While scanning my brain for early childhood memories, the gaps appear as “Scene Missing” like in the music video for “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. Vividly, I recall being at my aunt’s triangle-shaped house in Michigan at age 5, a movie playing in the background between crackling fire and She-Ra storming a Lego castle. A specific moment in the film was ingrained in me my whole life: A young child confronts a demonic doppelgänger in a mirror.
The original Poltergeist was a rare PG-rated horror success (released that way, although it originally received an R rating), and Poltergeist III (which got the PG-13 that had come into existence by that time) sends the Freeling family’s youngest daughter, Carol Anne, to live with her aunt in Chicago and attend a school for gifted children. It was an interesting direction for the series to take. Carol Anne — of “They’re heeeeere” fame — is studied through two-way mirrors as a child capable of mass hypnosis. She is the living connection to an insane preacher stuck in the Other Side, and it has something to do with a Native American shaman. But none of that really matters.
I had no idea what it was about the film that irked me for so long. In an undergraduate creative writing class, I turned in a story where the protagonist watches a film called “Mirror, Mirror” based on my foggy memory. I later found out the film was in fact Poltergeist III and I was able to find that clip. It wasn’t particularly scary, but it was a puzzle piece dangling for decades. After approaching a long wall of mirrors, an evil Carol Anne in the reflection says, “We’re back,” and slides the real Carol Anne up the mirror.
Heather O’Rourke, who plays Carol Anne, unfortunately passed away at the age of 12 before the film was released. Poltergeist III also did poorly at the box office, mainly because audiences didn’t care for a Carol Anne side adventure. The film falls prey to many late-’80s horror clichés, especially in the sound and practical effects departments. Set in Chicago’s John Hancock Center, the persistent surrealist vibe mixed with city grime is reminiscent of Candyman and even Adventures in Babysitting. (This time, Lara Flynn Boyle is the irresponsible babysitter).
Toward the end of the film, Carol Anne’s aunt Pat exclaims, “What does it even matter anymore? Who the hell goddamn cares?” It’s a relatable sentiment of current times but also the crux of a film ultimately about children not feeling loved. In my mind, I return to the sadness of the mirror scene, a visual loss of innocence. Revisiting the film as a father now, it’s more unsettling to see a child feel abandoned even if the walls are shrouded in cheeseball veneer.
Sometimes something silly like a toothpaste commercial or Poltergeist III reminds you how fragile life is. It’s impulsive to want to break down, scream or cry, but we hug our loved ones a bit harder and continue on. When lightning strikes the Hancock building in the final moments before the credits roll, an evil laugh is tacked on like an episode of Goosebumps. It’s a call to the audience to not give up their guard. It’s laughable, sure, but maybe that’s the point.
After watching and thinking about Poltergeist III for several weeks, I reached out to Kathleen O’Rourke, Heather O’Rourke’s mother. She politely agreed to an interview.
Kathleen told me Heather’s path toward acting began on the set of the film Pennies from Heaven, in which Heather’s sister Tammy was co-starring. At the commissary, a “strange man” approached Kathleen and Heather, telling them he was doing a movie.
“The man was Steven Spielberg, and we didn’t know that name or who he was,” Kathleen says, adding that Steven said Heather was “too young” after an initial audition but was brought back a day later and cast in Poltergeist.
“Heather was just a kid and had fun with everyone, especially Steven Spielberg,” Kathleen says. “She and I had no idea what the outcome of the film would be.”
Outside of Hollywood, Heather loved Big Bear and the outdoors, shopping and hanging with Tammy, family get-togethers with grandparents and uncles. In what came to be her last Christmas, Heather got a camera and tripod. Kathleen recalls an incident where Heather did not correctly mount the camera on the tripod and got only a picture of the floor.
“We didn’t dare laugh, but it was classic,” Kathleen says. “We did have to retake the photo. Heather was a perfectionist.”
Kathleen watched Poltergeist III when it came out, four months after Heather’s death.
“It was very hard and someone in the theater said, ‘Look how fat she looks,’ ” Kathleen says. “I felt like going down and giving that person an earful. Heather had chipmunk cheeks from the medication (to treat giardiasis and Crohn’s disease).”
Now, Kathleen grieves in her own way, as any mother would, never viewing a film of Heather’s since she passed away. It would be too painful. However, she is “amazed and happy” at the community of people who remember Heather through the Poltergeist films.
“I think it means she did a good job,” she says.
Well before Haley Joel Osment, Heather was a child actor starring in more mature films with frightening elements. Kathleen can’t speak to how other children react, but she says Spielberg made a game of it with Heather in the original Poltergeist, allowing her to draw on her imagination.
“In the other films, Heather did her part as an actress and then went to being a kid,” Kathleen says. “The films are (scarier) once all the editing is complete and the music is added.”
Kathleen wants people to know that Heather had plans to attend college and make films.
“Heather was kind and, at a young age, had a good head on her shoulders,” she says. “I remember her saying, ‘I will not always be so-called famous. Someone will come along and be famous, too, and that is why I am going to college and I can also hopefully direct.’ ”
Sadly, the legacy of Poltergeist III will likely continue to be tethered to the unfortunate events surrounding its filming and release. But it’s worth watching as pure ’80s schlock with heartfelt undertones. Although some criticized the film for the exhausting number of times its characters say the name “Carol Anne” aloud, at some point its omniscience puts a smile on your face. Like Poltergeist III, life isn’t always tedious and depressing. Sometimes it’s funny.
Sometimes it’s OK to move toward the light.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Hellroller — Richard Propes
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes
Unfriended — Austin Lugar
Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Beyond — Nick Rogers
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey