By Desmond Reddick
14 May 2007 — From the religious horror films of the 1960s to the Superman franchise, there's nothing better than a curse as a way of drumming up interest in a new film. This is doubly true when talking about supernatural horror films. But are these curses urban legends, or is there some validity to these claims?
First of all, one needs to establish exactly what can and can't be considered a curse. When used in conjunction with a film, I would define a curse as a series of events directly related to the film that plague those involved (not just including actors, but also the crew) putting severe doubt as to whether the film can be completed. Whew! That definition seems fair. Whereas some "curses" can be written off as bad luck, others seem to involve a supernatural or evil presences. To examine the presence of curses in cinema I will look at the following as examples: The Crow, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, the role of Superman, The Omen, Poltergeist and a recent spate of curses with films like The Reaping and The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The Crow, though tragic, is very easy to dispel as an accidental death with eerie coincidences. Anyone who has seen Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story knows that there is an interesting theory regarding the death of Bruce Lee himself. The film plays up the supernatural aspect of Bruce Lee's death by visually portraying him in battle with his inner demons. Bruce Lee himself died from an allergic reaction to a drug given to him for a headache while filming Game of Death (or an allergic reaction to marijuana, depending on who you ask). In said film, Lee plays an actor who faces an attempted assassination while filming a scene and returns after surgically altering his appearance to avenge his "death." This was pasted together from remnants of the original film as Lee died halfway through production. He appears only as the avenger with the new face. Lee's death at the age of 32 led to speculation — speculation of an actual assassination involving Chinese mobsters or, as some believe, a curse upon the family. Fast forward 20 years and Lee's son, Brandon, would die filming a similar scene in 1993's The Crow. In the film, Brandon plays Eric Draven, a man who is brutally murdered along with his new wife. Filled with revenge, Eric returns from the grave to exact his vengeance. In a scene where Draven is killed, a prop malfunction sent the casing of a blank fired from the muzzle of the .44 Magnum into Lee's abdomen. He died soon after and the rest of the film was completed with a body double and clever editing techniques. Lee's death was an unfortunate accident made more unfortunate only by comparing it to that of his father's. The idea that there might be a curse attached to the Lee family was furthered by Brandon's death, but only because of how important Bruce Lee was to the Asian world — especially Asian Americans who saw him playing against Asian stereotypes. A hero in America, Lee was a living god throughout much of Asia. Take Elvis Presley as an example; when a living legend dies, there's bound to be speculation on the lips of fans worldwide. And that's what happened here: two very unfortunate deaths, linked only by a family name, created a whirlwind of controversy because fans needed some sort of explanation. Even one bordering on the supernatural.
The curse on Rosemary's Baby is tenuous at best. There is an eerie link that one has to dig to find. The building that is Rosemary's apartment in the exterior shots of the film is the future home of John Lennon who was a friend of Mia Farrow (star of the aforementioned film). The Beatles song "Dear Prudence" was written about Mia's sister, and Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman outside the building's front entrance. Of course, another song from The Beatles' White Album, "Helter Skelter," was adopted by Charles Manson and his followers who would torture and murder the pregnant Sharon Tate — wife of Roman Polanski, who directed Rosemary's Baby. The fact of the matter is Manson is nuts and claims to have had visions while listening to the White Album. Also, celebrities hang out with other celebrities. It is especially no surprise that Mia Farrow, fresh off her divorce with the domineering Frank Sinatra, would be partying with all sorts of people — including John Lennon.
Even The Exorcist, the most notorious film of all time, is not without its share of deceptive marketing. During the film's shoot nine people allegedly died, and a fire allegedly destroyed the set. At subsequent screenings it was reported that moviegoers were fainting, vomiting and even having heart attacks! None of this is substantiated and is most likely hype and / or urban legend. In fact, the only substantiated evidence of something going slightly wrong with anyone to do with the films was Linda Blair's subsequent substance abuse problem and a huge decline in her acting career. But that never happens with child actors, right? There is no curse on The Exorcist films. Wait... I might be wrong about that — they did make Exorcist: the Beginning. Joking aside, this so-called curse boosted the popularity of The Exorcist, and put it right up there, in terms of unfounded urban legends, with the likes of the Superman curse.
Speaking of which, one has only to look at Wikipedia's list of "supposed victims" to see a very thin line drawn from Siegel and Shuster, to JFK, to the boy who played baby Kal-El in the 1978 film, to Jeph Loeb's son. Of course, Ned Beatty, Gene Hackman, Terence Stamp, the Smallville kids, Teri Hatcher and numerous others have gone on to have illustrious careers because of (or in spite of) their involvement in the various Superman movies and television series. Old age, drug addiction, bipolar disorder, cancer and horse-riding accidents are all afflictions blamed on the curse. Yet the simple truth is that thousands of people have been involved in the production of Superman comic books, radio dramas, television series and films; eventually there was bound to be some some bad luck. Furthermore, I would have to hazard a guess that the character has had more people working for him behind the scenes than any other pop culture icon — except for maybe Dracula. Why no Dracula curse? Because Superman is someone people look up to. After all, Dracula never joined the fight against the Nazis.
Before he would helm Superman, Richard Donner directed The Omen, which is one film that may actually be cursed. There are several occurrences that happened before, during and after production that certainly makes one think twice. I don't want to go through all of the eerie incidents, but one event in particular had John Richardson (who was in charge of special effects for the film) crashing his car outside the town of Ommen. While he was left unhurt by the accident, his girlfriend was decapitated in a manner similar to an effect from The Omen. Two separate planes carrying two separate cast members were both struck by lightning. Trained Rottweilers turned on their handlers. A plane booked for the crew was double-booked and the four Asian businessmen who actually boarded it were killed when a malfunction caused the plane to crash. Where did the plane crash? Into two cars, one of which contained the wife and child of the pilot. Too many disturbing, yet verifiable events were happening to people involved in one small film. To his dying day, Gregory Peck — devout Catholic, film legend, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and Hollywood's most educated and liberally minded Oscar winner — refused to talk about the eerie coincidences. I'm not saying that what Gregory Peck says is always right, but it often is and that is behavior that suggests personal discomfort about a situation.
From one film that may be cursed to another that has some interesting and very disturbing facts related to it: Poltergeist seemed doomed from the start. During production or shortly after they were released, at least one cast member died per film. Two of the deaths were particularly shocking. Dominique Dunne, the beautiful young actress who played the eldest daughter in the first Poltergeist film, was strangled by her boyfriend within a year of the film's release. More famously (or infamously) is the death of Heather O'Rourke, the tormented Carol Anne from all three films. Admitted into the hospital for a bad flu, she died from septic shock due to an infected bowel obstruction. Jo Beth Williams, one of the lucky surviving cast members said in an interview that the special effects team used real human skeletons in the swimming pool scene because they were cheaper than fake skeletons were. This is considered the cause of the curse by many who believe it.
The current spate of films purporting ghostly or supernatural experiences on set, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Reaping, are more than likely just overactive imaginations or crew members with odd senses of humor. Or, of course, they could very well just be hype. It's not inconceivable for a studio to promote a curse or on-set "deaths" to bolster interest. After all, I have four words for you: The Blair Witch Project.
The truth of it all is that people want to believe movies are cursed. If there is a supernatural connection in a fictional film that deals with the subject, then that adds to its credibility. It's unfortunate but true. It's as if an on-set death makes a horror movie that much more horrific. Does it?