Creepy Myths, Curses and Urban Legends of Hollywood

In The Next Reel we take an irreverent and informative look at film history from the contemporary to the classic, focusing on the evolution of film and filmed stories and the linkages between films that go far beyond sequels and remakes. Since this column kicked off we have explored the linkage between horror films, between stage and screen, competing 007 franchises, special and unique film techniques, Alien ancestors and great actors and actresses who deserve your repeat attention.

What is film and Hollywood anyway, if not a collection of stories and legends? We all have our favorites and everybody has repeated a few here and there. Jamie Lee Curtis is a Hermaphrodite; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre really happened; Spielberg wrote his own ticket in Hollywood by squatting in an unoccupied Universal Studios Office; Stallone once did porn; footage of Brandon Lee’s fatal shooting can be seen in the final cut of The Crow; James Dean’s death Porsche claimed more victims after him; Richard Gere has a gerbil fetish; Ryan Reynolds can act, we’ve all heard a ton of ridiculous rumors. Full disclosure, one of the above legends is the real deal Holyfield.

Looking at the creepiest urban legends of film, which ones are true and and which slices of Hollywood Folklore are… well… Hollywood Folklore, right? Well, as “Mr. Owl” said in the Tootsie Roll commercial, “Let’s… find out.”

The Legend of the Munchkin Suicide

The Wizard of Oz is little less than the stuff that dreams are made of. For many viewers, the 1939 film was the first time they saw color on screen. The Goldfinger legend of a woman suffocating from the gold paint on her body, finds a little truth in The Wizard of Oz, as the original Tin Woodsman (The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Buddy Ebsen), had to be replaced due to his reaction to the aluminum powder in the Tin Man’s body paints. Professor Marvel’s second-hand store bought coat, coincidentally, turned out to be the former property of The Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum. Many believe Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a perfect alternate soundtrack to the film, thus creating the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” phenomenon.

But the most chilling of The Wizard of Oz urban legends is (fortunately) as ridiculous as it is untrue. Look closely at the trees in the background when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Toto and the freshly oiled Tin Man are skipping away from the witch and the talking trees singing, “We’re Off to See the Wizard”. What’s that in the background, swinging from that tree, just above where the Yellow Brick Road curves away from the Woodsman’s Shack?

Yes, it’s the swinging body of a hanged munchkin who killed himself right there on the set because he lost his true love. Some viewers even claim to have seen a documentary that confirms this haunting fact. Other rumors attribute this to a hapless stagehand who accidentally hung himself on set.

The Verdict: Have you ever been on a movie set, even one as big as the forest scene from The Wizard of Oz? With all the performers, directors, effects, lighting and sound technicians, there is simply no way that a suicide or accidental death could have been missed. What’s more, that was a fake tree and much smaller than it appeared (forced perspective, folks). It’s doubtful a prop like that could bear the weight of a little person, much less a full sized stagehand.

So what was that? I mean, it sure looks like a little hanging body, right? Maybe, but it’s actually a flipping bird. Watch other shots from that sequence and you’ll see a lot of large LA Zoo-provided birds like peacocks roaming around. Combine the forced perspective, the fake tree on the set, the lighting and the silhouette of a crane (or emu), moving around indecisively on legs so thin, they barely make a shadow, and it turns out you get an image that looks a lot like a suicidal Munchkin. But no matter how many times you rewind or freeze the frame, all you really get is the bird.

Still, a web search for this urban legend turns up plenty of believers in the story, believers who get as angry at the debunkers as Texas Chain Saw Massacre believers get at the true stories behind that case. Putting it simply, would a movie studio release a family film with a real dead body in it and leave it that way for decades? Let’s follow the Yellow Brick Road back to a bit of reality here, at least, in The Wizard of Oz parlance, back to that farm in Kansas.

