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Nov. 19, 2020

Ep. 10: Hollywood Horrors, Pt. 1 - Cursed Films

We’ve hit double digits, baby! In celebration of episode #10, Carrie begins another double: a two parter on HOLLYWOOD HORRORS! 
Part 1 is all about films that were supposedly cursed - likely because of their content - during and even after their...


We’ve hit double digits, baby!

In celebration of episode #10, Carrie begins another double: a two parter on HOLLYWOOD HORRORS!

 
Part 1 is all about films that were supposedly cursed - likely because of their content - during and even after their production. These films, coincidentally, are all in the horror genre: Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist.

From on-set injuries and tragic coincidences to bizarre beheadings, convicted murderers, and even Charles Manson, what happened to those making these films may just convince you that curses are, indeed, “reel”.
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Transcript

So Sean, you know, but I’m not sure if the audience does, that I was a film major in college.

Yep, I still make films too, on the side of my day job...and this podcast, and well, everything else I do. So, I don’t get to make films often, but when I’m on set, I feel truly at home. 

Now, film sets are a place of absolute chaos. For someone who tries to be in control of their life, it can be stressful - and sometimes, it drives me absolutely nuts. It’s exhausting, emotionally and physically draining, and can be incredibly intense.

But movie magic is a real thing, yknow? I’ve written screenplays and seen actors CREATE them in the real world, and it’s actually brought me to tears in the moment because you’re seeing characters you’ve dreamed up come to life, right before your eyes. I’ve been moved by the applause when the credits start to roll on something I’ve worked really hard on. Those moments are worth all of the, sometimes literal, blood sweat and tears. 

But sometimes, it becomes TOO literal. Sometimes, the movie magic is overshadowed by something darker, scarier, and more nefarious. That’s why I decided to do this 2-part series on Hollywood Horrors...because it’s the perfect conjoining of my two major passions, film and the world of the bizarre...and also because, though these involve popular movies and movie stars, sometimes the truth can be stranger than the fiction on the screen. 

So, for part 1, we’ll be starting with the legends of cursed Hollywood films. 

Sean, do you believe in curses?
[ANSWER]
Yeah, I didn’t think so, but I figured I’d ask. Well, some people do - a lot, in fact, and maybe more than you’d expect. According to Pew Research Center, 16% of Americans believe in the “evil eye”, or that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen. In 2019 YouGov did another poll and found that nearly 1 in 5 Americans believe demons “definitely exist”, with another 1 in 5 believing that they “probably exist”. In general, more than 4 in 10 Americans believe in ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings. I’m concentrating on America here because it’s easier to get data on one specific country - and these are all American films - but that seems like a wildly high set of statistics to me! Especially with 40% of Americans believing in supernatural beings as recently as last year...it feels like we’re only getting more skeptical and out of touch with the paranormal as the years progress, so I’m pretty surprised.

Today I’m going to be going through 4 films that are whispered to be “cursed”. Interestingly enough, all of these films deal with themes of the supernatural, with all of them dealing with the devil and/or possession in some way. Does that make people more apt to believe there’s something demonic at play when tragedy strikes these sets? We’ll see.


FIRST - ROSEMARY’S BABY

Rosemary’s Baby is a 1968 Psychological horror film starring Mia Farrow, made by director Roman Polanski, and adapted from the blockbuster novel by Ira Levin. The gist of the story, for anyone who may not have seen it, is that the titular Rosemary - Farrow -  is pregnant, and begins to suspect that an evil cult wants to take her baby for use in their rituals.

Rosemary’s Baby was referred to by Vanity Fair as, literally “The Most Cursed Hit Movie Ever Made”. Levin wrote his novel fearing backlash and, despite the fact that he was a Jewish atheist, fearing he was committing blasphemy. However, the backlash wasn’t intense enough to cancel out how much of a monster bestseller it became, and it was immediately turned into a film to capitalize on that success. It was soon after filming that the curse apparently took hold.

The first cursed soul was the film’s composer, Krzysztof Komeda. Details of his death are scarce, but Polanski told it this way: the autumn after the film’s release, and still riding high on the breakthrough success of the movie and its score, 37-year-old Komeda was roughhousing at a party when he fell off a rocky plateau. He fell into a coma, strangely the very same affliction Levin’s witches used to kill Rosemary’s suspicious friend in the book. Komeda remained in the coma for 4 months but never regained consciousness, and died the following year.

