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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
Heather Michele O'Rourke[1]

(1975-12-27)December 27, 1975
DiedFebruary 1, 1988(1988-02-01) (aged 12)
San Diego, California, U.S.
Cause of deathCardiac arrest caused by septic shock due to intestinal stenosis[1]
Resting placeWestwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
Westwood, Los Angeles, U.S.
Other namesHeather Michele O'Rourke[2]
Years active1981–1988
Parent(s)Michael O'Rourke (father)
Kathleen O'Rourke (mother)
RelativesTammy O'Rourke (older sister)
James A. "Jim" Peele (stepfather)
Charlie Walker (brother-in-law)

Heather Michele O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988)[3] was an American child actress. She made her debut after being discovered by director Steven Spielberg while visiting MGM's studios.[4] Spielberg promptly casted her in the horror film Poltergeist (1982) as Carol Anne Freeling, and was recognized for her performance. She was also notable for saying her iconic line, "They're here!" She then reprised the role in the second and third installments. O'Rourke was also recognized for her work in television, and appeared in recurring roles on Happy Days from 1982 to 1983, on Webster in 1983, as well as appearing in the television-film Surviving in 1985.

Throughout her career, O'Rourke had been nominated for six Young Artist Awards, winning one for her role in Webster, and appeared in a total of three films (all of which are from the Poltergeist franchise) and twelve television series. On February 1, 1988, O'Rourke died at the age of 12 of cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by a misdiagnosed intestinal stenosis.

Early life

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-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 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

Inscription at O'Rourke's crypt

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, she began vomiting. The next morning she collapsed; she suffered cardiac arrest en route to the hospital and died later that day after surgery to repair an acute bowel obstruction caused by congenital stenosis of the intestine[19] complicated by septic shock.[4][20] She was entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.[1]



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 Liza 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"

Awards and nominations

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


  1. ^ a b c "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". Retrieved Jun 15, 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, 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. ^ 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. ^ 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.
  20. ^ 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.

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