Cursing out The Omen

Richard Donner’s pre-Superman box office success, The Omen (1976), a tale about the antichrist being born and given to a wealthy, American political family, is most assuredly creepy enough as it is. Behind the scenes, however, the three month shoot (begun in October of 1975) was rife with happenings bizarre enough to make one wonder if someone in Heaven simply didn’t want that picture made….

Let’s start with the airplanes. On the way back and forth to England, the (separate) flights of star Gregory Peck and producer Mace Neufeld were struck by lightning (a biblical omen itself), while producer Harvey Bernhard’s flight had a very near miss with a lightning bolt of its own. Another airplane was chartered by the studio for aerial shots, but was switched at the last minute and that plane was given to another party. The aerial shots were completed successfully in the replacement plane while the intended plane crashed immediately upon takeoff, killing every person on board.

Those are pretty creepy coincidences, but the bad luck increased. The restaurant Neufeld and Peck had reservations at was bombed by the IRA and for good measure, Neufeld’s hotel was then bombed by the same group. An animal handler for the film was subsequently attacked and eaten by lions, like some scary rehash of feeding the Christians to the lions in ancient Rome. Stuntman Alf Joint’s next film after The Omen was A Bridge Too Far, on which he was to execute an impressive fall from a building for the camera. According to Joint, he was pushed (by an unknown, never found assailant) too soon and crashed to the ground, breaking many bones and almost killing him.

If that sounds a bit like the creepy scene from The Omen in which Damien’s nanny hanged herself (more successfully than any Munchkin could) by jumping from a building, the oddities don’t end there, True Believers. That death scene was designed by special effects artist John Richardson, who was also responsible for the other myriad death scenes in this suspenseful film, from David Warner’s character’s chilling (and incredibly convincing) decapitation scene behind a truck to Peck’s character’s shooting death on the steps of Guildford Cathedral. Like Joint, Richardson’s next film was A Bridge Too Far, but unlike Joint, Richardson wasn’t lucky enough to avoid tragedy.

It was less than two months after The Omen’s US premiere, while travelling with companion Liz Moore in the Netherlands, that Richardson was in a major car accident. Moore was killed via decapitation in front of Richardson’s eyes in an impossibly similar way to the death he orchestrated for Warner’s character. According to reports (though possibly apocryphal), a road sign at the scene of the accident (witnessed by Richardson) indicated that the exact location was 66.6 kilometers away from the Netherlands city of Ommen.

But that was 1976. What has The Omen done for urban legends lately? In 2008, 39-year-old David Sycamore was shot dead by police while carrying what proved to be a fake gun. Sycamore, who was mentally ill, was shot in the right arm and the chest… right outside of Guildford Cathedral where Peck’s Omen character was gunned down (from the right side) while holding a caché of strange weapons and was posthumously deemed insane. (There are no reports of John Richardson being on the scene, but can you imagine?)

The Verdict: “The Omen Curse” is undeniably creepy and some of these coincidences are quite hard to explain. On the other hand, many of these incidents are not quite the “omens” they would seem.

According to The Guardian UK, lightning strikes airplanes right after takeoff all the time (every commercial plane is reportedly hit at least once per year) and while Donner’s own Superman (on which Richardson also worked) depicts lightning almost taking down Air Force One, the reality is that such strikes rarely prove fatal or even lead to accidents. The metal hull of the aircraft acts as a “Faraday Cage”, protecting passengers from the current. Further, another (very serious) issue would have to be involved in provoking a lightning-based crash. So in theory, if any three co-workers boarded planes to the same place, the odds of two of them being hit are not exactly astronomical.

The odds, however, were certainly against Alf Joint surviving his terrible fall (pushed or not), so clearly there was an “Omen Blessing” on him, possibly the same one that saved The Omen’s aerial camera crew. You can Google “animal attacks trainer” and come up with more hits than you’re comfortable with and, sadly, the IRA was very prolific with their bombings in late 1975. In short, with scary movies, especially with supernatural backdrops, coincidences get just that much creepier.

