Film lore is filled with strange, tragic stories: unsolved murders, on-set catastrophes, gruesome accidents and bizarre twists of fate. Sometimes a string of calamities line up like an arrow of grim fate pointing at one particular film production. Over the years, the film develops a reputation: part urban legend, part cautionary tale. The movie is cursed!
Of course, we know that curses aren't real, but we humans innately find patterns in random events and focus on evidence that supports an exciting or lurid narrative. Bad things happen on almost every film set, and chance dictates that sometimes a bunch of bad things all happen on the same set. When that happens, we point to events that are otherwise unrelated and fold them into the story of "the curse." And there's no denying that they make for great stories.
It's tricky to define what exactly counts as a cursed movie. Some movies have such a reputation for tragedy that they're frequently linked to a curse story ("Poltergeist" anyone?). Yet other productions are beset by chaos and difficulty but never acquire the curse title. Still others are marked by a single tragedy (read: "The Crow"), but they don't have the long series of misfortunes that make up a proper curse. Finally, some films are said to be haunted. While a haunting isn't necessarily a curse, a few cursed movies also seem to contain elements of a haunting. We'll cover all of these different instances.
Now make some popcorn and get ready for 10 of the most cursed movies in film history.
This reigns as probably the most well-known movie curse, and it's practically a textbook definition of one. The basic story goes like this: A lot of actors who worked on the film eventually died unexpectedly. Once you take a close look at the events surrounding the movie, it also becomes a textbook example of why the idea of curses is silly.
The three original "Poltergeist" movies were released in 1982, 1986 and 1988, respectively. The two deaths that seem to give the curse the most traction are those of stars Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke. Both died unexpectedly under surprising circumstances and at very young ages. Dunne, 22, was strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend in late 1982, a few months after "Poltergeist" was released. O'Rourke died in 1988, after filming for "Poltergeist 2" had been mostly completed. She had been diagnosed with the flu, but she actually had an intestinal blockage that led to a heart attack and ultimately sepsis. She was 12.
The deaths of Will Sampson and Julian Beck are frequently tied to the curse as well, but both died of long-standing medical problems. Sampson was 53 and died of complications following a heart/lung transplant in 1987; Beck, 60, died of stomach cancer in 1985.
All of these deaths are surely tragic and no doubt terrible for friends and family; however, four deaths related to a trilogy of movies doesn't even seem like a statistical anomaly. It's really the high-profile nature of Dunne's and O'Rourke's deaths that created this curse. Although actress JoBeth Williams claiming that real skeletons were used in the pool scene probably helped, too. In fact, plenty of people who worked on these movies are alive and well and enjoyed varying degrees of success afterward. Steven Spielberg seems to have done OK, and you'd think if there were a curse it would hit the producer/director hardest.
'The Wizard of Oz'
The 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum's classic fantasy tale is one of the original Hollywood legends. The seemingly cheerful, Technicolor land of Oz hid a dark and troubled production marked by tragedy and misery. Or so the story goes.
It's true that several harrowing incidents did befall cast members. Buddy Ebsen (the Tin Man) suffered terribly when the aluminum powder used to make his skin silver irritated his lungs and left him in the hospital, unable to continue in the role. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) was burned when the pyrotechnics that marked her teleportation spell misfired. She returned to the set only after recovering in a hospital.
Other incidents included flying monkey flight failure, wayward Munchkins and a conga line of directors being replaced for various reasons. There's even an urban legend that a Munchkin hanging himself was caught on film and accidentally left in the movie (not true). According to MGM's creative accounting, "The Wizard of Oz" lost money until its 1949 rerelease allowed it to turn a profit [source: Corliss].
Much of the curse focuses on tragedies in the lives of certain cast members, like Clara Blandick (Auntie Em) committing suicide many years later, or Frank Morgan (the Wizard) being injured in a car accident a few months after the film's release. This is a theme we'll return to in this list -- everyone dies eventually. Of the hundreds of people who work on a given film, some are bound to have notable deaths, and 100 percent of them will die. It doesn't mean there's a curse.
