Cursed Films Cares about the Human Cost of Filmmaking

Shudder's documentary series on so called cursed films debunks harmful myths and asks bigger questions.

I stumbled upon Shudder’s Cursed Films this weekend: it’s a documentary series about movies with “cursed” productions, that is, where stories about terrible things that happened to the cast and crew have taken a life of their own. The second season just launched on Shudder, so it was featured prominently on the service’s home screen. I binged the whole first season in about a day, covering famously cursed movies like The Exorcist, The Crow, Poltergeist, The Twilight Zone and The Omen. All horror movies that lent themselves handily to this idea of a haunted, utterly fucked production, and all episodes that have both a lovely sense of humor and genuine sense of core decency. Cursed Films seems to actually care about the human beings who were involved, and why myths perpetuate even when a lot of sinister actions are thoroughly debunked.

This Decider piece nails the core appeal of the show: busting myths about these stupid “curses” and placing the blame (of things like wrongful deaths, injuries, horrible accidents and the like) squarely on the shoulders of abusive directors, shitty luck, complex shoots, and the brutal, inhumane Hollywood machine. The second season, which starts with a look at The Wizard of Oz and turns right into Rosemary’s Baby, goes even further (and yup, the “special appearance” by Tim Heidecker’s On Cinema At The Cinema “character” Gregg Turkington goes right along with it), with both goofy segments scoring points for more reasonable voices and direct statements about who caused the worst harm in all the “cursed” shoots.

The Wizard of Oz was a wildly ambitious production and a classic, beloved work. But the safety standards (and you might argue, even the most basic, common-sense considerations for human comfort and decent treatment) were sorely lacking. There were fires on set (Margaret Hamilton was horribly burned, and her son recounts seeing her wrapped up “like a mummy”), violence and forced drug abuse, and even shitty fabrications about crazy parties that the munchkin actors took part in. All this human suffering… for a piece of fiction. 

the wizard of oz

A wonderful piece of fiction, sure! But that doesn’t excuse how poorly people were treated, perhaps worst of all, Judy Garland, then aged 15 and 16 during the movie’s filming.

Family members of cast and crew (alongside film scholars and writers) give context to the awful safety conditions and sheer negligence that came out of the production. There’s some amount of “they didn’t know any better” and “yeah, that would absolutely qualify as abuse today,” and I appreciate just how honest the series is. In this episode, Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter (who mentions struggles with addiction herself) wrestles with her mother’s treatment very honestly:

“I never blamed the studio for the addiction that encompassed her adult life. Because the studio would never go out to harm its biggest money maker,” she says, as eerie, canted angle recreations of a young Dorothy in an old house play across the screen.

“You were a product… the actors were never really truly thought about as people. They were part of the factory,” she continued, referring to the fact that doctors at the studio gave the teenaged Garland stimulants to keep her from gaining weight (with the express desire to keep her looking young and childlike). And she was given sleeping pills at night to counteract the effects of the amphetamines.

“We know the studio did harm. We know that now. We know that amphetamines — and we know that sleeping pills — you don’t give that to kids!” She emphasized. “They didn’t know that then. Even if they did — would they have cared? I don’t know!”

“They got around the child labor laws. They did harmful things.”

Maybe most of all, Cursed Films strikes at the heart of myth, because it keeps trying to answer questions about why people believe in and perpetuate these curses: even when these stories do real harm to human beings. 

“You were a product… the actors were never really truly thought about as people. They were part of the factory.”

Linda Blair is interviewed in the Exorcist episode and gives context to injuries she sustained during the production, and horrible harassment she endured because some deranged “fans” actually thought she was the devil. She refuses to answer questions about the bodyguards the studio hired to keep her alive in the worst of it, clearly scarred by the experience. Multiple people mention that the young boy who starred in The Omen a couple of year later didn’t receive the same treatment, and he was playing a similar role (arguably, as he was playing a baby antichrist and poor Reagan from The Exorcist is a normal child who becomes possessed by a demon, one would think she’d garner more sympathy). So why did the young woman get harassed?

the exorcist

Why do people do this kind of shit? Perhaps more universally, why do we see “curses” at all, when clearly, some movies (horror, fantasy, or not) have hard shoots, and some do not?

Mythbusters host Adam Savage appears on the Wizard of Oz episode with his own very humane take.

“I think that when some people look at films that are super beloved, and they hear stories about the difficulties or the tragedies that happened on set, they then go on to ascribe that production as ‘cursed,’’’ he sighs. “Because it’s hard to hear these stories of tragedy, and you want to believe that there is at least someone — or something — is in charge!”

There’s a very nice little editing touch here, as he voices the “someone in charge” notion: of the man behind the curtain in the film, the great and powerful wizard himself, playing with smoke and mirrors.

“Because the reality is,” he continues, “no one is in charge and the universe doesn’t care about you. But that is too crushing to encompass with our minds. So we come up with ideas like ‘that production is cursed,’ because it makes us feel a little bit better about the terrible things that might have happened on the set.”

That’s an idea that comes up time after time on the show: the human need to believe in order, in patterns, in some kind of logic to the world around us. Cursed Films has a sympathy for this instinct, even as it clearly does not excuse shitty behavior that can come from it. 

There’s something very primal about this, something fundamental to storytelling at its core, and genre filmmaking especially: the reason we see these “curse” patterns and attribute this logic has to do with the reason humans tell stories in the first place. We are all trying to make meaning out of the senseless, chaotic world we live in. Whether that means telling a friend about your day, or writing a novel, or making a film with a coherent beginning, middle, and end (and often some tangible form of monster, ghost, or demon to confront), or buying into a “curse” narrative about said film, it’s all coming from the same place. We don’t like chaos, we don’t like randomness, we don’t like the cold nature of a universe that’s indifferent to our sensitive human egos.

Cursed Films just wants us to see that for what it is, and to consider who might get hurt in the process if we ever forget.