When Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left came out in 1972, the trailer suggested that those who terrified by its gruesome plot remind themselves, “It’s only a movie.” And, sure, that might help some, but what if the behind-the-scenes happenings on the film sets of horror movies themselves are just as creepy as the flick?
Numerous classic horror films are said to have carried a curse with them, manifesting in spooky occurrences on set or terrible misfortunes befalling cast the crew. Planes were struck by lightning, hotels caught on fire, and actors reported mysterious and unexplained occurrences while filming stories of demonic possession or ghostly hauntings. And on the scariest film sets, prop weapons weren’t as fake as one might expect, resulting in serious injuries, close calls, tragic crashes and in one case, the death of an up-and-coming star.
The Exorcist was plagued by bad luck, leading many to believe it was cursed. If you haven’t seen it, the film revolves around the MacNeil family, whose daughter Regan (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Pazuzu.
Right from the start, the production was bedevilled by creepy problems. Filming was delayed because the set for the MacNeil home caught fire. It was mostly destroyed, but, eerily enough, Regan’s bedroom was spared. The fire was attributed to a pigeon that got into a circuit box.
There were a number of deaths and injuries to the cast, and crew and their loved ones. Actress Ellen Burstyn, who played the matriarch of the MacNeil family, was injured by a mishap (in the video) with her harness during a fight scene; the scream she unleashes in the film is real.
Actor Jack MacGowran and actress Vasiliki Maliaros both died shortly after the filming. MacGowran (age 54) of the flu in January, 1973, and Maliaros of natural causes (age 89), in February,1973. Linda Blair’s grandfather and actor Max Von Sydow’s brother both died during production, and the son of Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the demon, murdered his wife and two daughters before taking his own life after being accused of fraud in November of 1987.
The Omen (1976) is about a couple that adopts a little boy, Damien, only to learn he’s the Antichrist. Talk about a raw deal.
While filming, actor Gregory Peck and writer David Seltzer, and executive producer Mace Neufeld, had their planes hit by lighting. Yes, planes. One carrying Peck and Seltzer, another carrying Neufield. Later, the hotel Neufeld was staying at in London was bombed by the IRA, and so was a restaurant at which several cast members had reservations.
The most chilling incident occurred in Holland in August, 1976. John Richardson, the film’s visual effects consultant, and his assistant, Liz Moore, were in in a car accident. Moore was decapitated in a manner similar to David Warner’s in the film. Richardson crawled out of the wreckage, looked around to get his bearings,, and found a road sign reading, “Ommen, 66.6 km.”
Roman Polanski’s 1968 psychological horror masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby starred Mia Farrow as the eponymous Rosemary. In the film, she and her husband move into a new building, The Bramford, and decide to conceive a baby. But the neighbors sure are weird.
William Castle, the film’s producer, wrote that he received a deluge of angry letters accusing him of witchcraft and other evils after the film’s release in April, ’68, and was later stricken with bout after bout of kidney stones. The film’s composer, Krzysztof Komeda, died of a blood clot in the brain in April, ’69. His death eerily mirrored that of a character in the film.
About a year after the film’s release, on August 9, 1969, Polanski fell victim to one of the most notorious crimes in Hollywood history. His wife, a very pregnant Sharon Tate, and three of their friends, were murdered by the Manson Family while Polanski was out of the country. Charles Manson claimed to be inspired by The Beatles, in particular, the track “Helter Skelter.” John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman in December of 1980 in New York City, in front of the Dakota Building, which appears in Rosemary’s Baby as The Bramford.
The Conjuring is based on a supposedly true story, as told by paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, about a case they took on in 1971, at the behest of the Perron family. The film was successful upon its release in 2013, but the production was plagued with bizarre occurrences.
Lorraine Warren consulted on the film. When screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes tried to speak with her on the phone, they had a hard time getting through, which Lorraine attributed to spirits attempting to get in the way of their storytelling. During production in North Carolina, the hotel they crew stayed at caught on fire. Director James Wan said his dog seemed upset by an invisible entity, growling and tracking something unseen around his office. And actress Vera Farminga, who plays Lorraine, said claw marks mysteriously appeared one day the screen of her laptop without any explanation.
The Perron family claimed that, when visiting the set, wind whipped around them, but nearby trees remained still. That same day, a member of the Perron family who elected to stay away from the set fell and broke her hip.
Some like to say the Poltergeist series is cursed, due to the fact that four members of the cast died.
Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne Freeling, died when she was only 12 years old of septic shock, in February of 1988. Dominique Dunne, who played Carol Anne’s older sister Dana in the first Poltergeist film, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend on October 30, 1982, only a matter of months after the film was released.
The other two deaths were not particularly unexpected, unlike the deaths of the two young actresses. Julian Beck, who played Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, died of stomach cancer at age 60 in 1985, and Will Sampson, who played Taylor in the same film, died in 1987, at age 53, following a heart-lung transplant.
