Heather O'Rourke

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Heather O'Rourke
picture of young female child with long blonde hair dressed in blue pajamas
O'Rourke in the 1982 film Poltergeist
Born Heather Michele O'Rourke[1]
(1975-12-27)December 27, 1975
San Diego, California, U.S.
Died February 1, 1988(1988-02-01) (aged 12)
San Diego, California, U.S.
Cause of death Cardiac arrest caused by septic shock due to intestinal stenosis[1]
Resting place Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
Westwood, Los Angeles, U.S.
Other names Heather Michele O'Rourke[2]
Education Big Bear Elementary School
Big Bear Middle School
Occupation Actress
Years active 1981–1988
Parent(s) Michael O'Rourke (father)
Kathleen O'Rourke (mother)
Relatives Tammy O'Rourke (older sister)
James A. "Jim" Peele (stepfather)
Charlie Walker (brother-in-law)

Heather O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988)[3] was an American child actress. She was discovered by director Steven Spielberg when she was visiting MGM's studios.[4] Spielberg cast her as Carol Anne Freeling in the horror film Poltergeist (1982), where she is known for saying "They're here!" She reprised the role in the second and third installments.

O'Rourke also had a recurring role on Happy Days in 1982 and 1983, and she made several television guest appearances. In February 1988 she died at the age of 12 of cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis.

Early life[edit]

Heather O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975, in San Diego, California, 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-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 5th grade class.[7] At the time of her death, the family was living in Lakeside, California, a suburb of San Diego.[8]


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,[4] Spielberg saw five-year-old Heather O'Rourke having lunch with her mother[9] while older sister Tammy was shooting Pennies from Heaven.[6][10] After his lunch, Spielberg approached the family and offered O'Rourke the Poltergeist role; she was signed the next day, beating Drew Barrymore, who was also up for the role.[9][11]

In the Poltergeist trilogy, O'Rourke played Carol Anne Freeling, a young suburban girl who becomes the conduit and target for supernatural entities. The New York Times noted that she had played the key role in the films and commented, "With her wide eyes, long blonde hair and soft voice, she was so striking that the sequel played off her presence."[4] During the production of the original Poltergeist, Spielberg twice accommodated the child actress when frightened. When scared by performing a particular stunt, Spielberg replaced O'Rourke with a stunt double wearing a blonde wig; and when disturbed by the portrayal of child abuse, Spielberg did not require her to perform the take again.[12] For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between $35,000 and $100,000.[13] O'Rourke played the role in all three films.

O'Rourke's 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.[14] "They're here!" is #69 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Movie Quotes.

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![15][16] 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.[4] She also appeared in the television movies Massarati and the Brain and Surviving: A Family in Crisis.[17]

Illness and death[edit]

O'Rourke became ill with giardiasis in early 1987 and was later diagnosed as having Crohn's disease. She was prescribed a steroid to treat the disease during the time she was filming Poltergeist III.[18] On January 31, 1988, O'Rourke suddenly became ill again, vomiting and unable to keep anything in her stomach. The next morning, she collapsed while preparing to leave for the hospital and her stepfather called paramedics. O'Rourke suffered cardiac arrest en route to the hospital, and after resuscitation, she was airlifted by helicopter to Rady Children's Hospital (formerly Children's Hospital and Health Center) in San Diego,[10] where she died later that day.

Speaking to reporters, O'Rourke's manager David Wardlow initially announced that it was believed she died of influenza.[19][20] However, hospital spokesman Vincent Bond announced that O'Rourke died during surgery to repair an acute bowel obstruction (caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine)[21] complicated by septic shock;[4][22] this report was corroborated by the San Diego County coroner's office on February 3, two days after her death.[23] Later her official death certificate report stated that her cause of death was due to a cardiac arrest caused by a septic shock brought on by the intestinal stenosis and that an autopsy was not performed.[1]

Heather O'Rourke's crypt at Westwood Memorial Park in Westwood Village
Inscription at Heather O'Rourke's crypt

O'Rourke was entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery on February 5, 1988.[1]