Next was the film’s producer, William Castle. Castle was sick with worry from the hate mail he received constantly for producing the film, and in April 1969 his anxiety took physical form when he was suddenly stricken with severe kidney stones. While delirious in the hospital, he apparently hallucinated scenes from the film and was said to have yelled, “Rosemary, for God’s sake, drop the knife!” Castle recovered, but just barely, and never made a Hollywood hit again.

Perhaps the darkest incident happened around director Roman Polanski...one that most of us have heard about. At the time of filming Rosemary’s Baby Polanski was married to actress Sharon Tate. Tate had wanted the role of Rosemary but was turned down by Paramount for Mia Farrow. So instead, Sharon made an uncredited appearance as an extra in the film, and spent a lot of time on set. By late summer 1969, the couple was expecting their first child any day...but their relationship would end in tragedy. On the night of August 8th, Tate and several of her friends staying at her house while Polanski was overseas were brutally murdered by cultists from Charles Manson’s “Family”. We’ll certainly be covering this case in the future, by the way. Polanski only narrowly avoided this fate by being tied up with work in England. 

There are a couple of other strange coincidences around Rosemary’s Baby. Most of the Beatles’ White Album was written while they were on a meditation retreat in India, where Mia Farrow was also in attendance. On the White Album is, of course, the song “Helter Skelter”, which was said to influence Manson’s desire to start a race war, beginning with the Tate murders. The words Helter Skelter - misspelled, of course - were even written in blood on a wall at a crime scene. And speaking of the Beatles...Farrow’s old friend, John Lennon? He was assassinated in 1980. In front of the Dakota building in New York, where he lived. The building where, in 1967, exteriors were shot for...Rosemary’s Baby. 

 

NEXT UP - THE OMEN

So, as many people know, The Omen is a film from 1976 that follows Gregory Peck, playing the American ambassador to England, as he slowly begins to believe his young son, Damien, is actually the Antichrist. The idea for the film came from an ad exec named Bob Munger, who dreamt up the concept of the Antichrist arriving in the form of an innocent-seeming child and brought it to a film producer. This being the 70s when apparently movies got made at the drop of the hat, Munger’s idea was turned into a screenplay and The Omen was born.

The Omen is a film where the creators themselves actually believed there was some sort of curse. 

First, in the supposed canon of the Omen curse, Gregory Peck’s son killed himself shortly before shooting began. A terrible tragedy, to be sure, but one that must’ve been especially hard for Peck since, not only did he just lose his son, but he was about to star in a very dark film that was very much centered on a father-son relationship. Understandably emotional, Peck set off on a flight for London when he was due to film...and on that flight, the plane took a direct hit from lightning during a terrible storm while 20,000 feet in the air. The engine literally CAUGHT ON FIRE. Sean, you know me - I’m absolutely terrified of flying. This is my absolute nightmare.


But it doesn’t end there! On executive producer Mace Neufeld’s flight over to England for filming, his plane hit an awful thunderstorm. And was struck directly by lightning.

Yes, that’s right. Lightning literally struck twice.

Speaking of flying, because you know that is my PASSION. Director Richard Donner, who also did such classics as Superman and Lethal Weapon, asked for some aerial shots to be filmed of London to use in The Omen. The production rented a small plane, but soon before the shoot day, the rental company asked if they’d be willing to give up their rental for the day, due to a last-minute booking request - but if they didn’t mind postponing, they’d receive a huge discount later on another rental. Since they were filming on a budget, the production heartily agreed. So, the plane that was supposed to take Donner and a few crewmembers left that day instead with a group of Chinese businessmen, and...hit a flock of birds, lost power, and crashed. Into a car. Which contained the pilot’s wife and their child, driving away from having just dropped him off at the landing strip. Everyone died.

Fucked up.

But I guess Satan didn’t know about the last-minute change of plans?

For the scenes at the zoo, production filmed at Windsor Safari Park. The baboons in the scene went, well, absolutely apeshit, and went real method about attacking the car, which you can see in the finished film. Another scene they filmed that week, which didn’t end up making the cut, was in the big cats enclosure. The animal handler for the Safari Park scenes was park keeper Sidney Bamford, who is credited in the final film. Bamford was attacked and killed by one of the tigers the day the production left the park. 