But what about not one but, two deaths (and one near death) taking place in oddly similar ways to the theatrical death scenes John Richardson designed (and one with Richardson involved)? There can be only one answer… that guy really is cursed.

The ‘Superman Curse’

Most Superman and film fans can point to the 2006 film Hollywoodland as a prime example of the Superman Curse, with Ben Affleck giving us his best George Reeves, TV’s Clark Kent from Adventures of Superman (1952 – 1958). While it’s true that Reeves died tragically, the urban legend goes back farther than most people realize, albeit dubiously.

Kirk Alyn played Superman in two film serials, Superman (1940) and Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950). The legend would have you believe that Alyn’s career ended after he played the Man of Steel and his typecasting made it impossible to find roles, until his untimely death. While it’s true that Alyn’s career wasn’t exactly neck and neck with that of, say, John Wayne, the first “Live Action” Superman found steady work, virtually every year from the end of the sequel ’till 1981 (including playing Lois Lane’s father in 1978’s Superman: The Movie). He made his final appearance in the Superman 50th Anniversary special in 1988. “Tragically”, Alyn “only” lived to the age of 88 when he died in 1999, making his oft-reported (read: poorly researched) “untimely death” more full of bull than a herd of bison.

Bob Collyer was the voice of Superman and Clark Kent in both radio and in the impressive Max Fleischer cartoons. True, Collyer didn’t match Alyn’s longevity, but he did live to be 61 years old, returned to the role of Superman in CBS’ cartoon The NEW Adventures of Superman (1966) and was the popular host of the gameshow To Tell the Truth . He died in 1969 at the age of 61.

Of course, there are more debunkable facets to the legend. Bob Holiday, (of Broadway’s 1966 It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman), Brandon Routh (of 2006’s Superman Returns), Tom Welling (of the 2001 – 2011 series Smallville) and Dean Cain (of the 1993 – 1997 series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) are all still with us and have enjoyed respectable careers since donning and doffing the cape and tights. George Reeves, however, is not so lucky.

Reeves took over “Big Blue’s” role from Alyn in the theatrically released Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and the aforementioned TV show that followed it. Almost immediately Reeves was associated with his character in the popular show and typecasting caused difficulty in getting other parts. Reeves was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in June of 1959, an apparent suicide. But not so fast… Reeves’ rocky relationship with the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix shined a certain light on the “foul play” angle and Reeves’ fingerprints were never found on the murder weapon.

But he was depressed over the cancellation of his TV show, right? Oh really? On paper, sure, the show had been cancelled… more than once, and had been brought back every time. Including this time. After that last cancellation, sponsor Kellogg’s increased the budget for the “cancelled” show and the casting of new supporting characters was already underway. Further, the script for a second Reeves-starring motion picture, to be titled Superman and the Secret Planet had already been written. Every show should be “cancelled” like that. While the show couldn’t go on without its lead, the legend of the “Superman Curse” began then and there.

It didn’t end with Reeves, though. The similarly named Christopher Reeve donned the “S-Shield” starting in 1978 and made two great films, one decent film and one absolute turkey while in his blue tights. Much like the other actors on this list, reports of Reeve’s lack of success sans cape have been greatly exaggerated. Reeve worked with Anthony Hopkins, Michael Keaton, John Carpenter, Michael Caine, Jane Seymour and many others during and after his time as Superman.

On 21 May 1995, Above Suspicion, which featured Reeve as a paralyzed, wheelchair bound police officer, was released into theaters. Six days later, Reeve was paralyzed and wheelchair-bound in real life due to a horseback riding accident. Reeve became an advocate for the paralyzed and a new kind of Superman, but his career continued with his directorial debut In the Gloaming (1997) and his award winning turn in the 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (which he also produced).

In October of 2004, Reeve died of a heart attack, brought on by an infected pressure wound. There’s no question this was a tragedy, but a curse? Reeve had somehow become MORE Super when he lost all his powers. Even though he lost the power to walk — even breathe — on his own, he began lobbying congress and created the Christopher Reeve Foundation. He made a difference in countless lives both, in and out of the cape — and the tights.