If there truly is a darkness at the heart of "The Wizard of Oz," it surrounds Dorothy herself. Judy Garland was beloved as an actress and a singer, but she was treated terribly by the Hollywood studio system. She was forced to take bizarre measures to keep from gaining weight (including smoking dozens of cigarettes every day), was given drugs to help her maintain the studio's brutal production pace and was essentially treated as a human commodity [source: Norman]. She killed herself when she was 47.
"Superman" seems less a cursed film than a cursed character. Several actors who portrayed the Man of Steel over the decades have suffered tragic accidents and unexpected deaths. In fact, the majority of the people who have played Superman or been involved in productions of "Superman" are now dead! Of course, the superhero first appeared on film in the 1940s, so that's not surprising. Plenty of Superman actors went on to have fine careers and died many years after they last donned the big, red cape. A few were even alive and well as of this writing. Furthermore, some of the events connected to the curse are ridiculous, like people getting fired from studios, suffering minor accidents or breaking up with their significant other.
So why is this such a famous Hollywood curse? Because of two high-profile tragedies that befell Superman actors. The first was George Reeves, who played the superhero in one film and in a popular 1950s TV series called "Adventures of Superman." Reeves became so closely identified with the character that he had a difficult time getting unrelated work. Reeves didn't consider the role interesting or challenging, and it didn't pay well [source: Patterson]. This seems to have created some inner turmoil and depression. On June 6, 1959, Reeves went upstairs at his own home, angry at the noise from a party his fiancee and some friends were having. Officially, he shot himself in the head, although the case is a famous Hollywood scandal, complete with alleged cover-ups and other unsubstantiated theories.
And then we have Christopher Reeve, who portrayed the last son of Krypton in a series of blockbuster films in the 1970s and '80s. He was severely injured when he was thrown from a horse in 1995, eight years after he last played Superman. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, but he continued to direct and act, and worked to promote research that could cure spinal injuries until his death in 2004.
Reeve's story is incredibly tragic, even more so when you consider that his wife Dana, who steadfastly supported Reeve after the injury, died of cancer less than two years after he died. In that story, we hear the strange echoes of George Reeves' own tragedy: their oddly similar names, their heroic image and their tragic end.
"The Conqueror" might be the only movie on this list that was truly, genuinely cursed -- by atomic bombs. Its plot centered on Genghis Khan and a woman named Bortai, whom he kidnaps and forces to marry him. The movie came with an astonishingly terrible script and starred John Wayne, who played Khan and isn't remotely Mongolian.
But none of that is really why "The Conqueror" was cursed. Filmed in Utah, the location was less than 150 miles (241 kilometers) from the Nevada Test Site, where the U.S. government had set off 11 above-ground nuclear bombs the year before. Fallout from those blasts could have lingered, and the canyons where they filmed would have funneled wind-driven fallout, trapping much of it in the heavy dust and dirt. During shooting, actors and crew were constantly caked in dust blown by the wind. Later on, producer Howard Hughes shipped 60 tons (54 metric tons) of the radioactive dirt back to RKO studios for reshoots [source: Jackovich and Sennet].
In the years after the film's release, at least 91 members of the cast and crew (out of 220 total) were diagnosed with cancer. Pedro Armendariz beat kidney cancer and then killed himself when a new form of cancer was found. Wayne died after battling a variety of cancers (lung and stomach, primarily). Agnes Moorehead died of uterine cancer. Jeanne Gerson had skin cancer, then breast cancer. Susan Hayward died of brain cancer. Director Dick Powell died of lung cancer. Even some actors' children who visited the set dealt with cancer later in life.
Statistically, it seems that the film's crew suffered above average cancer rates. People magazine reported on "The Conqueror" cancer connection in 1980, when they quoted Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah: "With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic ... in a group this size you'd expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of "The Conqueror" would hold up even in a court of law."
