Heather O'Rourke

Heather Michele O'Rourke (December 27, 1975 – February 1, 1988) was an American child actress. She made her debut after being discovered by director Steven Spielberg while visiting MGM studios.[1] Spielberg promptly cast her in the horror film Poltergeist (1982) as Carol Anne Freeling, and O'Rourke earned recognition for her performance. 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.

Heather O'Rourke
O'Rourke c. 1986
Heather Michele O'Rourke

(1975-12-27)December 27, 1975
DiedFebruary 1, 1988(1988-02-01) (aged 12)
San Diego, California, U.S.
Cause of deathCongenital stenosis of the intestine causing septic shock
Resting placeWestwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery
Years active1981–1988

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.

Life and career

Early life

Heather Michele O'Rourke was born on December 27, 1975 in San Diego,[2][3] 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.[4][5]

Her success later allowed the family to purchase a home in Big Bear Lake, California.[5] Between acting jobs, O'Rourke attended Big Bear Elementary School where she was president of her 5th grade class.[6] At the time of her death, the family was living in Lakeside, California, a suburb of San Diego.[7]

Film and television 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).[8] While eating in the MGM commissary,[1] Spielberg saw five-year-old O'Rourke having lunch with her mother[8] while older sister Tammy was shooting Pennies from Heaven.[5][9] 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.[8][10]

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."[1] 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.[11] For her work in Poltergeist, O'Rourke earned between $35,000 and $100,000.[12] 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.[13] "They're here!" is ranked No. 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![14][15] 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.[1] She also appeared in the television movies Massarati and the Brain and Surviving: A Family in Crisis.[16]

In early 1987, O'Rourke became ill with giardiasis, which she contracted from well water at her family's home in Big Bear Lake.[17] 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.[18] The steroidal injections resulted in facial swelling of the cheeks, which O'Rourke's mother said she was very self-conscious about.[4]


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.[19] En route, she suffered cardiac arrest, but paramedics were able to restart her heart at 9:25 a.m.[19] She was subsequently flown to the Children's Hospital of San Diego,[19] 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 finally, O'Rourke was pronounced dead at 2:43 p.m. that afternoon.[17][19] O'Rourke's cause of death was ruled congenital stenosis of the intestine[20] complicated by septic shock.[1][21][22]

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."[17] 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.[17]

A private funeral was held for O'Rourke on February 5, 1988 in Los Angeles.[17] She was entombed at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.[2]



Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1982 Poltergeist Carol Anne Freeling [23]
1982 Massarati and the Brain Skye Henry Television film [23]
1985 Surviving: A Family in Crisis Sarah Brogan Television film [23]
1986 Poltergeist II: The Other Side Carol Anne Freeling [23]
1986 Around the Bend The Daughter Television film [24]
1988 Poltergeist III Carol Anne Freeling Posthumous release; Final film role [23]


Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1981 Fantasy Island Liza Blake (age 5) Episode: "Elizabeth's Baby / The Artist and the Lady" [25]
1982–1983 Happy Days Heather Pfister Recurring role, 12 episodes [26]
1983 CHiPs Lindsey Episode: "Fun House" [27]
1983 Matt Houston Sunny Kimball Episode: "The Woman in White" [27]
1983 Webster Melanie 3 episodes [27]
1984 Finder of Lost Loves Jillian Marsh Episode: "Yesterday's Child" [27]
1986–1987 The New Leave It to Beaver Heather Episodes: "Material Girl", "Bad Poetry" [27]
1987 Our House Dana Episode: "A Point of View" [26]
1987 Rocky Road Russian Girl Episode: "Moscow on the Boardwalk" [27]

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. "Heather O'Rourke, 12; Starred in 'Poltergeist'". The New York Times. February 3, 1988. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  2. "Heather O'Rourke death certificate" (PDF). Autopsyfiles. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  3. Harvey & Harvey 1996, p. 122.
  4. 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. Retrieved December 30, 2019.
  5. 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.
  6. "Child actress Heather O'Rourke". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 3, 1988. p. 6. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  7. "Child star of 'Poltergeist,' Heather O'Rourke, dies". The Vindicator. February 3, 1988. p. 44. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  8. Spielberg, Friedman & Notbohm 2000, pp. 88–89.
  9. Heather O'Rourke Story on YouTube (A Current Affair)
  10. Simpson 2010, p. 195.
  11. Brode 2000, pp. 103–104.
  12. "Money". Money. Vol. 11. New York City. 1982. p. 140. ISSN 0015-8259.
  13. People Magazine 2007, p. 89.
  14. Cotter 2009, p. 10.
  15. "Miss O'Rourke, Morey Amsterdam in TV special". Indiana Gazette. Indiana, Pennsylvania. Associated Press. March 19, 1983. p. 5.
  16. "Heather O'Rourke". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 3, 2011.
  17. 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.
  18. Nash, Jay Robert; Ross, Stanley Ralph (1989). The Motion Picture Guide Annual. Cinebooks. p. 132.
  19. "Heather O'Rourke, 12, a star of 'Poltergeist'". Philadelphia Inquirer. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. February 3, 1988. p. 48 via Newspapers.com.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. "Heather O'Rourke, Star of 'Poltergeist' movies, dies at 12". San Jose Mercury News. February 2, 1988. p. 6A.
  23. "Heather O'Rourke Filmography". AllMovie. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
  24. "Heather O'Rourke". Film Industry Digest. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
  25. Lentz 1983, p. 1237.
  26. "Heather O'Rourke Credits". TV Guide. Archived from the original on January 1, 2020.
  27. Parish & Terrace 1989, p. 279.


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