Advocates for the Curse say that Reeve’s wife Dana, a non-smoker who died of lung cancer, Superman III star Richard Pryor, who died of multiple sclerosis at age 65, Lee Quigley, baby Kal-El from Superman, who died at age 14 due to inhalant abuse and Lois Lane actress Margot Kidder, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, all prove the legend.

The Verdict: All of this is sad, sure, but there’s no curse there. Alyn, Cain, Holiday, Routh, Welling and Collyer are all living (or have lived) long and successful lives. Dana and Chris Reeve and Pryor made massive impacts after their brush with Supes, and George Reeves’ death was not as simple as it seemed. As for Kidder, who rolled her car three times and barely missed crashing down a 50 foot ravine, her answer is “What about the Luck of Superman?”

Thus, as haunting as many of these events are, they hardly constitute a “curse”. And speaking of “haunting”…

Curse of Poltergeist

Of course, the “Superman Curse” is spread across many years, multiple media and various franchises, increasing the likelihood that something should happen to someone at some point. The strange and tragic events surrounding the Poltergeist series (lasting only six years and three films) don’t have such broad strokes to excuse them.

Poltergeist (1982) is the story of the Freeling family (mom, dad and three kids), whose idyllic suburban life is first disturbed by playful ghosts and then turned into a supernatural living Hell. The urban legend of The Poltergeist Curse would have you believe that a series of untimely deaths have befallen many of those involved in the production. While it’s true that the off-screen tragedies linked to Poltergeist are terribly sad, the truth is not quite the actor-consuming biblical plague the rumors make it out to be.

The oldest of the three Freeling kids, Dana, was played by Dominique Dunne, whose career was picking up speed fast by the release of 1982’s Poltergeist. She had already been cast in the miniseries V when her abusive ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney, paid her a visit on her front porch, struck and then strangled her to death. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but was paroled after less than four years in prison. There’s no denying how terrible this crime is, especially considering Dunne’s young age and promising career, but the next two “cursed” deaths are much harder to call “untimely”.

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) put a name and a face on “the Beast” from the first film. The name was Henry Kane and the face was that of actor Julian Beck, decked out in a black hat and suit. Beck had experienced a long career before he was cast as the second film’s villain and many point to his death in 1985 as further proof of the curse. However, one of the many people who were unsurprised by Beck’s death prior to Poltergeist II’s premiere was Julian Beck himself. Beck had been diagnosed with stomach cancer a full two years before his death and a long time before he even accepted the role. Unless one of “the Beast’s” many powers happens to be time travel, Beck’s death at age 60 was entirely unrelated to his association with the series.

Kane’s counterpoint in the second film was Carol Anne’s protector, Taylor the Medicine Man, played by actor Will Sampson. Sampson, already well known for his role as the window-smashing mental patient Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was already in declining health and underwent a lung transplant in 1987 at age 53. Sadly, Sampson died due to kidney failure and malnutrition as the result of this operation and while that is heartbreaking, it’s also not uncommon after such an operation.

But what of “the Beast’s” intended target, Carol Anne Freeling? Actress Heather O’Rourke was discovered by Steven Spielberg himself, who subsequently cast her in the terrifying haunted house film he wrote and produced. She went on to play Carol Anne in all three films, but only lived to see the premiere of two of them. O’Rourke began having health problems in early 1987 and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (later disputed). In January of 1988, the apparently healthy kid came down with a case of the flu which led to a heart attack. On 1 February 1988, O’Rourke died of septic shock during surgery, brought on by a congenital intestinal issue. She was only 12 years old. Poltergeist III, the last film in the series, was released in June of that year.

