• Heather O'Rourke was a famous child star
  • She starred in the Poltergeist film
  • Learn more about her short life

Heather O'Rourke appeared destined for greatness after breaking through as a child star in the Poltergeist movies and on Happy Days in the 1980s. But in 1988, the young actress suddenly and heartbreakingly passed away at the age of 12.

On Dec. 27, 2021, Heather would have turned 46 years old. Here's the official report on her tragic death, followed by a commemoration of her film and TV career and legacy.

Heather O'Rourke died tragically young in 1988

In January 1988, one month after her 12th birthday, child star Heather O'Rourke began experiencing flu-like symptoms while at her family home. Her condition turned extreme the next day, when she collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. 

Doctors revived her, after which they discovered she had intestinal stenosis. But following emergency surgery, she again experienced a cardiac arrest. They were unable to restart her heart and she was pronounced dead on Feb. 1. She was just 12.

Poltergeist actress Heather O'Rourke died at age 12 (1975-1988).

According to the AP, doctors explained that Heather had a bowel defect that had gone undetected and that her case was "distinctly unusual" in that it did not display any symptoms in the lead up to her death.

They said: Heather died of "septic shock due to congenital stenosis of the lower intestine. That means she died of shock caused by infection in the blood, which in turn was caused by a birth defect that made a section of her intestine abnormally narrow."

Poltergeist: Heather O'Rourke's impressive movie and TV legacy

The loss of the young star is still a devastating one over 30 years later. Though O'Rouke worked in Hollywood for just six years, she left quite a lasting impression on movie and TV history. As the story goes, director Steven Spielberg discovered her while having lunch at MGM Studios.

Her older sister Tammy was there filming, and Spielberg spotted little Heather with her mother. The filmmaker cast O'Rourke as the lead in 1982's Poltergeist, in which she played the innocent young daughter "Carol Anne." She was 6 years old at the time.

O'Rourke's line in the film, "They're here," is an iconic horror quote and her line, "They're back," was the tagline of the 1986 sequel. Around the time of the first Poltergeist movie, O'Rourke also acted on Fantasy Island and had a recurring role on Happy Days as little "Heather Pfister," the daughter of "Ashley" (Linda Purl), who dated "Fonzie" (Henry Winkler) in season 10.

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In addition, she played "Melanie" on Webster, which earned her the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress, Guest in a Television Series, in 1985. She was nominated for six Young Artist Awards and one every year from 1983 to 1987.

Other credits for O'Rourke included CHiPsThe New Leave It to Beaver, and Our House. Sadly, Poltergeist III became her final role, released posthumously in 1988. In 2005, the AFI selected her Poltergeist line — "They're here" — at no. 69 on the "100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes" list.

Heather was entombed at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.