Six 1980s Movie Urban Legends

by Will Padilla

Long before social media provided an outlet to amplify conspiracy theories, we spread rumors about the bizarre and seemingly supernatural by word of mouth. And while that wasn’t as efficient as Facebook for disseminating faux news stories, many urban legends borne out of the 1980s still persist today. And some of those are in connection with our films from our favorite decade. Here are six urban legends about 1980s movies.

Three Men and a Baby (and a Ghost)

The rumors began shortly after 1987’s “Three Men and a Baby” was released on VHS tape. About an hour into the film, while Jack Holden (Ted Danson) and his mother (Celeste Holm) tour his home with his new baby, a ghostly figure peers out from behind a curtain the background.

The Urban Legend: The strange lurker is the ghost of a boy who committed suicide in the home in which the movie was filmed. The tragic death of the boy left his spirit haunting the house, which was then abandoned and readily available as a location for the film.

The Truth: The low-res nature of VHS likely made the strange figure seem ethereal, but when viewed today in HD, it’s crystal clear the shape is earthbound. In fact, the “ghost boy” is actually a cardboard cutout of Danson’s character. Donning a top hat and tails, the display is all that remains from a storyline that was cut from the film. And the rumored haunted house was a fake as this urban legend. It was actually a set built on a sound stage in Toronto.

The Injurious Atuk

In 1971, legendary producer Norman Jewison (“Moonstruck”) purchased the rights to a adapt “The Incomparable Atuk,” a 1963 satirical novel by Canadian author Mordecai Richler. While the book follows Canadian Inuit poet from Baffin Island who gets transplanted to Toronto, the proposed film was to feature Atuk as an Alaskan Inuit, who travels to New York City.

The Urban Legend: The cursed film damns anyone that is cast to star to an untimely death.

The Truth: At the beginning of 1982, and not long after his success in “The Blues Brothers,” John Belushi read the script and immediately expressed interest in the role. Just a few months later, however, the rising star was found dead in the Chateau Marmont.

Later in the decade in 1988, cameras finally began to roll with Sam Kinison cast in the lead role. Product halted, however, just eight days later due to a dispute between Kinison and the producers. Tragically, the comedian died in 1992 from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was 38 years old.

Other actors that took an interest in the role met similar fates. John Candy died in 1994 at age 43 and Chris Farley followed in 1997 at a mere 33 years of age.

To date, the film has never been made.

Jessica Rabbit Goes Basic Instinct

Since the release of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988, Jessica Rabbit has become one of the most iconic symbols of the power of (animated) female wiles in film history. Voiced by sultry Kathleen Turner, while she wasn’t bad, baby, she was “drawn that way.” This may be way a more-adult myth about the PG-cartoon vixen has endured.

The Urban Legend: While riding through Toon Town, Jessica and Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) are thrown from Benny the Cab when he collides with a lamp post. As Jessica spins through the air, she is as immodest as Sharon Stone in that notorious scene from “Basic Instinct.”

The Truth: For most of the sequence it’s clear Jessica’s is modestly dressed. For a few frames during her second spin, however, it seems her undergarment vanishes. It doesn’t appear to be anything other than an error in the painting of those cells. Even the erroneous shading, however, resembles a shadow and not the anatomy suggested by this scandalous fantasy.

Charlie Sheen Was The Guinea Pig

More than one horror film from the 1980s left moviegoers traumatized, questioning the veracity of the violence depicted on screen. (See “Cannibal Holocaust.”) As such, “Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood” (1985) was gruesome enough to leave a popular 1980s actor concerned too.

The Urban Legend: The film, which shows a modern-day samurai methodically torture, kill and dismember a young woman is real. In fact, in 1991, after Charlie Sheen received a copy of the film, he was so convinced what he watched was seeing actual footage of a murder, he reported it to the FBI. Leaping into action, the feds confiscated Sheen's copy of the film and launched a full inquiry into the production and distribution.