Star Lee Remick, who played Damien’s mother in the film, was getting so spooked by these incidents that she refused to film a stunt where she was to (safely) fall off a ledge onto the floor below, and the scene had to be filmed differently. Superstition was literally starting to change how the movie was being made while it was still being filmed.

Producer Harvey Bernhard developed a belief that the Devil didn’t want the film to be made, and started wearing a cross every day, and got a prayer chain going for the production back in America. 

Maybe that helped, because members of the cast and crew narrowly missed being blown up by an IRA bomb set off at the Hilton Hotel they were staying at, right after they left. Trying to boost spirits after this terrifying close call, Gregory Peck later invited the nervous producers and director to dinner at his favorite local restaurant, Scott’s. 

The IRA blew up the restaurant minutes before they got there for their reservation.

Lightning struck twice? Well, how about bombing?

Alright alright so they finally finished filming. They cut, print, and the negative was being shipped back to America. What’s one more plane trip right? They’ve been going so well. Well, lightning didn’t strike again, but there were severe issues on the plane, and the flight ended up having to make a tense emergency landing in Newfoundland.

The film was released on June 6, 1976 (666). But that didn’t stop the curse. Seasoned stuntman Alf Joint, who had taken the place of Lee Remick’s character as she fell out of her hospital window to her death (uhh, spoilers, sorry), was working on his next film where he again had to fall off a building but, as a professional, knew how to fall to hit the large airbags that were positioned for a safe landing. Well, he missed and was severely injured. Later he insisted that it almost felt like he was pushed. No one was near him at the time.

Perhaps, though, the most horrifying and strange death to be tied to The Omen came a year after filming wrapped. John Richardson, the Oscar winning special effects supervisor on the production, was driving in Holland during his next film shoot with his assistant, Liz Moore, when tragedy struck. Richardson’s car was involved in a head-on collision where Moore, who was sitting in the passenger seat, was beheaded.

When Richardson came to, the first thing he saw was an old mile post with the marker 66.6 km. And the road? Was on the way to a town named Ommen.

An additional creepy coincidence about this accident? Richardson had designed the death scene of the character Jennings in The Omen, a character who famously...was brutally decapitated.

About the incident Richardson said, “You can’t dwell on something like that when it happens to you. Because if you do, I’m sure you’ll end up going mad.”

 

THIRD - POLTERGEIST

Next, onto yet another horror classic - Poltergeist, from 1982. The title is pretty self-explanatory; a family is harassed by a supernatural entity. This film is one where the legend of the curse is almost as known as the plot of the film itself. The curse here also supposedly haunts the trilogy as a whole, so we’ll be skipping around here from most coincidental to most chilling or unexplainable.

[Clip “You son of a bitch you moved the cemetery but you left the bodies didntcha!”] Art imitated life on the set of Poltergeist - well, maybe life imitated the art. In the film, the backyard pool is overtaken by a bunch of skeletons coming out of the ground, the root of the supernatural phenomena - that the home had been built over a burying ground, with the bodies still underneath. It’s long been legend that real human skeletons were used for this scene...but, well, that is actually true. Crazily enough, it was the budget-conscious way to, well, have a bunch of skeletons in a movie. Some people believe that the fact that real skeletons were used for the scene contributed to a curse. But it wasn’t the first movie to do so - human skeletons had been used for filmmaking purposes for years, including in House on Haunted Hill and Frankenstein. 

Actor Oliver Robins, who played the brother in the first two Poltergeist films, is still alive and well...however, he had a pretty scary accident on the set of the first film. A creepy clown doll strangles his character in one scene, and was rigged to do so safely to Robins. The mechanism, however, malfunctioned, and Robins was getting ACTUALLY strangled by this clown doll. They were doing the whole “Wow, he’s giving a great performance!” thing. If they hadn’t pried the doll off in time, Robins may have been seriously injured.

Actor Will Sampson, who was in Poltergeist II, asked for permission to perform an exorcism on set after hours. A shaman himself, he felt bad energy from the film and wanted to rid it of its demons. He died less than a year later from kidney failure and malnutrition at the age of 53.

Julian Beck, the actor who played the creepy cult leader in the same film (known for his catchphrase “Yyyyyyou’re gonna dieeeee!”) died of stomach cancer during production, with some of his lines having to be ADR’d by another actor. Unsettlingly, to include Beck’s striking appearance for Poltergeist III, his death mask was used to create prosthetics for the body actor who took up the role. 

