After its premiere in 1982, Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist set the tone for the classic haunted house film. It created a formula that legions of filmmakers have followed. However, hiding behind the film’s production is the lesser-known story of the late child star Heather O’Rourke.
She Landed Her Breakthrough Role In ‘Poltergeist’
Heather Michele O’Rourke was born to parents Kathleen and Michael O’Rourke on December 27, 1975, in San Diego, California. She was an adorable young girl with white-blonde hair and a remarkable talent for both charming and frightening audiences. According to her agent, Mike Meyers, Heather was the president of her fifth-grade class and she could memorize a 60-page script in an hour.
The young actress had a modest upbringing before she caught the eye of filmmaker Steven Spielberg at an audition. In her breakout role as Carol Anne in Poltergeist, Heather served as the conduit for evil spirits that haunted a family’s suburban California home. She was the centerpiece of the film; it was her fascination with an unnamed, unseen spiritual entity that first alerted audiences to the film’s eerie antagonist. As the plot thickened, it was her disappearance that launched her family into a panicked search, leading them to unravel the mystery of their otherworldly guests.
Her line, “They’re here,” a declaration delivered with eerily misplaced childlike excitement, is undeniably the most quoted phrase from the film. The movie inspired two sequels, Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III, both of which starred the young Heather. She also had success on various TV shows, including a recurring role on Happy Days.
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In early 1987, before she began filming Poltergeist III, doctors diagnosed Heather O’Rourke with giardiasis, a parasitic infection that she most likely contracted from drinking well water. They subsequently diagnosed her with Crohn’s disease, although it’s unclear if this was an accurate diagnosis or not. They treated her with cortisone injections to keep the inflammation at bay. As her mother recalled to People, the steroids made her cheeks puffy, and the young actress was “rather embarrassed about her chipmunk cheeks.”
She Died Suddenly In 1988
Over time, Heather’s doctors weened her off of the cortisone, and by late that year, she seemed perfectly healthy. That was until January 31, 1988. That morning, Heather woke up vomiting. She couldn’t eat and was feverish. Initially, her family suspected the flu, but when she collapsed at their home, her mother immediately called an ambulance.
In the less-than-10-minute drive to the hospital, Heather went into cardiac arrest. Doctors were able to resuscitate her, and they rushed her into surgery. During an exploratory abdomen operation, doctors found an obstructed bowel, which they promptly cleared. However, her body had gone through too much, and she went into cardiac arrest once more while in recovery. Doctors performed life-saving measures for over 30 minutes before pronouncing her dead at 2:43 PM on February 1, 1988. She was only twelve years old.
The hospital reported her official cause of death as septic shock induced by congenital stenosis of the intestine. However, Heather’s sudden passing has baffled medical professionals in succeeding years. Congenital stenosis is a birth defect that involves the narrowing of blood vessels or other tubular organ structures. In most cases, those suffering from congenital stenosis of the intestine will exhibit severe digestive issues from a very young age, as materials are unable to pass through the narrow section of the intestine.
Thankfully, modern medicine allows surgeons to simply remove the narrow part of the intestine and connect the normal sections with little to no complications. The bizarre thing is, Heather never experienced any intestinal blockage prior to January 31. Aside from her bout of giardiasis one year prior, Heather was not known to exhibit any digestive issues at all.
People Struggled To Make Sense Of Her Death
Medical professionals have tenuously concluded that asymptomatic congenital stenosis of the intestine, while extremely unlikely, is not impossible. Congenital narrowing of the large intestine is said to appear in roughly one of every 500,000 live births. Among those, asymptomatic cases are virtually unheard of. Yet, there remains the small possibility that Heather was simply able to avoid the digestive issues that plague those with stenosis of the intestine for most of her life.
To this day, medical professionals haven’t been able to provide a satisfying explanation for Heather’s mysterious death. However, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. In fact, Heather’s mother, Kathleen, took her daughter’s case to the courts. According to the Associated Press, she filed a wrongful death suit against the doctors who diagnosed her daughter with Crohn’s disease.
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According to Kathleen, despite rigorous testing, doctors failed to recognize the blockage in her daughter’s intestine. As she saw it, it was a missed opportunity to save Heather’s life. The lawsuit was settled out of court, although Kathleen continues to insist that no amount of money could ever make things right. Today, Heather lives on in the cultural zeitgeist as Carol Anne. She’s fondly remembered as a promising young star whose life and career were halted far too soon.