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.
“From Here to Eternity”(1953)/”The Godfather” (1972)
Myth: Frank Sinatra got the part of Angelo Maggio in “From Here To Eternity” after some of his mafia friends sent a threat in the form of a mutilated horse’s head to the producers. This incident was then used by Mario Puzo in his novel, and became the infamous horse’s head scene in “The Godfather,” in which, yes, the bloody warning is used to coerce a movie producer into giving a “connected” guy a coveted role.
Reality: Everyone involved with the production of “From Here to Eternity” have denied anything like this actually happened. Sinatra’s acting career was in a rut at the time, but his wife Ava Gardner was very close to studio head Harry Cohn’s wife and reportedly persuaded her to push Sinatra for the role he himself was also aggressively pursuing. Then when the actor originally cast, Eli Wallach, dropped out, Sinatra got his shot and apparently blew everyone away at his screen test, so much so that footage from that test actually made it into the final film. His performance, which he did for a fraction of his usual salary—something else that would suggest the producers were hardly in fear of their lives—was then awarded with one of the eight Oscars that the picture won, so it seems a little unfair to entertain the idea that he might have only got the role through strong-arming and nepotism.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Myth(s): 1. One of the actors playing a Munchkin, in a fit of depression related to his love life, hanged himself on set, and the hanging body is visible in one shot from the Yellow Brick Road. 2. The Tin Man outfit was poisonous. 3. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was designed to perfectly sync up with the film.
Reality: 1. Untrue—all Munchkin actors were present and accounted for after filming ended, and indeed the forest scenes were filmed before the Munchkinland scenes so it’s debatable whether any of them would actually even have been on set at this time. There is a figure, or more accurately a blob in between the trees in the background—in VHS copies it’s indistinct enough that the mistake could be made and wild stories of Munchkin debauchery and excess that did the rounds after filming kind of fed into the idea that some inter-Munchkin love rivalry had ended in tragedy (that had somehow been caught on camera and then used in the final film). Prior to this the popular theory was that it was a wandering stagehand, but later it was officially announced that the shape is in fact a bird, one of several of different varieties that the production had brought in to add verisimilitude to the scene. In fact, in the remastered version it’s very clearly a bird, possibly a crane, but that of course only gives fuel to the conspiracy theorists who believe that the remastering process was partly a cover-up of this on-screen suicide. Certainly the original and the remastered versions look very different, and we guess that those simply longing to believe that the “We’re Off to See the Wizard” section of probably the most beloved family film of all time is actually a snuff movie, will find a way to continue believing just that.
2. Kinda true. Buddy Ebsen, the actor originally slated to play the Tin Man (after swapping roles with The Scarecrow aka Ray Bolger), was also the guinea pig for the costuming and make up. With the designers not sure how they were to achieve the Tin Man’s silvery sheen, they went through several prototypes, eventually settle on one which involved a layer of clown white on his face, followed by a dusting of aluminum powder. The dust in his lungs caused Ebsen to get very ill (though whether from an allergic reaction or an infection it caused is unclear) and be hospitalized, and the part was recast to Jack Haley. Haley’s makeup was a paste instead, but that didn’t solve all problems as he had to miss four days of filming to wait for an eye infection it caused to clear up.
3. Well, this one really depends on what you think of as “perfectly syncing up” and whether that’s ever really possible between a 43-minute album and a 101-minute film.There are many, many blogs dedicated to the points of synchronicity (check out one here if you wish), but of course coincidence is not enough of an explanation for the kookier element who insist that the band deliberately designed the album that way. The band and everyone associated with the recording have always denied it, but the last word on that should probably go to drummer Nick Mason who said “”It’s absolute nonsense. It has nothing to do with ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It was all based on ‘The Sound of Music.'”
Myth: Somebody Up There (or possibly Down Below) did not want the Antichrist film to get made,“sent” a variety of catastrophes to trouble the beleaguered production, and was then pretty pissed when it did get made and continued its reign of terror over those involved. So: Gregory Peck’s, the producer’s and the screenwriter’s (different) planes were all struck by, or very nearly struck by, lightning, while there are varying reports of a narrowly avoided plane crash—either Peck cancelled a seat on a flight that then crashed, killing all on board, or a charter plane that had originally been booked for crew members went down a few minutes after take off. Director Richard Donner’s hotel was bombed by the IRA. An animal trainer used by the film was killed by a lion after filming ended, and during the production dog wranglers were attacked by their Rottweilers. And production designer John Richardson, who designed many of the grisly death scenes in the film including the famous David Warner plate-glass decapitation scene, experienced a horrendous car crash while working on his next film, in which his girlfriend was killed, allegedly beheaded. Further mythology that has sprung up around that tragedy is that it happened by a road marker indicating the couple were 66.6km from the Dutch town of Ommen at the time.
