For a lot of Generation X kids, the 1982 movie “Poltergeist” was an introduction to horror films. The idea that a mischievous supernatural entity could communicate with a child through a snowy television and ultimately pull her inside somehow, into an invisible world, gave every kid pause. The movie also related the notion that a tree outside your window could get you, or the toy clown in your room could be controlled by a demonic spirit. It was enough to ensure the companies that made nightlights back then were going to stay afloat.
A lot of things stand out about Steven Spielberg’s classic film, “Poltergeist,” but one of the most integral to the story is that of the character Carol Anne Freeling, the little girl who was coveted by the scary spiritual entity in the family’s home. She was played by a cherubic Heather O’Rourke, who also starred in two more Poltergeist sequels.
It was Carol Anne sitting in front of the static-laden television, telling her family, “They’re heeeeerrre,” — Carol Anne’s long platinum blonde hair coming out from under a football helmet as an invisible force slid her across the kitchen floor — Carol Anne, or rather, O’Rourke’s voice calling for her mommy from the beyond — finding the strength to go into the light to get back to her family.
But in real life, O’Rourke did not get a scripted happy ending. Six years after the first Poltergeist came out, she died at only 12 years old.
Heather O'Rourke had an undiagnosed birth defect
According to Heather O’Rourke’s death certificate, she died from a tragic combination of an acute bowel obstruction, suspected septic shock, and cardio-respiratory arrest on February 1, 1988, just a few weeks after her 12th birthday. The Associated Press reported three days after she died that one doctor said the young actress’ sudden death was “distinctly unusual,” because the issue that caused the bowel obstruction was believed to have been a birth defect which would cause nausea, vomiting and severe abdominal pain, but said O’Rourke never experienced those symptoms. Yet that seems unlikely because according to Biography, O’Rourke was misdiagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1987.
Regardless, O’Rourke died at Children’s Hospital in San Diego after 36 hours with the bowel obstruction, six hours of septic shock, and 30 minutes in cardio-respiratory arrest, per the death certificate. O’Rourke’s manager told the AP, ″It’s weird. She was completely healthy Saturday, they thought she had the flu on Sunday, and she was dead on Monday.″
In May of 198, The Los Angeles Times reported that O’Rourke’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her daughter’s doctors for misdiagnosing O’Rourke, whose real cause of death was only discovered after she died. According to The Los Angeles Business Journal, O’Rourke died from Intestinal Stenosis, which she was born with, but which could have been treated with surgery if only they had known, likely saving the girl’s life. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
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