The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror came out in 1979 and has its roots in truth. On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his mother, father, sisters, and brothers in their home at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, Long Island, NY. George and Kathy Lutz later moved into the house and, over the course of 28 days, claimed to experience paranormal phenomena.
While the DeFeo murders are true, the truth of the Lutz’s experiences, as documented by Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror, has long been subject to debate. Of the various claims made by the Lutz’s is that George woke up every night at 3:15 am, the time of the DeFeo murders.
In 2005, Andrew Douglas directed a remake of the original film, starring Ryan Reynolds as George Lutz. Shortly before filming began, a dead body washed up on the set. Reynolds claimed he and others working on the film kept waking up at precisely 3:15 am. The real Kathy Lutz died while the movie was being made. George was already dead.
The Crow starred Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son, as a young man who is fatally shot after coming home to find gang members attacking his fiancée the night before the wedding. He returns from the dead as The Crow, a corpse-painted anti-hero, to exact revenge. The film became a goth cult classic.
However, a terrible tragedy occurred during filming. A dummy cartridge (a bullet with no charge) was stuck in the barrel of a prop gun from a previous scene. Actor Michael Massee pointed the gun at Lee and fired; the bullet struck Lee’s aorta. He died in the hospital after several hours of surgery. It was later determined that several small mistakes led to this freak accident. The film was finished using Lee’s stunt double and CGI. Lee was 28 when he died.
Cannibal Holocaust is a gruesome exploitation picture about a documentary crew antagonizing an Amazonian cannibal tribe, with predictable results.
The film’s director, Ruggero Deodato, asked his four main actors lay low for a year after the film was finished, as part of a complex PR stunt. The brutality of the movie, on top of its missing actors, had the desired effect – people thought the movie was real. This led to Deodato being charged with murder. The actors had to appeared in court to prove they were still alive.
In addition to graphic human death, several animals are killed in the film. Of these animal deaths, six were real, and a seventh animal died as a result of the shoot, though wasn’t in the film. Several members of the crew were charged with crimes in these deaths.
The Last House on the Left
Horror movie buffs will tell you that Wes Craven’s 1972 exploitation/home invasion/revenge film The Last House on the Left employs a real chainsaw during a final fight.
Other on-set horrors include actress Sandra Peabody (then Sandra Cassel), who plays the ill-fated Mari, being tormented by her co-stars to elicit a more terrified performance. It’s said that at one point Marc Sheffler held her over a cliff to get her in the mood for the next take.
Alfred Hitchcock may be a horror legend, but he wasn’t that nice of a guy to his beloved icy blondes. Actress Tippi Hedren starred as Melanie Daniels in The Birds, a film about flocks of pecking, flapping, squawking birds terrorizing the San Francisco bay area.
Hitchcock was obsessive about every detail of Hedren’s appearance, and forced her to endure a week’s worth of shooting with live birds. As quoted in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Life by Patrick McGilligan, Hedren described the harrowing ordeal:
“By Friday they had me down on the floor with the birds tied loosely to me with elastic bands, which were attached through the peck-hole in my dress. Well, one of the birds clawed my eye and that did it. I just sat and cried.”
Hedren later consulted on The Girl, a film about Hitchcock allegedly sexually harassing her, then sabotaging her career after she rebuffed his advances by locking her into a contract, never casting her again, and turning down choice offers on her behalf.
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Three actors were killed in a helicopter crash in July, 1982, while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. Actor Vic Morrow played a character who goes back in time, emerging in a village in Vietnam, during the war. He spots two children as a U.S. chopper appears and opens fire. The children were played by 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen.
While filming, the helicopter pilot lost control and crashed into the three actors, all of whom died. It was later revealed that the kids were hired under the table, to circumvent labor laws such as filming at 2:30 am, the time when the crash occurred. Several people involved in the film, including director John Landis, were charged with, and acquitted of, manslaughter.
The Possession is a film about a little girl who buys a small box from a yard sale and becomes possessed by an evil spirit hidden within. The film is based on the ‘true’ story of the Dibbuk Box.
A Dibbox, in Jewish mythology, is an entity capable of possession. In the early 2000s, a story circulated about a man buying a cabinet once owned by a Holocaust survivor, only to be sickened and haunted by a mysterious entity. It was said that every person who subsequently possessed the cabinet experienced unexplainable things, or became ill. The final owner hid the cabinet, which became known as the Dibbuk Box out of the belief that a Dibbuk had been locked inside the box.
Weird things also happened on the set of The Possession, in Vancouver, Canada, in 2011. Director Ole Bornedal talked of a neon sign that went from being off to exploding, and a fire that destroyed the storage house and all of its props five days after they wrapped.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, based on the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, tells the story of Alex, a restless, sadistic youth in a dystopian England. After being imprisoned, he is rehabilitated using an experimental technique by which he is drugged and forced to watch violent films.
Actor Malcolm McDowell, who played Alex in the film, had to endure great pain during the rehabilitation scene, during which his eyes were propped open with lid locks. McDowell suffered a scratched cornea and temporary blindness, and had a doctor on set to put drops in his eyes several times a minute to avoid blindness.