Death Claims Heather O'Rourke, the Angelic Child Who Chased Away Demons in Poltergeist

UPDATED 02/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

It happened so fast. At 9:25 a.m., Monday Feb. 1, only hours after developing what appeared to be flu symptoms, Heather O'Rourke, child star of the Poltergeist horror films, was rushed from her home in Lakeside, Calif., to the hospital; she was in septic shock and cardiac arrest. An hour later she arrived by airlift, alive but in critical condition, at Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. There she was operated on for intestinal stenosis, an acute bowel obstruction, a congenital condition neither her mother nor stepfather had suspected. At 2:43 p.m. Heather died on the operating table. She was 12 years old.

With her long blond hair and big blue eyes, "Heather always looked like Alice in Wonderland," her manager, Michael Meyer, wistfully remembered. Her discovery was out of Cinderella: Steven Spielberg spotted her in the MGM commissary and signed her immediately for Poltergeist. As an innocent moppet tormented by ghostly forces, Heather delivered the 1982 film's key line—"They're heeere!"—with chilling assurance, but only one scene really frightened her: the one in which the wind whipped through her bedroom window forcing her to cling desperately to the headboard while her toys were flung about. "When Heather began to panic, I fell apart," Spielberg said later. "I took her in my arms and promised she'd never have to do that scene again." The New York Times ranked her performance in Poltergeist with "the best work ever done by children in Hollywood."

Heather soon became a familiar TV face, appearing on Happy Days, Webster and Still the Beaver. The money she earned from those roles, along with Poltergeist II (1986) and the recently completed Poltergeist III (due in June), helped her family move from a mobile home to the comfort of an attractive apartment complex in suburbia. Heather rarely saw her real father; it was her stepfather, Jim Peele, whom she called "Dad."

While her family remained too distraught to comment, Heather's Poltergeist mom, actress JoBeth Williams, expressed the feelings of a stunned film community. "My heart goes out to her mother and family," said Williams. "I am deeply saddened."

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