On May 25, 1988, Sanford M. Gage, the O'Rourke family attorney, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Diego. O'Rourke had been seen by doctors at Kaiser since birth, and the suit claimed that they failed to properly diagnose her true condition; a narrowed small intestine, which was a congenital birth defect, and had they not simply treated her for Crohn's disease with prescription drugs, she could have had a period of remission by means of a major bowel surgery;[24][25] and this misdiagnosis caused O'Rourke's death.[26] Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman Janice Seib responded: "We have reviewed the case extensively, and we believe that the diagnosis and the course of action taken by our physicians was entirely appropriate. It's a very complex case, complicated by a number of factors, and not given to any simple answers."[10] The case went to arbitration and was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.[27]


O'Rourke's death complicated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's marketing for her last work, Poltergeist III, out of fear of appearing to be exploiting her death.[28] Tom Skerritt and Nancy Allen, O'Rourke's co-stars, were discouraged from giving interviews about the film to avoid questions about her death.[29] O'Rourke died four months before the theatrical release of Poltergeist III, which was dedicated to her memory.[30]

On September 26, 2008, DirecTV began airing a national TV advertisement developed by Deutsch Inc.; directed by Erich Joiner and cinematographed by Daniel Mindel,[31] the advert features O'Rourke's famous "They're here!" scene from Poltergeist blended with contemporary footage of her co-star, Craig T. Nelson, intended to mimic the film. After the advertisement drew criticism from bloggers and columnists for exploiting O'Rourke,[32] DirecTV responded in a Q&A session with readers of The New York Times. Jon Gieselman, DirecTV's senior vice president for advertising and public relations, explained that O'Rourke's family "was involved in the spot from start to finish [and that] Heather's mother not only approved, [...] she also commented that Heather's inclusion was a wonderful tribute to her daughter."[33]



Year Title Role Notes
1982 Poltergeist Carol Anne Freeling
1986 Poltergeist II: The Other Side Carol Anne Freeling
1988 Poltergeist III Carol Anne Freeling Released in some areas with the subtitle The Final Chapter. Released posthumously. Dedicated to her memory.


Year Title Role Notes
1981 Fantasy Island Liz Blake (Age 5) Episode: "Elizabeth's Baby / The Artist and the Lady"
1982–83 Happy Days Heather Pfister Recurring role, 12 episodes
1982 Massarati and the Brain Skye Henry Television film
1983 CHiPs Lindsey Episode: "Fun House"
1983 Matt Houston Sunny Kimball Episode: "The Woman in White"
1983 Webster Melanie 3 episodes
1984 Finder of Lost Loves Jillian Marsh Episode: "Yesterday's Child"
1985 Surviving: A Family in Crisis Sarah Brogan Television film
1986 Around the Bend The Daughter Television film
1986–87 The New Leave It to Beaver Heather Episodes: "Material Girl", "Bad Poetry"
1987 Our House Dana Episode: "A Point of View"
1987 Rocky Road Russian Girl Episode: "Moscow on the Boardwalk"


