Source: GettyImages

Heather O'Rourke's Short Life and Tragic Death of the 'Poltergeist' Child Star

Aby Rivas
Mar 04, 2020
08:00 A.M.
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Heather O’Rourke was a young child star discovered by director Steven Spielberg and better known for starring in the ’80s horror film “Poltergeist” and its subsequent sequels. Sadly, Heather’s life was cut short at 12, when she passed away due to complications from intestinal stenosis. 


Remembered for her big blue eyes and blond hair, Heather O’Rourke was one of those child stars with a lot of potential that was gone too soon.

The adorable little girl, who jumped to fame as a 5-year-old, left her mark in Hollywood thanks to her spooky but credible performance in “Poltergeist.” To this day, fans of the classic film are still mourning her loss.

Heather O'Rourke on "Happy Days," August 1, 1982 | Photo: GettyImages



Heather was born on December 27, 1975, to Kathleen and Michael O’Rourke. She had an older sister, Tammy O’Rourke, who was also an actress.

However, the girl’s health kept worsening. Soon, her feet were swollen, and after more tests, doctors said she had a bacteria and prescribed some medicines to kill it.

When Heather’s parents divorced in 1981, she went on to live with her mother and sister in a trailer park in Anaheim.

"Happy Days" - "Gallery" 1982 Heather O'Rourke | Photo: GettyImages


In 1980, Heather was eating with her mother at the MGM commissary while they waited for Tammy, who was dancing in “Pennies From Heaven,” when director Steven Spielberg approached them and asked to talk with Heather.

The director had been looking for an angelic-looking child to star on his upcoming film, and Heather fitted that description perfectly. So, he asked if she had ever acted, and she said no, but then he offered her a reading test and signed her almost immediately into “Poltergeist.”

Steven Spielberg attends the Premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Ready Player One" at Dolby Theatre on March 26, 2018 | Photo: GettyImages



In the 1982 film, Heather gave life to Carol Anne Freeling, the youngest child of a family that was being haunted by supernatural forces and that wanted to kidnap her.

Her delivery of the line “They’re here” put her in the map as one of the most memorable lines ever said in a film.

Despite her age, Heather was a perfectionist and a professional actress. According to what her mother told People magazine in 1986, Heather was annoyed by the wind machine while filming, and she also panicked whenever the room shook, and even wet the bed once.


“But she wouldn’t tell anyone she had to go to the bathroom,” Kathleen said of her daughter. “She’d just stand there doing a take, doing it until someone said, ‘It’s a cut.”

After the film’s success, Heather went on to appear in several commercials, and some TV series, including “CHiPs,” “The New Leave It to Beaver,” and “Our House.” Heather also had recurring roles in “Webster” and “Happy Days.”


In 1984, after her mother married truck driver Jim Peele, the family moved to a four-bedroom house in Big Bear Lake, California, which was purchased with the money from Heather’s films and series.

"Webster" - "Second Time Around" - Airdate November 4, 1983. Emmanuel Lewis, Heather O'Rourke | Photo: GettyImages



Heather went on to reprise her role as Carol Anne in two more “Poltergeist” films. However, seven months after she finished filming her scenes for the third installment of the franchise, things went down south with her health.

Heather’s mother first noticed something was wrong with the girls in January 1987. At the time, Heather started to feel nauseous, so her mother and stepfather took her to a nearby hospital where she was diagnosed with flu-like symptoms.

However, the girl’s health kept worsening. Soon, her feet were swollen, and after more tests, doctors said she had a bacteria and prescribed some medicines to kill it.


Heather O'Rourke "The Woman In White" - Airdate September 16, 1983 | Photo: GettyImages

“Essentially, Heather was fine,” her mother Kathleen remembered. “You know how kids are. They bounce right back.”


However, the overprotective mother wanted to make sure everything was fine, so during a follow-up visit to the doctors, she asked for an X-ray.

“They found that the parasite cleared up, but there still was some kind of inflammation,” she recalled. “They called what they saw Crohn’s, and they put her [Heather] on cortisone and sulfa.”

Heather O'Rourke in "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" | Source: YouTube/MovieClips



Heather went on to film “Poltergeist III” from April to June of the same year, and she never presented any other symptoms of discomfort.

From July to August, Heather took some vacations with her mother and stepfather to celebrate the wrapping of the last film. They drove up and down from Chicago to Disney world and back.

“It was the vacation of a lifetime,” said Kathleen. “Heather’s health seemed excellent.”

Heather O'Rourke in "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" | Source: YouTube/MovieClips


On January 31, 1988, Heather woke up feeling ill and vomiting, but Kathleen thought she could deal with that and made sure her daughter drank lots of liquids.

The following day, Heather woke up determined to go to school, but after watching her aspect Kathleen knew something wasn’t right, as she recalled:

“I noticed her fingers and toes were blue, and she started to breathe real, heavy, kind of fast. And her stomach was distended. I called our local doctor, and his office said, ‘Bring her right in.’ About 20 seconds later, she fell on the floor. That’s when I called the paramedics.”

Heather O'Roure in "Poltergeist III" (1988) | Source: YouTube/ ScreamFactoryTV



Heather was suffering from septic shock as a result of an acute bowel obstruction. She was still conscious when the paramedics arrived and managed to say “I love you” to her mother before being suffering a cardiac arrest en route to the hospital.

Although paramedics gave CPR and brought Heather back, she was flown to the Children’s Hospital and Health Center in San Diego, where doctor performer surgery and lost her on the operation table.

Kathleen was devastated, as she said:

“I was in shock. I felt like someone was taking a knife and turning it and turning it.”


Heather O'Rourke photographed in Los Angeles, CA at the Photo Studio Session in Los Angeles, California, 1986 | Photo: GettyImages

A private funeral was held for Heather on February 5, 1988, in Los Angeles, and during the final burial rites, Kathleen placed a necklace on Heather, which spelled “Friends,” and she kept the matching one with spells “Best.”


“Heather gave me these for Christmas,” the mourning mother said. “She used to tell her friends that I was her best friend and not just her mom.”

Inscription at O'Rourke's crypt | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images



In 1988, Kathleen O’Rourke filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Kaiser Foundation Hospital and Southern California Permanente Medical Group, claiming that Heather had been misdiagnosed when she was told about the Chron’s disease.

According to Kathleen’s lawyers, a medical report from the day of Heather’s passing states that there was no sign of Chron’s disease but an acute bowel obstruction due to congenital stenosis.

Kathleen argued that the x rays that had been taken if adequately read would have shown to doctors that Heather needed surgery and not some medications.