If we assume that more cancer cases occurred after People's 1980 exposé, it would seem that "The Conqueror" was truly a deadly movie to people who spent only a few months working on it. Imagine the effects on the people who lived there.
This horror film about the Antichrist appearing as a little boy and inflicting all kinds of satanic mayhem on the people around him was released in 1976. A series of catastrophes surrounded the film's production, leading to the legend of "The Omen" curse.
Any claim that a horror film is cursed should probably be looked at with a skeptical eye. Today it seems to be a standard part of the marketing plan for any horror movie, and tales of this movie's curse do seem to be embellished with unlikely, unprovable details. Still, a lot of terrible things did happen during, not following, production of "The Omen." The movie's macabre subject matter makes it easy for our imaginations to connect the unfortunate events to an evil force working to prevent the film from ever being made.
Where did the curse begin? Actor Gregory Peck's son committed suicide before filming even began. Peck's plane was struck by lightning en route to London, as was a producer's plane. The London hotel where that same producer and others were staying was bombed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army). A planned excursion by some cast and crew to a restaurant was cancelled when the restaurant also was bombed. A plan to hire a private jet for some aerial footage was postponed so a group of businesspeople could use the jet, which crashed on takeoff (in this case, the curse apparently saved some members of the crew). A worker at an animal sanctuary where they filmed was killed by a tiger.
The capstone to the curse was the car crash involving John Richardson, who had designed the special effects for "The Omen," many of them very gruesome. He was in Holland a few months later working on "A Bridge Too Far" when his car was in a head-on crash. He was injured, and assistant Liz Moore was killed by decapitation. Richardson claimed that he awoke to see a road sign in his view showing the distance to the next town down the road. It happened to be the Dutch town of Ommen. The distance was 66.6 kilometers (41.3 miles).
Francis Ford Coppola's self-financed epic retelling of the book "Heart of Darkness"suffered from one of the more minor forms of film curse. While it was deeply troubled, no one died while it was being made, and its eventual success boosted the careers of many involved. In fact, it's rarely referred to as a curse, which makes you wonder what it takes to get an "official" Hollywood curse. Probably more tragedy.
Set in Vietnam, the film was shot in the Philippines. Typhoon Olga destroyed several large sets, causing expensive shooting delays. The crew's payroll was stolen. Helicopters needed for one scene were diverted to attack Philippine rebels. Then, once filming got back underway, one of the movie's biggest stars, Marlon Brando, arrived extremely overweight and incapable of memorizing his lines. Coppola rewrote the ending extensively to accommodate the limitations imposed by Brando's heft and lack of agility. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen was struggling with alcoholism and had a heart attack during production. One scene in which his character has a nervous breakdown in a hotel room depicted a drunk Sheen accidentally smashing a mirror and cutting his hand open. The visceral footage was used in the film's final cut. The documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" by Eleanor Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola's wife) documents much of the chaos surrounding the production of "Apocalypse Now."
Coppola himself was deeply troubled throughout the production, as the stress of his own bankruptcy if the film failed, the difficult locations and his own personal issues drove him to threaten suicide and consider abandoning the project. In the end, "Apocalypse Now" dominated the Oscars, winning awards for best cinematography and best sound and receiving nominations in six other categories, and is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. Which isn't much of a curse.
This is one you won't find on many lists of cursed movies, although Hollywood superstar Natalie Wood died during the filming of the 1983 sci-fi flick "Brainstorm." In fact, many people lump in her death, along with that of James Dean and Sal Mineo, as part of the "Rebel Without a Cause" curse. So why is Wood's final film a better curse candidate? For one thing, the timing between the film and her death is much closer.
Wood drowned after being on a yacht with husband Robert Wagner. Aside from the boat's captain, there was one other person aboard: her "Brainstorm" co-star, Christopher Walken. No one claimed to have seen Wood fall into the water, so it was surmised that she was drunk and fell in. The captain claimed many years later that Wagner had killed her, but no one was ever charged. For decades, her death was classified as an accident, but authorities changed it to "undetermined" in 2012. It's one of Hollywood's biggest scandals.