  1. ^ a b c d "Heather O'Rourke death certificate" (PDF). Autopsyfiles. Retrieved March 28, 2018. 
  2. ^ Heather O'Rourke at the TCM Movie Database
  3. ^ "Heather O'Rourke, Star of 'Poltergeist' movies, dies at 12". San Jose Mercury News. February 2, 1988. p. 6A. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Heather O'Rourke, 12; Starred in 'Poltergeist'". The New York Times. February 3, 1988. Retrieved January 21, 2013. 
  5. ^ Stark, John; Hoover, Eleanor; Keogh, Peter (June 13, 1988). "Heather O'Rourke's Grieving Mother Tells Why She's Suing Her Child's Doctors for Wrongful Death". people.com. Retrieved January 21, 2013. 
  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, Steven; Friedman, Lester D.; Notbohm, Brent (2000). Friedman, Lester D.; Notbohm, Brent, eds. Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 88–89. ISBN 1-578-06113-X. 
  10. ^ a b c Heather O'Rourke Story (A Current Affair) on YouTube
  11. ^ Simpson, Paul (2010). The Rough Guide to Cult Movies (3 ed.). Penguin. p. 195. ISBN 1-405-38322-4. 
  12. ^ Brode, Douglas (2000). Films of Steven Spielberg (2 ed.). Citadel Press. pp. 103–104. ISBN 0-806-51951-7. 
  13. ^ "Money". Money. Vol. 11. New York City. 1982. p. 140. ISSN 0015-8259. 
  14. ^ People Magazine (2007). People: Gone Too Soon: Remembering 65 Celebrities Who Died Too Young (illustrated ed.). New York City: Time Home Entertainment. p. 89. ISBN 978-1-933821-17-7. 
  15. ^ Cotter, Bill (May 31, 2009) [1997]. The Wonderful World of Disney Television: A Complete History (illustrated ed.). New York City: Disney Hyperion. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-7868-6359-4. 
  16. ^ "Miss O'Rourke, Morey Amsterdam in TV special". Indiana Gazette. Indiana, Pennsylvania. Associated Press. March 19, 1983. p. 5. 
  17. ^ "Heather O'Rourke". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2011-03-03. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  18. ^ Nash, Jay Robert; Ross, Stanley Ralph (1989). The Motion Picture Guide Annual. Cinebooks. p. 132. 
  19. ^ "'Poltergeist' Star Heather O'Rourke Becomes Ill, Dies". The Post-Standard. Syracuse, New York, US. February 3, 1988. 
  20. ^ "Poltergeist` Actress, 12, Dies Heather O`Rourke Thought To Have Flu". The Charlotte Observer. Charlotte, North Carolina. February 3, 1988. p. 3A. 
  21. ^ Baker, Bob (May 26, 1988). "Suit Blames Doctors in Death of Young Actress". Los Angeles Times. p. 35. ISSN 0458-3035. OCLC 3638237. Retrieved August 7, 2008. 
  22. ^ 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 May 18, 2011. Retrieved May 17, 2011. 
  23. ^ Naunton, Ena (February 4, 1988). "Child Actress's Death A '1-In-Million' Event". Akron Beacon Journal. Akron, Ohio, US. p. A14. 
  24. ^ Baker, Bob (May 26, 1988). "Suit Filed in `Poltergeist' Actress' Death". Los Angeles Times. p. 2. ISSN 0458-3035. OCLC 3638237. 
  25. ^ Conconi, Chuck (May 27, 1988). "PERSONALITIES". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. 
  26. ^ Speers, W. (May 26, 1988). "Hospital Sued Over Child Star's Death". The Philadelphia Inquirer. p. D02. ISSN 0885-6613. 
  27. ^ Carroll, Richard (March 7, 2005). "Battling over culpability, calculating the price of a life". Los Angeles Business Journal (re-published). ISSN 0194-2603. 
  28. ^ "Studio Unsure How To Market Latest 'Poltergeist' Movie". Lexington Herald-Leader. Lexington, Kentucky. March 27, 1988. p. J5. ISSN 0745-4260. 
  29. ^ Cieply, Michael (March 21, 1988). "MGM Ponders Selling of `Poltergeist III'". Los Angeles Times. p. 6. ISSN 0458-3035. OCLC 3638237. 
  30. ^ Van Heerden, Bill (1998). Film and Television In-Jokes: Nearly 2,000 Intentional References, Parodies, Allusions, Personal Touches, Cameos, Spoofs, and Homages (illustrated ed.). University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-7864-0456-8. 
  31. ^ Stasukevich, Iain (October 2008). "Short Takes: Paying Homage to Hit Films". American Cinematographer. Hollywood. 89 (10): 10–14. ISSN 0002-7928. 
  32. ^ Glover, Anne (October 16, 2008). "Critics cry foul over DirecTV ad featuring dead girl". Cincinnati. Scripps Howard News Service. Archived from the original on August 5, 2011. Retrieved August 5, 2011. 
  33. ^ "Q & A with Stuart Elliott". The New York Times. October 27, 2008. ISSN 0362-4331. OCLC 1645522. Archived from the original on August 5, 2011. Retrieved August 5, 2011. 

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