Dominique Dunne starred in the first Poltergeist as the older sister in the family. Dominique was the daughter of Dominick Dunne, a famous crime writer for Vanity Fair (whose work is awesome, check it out) and sister of Griffin Dunne, one of the stars of An American Werewolf in London. Dominique was just starting out in Hollywood when she landed Poltergeist, and was poised to jump start a career. Unfortunately, Dominique was in an abusive relationship with John Sweeney, a real piece of shit who was incidentally also the sous chef to celebrity cook Wolfgang Puck. After he beat her up yet again, Dominique finally cut off the relationship for good. Well, that pissed off Sweeney, who showed up at her home soon after and strangled her nearly to death. She remained in a coma for about 5 days, but was taken off of life support. Sweeney only ended up spending 2 and a half years in prison.

One of the saddest deaths associated with Poltergeist is likely also the biggest claim to a curse the movie has - the untimely passing of Heather O’Rourke, who played cherubic little girl Carol-Anne in all 3 films. O’Rourke, basically the face of the franchise, was a prenaturally intelligent kid who was on her way to having a life in film, even telling her Poltergeist III director that she wanted to study his technique because she was going to be a director herself when she grew up. She had been discovered by Steven Spielberg himself while visiting MGM studios and promptly cast in Poltergeist. Heather had been ill since before production began on Poltergeist III and was diagnosed as having Crohn’s Disease, receiving treatments including steroids. But, it turned out, she didn’t have Crohn’s Disease. Heather O’Rourke passed away at the age of 12 while production was still ongoing for Poltergeist III due to a birth defect that had created an abscess in her intestine. This defect had been completely missed by doctors, and her mother filed a wrongful death suit against the hospital. Director Gary Sherman was heartbroken by O’Rourke’s death, saying “We decided the film’s over...I can’t go back into the cutting room or watch this film with this dead 11-year-old in it.” Unfortunately, they still had to film an ending, and the studios wouldn’t let Sherman abandon the project. So he had to shoot more scenes featuring a double as Carol-Anne. He said of the shoot, “That was the creepiest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. Having this little girl dressed up as Heather, keeping her face away from camera. (...) None of us wanted this film to be released, but it was.” Poltergeist III was dedicated to Heather O’Rourke. 

 


LAST - THE EXORCIST

So last we have the grandaddy, The Exorcist. Is it the scariest movie of all time? Many people think so. The Exorcist is the OG demon possession movie, centered around a 12 year old girl named Regan, played by Linda Blair, who plays the most dangerous version of “fuck around and find out” ever when she conjures up a malicious spirit with a Ouija board and ends up possessed by a demon named Pazuzu. A pair of priests are eventually brought in to perform an exorcism on the child, but not before getting barfed on and seeing her head do a full 360. The Exorcist is loosely based on a true life event, which original novel author William Peter Blatty saw recounted in a newspaper article.

The film was plagued by mishaps from the very start. The sets caught fire during the night - no one was injured, but they lost most of the sets entirely. Except, of course, Regan’s room, the domain of Pazuzu. Star Max Von Sydow’s brother died on the first day of filming. A special effects supervisor died during production; as did a set security guard. 

Similarly to Oliver Robins during the Poltergeist shoot, Linda Blair was hurt during a take. She was laced into an apparatus that was yanked around to give the appearance of uncontrolled possession - but the laces came loose, and she fractured her lower spine. This is the footage that was used in the movie. Poor Linda Blair was deeply traumatized by the film and its aftermath, with the studio having to get bodyguards for her because of death threats by people actually thinking she was a demon. People would run or scream when they saw her, and that was a hard thing for a kid to deal with, despite the consolation being nominated for an Oscar for her role. 

Now, that wasn’t the only harness scene that went wrong! At one point Regan slaps her mother who then flies across the room, which was achieved by actress Ellen Burstyn being pulled while locked into a harness. One pull was especially vicious and Burstyn received a permanent spinal injury, that she says she lives with to this day. This footage was also the cut we see in the final film.

There were so many issues surrounding the production that a Washington DC Jesuit priest, Thomas M. King, was asked to come in and bless the set. Later televangelist Billy Graham, known for his reasoned and level-headed view on things, stated, “There is a power of evil in the film, in the fabric of the film itself.” 

Two actors whose characters died in the film, Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, died in real life during post-production. MacGowran was only 54 at the time, and died from complications resulting from a flu caught during a London pandemic. 