Reality: Already the fogginess of so many of these tales makes it difficult to sort out fact from hyperactive imaginings, but, let’s see. Planes are very frequently struck by lightning, and hotel bombings occurred fairly often around then, many times with much more tragic results that what was presumably more inconvenience than anything else for Donner (not to mention all the other non-“Omen”-related occupants of the hotel). Trainers who work with wild animals, or animals bred for aggression are often attacked by those animals. And the car accident death, well, it’s definitely tragic, and horrific that anyone should witness that, but as for the road sign, while there is a town in The Netherlands called Ommen, its strikes us as odd that there isn’t a single image of this ominous signpost anywhere on the internet. Plus, as far as we can ascertain, Dutch road signs don’t feature fractions of kilometers, except for smaller distances on bicycle paths. So a collection of near-miss circumstances, some bad luck and one bona fide tragedy is all we can see this “curse” really amounting to.
“Three Men and a Baby” (1987)
Myth: The ghost of a young boy, who committed suicide using a shotgun in the house where they were filming the movie, can be seen staring out from behind a curtain in a certain shot.
Reality: Well, it’ll show our vintage but we actually remember getting a shock when we were first told about this, many years back in the heyday of VHS. As also with “The Wizard of Oz” suicide myth the grainy, blurry image that you get from trying to examine a paused VHS does lend itself to all sorts of interpretations particularly for impressionable youngsters. However this one has been completely and thoroughly debunked: for one thing, the interiors were filmed not in an actual house but on a Toronto soundstage, which would be an unusual place for an unquiet spirit to be haunting. And for another, it’s very clearly a cardboard standee of Ted Danson in a top hat which was used as a prop elsewhere, that only looks small-suicidal-boy-sized because of perspective, the gauzy curtains that obscure detail and the odd angle from which it’s seen. Even the shotgun detail probably came from the vaguely shotgun-reminiscent shape that the bottom part of the standee makes from yet another angle. Still, I totally FREAKED Elaine Brady OUT when I showed this to her back in the day.
“The Conqueror” (1956)
Myth: Filming this notorious turkey on a nuclear testing site led to a very high proportion of the cast and crew developing terminal cancer, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendariz, for which producer Howard Hughes later felt so guilty that it contributed to his mental decline.
Reality: A large part of this particular story is, sadly, based in fact. The film, which would otherwise be best remembered for being truly hilariously terrible, featuring a John Wayne performance (as Genghis Khan!) that may prove the absolute last word in miscasting and distractingly inaccurate accents, was largely shot near St. George in Utah. The film set was some 137 miles downwind of the Nevada National Security Site where just a couple years before, extensive nuclear testing had been carried out, but the filmmakers knew of this and were assured by the federal government that there was no danger to public health. In fact, there’s even a photograph that shows Wayne and his two sons fiddling cheerfully with a Geiger counter on set. On location for 13 trying weeks, the cast and crew didn’t even escape the potentially poisonous environment after they returned: producer Howard Hughes had over 60 tons of dirt transported from the area so the Hollywood soundstage would better resemble the footage already shot. Just seven years later, the director, Dick Powell would die of cancer, the same year actor Pedro Armendariz would commit suicide on learning that his cancer too was terminal. Stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead all died of cancer in the ‘70s and though at least some of the deaths may be attributed to smoking (Wayne and Moorehead both were heavy smokers), the fact is by 1981, 91 of the 220 total cast and crew had developed some form of cancer, and 45 had died of the disease (actor John Hoyt would succumb to lung cancer in 1991). In addition, approximately half of the residents of St. George from that period have been diagnosed. To put it in context, a University of Utah doctor suggested that out of 220 people we could expect 30-something cases of cancer. The fact that the number is three times that amount would suggest a correlation between being on that set and contracting the disease.
Producer Howard Hughes allegedly felt so guilty about his decision to shoot where he did (and perhaps over the shoddiness of the film) that he later bought up and suppressed all prints of the film which wasn’t seen again until 1974 when it was shown on TV. In the meantime, screenings of it, along with “Ice Station Zebra,” reportedly became part of Hughes’ nightly entertainment ritual during his shut-in period, which is one of the more eloquent forms of self-torture that we’ve ever heard of.
“Blade Runner” (1982)
Myth: All the brands and companies featured in Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece suffered a terrible reversal of fortune thereafter, usually leading to their collapse. Pan Am, which had been the largest US air carrier since 1927, filed for bankruptcy in 1991; Atari which had 70% of the home console market in 1982 suffered total financial collapse and was sold on in 1984; Bell telephone company lost the monopoly it had enjoyed since the late ‘40s; Cuisinart went bankrupt in 1989; and Coca-Cola launched the famously disastrous New Coke in 1985.
