[To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the cult classic Heathers, we're celebrating all week long with "Heathers of Horror" special features highlighting our favorite horror performances by women with the same name as the iconic clique from the 1989 dark comedy! Check here to catch up on all of our "Heathers Week" special features!]
The horror genre has a long history of using kids as central plot points, probably because their innocence and inexperience so often contrasts with the kinds of nightmares being presented on screen. Sometimes, young kids are used as creepy killers, from Village of the Damned and The Bad Seed to The Omen all the way to the recent remake of Pet Sematary. Other times, kids are used as a kind of vessel—the ones who can see and connect to a supernatural realm that the other characters can’t. Think The Sixth Sense, or, more importantly, 1982’s Poltergeist.
One of the most iconic of all horror movie kids, seven-year-old Heather O’Rourke made genre history when she announced “they’re here” in director Tobe Hooper’s classic. It’s a line still quoted to this day, and for good reason: in just two words, O’Rourke announces the arrival of something ominous and terrifying—a presence that has crossed over into our world and isn’t here to play nice. Had she done nothing else at all in the movie, O’Rourke’s performance as Carol Anne Freeling would still be talked about for providing one of the most memorable moments of the 1980s. Her work in Poltergeist is more than just a catchphrase, though. What makes her so special (beyond her tragically short life and the whole “curse of Poltergeist” thing) is that she, like all the actors who make up the Freeling family, is a totally believable human being. She’s no cutesy movie kid. She’s a real person, as is everyone in Poltergeist, and that believability makes what’s happening that much scarier because we don’t want anything bad to befall the Freelings. We especially don’t want anything bad to happen to Carol Anne.
Making things that much more impressive is the fact that O’Rourke isn’t in the movie all that much. Her disappearance fairly early on is what drives the majority of the plot, meaning Carol Anne is off screen for most of the film. Director Hooper and producer/co-screenwriter Steven Spielberg anticipate this absence, so they make sure we fall in love with the little girl early on. This is where the talents of Spielberg the writer are really on display: there are few filmmakers who are better at working with children or at presenting realistic suburban families on screen. His ear for naturalism, combined with director Hooper’s (who has a background in documentary filmmaking) willingness to hang back and allow his camera to observe, help to give O’Rourke the space not so much to “act” as to just be a kid on screen. Her early interactions with the spirits haunting the Freeling house aren’t governed by fear or a disbelief in the supernatural. For her it’s all play.
It’s play for her mom, too, portrayed by JoBeth Williams as one of the all-time great horror movie mothers. The early scenes of Carol Anne and mom Diane conducting kitchen experiments with their new and unseen houseguests are infused with a sense of fun and excitement—they’re both kids playing with a new toy. These moments establish a connection between Carol Anne and her mother that’s unlike the ones we see with any of the other Freeling kids, making it all the more wrenching when that connection is severed after Carol Anne is taken. The bond between mother and daughter totally drives Poltergeist, both as a plot device and as the film’s emotional core. If Diane Freeling is the movie’s heart, Carol Anne provides its soul.
Though she would continue the role of Carol Anne Freeling across two more sequels, it’s the original Poltergeist that cements Heather O’Rourke as one of the all-time great genre movie kids and one of the most memorable Heathers in horror. There’s so much that gets talked about in conversations about Poltergeist that overshadows the movie itself, whether it’s the aforementioned “curse” or the misguided controversy surrounding rumors about who directed what on the film. That’s a shame, because it takes away from so many of the elements that make it special, like the performance of a seven-year-old girl who makes us believe in the possibility of life on the Other Side.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead all week long for more "Heathers of Horror" special features, and check here to catch up on all of our previous features celebrating "Heathers Week"!