The spookiest Wagon Train episode got shelved. Then the perfect ghost girl appeared out of thin air.
Even Hitchcock was bewitched by 6-year-old newcomer Eileen Baral.
Nearly two decades before Poltergeist introduced us to one of the creepiest blonde kids in film history, 6-year-old Eileen Baral was delivering chills and spooking even the toughest cowboys on Wagon Train.
In "Little Girl Lost," Baral played the ghost of a girl who died as part of the Donner Party, one of the most tragic true stories in American pioneering history. Everyone could hear her crying in the episode, but the little girl only appeared to Charley Wooster.
The emotional exchange between them left not a dry eye on set when they filmed — nor in the audience when the episode aired.
For Baral, this was her second appearance on Wagon Train, but from the moment she walked on set, director Virgil Vogel had a vision of the perfect role for her in what would become her second episode.
"Little Girl Lost" aired during Wagon Train's eighth season, but it was written far earlier than that. The show had spent a lot of time trying to cast a kid as the ghost girl, but nobody they saw seemed to fit the part. Rather than make the episode with just any random child actor, they scrapped the episode entirely.
But then, Baral appeared out of nowhere, and Vogel immediately thought back to that episode he'd always wanted to do.
"I remembered the 'Little Girl Lost' script we had for Wagon Train," Vogel told Fort Lauderdale News in 1964. "It had been shelved because we couldn't find the right 6-year-old for the role."
Vogel described Baral as "the brightest child actress I've ever seen," and he wasn't the only prominent Sixties director who used Baral as a muse.
Alfred Hitchcock cast the young girl to star in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as a doll-faced orphan who disappears in a most unsettling way.
Young and unknown, Baral was such a stunning talent that she actually caught the attention of both directors during her first two weeks in Hollywood.
Her mother Henrietta had convinced her car salesman father to move the family from Philadelphia to Hollywood after a friend at a talent agency got Eileen cast in her first Wagon Train episode.
"By the time she was four, she was mimicking everything she saw on television," her mom told Fort Lauderdale News. "A friend in a talent agency used her in a couple of TV appearances and then two months ago I talked Mr. Baral into moving to Hollywood, thinking maybe we could find Eileen bit roles in movies or TV."
Baral had success, appearing on shows like Bonanza, Perry Mason and The Big Valley, and even landing a prominent part in the 1965 Gregory Peck film Mirage.
In the Seventies, she had a recurring role on Nanny and the Professor, and she continued to appear in TV roles until 1972. After that, she retired from Hollywood acting and started a family in the Eighties.
Continuing her acting career may not have been what she ultimately decided she wanted to do with her life, but her start on Wagon Train was certainly sensational.
Starring in "Little Girl Lost," she was part of one of the Western's most innovative scenes.
To achieve the ghostly effect where Charley Wooster could look through the spectral Baral and see the scenery behind her was much more challenging in 1964 without fancy computer graphics.
Veteran cameraman Bud Thackery was called in special to do the job.
He told The Miami Herald that the best way to picture his technique is to imagine seeing your own reflection in the window of a store display on a very sunny day.
Thackery mimicked that effect by using a large sheet of special optical glass, hiding his camera behind a black velvet curtain and using the brightest light you can find at the time on a Hollywood set.
That's how Baral managed to look so spooky to Charley Wooster when she told him her dreams of the future — the dreams he knew she'd never live to see. Her big eyes full of hope stirred everybody on Wagon Train, including cast, crew and producers.
Vogel called Baral "the brightest child actress I've ever seen." Now you know that when she was playing the ghost girl, she was literally stepping into the brightest spotlight there could be. Her future as an actor appeared bright, but then she vanished from TV and movies just as quickly as she appeared.