Heather O'Rourke

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Heather O'Rourke
Young female child with blonde hair posed
O'Rourke c. 1986
Heather Michele O'Rourke

(1975-12-27)December 27, 1975
San Diego, California, U.S.
DiedFebruary 1, 1988(1988-02-01) (aged 12)
San Diego, California, U.S.
Resting placeWestwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
Years active1981–1988

Heather Michele O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988) was an American child actress. She had her breakthrough starring as Carol Anne Freeling in the supernatural horror film Poltergeist (1982), which received critical acclaim and established her as an influential figure in the genre.[1][2] She went on to reprise the role in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988), the last of which was released posthumously.

O'Rourke also worked in television, appearing in the recurring roles of Heather Pfister on the comedy series Happy Days (1982–1983) and Melanie in the sitcom Webster (1983), as well as starring as Sarah Brogan in the television-film Surviving: A Family in Crisis (1985).

Throughout her career, O'Rourke was nominated for six Young Artist Awards, winning once for her role in Webster. On February 1, 1988, O'Rourke died following two cardiac arrests, her cause of death later being ruled as congenital stenosis of the intestine complicated by septic shock.

Early life

Heather Michele O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975, in San Diego,[3][4] to Kathleen and Michael O'Rourke. Her mother worked as a seamstress and her father was a carpenter. She had an older sister, Tammy O'Rourke, also an actress. Her parents divorced in 1981, and O'Rourke's mother married part-time truck driver Jim Peele in 1984, while they were living in a trailer park in Anaheim, California.[5][6] Her success later allowed the family to purchase a home in Big Bear Lake, California.[6] Between acting jobs, O'Rourke attended Big Bear Elementary School, where she was president of her fifth grade class.[7] At the time of her death, the family was living in Lakeside, California, a suburb of San Diego.[8]

Acting career

In a contemporary interview with American Premiere magazine, producer Steven Spielberg explained that he was looking for a "beatific four-year-old child...every mother's dream" for the lead in his horror film Poltergeist (1982).[9] While eating in the MGM commissary,[10] Spielberg saw five-year-old O'Rourke having lunch with her mother[9] while older sister Tammy was shooting Pennies from Heaven.[6][11] After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered O'Rourke the Poltergeist role; she was signed the next day over Drew Barrymore, who instead received the role of Gertie in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.[9][12]

In Poltergeist, O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities. During production, Spielberg twice accommodated the child actress when she was frightened; when she was scared by performing a particular stunt, Spielberg replaced O'Rourke with a stunt double wearing a blonde wig, and when she was disturbed by the portrayal of child abuse, Spielberg did not require her to perform the take again.[13] For her work on the film, O'Rourke earned between $35,000 and $100,000.[14] Poltergeist would go on to receive a cult following and critical acclaim, garnering three Academy Award nominations[15] and a Young Artist Award nomination for O'Rourke. She was lauded for her performance, with The New York Times noting that she played a key role, writing that "With her wide eyes, long blonde hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence."[10] Her 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.[16] "They're here!" is ranked No. 69 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Movie Quotes,[17] and PopSugar included the line on their list of "100 Greatest Movie Quotes".[18]

After her work in Poltergeist (1982), 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![19][20] 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.[10] For Webster, O'Rourke won her first Young Artist Award. She also appeared in the television movies Massarati and the Brain and Surviving: A Family in Crisis.[21] O'Rourke went on to reprise the role of Carol Anne Freeling in the second and third installments, Poltergeist II: The Other Side in 1986 and Poltergeist III in 1988 respectively; unlike its predecessor, the films garnered mixed reviews,[22][23][24] although O'Rourke's performances were praised. Poltergeist III was her final feature, released in June 1988, four months after her death.

Illness and death

In early 1987, O'Rourke became ill with giardiasis, which she contracted from well water at her family's home in Big Bear Lake.[25] She was subsequently diagnosed as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed cortisone injections to treat the disease during the time she was filming Poltergeist III.[26] The steroidal injections resulted in facial swelling of the cheeks, which O'Rourke's mother said she was very self-conscious about.[5]

Inscription at O'Rourke's crypt

On January 31, 1988, O'Rourke began exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The following morning, she collapsed in her home, and was rushed to Community Hospital in El Cajon.[27] En route, she suffered cardiac arrest, but paramedics were able to restart her heart at 9:25 a.m.[27] She was subsequently flown to the Children's Hospital of San Diego,[27] where it was discovered she had intestinal stenosis and went into emergency surgery. She survived the surgery, but suffered another cardiac arrest while in the recovery room. Doctors performed CPR for over 30 minutes, but O'Rourke was pronounced dead at 2:43 that afternoon.[25][27] O'Rourke's cause of death was ruled congenital stenosis of the intestine[28] complicated by septic shock.[10][29][30]

Daniel Hollander, the head of gastroenterology at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center stated that O'Rourke's death was "distinctly unusual" as she lacked prior symptoms of the bowel defect: "I would have expected a lot of [digestive] difficulties throughout her life and not just to have developed a problem all of a sudden."[25] However, Dr. Hollander further stated that it was possible for congenital bowel narrowing to cause sudden death without symptoms if an infection caused the bowel to rupture.[25] A private funeral was held for O'Rourke on February 5 in Los Angeles,[25] and she was entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.[3]



Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1982 Poltergeist Carol Anne Freeling [31]
1986 Poltergeist II: The Other Side Carol Anne Freeling [31]
1988 Poltergeist III Carol Anne Freeling Posthumous release [31]


Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1981 Fantasy Island Young Liza Blake Episode: "Elizabeth's Baby / The Artist and the Lady" [32]
1982–1983 Happy Days Heather Pfister Recurring role; 12 episodes [33]
1982 Massarati and the Brain Skye Henry Television film [31]
1983 CHiPs Lindsey Episode: "Fun House" [34]
1983 Matt Houston Sunny Kimball Episode: "The Woman in White" [34]
1983 Webster Melanie Recurring role; 3 episodes [34]
1984 Finder of Lost Loves Jillian Marsh Episode: "Yesterday's Child" [34]
1985 Surviving: A Family in Crisis Sarah Brogan Television film [31]
1986–1987 The New Leave It to Beaver Heather Episodes: "Material Girl", "Bad Poetry" [34]
1986 Around the Bend The Daughter Television film [35]
1987 Our House Dana Episode: "A Point of View" [33]
1987 Rocky Road Russian Girl Episode: "Moscow on the Boardwalk" [34]


Awards and nominations

O'Rourke was nominated for a collective six Young Artist Awards, one of which was won for her performance on the series Webster in 1985.

Year Award Category Work Result
1983 Young Artist Award Best Young Actress in a Comedy Series Happy Days Nominated
1983 Best Young Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Poltergeist Nominated
1984 Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Television Series Webster Nominated
1985 Won
1986 Best Young Actress in a Television Special or Mini-Series Surviving Nominated
1987 Best Young Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture Poltergeist II: The Other Side Nominated



  1. ^ Fowler, Bella (2019-11-23). "Mysterious death of 80s childstar Heather O'Rourke and the 'Hollywood curse' surrounding it". NZ Herald. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  2. ^ "WandaVision & Poltergeist Crossover Art Theorizes Scarlet Witch is a Villain". ScreenRant. 2021-02-09. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  3. ^ a b "Heather O'Rourke death certificate" (PDF). Autopsyfiles. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  4. ^ Harvey & Harvey 1996, p. 122.
  5. ^ a b Stark, John; Hoover, Eleanor; and Keogh, Peter (June 13, 1988). "Heather O'Rourke's Grieving Mother Tells Why She's Suing Her Child's Doctors for Wrongful Death". People. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  6. ^ a b c Bonnie, Johnson (June 9, 1986). "Snatched by Poltergeist's Demons, Heather O'rourke Gets Some Bad News—they're Here Again". People. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  7. ^ "Child actress Heather O'Rourke". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 3, 1988. p. 6. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  8. ^ "Child star of 'Poltergeist,' Heather O'Rourke, dies". The Vindicator. February 3, 1988. p. 44. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  9. ^ a b c Spielberg, Friedman & Notbohm 2000, pp. 88–89.
  10. ^ a b c d "Heather O'Rourke, 12; Starred in 'Poltergeist'". The New York Times. February 3, 1988. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  11. ^ Heather O'Rourke Story on YouTube (A Current Affair)
  12. ^ Simpson 2010, p. 195.
  13. ^ Brode 2000, pp. 103–104.
  14. ^ "Money". Money. Vol. 11. New York City. 1982. p. 140. ISSN 0015-8259.
  15. ^ "The 55th Academy Awards | 1983". Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  16. ^ People: Gone Too Soon: Remembering 65 Celebrities Who Died Too Young (illustrated ed.). New York City: Time Home Entertainment. 2007. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-933821-17-7.
  17. ^ a b "AFI's 100 YEARS…100 MOVIE QUOTES". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2021-06-05.
  18. ^ a b Krol, Jacklyn (May 16, 2021). "2021 MTV Movie & TV Awards: See the Full List of Winners". PopCrush. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  19. ^ Cotter 2009, p. 10.
  20. ^ "Miss O'Rourke, Morey Amsterdam in TV special". Indiana Gazette. Indiana, Pennsylvania. Associated Press. March 19, 1983. p. 5.
  21. ^ "Heather O'Rourke". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 13, 2009.
  22. ^ Darnton, Nina (1986-05-23). "SCREEN: JOBETH WILLIAMS IN SEQUEL, POLTERGEIST II'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  23. ^ "Obituary for Heather O'Rourke (Aged 12)". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 1988-02-03. p. 48. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  24. ^ "Movie Reviews: 'Poltergeist III' Goes Through the Looking Glass". Los Angeles Times. 1988-06-11. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  25. ^ a b c d e Siegel, Fred (February 4, 1988). "Doctors: Unusual Circumstances Surrounded Actress' Death". Associated Press. Archived from the original on August 30, 2019. Retrieved January 1, 2020.
  26. ^ Nash, Jay Robert; Ross, Stanley Ralph (1989). The Motion Picture Guide Annual. Cinebooks. p. 132.
  27. ^ a b c d "Heather O'Rourke, 12, a star of 'Poltergeist'". Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. February 3, 1988. p. 48 – via Newspapers.com.
  28. ^ Baker, Bob (May 26, 1988). "Suit Blames Doctors in Death of Young Actress". Los Angeles Times. p. 35. ISSN 0458-3035. OCLC 3638237. Retrieved May 14, 2024.
  29. ^ Folkart, Burt A. (February 2, 1988). "'Poltergeist' Star Heather O'Rourke Dies at Age of 12". Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California, US. p. 3. ISSN 0458-3035. OCLC 3638237. Archived from the original on November 5, 2012. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  30. ^ "Heather O'Rourke, Star of 'Poltergeist' movies, dies at 12". San Jose Mercury News. February 2, 1988. p. 6A.
  31. ^ a b c d e "Heather O'Rourke Filmography". AllMovie. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
  32. ^ Lentz 1983, p. 1237.
  33. ^ a b "Heather O'Rourke Credits". TV Guide. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
  34. ^ a b c d e f Parish & Terrace 1989, p. 279.
  35. ^ "Heather O'Rourke". Film Industry Digest. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.


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