The Truth: The film is a work of fiction, written and directed by Hideshi Hino based on his own manga comics. It was only after investigators spoke with those involved and viewed behind-the-scenes footage that revealed the bloody special effects and visual sleight of hand the that the investigation was dropped.

Bonus Urban Legend: A copy of the film was found in the home of a man named Tsutomu Miyazaki, a serial killer who kidnapped and murdered four young girls in Japan between 1988 and 1989.

Bonus Truth: It’s true. After his arrest in 1989, investigators found a copy of “Guinea Pig 2” in his home.

The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s Confession

The Urban Legend: Since “The Shining” (1980) was released on VHS, there have been many urban legends surrounding the true meaning behind Stanley Kubrick’s horror film. Many of them are chronicled in the documentary “Room 237.” The most interesting of the myths, however, is that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 and his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is his confession.

As the tale unfolds, the U.S. government approached Kubrick after the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. Kubrick’s film had depicted a realistic approach to space exploration and was the clear choice to fake NASA’s visit to the lunar surface.

According to this urban legend, eleven years after the supposed moon landing, and racked with guilt, Kubrick hid several clues in “The Shining” to confess his involvement in the scandal. Throughout the film, for example, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) is seen wearing a knitted jumper with an Apollo 11 rocket on its front. Additionally, Danny can be seen playing on the infamous carpet of the Overlook Hotel, which bears a hexagonal pattern that resembles—wait for it—the launchpad of the Apollo 11. Later, in the climax of the movie, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) rants about how he has signed a contract to maintain the hotel and that he is responsible for holding its secrets. A stand-in for Kubrick, Jack is expressing the feelings of the film’s director as it relates to the faked moon mission.

The Truth: Production designers that worked on the film have provided mundane explanations for the choice of sweater and pattern on the carpet that are related to design elements and not a vast government conspiracy. Additionally, Kubrick's vision of life on the moon as depicted in “2001: A Space Odyssey” had no basis in reality making a poor partner for this particular charade. The film, for example, shows astronauts walking across the lunar surface with no buoyancy whatsoever. Additionally, dust billows up when one of the spacecrafts lands on the moon, which is not possible in reality.

Finally, the there is five decades of evidence that proves NASA landed two astronauts on the moon on July 20, 1969. And they sent an additional ten others there over the course of the six missions that followed.

A Real Ghost Haunted Poltergeist

Perhaps the most famous “cursed” movie of all time is “Poltergeist” (1982), which follows a suburban family that is terrorized by a supernatural presence. During the climax of the film, the matriarch (JoBeth Williams) is dragged into a partially dug-out pool and is immediately surrounded by skeletons that emerge from the mud-lined walls. The final twist of the film: the housing development in which they live was built on top of an intact graveyard.

The Urban Legend: To create the scene, the film crew used real skeleton, ones they had excavated from graves they desecrated. As a result, a curse has punished cast members, leading to their untimely demise.

The Truth: It’s true that some of the actors from the “Poltergeist” franchise died young and/or within a few years of the films having been made. Heather O’Rourke, who played the girl who is kidnapped by ghostly spirit in the first movie, died at the age of 12 due to a congenital intestinal issue while completing “Poltergeist III.” Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest sibling of the haunted family, was murdered by a jealous boyfriend at the age of 22. Other actors that appeared in “Poltergeist II: The Other Side” died within a short time after the film’s release. All of those tragic deaths, however, are easily explained by something other than supernatural forces.

That said, it is also true that the makers of the first film used real skeletons to create the terrifying climatic scene of the first film. Special effects artist Craig Reardon said under oath that the skeletons used for the scene were “acquired a number of actual biological surgical skeletons…. They’re for hanging in classrooms in study. These are actual skeletons from people. I think the bones are acquired from India.”

JoBeth Williams said that the use of genuine skeletons created such an unease around the set that it carried over into the making of the sequel. To address some of their fears, actor Will Sampson, a member of the Muscogee Nation, performed an exorcism on the set of that film. Sampson, who appears in the film as a Native American shaman, died shortly after the film’s release.

For more details about these and some bonus 1980s movie urban legends, listen to our episode covering this topic.