Reality: So this one isn’t about the people who participated in the film being cursed, but the brands, which is itself pretty unique. But yes, while many of the companies featured did experience bad times after the film, there were plenty of other factors. Pan Am was so hugely iconic that it became a target for terrorism, culminating in the horrendous 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland which resulted in 270 deaths. This disastrous association, along with a hike in gas prices due to conflicts in the Middle East, led to its shuttering. The Bell antitrust ruling actually had happened just before filming began on “Blade Runner,” so it was already in motion, while Atari was the biggest company in the market, and so was the most adversely affected, by the 1983 video game crash , though the name lives on now as pretty much a wholly different entity (same goes for Cuisinart). Most obviously running counter to the notion, though, is that although New Coke was a huge disaster that could have sunk the company, it didn’t, and not only did it not, but Coca-Coal went on to enjoy the strongest growth record of, we believe, any company in American history, so, yeah. Also smaller brands that were featured like TDK, Koss and Joven perfumes may not be as big as they once were, but are still around to this day.
Myth: Everyone who gets cast as, or even reads for, the lead in this as-yet-unfilmed fish-out-of-water comedy dies prematurely, and before filming can begin. “Victims” of the curse include John Belushi, Sam Kinison, John Candy and Chris Farley and even, at a stretch, ex-”SNL” head writer Michael O’Donoghue and Phil Hartman.
Reality: “Atuk” is a screenplay that’s been knocking around since the early ’80s and is based on the satirical novel “The Incomparable Atuk” by Mordecai Richler. It’s an unlikely basis for a curse, as opposed to all the horror movies that have them, as the film is a comedy that details the titular Alaskan’s struggle to fit in with life in the Big City—a kind of “Coming to America” but with an Inuit hero. Nonetheless, the aforementioned names were all connected with it on one way or another, and all did die. Belushi was reportedly on the verge of taking the role when he died of a drug overdose in 1982, after which stand-up comedian Sam Kinison filmed some scenes for it in 1988, but allegedly left the production not liking the direction the movie was taking. There are reports that he was in talks to rejoin the project at the time of his 1992 fatal car accident. John Candy was then approached, but died of a heart attack in 1994, the same year that writer Michael o’Donoghue, who had ties to many of these names through ‘SNL,’ and reportedly read and passed the script on to several of them, also died, of a cerebral hemorrhage. And finally, Chris Farley was reportedly on the point of signing on, and also encouraged his friend Phil Hartman to read for a supporting role, when he died of a drug overdose in 1997. Hartman was murdered by his wife in 1998. These deaths are undeniably tragic, but aside from the horrible and only tangentially related demise of Hartman, all were either natural causes, accidents or drug overdoses, often of men whose hard-partying lifestyles (as well as their being overweight) were a matter of record. In fact, it’s telling that rumors of a similar curse sprang up around the still-unfilmed “The Confederacy of Dunces” too, which features an overweight male protagonist and was also allegedly a one-time vehicle for Belushi, then Candy, then Farley. Still, the “Atuk Curse” is known well enough for director Adam McKay to make several references to it on the commentary track to “Anchorman,” in which he pitches an “Eskimo in New York” comedy to Will Ferrell, who repeatedly turns it down.
“The Birth of a Nation”(1915)
Myth: President Woodrow Wilson himself endorsed the film saying, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Reality: While it is a depressing fact that “The Birth of a Nation,” with its utterly revolting race politics and propagandist portrayal of the “heroic” Ku Klux Klan was in fact the first film shown in the White House, and that then-President Woodrow Wilson did actually watch it, current opinion is that the quote above and the stories of his approving of the film were largely unfounded and disseminated by Thomas Dixon Jr., author of the play “The Clansman” on which D.W. Griffith had based his film. In fact, Dixon, whom Griffith could not pay in full for the rights and so reluctantly took a 25% cut off the back end, had a very vested interest in continuing to promote the film as aggressively as possible and it paid off, making him a very rich man and reportedly one of the overall best paid authors for any single work made into a motion picture. Dixon, who had known Wilson in college, pushed the White House association further even going so far as to label the film “Federally Endorsed,” but we’ve little reliable record of Wilson’s direct response until after the controversies surrounding it had grown and he wrote referring to it as “the unfortunate production.” It’s mild enough criticism of a film that sparked widespread protest at the time and in the years since has become mainly the province of film historians with strong stomachs for unapologetic racism and incitement to violence (Griffith’s filmmaking innovations do make it a landmark in the development of modern cinematic language). But better a mild expression of disapproval than the all-out endorsement Wilson had been accused of, we suppose.
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” (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.
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