The Verdict: Few things imaginable can come close to the sadness of the death of a child, and it’s only natural that people would seek out reasons and answers for such a tragedy. But looking for a supernatural answer like “the Beast” reaching out and taking his victim is disrespectfully morbid. While Beck and Sampson had health issues before they took their respective roles, the very fact that O’Rourke’s condition was “congenital” means that it was literally with her before she was born. This makes her preventable death no less depressing, but it has no more to do with her acting than Reeve’s accident had to do with his Superman suit.

Dunne’s death and the light sentence her killer received are both horrifying and horrible. Sadly, her story is not as unique as it should be (obsessed fans and abusive significant others make the news far too often). The list here ends at four, with three of the deaths caused by pre-existing health conditions and only Dunne’s involving violence. In short, these are tragedies, not a curse.

Three Men and a Baby… and an unquiet spirit bent on revenge

It seems that everyone has heard this legend and, in fact, it’s probably the only thing most people know Three Men and a Baby for, and the reason the film has been watched so much, by so many over the years. Directed by Leonard “Mr. Spock” Nimoy, this story of three bachelors having to care for a surprise infant together was more than a “moderate” success in its initial run and, in fact, was the highest grossing American film of 1987, spawned a sequel and a proposed third film may still be made.

Still, Three Men and a Baby is now best known for a long take featuring Ted Danson’s Jack and his mother (played by Celeste Holm) walking through the title three men’s apartment with the title baby and casually passing first by what appears to be a rifle and then by the grim visage of an angry boy, hiding behind the curtains and peering out at them. Like most tiny details, this sight was missed by most (or forgotten by the end credits) in the initial theatrical run, but when the film was released on home video (where rewind and pause allowed closer inspection), the sight was seen and the legend was born.

The sight itself is rather disturbing, especially if you know to look for it. By the nature of the long take itself, Nimoy’s camera never pauses and follows the trio on a Steadicam as we pass by this scary sight. This aids in the jolt, as not even the camera crew seemed to see that they were passing by this unwanted visitor with black hair, a white shirt and an angry look.

Legend has it that the apartment this movie was filmed in was the scene of a grisly suicide by rifle and that the boy who killed himself haunted the set and made this creepy appearance in the movie shot there. Creepy? Creepy!

The Verdict: Well, first of all, there were no previous tenants. This “apartment” was actually a Toronto soundstage and the walls were built specifically for this film. How some kid might have committed such a terrible act in an apartment that never existed is harder to explain than a munchkin hanging himself on a fake tree that was shorter than he was.

The true answer, as most film fans and internet denizens know, is that this ghost was actually a cardboard cutout of Ted Danson’s Jack character in a top hat and tails. Jack, an actor by trade, was to have a scene featuring this standee in which he is endorsing dog food. The scene was cut, but the standee was left in his bedroom, just behind the curtains.

“But,” I can hear you scream, “I’ve watched that scene on VHS and in the screen grabs on YouTube. It looks NOTHING like Ted Danson in a top hat with his arms stretched wide, it’s a boy with black hair looking angrily at the camera with his arms by his side.” Yes, I know. I saw it too… on VHS and in grainy YouTube videos. Take a look at that scene again in high definition. The angle of the propped up standee gives a very different impression, but in hi-def, we’re clearly looking at Ted Danson in a top hat in 2D.

Naysayers will still point to the fact that on the trio’s first pass we see a rifle (presumably the suicide weapon) propped up in place of the standee. Survey says… wrong. While it’s absolutely true that there is the vague resemblance to a weapon there, understand that what you’re seeing is the best version of a long take during which any number of variables could have changed any number of things. In this case, the millisecond that you may or may not see a “rifle” is that millisecond that the curtains happened to flow into a shape vaguely suggestive thereof. Then on the way back, the curtains were wide enough to see just a glimpse of cardboard Danson.

That’s the human brain for you, filling in the blanks with what we think we see (and therefore want to see). And that is the basis for these Hollywood Urban Legends. Watch the film on VHS and let your brain fill in the rest. So it must be real, right?

Right… See you in the Next Reel!