Movies are flickering frames of art reflecting reality. Such is the case, many films contain a variation of the disclaimer, “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental,” and it’s not just a way to reduce lawsuits. Often times tragedy goes beyond the film’s fictional storyline. An actor in a horror film can become the lead protagonist in his or her own macabre tale. At The Lineup, we’ve covered some “cursed films” with unexpected injuries, and even deaths among the stars and crew during filming.
Horror films seem to be a pandora’s box of unfortunate luck that lingers on and beyond the set of those involved in the production. One of the more disturbing movie connections is that of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the death of 26-year-old actress Sharon Tate in 1969. Although Mia Farrow played the title character, Tate visited the movie set while her husband Roman Polanski directed. Both Rosemary and Tate were pregnant and caught in horrific events involved with cults. But there is another movie that could have cursed the rising actress’ future. Before she starred in Valley of the Dolls (1967) and shared the screen with Dean Martin and Nancy Kwan in The Wrecking Crew (1968), Sharon Tate had her first major movie role, which was also her first horror film.
Eye of the Devil (1967) was cursed since its initial steps of production. Originally titled 13, Eye of the Devil had three major changes since filming began in 1965. Kim Novak was signed to play the lead role, but a fall during a scene resulted in a fractured vertebra. Production was postponed until Deborah Kerr replaced Novak, and most of the scenes had to be re-shot. Terry Southern quit and was replaced by screenwriters Robin Estridge and Dennis Murphy, and three different directors worked on the production until J. Lee Thompson was hired to complete the project. The movie was completed in 1966, but it did not release in the U.S. until 1967. Eye of the Devil was produced by Martin Ransohoff, the same producer who signed Tate to his Filmways production company a few years prior, and invested in her acting classes.
The occult film was an entry into the genre, and it portrayed Tate as the young witch Odile, who sacrifices doves among black-cloaked men at moonlight before hypnotizing Kerr’s character to commit suicide. Her necklace resembles the evil eye pendant used to shield against negativity and misfortune, but it represents power and magic in the movie.
During the 1960s, the freedom movement was swinging in bedrooms, music venues, and the minds of teenagers and young adults. The birth control pill liberated women’s sexuality, drugs awoke the consciousness, and the rock scene was in full force. By this time, witchcraft was emerging as another form of self-expression and freedom from religion. “People read the tea leaves, people did the Ouija board, it was always there, it was always an undercurrent in society, and people eventually had to break free,” Alexandrian Witchcraft founder Maxine Sanders told The Last Bohemians.
Ritual performances were necessary to make Odile’s power credible, so she and her husband Alex Sanders were hired to consult in the movie. Publicity photos show Tate standing in a circle between the Alexandrian King of the Witches and his wife. In the interview, Sanders explained how the craft she practices is a fertility cult, and members seek the fulfillment they lack. She works with nature and sexual energy. “Rituals are there to own your consciousness into what you are going to do,” she added. “That thrill of the moment to raise power.” She assures it is not negative or dangerous if the person knows what he or she is doing.
It was during an invitation to the film set that Sanders met Tate, whom she described as “a good actress” who “put herself in the right state of being.” She recalled Tate telling her something along the lines of being her sister because she was into the craft. A few years later, Sanders met Polanski at a late-night show in London. Unaware he was a film director and Tate’s future husband, she felt sick. According to Sanders, Polanski was part of the Process Movement, which she described as a “brain washing cult.” One of the movement’s members asked Sanders’ husband to borrow books written by English occultist Aleister Crowley, and long after they were returned, she noticed there were lines highlighted within the pages—“kill the pigs.” Charles Manson had apparently gone through the books, and the horrific line linked his motives to the crime scene. “It sort of gave the connection,” Sanders added. “There’s always connection in life whether it’s magical or not.”
The media struck a match and burned the reputation of the victims with rumors that blamed them for their deaths. Tate, her friend and Hollywood hairstylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, actor Wojciech Frykowski, and 18-year-old Steven Parent were accused of being drug dealers, orgy freaks, and devil worshipers. Debra Tate denied the lingering accusations that still haunt her sister’s legacy more than 50 years later. “The rumors were absolutely unbearable, for my parents especially,” she told Dateline. “Because I was in the inner circle with Sharon and her friends, I knew that the rumors of witchcraft and devil worship and all of that were absolutely unfounded.”
A year after her death, Fate published a 1968 interview where Tate supposedly had a premonition of her and Sebring being killed. "I know for a fact she did not have a premonition—awake or in a dream—that she and Jay would have their throat cut," her sister confirmed in 2018. "I checked with all of her living friends. None of her friends had any knowledge of this."
Tate’s successful career has unfortunately been overshadowed by her death and the murderers who stole her young life. In the early ‘60s, her modeling career blossomed into small roles in TV shows, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mister Ed, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. She starred in the beach movie Don’t Make Waves (1967) alongside Tony Curtis and Claudia Cardinale, in the horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) directed by Polanski, and received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Jennifer North in Valley of the Dolls. She was a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a friend.
Debra Tate has preserved the life and acting legacy of her sister with the photobook Sharon Tate: Recollection, a website, and petitions to deny parole to the remaining murderers. "They all should live out their natural years in institutions," she said. "I can't trust that they won't inspire other individuals to do similar acts."
Life and death are like dice. There is risk and there is luck. Call them salacious stories or eerie connections tied to horror films, but Tate, her unborn baby, and her friends did not deserve to be murdered. Eye of the Devil may have caused the ironic connection. Roll the dice and your results could be a coincidence—or is it?