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Happy Friday The 13th! The Truth Behind 10 Freaky Movie Myths

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist September 13, 2013 at 3:01PM

Friggatriskaidekaphobes unite! We’re hardly the superstitious types around these parts, but with today being the notoriously unlucky/cursed/bedeviled Friday the 13th, we thought we’d counter-program from all our festival and award season coverage, and take a moment to take a not-very serious look at some of the myths, urban legends and superstitions that have sprung up around Hollywood movies over the years. Should you be terrified to rewatch “Three Men and a Baby” for any reason other than that it’s “Three Men and a Baby”? Did Charlie Chaplin catch a time traveler? Just how many people involved have to die and for how long a period after filming has ended, for a film to be considered “cursed”? These are just some of the questions we’ll be shining a light on today, so grab your lucky rabbit’s foot, throw some salt over your shoulder, cross your fingers and knock on wood as we run down, and largely lay to rest, a few of the more stubborn myths about sinister forces or secret conspiracies or paranormal interventions that have dogged the movie industry for decades.
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poltergeist (skip)

"Poltergeist"(1982)
Myth: The cast and crew of the trilogy were cursed, resulting in many deaths, possibly due to the use of real skeletons during filming.
Reality: Mystery surrounds the haunted house romp “Poltergeist.” For starters, there is the speculation that director Tobe Hooper, coming off the white hot success of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” didn’t actually direct the movie; that producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg stepped in and took over for Hooper, who supposedly couldn’t handle the demands of a big studio movie. (This has never been officially proven or debunked.) But even more tantalizing than a behind-the-scenes creative tug of war are the rumors that persist that the film series is cursed. Talk of a “Poltergeist” curse is so pervasive in popular culture that there’s even a Snopes page set up to debunk it. At the heart of the “Poltergeist” curse really lie two tragically early deaths – the death of young Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Ann Freeling in all three of the “Poltergeist” movies and the death of Dominique Dunne, who played her older sister Dana. In the fall of 1982, just a few months after “Poltergeist” was released, Dunne was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, a chef from Los Angeles named John Sweeney. When she finally tried to break it off with him, the conversation became heated and he choked her for what police later said was around 5 minutes. She fell into a coma and died at the age of 22. O’Rourke died from septic shock at the age of 12 in 1988. A year earlier she had been diagnosed with having Crohn’s Disease and at the time of her death she was still filming “Poltergeist III” (even though her family claimed that all of her scenes had been completed); in the final film you can tell she was unwell. Two other actors from the series who played spirits (Julian Beck and Will Sampson) also passed away in somewhat unexpected manners (Beck died in between filming and release), which only adds further speculation to the curse. The reality, of course, is that most of the people who died were sick, and Dunne's death was a tragic murder perpetrated by someone who was mentally unstable, not supernaturally possessed. And as for the skeletons, it's apparently a truism that at the time a great number of productions would use real skeletons as they were cheaper to get than realistic-looking fake ones. It’s unclear how Craig T. Nelson has been affected, although we supposed it could be blamed for his arch conservatism.

the Circus Cellphone

The Circus” (1928)
Myth: Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 silent film features a time traveler in one scene: a large lady who walks through frame talking into a handheld, seemingly small-sized cellphone, about six decades before they were invented.
Reality: OK, we’ll confess to kind of loving this one, if only for the fact that while time travel is an absolutely ludicrous conclusion to jump to, no matter how much we look at the footage we can’t really see what the period-accurate explanation might be for the woman’s movements (if she is a woman, because inevitably, people are questioning that too). (Watch the clip below at different speeds and zoom levels). The most sensible alternatives offered up for why she may have her hand to her face in that manner are ear trumpet or other hearing aid device, but that does not explain why she’s talking into it, and the idea she may have been talking to someone else is kind of belied by how she really seems to be speaking into something she’s holding in her hand. So I guess the only question remaining, after you watch the footage slowed down, enhanced and rejiggered six ways to Sunday, is did she succeed in getting her parents to kiss at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance?

Honorable Mentions: In a similar vein to "The Omen" and "Poltergeist" included above, several other horror movies have spawned "curse" theories, usually linking a string of clearly coincidental and unrelated, though often tragic, things-that-happened into some tortuously argued cause-and-effect chain. "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby" are two examples, and with the two we've included, it does seem to be something of a mark of quality in the horror genre to have a curse associated with your film. And of course, another horror classic, Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" has in fact had a whole recent documentary dedicated to the theories it's spawned, "Room 237," which goes into far more depth and far, far nuttier stuff than we'd be able to do justice to here. The other notable omission from the list above is the "Superman" curse, which now that we've had two reboots and a film about the original TV Superman's unhappy and controversial, but hardly supernatural, death ("Hollywoodland" starring forthcoming Superman adversary Ben Affleck), it just seemed that as little credence as it ever may have had, we can just stop talking about that one altogether now.

Elsewhere, no one died during the filming of the "Ben-Hur" (1959) chariot race, but a stuntman did die during the filming of "Ben-Hur" (1926). A tornado did in fact rip through a movie theater that was due to show "Twister" that evening, but the film wasn't playing, let alone playing at the exact moment that a tornado rips through a theater showing "The Shining" in the film. And the events of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" didn't "really happen" as the marketing suggested. Certain aspects of Leatherface's M.O. may have been inspired, like many other fictional killers, by serial grave robber and murderer Ed Gein, but the grisly deaths in the movie are not based on anything factual.

C3PO trading card

On a lighter note, we didn't include the many, many instances of people finding sinister, but usually sexy-sinister, subliminal messages in children's movies, mainly because wouldn't have time to cover them all, but a few particularly hilarious/stupid examples are: the stars spelling out "SEX" in the sky in "The Lion King"; the phallic symbol/shape in the castle on the cover of "The Little Mermaid" video; and the surprisingly true mischievous addition of a picture of a topless lady in the background of two scenes from "The Rescuers" which led to a 1992 recall of the home video edition (it had taken 15 years for anyone to notice/be outraged by it). One similar incident we can't be so flippant about, however, is the notorious C3PO trading card pictured here. However innocent the explanation (apparently a piece of the costume fell off at just the wrong moment -- a penis-shaped piece of the costume???), that shit is just wrong.

Happy 13th, everybody. May you break no mirrors, walk under no ladders and see no black cats.  --Jessica Kiang with Drew Taylor

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Poltergeist, Chaplin, Blade Runner, The Wizard of Oz