her co-star, Craig T. Nelson, intended to mimic the film. After the advertisement drew criticism from bloggers and columnists for exploiting O'Rourke, DirecTV responded in a Q&A session with readers of The New York Times. Jon Gieselman, its senior vice president for advertising and public relations, explained that O'Rourke's family "was involved in the spot from start to finish [and that] Heather’s mother not only approved, [...] she also commented that Heather’s inclusion was a wonderful tribute to her daughter."