That's still not enough for a curse though. So how about this: Wood's death forced the use of a body double to complete filming, then the movie's release was delayed until 1983 by a variety of tortuous film industry financial dealings. When it was finally released, it was buried with virtually no marketing, and it predictably lost money. The entire ordeal was so awful that it ended Douglas Trumbull's career as a film director. He never directed another film, although he did develop innovative special effect technology for movies and theme park rides.
This 1973 film, based on a novel by Peter Blatty, shocked audiences with its depiction of a young girl possessed by a demon and the efforts of a Catholic priest to save her. The dark subject matter led to reports of a film curse. Controversy surrounded the film upon its release, since many believed it exerted a demonic influence on audiences.
It's safe to say the curse surrounding "The Exorcist" is the work of a film studio marketing department. Virtually every report of the dire curse can be traced to a single source: an "E! True Hollywood Story" episode titled "Curse of the Exorcist." Padded to last two hours, the episode creates incidents out of whole cloth (a crucifix on a nearby church being struck by lightning during the film's premiere in Rome), greatly exaggerates minor incidents (Ellen Burstyn's minor back injury during filming became a "spinal injury"), makes unsupported claims (supposedly nine people died during filming) and gives charlatans center stage (Billy Graham claiming the actual physical film the movie was printed on was infused with demonic power).
A lot of film curses are really startling coincidences that appear to form a pattern, but there's no coincidence with the"Exorcist"curse. The "E! True Hollywood Story" episode about the curse was broadcast on Aug. 15, 2004. An "Exorcist" prequel, "Exorcist: The Beginning," hit theaters on Aug. 20, 2004.
'A Confederacy of Dunces'
Is it possible for a movie to be cursed without it ever having been made into a movie? John Kennedy Toole wrote this satirical novel before his suicide in 1969. Only the work of his mother got it published at all, but it won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Efforts to turn it into a movie began almost immediately but were derailed by the death of the lead actor at every turn. First it was to be directed by Harold Ramis and to star John Belushi. Belushi died. John Candy signed on to play the lead. He died. Chris Farley was the next actor attached to the film. He died.
A version starring Will Ferrell seemed to be moving toward filming, but whatever strange forces are lined up against this movie felt that killing off Ferrell would be too predictable. Instead, the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission was murdered ("Confederacy" is set in New Orleans), and Hurricane Katrina destroyed parts of the city that would be needed as locations. The film remains unmade.
This curse is a weird one because it's basically the same as "Confederacy of Dunces." It's the rare case where a single curse is powerful to cover two unmade comedy films. Almost everything is the same: John Belushi was set to star in this satire about an Inuit hunter in New York City, but he died. John Candy and Chris Farley were also going to play Atuk at various times, but they died before production began.
The difference with "Atuk" is that the movie was about to be filmed with comedian Sam Kinison. Kinison himself demanded creative control of the project and wanted to rewrite major parts of the script, then allegedly threatened to intentionally do a bad job acting if he didn't get his way [source: Raouf]. There were lawsuits, but it all came to nothing when Kinison died in a car crash.
The message here? Don't mess with "Atuk."
Keep reading for more links to crazy Hollywood stories.
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Author's Note: 10 Movies That Were Supposedly Cursed
This is such a fun topic undermined by the fact that curses don't actually exist. But it was a great excuse to tell a bunch of stories about weird things that happened on film sets. As every movie lover knows, things that happen to actors are a zillion times more important than things that happen to normal humans.
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- Raouf, Neda. "The 'Atuk' Curse." Los Angeles Times. Feb. 21, 1999. (Jan. 9, 2015) http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/21/magazine/tm-10276
- Rennell, Tony. "The maddest movie ever: Why Apocalypse Now is the finest film of modern times." Daily Mail. Dec. 5, 2009. (Jan. 9, 2015) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1233293/The-maddest-movie-Why-Apocalypse-Now-finest-film-modern-times.html
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