Horror films make for particularly tortured productions. Historically, they have higher odds of spooking out their cast, crew, and audiences. The late ’60s and the ’70s were a particularly ripe time for genre films that unsettled both on and off camera; movies like "Rosemary’s Baby," "The Exorcist," and "The Omen" were all released within 10 years of each other, and remain some of the best-regarded horror films of all time.
As we’ll see, these productions were also plagued by on-set strangeness, a trend that has continued as the horror space has grown. Difficult shoots often seem to start with the source material, as if what is being depicted in these films is so disturbing that no one involved can escape its toll.
In addition, many of these films are (allegedly) based on true and disturbing stories. From "The Exorcist," which is inspired by one the Catholic church’s few confirmed exorcisms, to "The Conjuring," which embellishes the experiences of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, it’s no wonder that these productions were tainted by dark energy. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, it’s hard to argue that the following sets weren’t cursed — at the very least, the people involved left with a few scary stories to share (be warned: stories about real-life deaths and other tragedies follow).
"Rosemary’s Baby," based on the novel written by Ira Levin and released in 1968, was an extremely successful film. It was Roman Polanski’s American debut and established him as one of the most distinctive filmmakers of the time, as well as cementing Mia Farrow’s status as a movie star. It was also plagued by deaths among the cast and crew, who died in strange and tragic ways.
At a party, the film’s composer, Krzysztof Komeda, fell off of a rocky slope and into a coma that he never recovered from, similar to the actions that the witches take in the novel to get rid of Rosemary’s friend. Then there’s also the story of Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s wife. Reportedly, Tate auditioned repeatedly for the role of Rosemary, which ended up going to Farrow. She makes a background appearance in one of the film’s scenes. While the film was still in theaters, Tate was killed in her home by followers of Charles Manson. At the time, she was pregnant.
All of these events stoked the fear and the interest of the public, giving the film a bump popularity and an infamous reputation. Levin himself said that he had mixed feelings about the film, claiming that while it gave him access to exclusive literary circles, it also helped popularize the occult and Satanism, which was prevalent during that time period.
Perhaps because of my Catholic upbringing, "The Exorcist" is the most infamous movie I can think of (well, "The Exorcist" and "The Da Vinci Code"). It’s also one of the most revered horror films in history, one that even non-fans can’t help but admire. Upon its release in 1973, "The Exorcist" sparked theater walkouts, made people pass out mid-screening, and, in what has to be the best marketing strategy on the planet, saw theater attendants hand out barf bags to audience members. "The Exorcist" is a terrifying film, following Regan (Linda Blair) and her mother (Ellen Burstyn), who, after witnessing some strange behavior from her daughter, seeks medical help only to find her way to a priest, who’s the only one who can help the possessed girl.
"The Exorcist" set was plagued with injuries, including one that affected Linda Blair. The injury occurred in a scene during which Regan is in the throes of her demonic possession; Blair thrashed around with the help of a rig that kept her tied to the moving bed. In one of the takes, the lacing came undone. "I’m crying, I’m screaming, they think I’m acting up a storm. It fractured my lower spine. No, they didn’t send me to the doctor, it is the footage that’s in the movie," explained Blair in an episode of the documentary "Cursed Films." Aside from injuries, there was also a fire that burned the majority of the set, but that mysteriously left Regan’s bedroom untouched. Things didn’t stop once the film debuted, either; one audience member sued Warner Bros. after he passed out during a screening, fell out of his chair, and broke his jaw.
"The Omen" is a story that expounds on the lies of a father, taking them in terrifying directions. Following a traumatic stillbirth, Robert Thorne (Gregory Peck) takes a child from the hospital ward and hands it to his wife, pretending that he is their son. As luck would have it, the child turns out to be the Antichrist. Released in 1975, the film tapped into the success of "The Exorcist," another film that specifically targeted Catholic fears, making the production ripe for spooky goings-on.
Production on "The Omen" was controversial from the get-go. Executive Bob Munger, who pitched the original story, warned the producer about the dangers of making a film like this. "If the devil’s greatest single weapon is to be invisible and you’re going to do something which is going to take away his invisibility to millions of people, he’s not going to want that to happen," he said.
During production, tragedy struck. Lead actor Gregory Peck’s son died by suicide, and his plane was struck by lightning when he was flying to London for the role. Marc Neufeld, one of the film’s executives, also said his plane was struck by lightning when flying to LA. Stories like this continued to plague the production, resulting in the death of an animal trainer on set and a special effect artist’s involvement in a fatal car crash that recalled the fatality he created for the film. Per local reports, a sign on the site of the accident read: "Ommen, 66.6 km."
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
As we leave behind the horror films of the ’70s, we quickly run into "Poltergeist," released in 1982. This horror classic follows the Freelings as they battle a haunting after their youngest daughter is abducted by spirits who communicated with her through the family’s TV set. The "Poltergeist" curse is one of the most famous in movie history, spawning both E! Hollywood specials and an episode of the documentary series "Cursed Films."
Among the tragedies that surround "Poltergeist," the most striking is the high number of deaths associated with the film and its sequels. Four cast members died during or after working on a "Poltergeist" movie: Heather O’Rourke, the little girl who served as the face of the series, Dominique Dunne, Julian Beck, and Will Sampson. Other creepy things happened on set, including a rumor that real human skeletons were used for the iconic pool scene, and that an exorcism was conducted on set after shooting wrapped.