The curse’s hold didn’t loosen after release! The film notoriously caused people at screenings to be sick or pass out, and during the film’s premiere in Rome, a storm surged around the theater as the audience filed inside. Shortly after the film began playing a giant, 400-year-old cross on top of a nearby church was struck by lightning, causing it to fall into the plaza below. Many inside claimed to hear a horrific, almost demonic cry, coming from outside once the film started rolling.

Now, some movies have tragedy associated with them, some have tragedies occur on set. But how many have actual convicted murderers in their casts? A harrowing scene involving medical tests run on Regan to try and figure out what was ailing her was filmed at the NYU Radiology Department in New York. Doctors at NYU today still credit the angiogram scene as one of the most life-like depictions of a medical procedure in film. Real people that worked in the department were used as the medical personnel in the scene, which helped contribute to the intensely realistic feel. One of those people was a young radiology technician named Paul Bateson, who you can see in the final film. He was said to be quiet but very nice to his patients. But Addison Verrill was not a patient. Verrill, a film reporter for Variety magazine, was found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment in 1977, four years after The Exorcist’s release. Reporter Arthur Bell covered the murder in the Village Voice, and soon after publication received a call from an anonymous man saying he had killed Verrill after a hookup out of anger and desperation due to his alcoholism and fear of rejection. Bell reported the call and received police protection, with detectives telling him to wait for another call...which promptly came, that evening. This time, the caller pinned the crime on one Paul Bateson. Bateson was arrested, and gave the same statement to police that he had earlier given freely to Arthur Bell. However during trial Bateson retracted his confession, insisting he had been drunk when he gave it. The prosecution attempted to connect Bateson to the unsolved murders of six other men, who were found dismembered, between 1975 and 1977, also in Greenwich Village. The judge ultimately decided that the six other murders were “too ephemeral to have any connection to this case,” but Bateson was found guilty of Verrill’s murder, and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison. Speaking to a podcast for the Hollywood Reporter in 2018, director William Friedkin discussed the impact Bateson had on him, quote: 

“I called his lawyer and told him who I was and asked him ‘Could I visit with Paul?’ His lawyer said okay. He was at Rikers Island… He was very cheerful … He said, ‘I remember killing this one guy … I cut him up and I put his body parts in a plastic bag and threw it in the East River.’” This discussion with Bateson would form the inspiration for Friedkin’s next movie, the infamous Cruising, starring Al Pacino. Bateson, himself, was released in 2003, and a reporter for Esquire couldn’t find any trace of him other than a previous address in Freeport, NY - no death certificate, either. So Paul Bateson, murderer and sometime film actor, is still out there, somewhere. Maybe that’s the scariest part of all.

 

So what do you think Sean? Were any of these films cursed?


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NEWS: Woof woof, it’s time for POE’S CRYPTID CORNER!

Unfortunately this isn’t about actual Bigfoots - Bigfeet? - but rather, Bigfoot statues. That’s right...Coast to Coast AM is reporting on a “troubling recent trend” of petty thieves stealing Bigfoot statues from houses and museums across America. In 2019 a 6 foot tall Bigfoot statue was stolen from outside the offices of a landscaping company, not even the first report of a Bigfoot to be stolen in the last decade - in fact, there were 7 other cases in 2019 alone! In September of this year, a sheet metal Sasquatch was swiped from a private residence’s yard in Minnesota. And now? Now, the Bigfoot bandits have hit the Bigfoot Discovery Museum in California! At some point on Monday afternoon, thieves made off with a Sasquatch statue that stood at the doorway to the museum. 

Fortunately, unlike in many similar cases where the Bigfoot statue is never recovered, this particular piece wound up being discovered on Friday morning by the nearby Scotts Valley Police Department. According to the department’s Facebook post, their officers responded to reports of a "suspicious figure" lurking alongside a road and, when they arrived on the scene, discovered the Bigfoot statue. I adore the fact that someone mistook a Bigfoot for just a run of the mill “suspicious figure”. The police department said that the statue was "a little banged up but will be returned to his rightful place at the Bigfoot Discovery Museum." At least for this ineffable effigy, we have an answer, and a happy ending.

What do you think Sean? Are all of these thefts connected - is there a Bigfoot statue thievery cabal out there??

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That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on iTunes...we’ll be forever grateful.

See you next Thursday! 

 

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