The Twilight Zone: The Movie
One of the most horrible tragedies in Hollywood history occurred when shooting the movie adaptation of "The Twilight Zone," when Vic Morrow was killed alongside two child actors in a horrific — and arguably preventable — accident.
"The Twilight Zone" featured four stories, each one adapted by different director: Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller and John Landis. For the scene that resulted in the deaths of the actors, Landis was shooting a big set piece with a lot of explosions. Reportedly, Landis’ attitude on set was dictatorial, and scared some of the crew members into silence when conducting the stunts. In the film, a racist played by Morrow travels through time and must rescue two Vietnamese children from an American raid. In the midst of the mayhem, the pilot handling the helicopter on set lost control of the aircraft, killing the three actors, forever changing Landis’ career, and sparking a variety of civil suits against the studio and the director.
While the tragedy remains as one of the great Hollywood horror stories, it did force the film industry to place more importance on safety on their film sets, leading to the creation of risk management jobs and new rules for the use of gunfire, planes, pyrotechnics and more.
While it’s not strictly a horror film, "The Crow" is a macabre, Gothic superhero movie that’s heavily influenced by horror classics. It also is one of the most tragic Hollywood productions to date. Directed by Alex Proyas and released in 1994, "The Crow" is a comic book adaptation starring Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son) as Eric Draven, a man who is murdered alongside his fiancée by a group of gang members right before Halloween. Sometime later, a crow with mystical powers brings Eric back from the dead, setting the stage for his revenge against those who murdered him. Dark stuff.
"The Crow" had a slow and rocky production. According to "Cursed Films," during preproduction a mysterious figure called the offices and left a voicemail asking production to stop. This was followed by multiple tragedies. An electrician was badly burned. Others were injured. Then, Lee died as the film was finishing filming, shot by accident when a prop gun malfunctioned. Since the film was late in production, the person responsible for handling weapons safety wasn’t around to supervise the scene, and wasn’t able to ensure that all props were safe to use.
Lee’s scenes were completed by using a mixture of body doubles and then-revolutionary CGI, but the film kept that charged and sad legacy, which has become impossible to separate from the story itself.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Released in 2005, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is an interesting hybrid. It’s part horror film and part legal drama, resulting in something that manages to stand out amid the exorcism subgenre, which mostly relies on cheap jump scares and spooky face contortions.
Loosely based on a true story, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" follows Erin (Laura Linney), an agnostic lawyer tasked with defending a priest who’s been accused of homicide after conducting an exorcism that resulted in the death of Emily Rose. The film follows two separate storylines: the present, which involves the legal drama, and the past, which depicts the exorcism in question, and features Jennifer Carpenter’s captivating performance.
According to Carpenter, her radio would turn on at random times during the middle of the night while she was shooting the film. The director, Scott Derrickson, confirmed this rumor and said that this also occurred to Linney. "This is true. Also, Laura Linney’s radio turned on at night 3 times during production," he tweeted.
Ti West was one of the horror auteurs of the ’00s, making a string of scary, gory, and fun movies that opened the genre up to people who wouldn’t usually gravitate towards horror. "The Innkeepers," released in 2011, tells the story of two hotel workers in New England who, when looking into stories of hauntings, awaken a dangerous presence.
Interestingly, West decided to make the film after hearing that the hotel where his crew stayed while shooting his previous film, "The House of the Devil," was haunted. "Well the hotel that inspired the film is actually in the film," said West in an interview with Indiewire. "The staff at the hotel believe it’s haunted. The whole town believes it’s haunted. So it has this kind of mystique to it."
While West said that he’s a skeptic and doesn’t believe in ghosts, he and the cast lived in the hotel for the duration of shooting, and he did see some doors opening and closing and TVs turning on and off, and mentioned that everyone who was sleeping there had very vivid dreams. Sara Paxton, the star of the film, said that at nights her door would also "violently fly open."
"The Conjuring" spawned a whole interconnected universe of modern horror films, many of which are amongst the best in the genre. The original film, released in 2013 and directed by James Wan, is a stylistic and terrifying reinterpretation of a true story, following paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they investigate the Perrons’ home, where there’s a supernatural presence that starts to escalate in disturbing ways.
The Perrons’ story deeply affected everyone involved in it, from the Warrens themselves to the cast and crew of the film. According to Farmiga, while shooting she found herself waking up between 3 and 4 AM every night. This hour has long been associated with spirits and the devil — in the case of "The Conjuring," that’s also when the witch character dies. Farmiga also reported finding claw marks, first on her computer screen and then on her leg.
While the film never halted production, the experiences were strange enough that the team behind "The Conjuring 2" hired a priest to bless the set before filming started. If there’s something to be learned from all of this, it’s that, when depicting the paranormal, you can never be too safe.
Anabelle Comes Home
Another installment in the Conjuring series, "Anabelle Comes Home" was another seemingly cursed production. Released in 2019, "Anabelle Comes Home" stars franchise newcomer McKenna Grace and series veterans Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, adding another chapter to the Warrens’ saga, this time following a possessed doll that starts tormenting the couple’s daughter and babysitter.
In conversation with The Wrap, Grace talked about her experiences shooting the film, which included doors opening and closing and shadowy figures that she spotted on location. "When all of us were on set together for the first time, the lights went out and we were all freaking out and asking, ‘Annabelle, are you there?’" Grace said. "Then, the lights turned back on and my nose was bleeding so heavily. It happens sometimes because of allergies but not this heavy — as soon as I left set to get a tissue, it stopped."
Production notes also state that a piano bench moved around without explanation and that, while visiting the set, a journalist’s watch went haywire, skipping hours ahead.