The theatre has a special relationship to ghosts—and not just the Ibsen play or the 2012 Broadway musical. Theatre scholar Marvin Carlson even suggests in The Haunted Stage that theatre is itself an act of ghosting because of the memories brought on by attending a live performance. So it might not come as a surprise that theatre folk often notice eerie things happening that can’t be explained, in some cases claiming to encounter former staffers who just couldn’t leave after their final curtain. So, in honor of Halloween, below are a handful of anecdotes from various theatre people who believe they’ve come into contact with one of these theatre spirits. Have a story you’d like to share? Let us know.
The Pasadena Playhouse, California
The theatre has had numerous reports of ghostly activity, so often in fact that the company will host paranormal groups who wish to explore the facilities. People have said they’ve seen a woman in her late 20s or early 30s donning a white or yellow dress while in the small upstairs Carrie Hamilton Theatre—perhaps the space’s namesake. Staffers have reported hearing disembodied whistling in the basement late at night or footsteps overhead when no one else was around.
Associate general manager Kristen Hammack, who, in addition to her other responsibilities, acts as a liaison for paranormal groups, had such an experience in 2012. “I got in early one morning, it was probably about 8:30,” she says. At that point her office was right below the prop loft, and she was very much alone. “Then above my head, it sounded like a woman walking around in high heels,” she says. “Our prop master would never, ever wear high heels. [Laughs.] Plus I was the only one there, ’cause it was so early in the morning.” Make no mistake: “There was really nowhere else that the sound could have come from.”
Here’s an audio capture from X Paranormal’s visit in 2012, recorded in the loft (which essentially serves as the green room) of the Carrie Hamilton Theatre. If you listen closely, at about 8 seconds in you can make out a voice saying, “Give that back.”
The Merchant’s House Museum, New York City
For Two Turns Theatre Company‘s 2010 production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Turn of the Screw, performer Christina LaFortune recalls, the dressing room was in an office on the top floor, and no visitors were permitted up once the actors began getting ready. It was a two-person cast, LaFortune and Vince Gatton. After stage manager Benjy Shaw called places, LaFortune recalls, “We usually went down the narrow stairs in this order: Benjy, Vince, then me. One night, I heard and felt someone walking down the stairs behind me—it actually felt like a person was there, and the stairs creaked after I passed down them. It was such a strong feeling that I actually stopped and turned around to look, but of course there was no one there.”
Then, during another performance, there were unexplained noises directly above the building’s double parlors on the first floor, where the play was presented. “On the second floor are bedrooms which were closed off during the performance,” she says. “No one was allowed upstairs at all after the show started; because it is a historic property, there were a lot of rules in place and our team was very protective of the space. Nevertheless, halfway through a show I heard stomping—almost galloping—footsteps running across the ceiling directly above us. It was very loud, so loud that I thought it would be a distraction for the audience. It sounded like someone running through the upstairs bedrooms. The stomping crossed the upstairs floor at least twice, maybe three times, before it stopped.”
Young People’s Theatre, Toronto
The Canadian company has had a variety of alleged ghost encounters. In one case, before opening night of their 2013 production of Annie, school and community programs manager Amber Ebert was assisting the front of house manager prepare in the lower lobby area. “That day the FOH manager, a woman in her mid-20s, was wearing an olive green dress and her brown hair was tied back in a ponytail,” Ebert says. “I remember complimenting her on the dress—it was very unique, calf-length, with loose folds that she cinched in at the waist with a brown belt. In the middle of the preparations I ran upstairs to the second-floor offices to confirm some aspect of the schedule with colleagues. I remember being in a rush as I headed back down the main staircase to deliver the information to the FOH manager. I was halfway down the stairs when I saw what I thought was the FOH manager in her green dress with her brown hair pulled back walk into the kitchen doorway. Not being far behind her, I began to deliver the information I had been sent to confirm as I entered the kitchen. Once there I froze. The kitchen was empty. I was stunned. The kitchen is a long, narrow space with only one entrance. There is no place to hide in the room.”
On another occasion, recounts director of administration Craig Morash, “I was working late, alone in the building, and was carrying out my usual building lockup routine. In the second-floor lobby, I knocked and went into the ladies’ public washroom to make sure that the lights were turned off. The entrance door to the washroom is located in a small alcove just off the lobby across from the lobby staircase. I opened the door a slight crack and saw immediately that the lights were off, so I turned around quickly and headed back into the lobby. There, on the staircase directly in front of me, was a young woman dressed in a chocolate brown satin Victorian-style formal outfit, with a floor-length skirt and waist-length jacket. She wore a matching fascinator-style hat. She looked at me and seemed alarmed that I had seen her. She whisked down the stairs to the lower lobby, but by the time I got there a few seconds later, she had disappeared.”
Director of operations Edgar Chua remembers still another of the theatre’s many run-ins with apparitions. “It was very early one morning, around 6:30 a.m., when I was walking up the stairs from the basement, leading up into the greenroom,” he says. “As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw Lourdes, our cleaner, heading out of the green room pushing her janitor’s cart. But what took me by surprise was that there was a tall man with no discernible face in a brown suit following quickly behind her. I looked back down for a second to determine whether I had reached the top step or not, while simultaneously wondering to myself who that man could be, given the early hour. At that same instance, I became flush with goosebumps because of a bad feeling. By the time I looked back up to get a better look at the man’s face to identify who the person could be, there was no one behind Lourdes.”
The Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City
In the early 2000s, C. Austin Hill was the theatre’s assistant technical director and appeared in several shows there, and he had heard stories of a ghost that liked to watch from a seat in the balcony. “Like any good theatre person, I believed every word,” he says. “One morning I arrived at work, unlocked the theatre, turned on the work lights and the house lights, and saw a man sitting in the balcony. He was wearing a fedora-style hat. I startled and realized that either this was the ghost I had heard about or there had been a man sitting (in a locked theatre) in the dark for some length of time. I watched him for 2-3 minutes, trying to make sense of what I was seeing—determining if there was another explanation. At that point I went to the panel and tried to turn the house lights brighter, but he was gone when I looked back.”
Star Hall, Moab, Utah
Actor Kirsten Darrington recalls that during a summer performance in 2004 at the theatre, there was an open door backstage to cool the space before the show. “I was headed downstairs to meet the rest of the cast when…bam! The door swung shut as if someone had slammed it,” she says. “No wind. Nothing. They said the theatre had a ghost…I guess that was her way of saying hello.” She adds that the technical director “always kept a bare lamp lit onstage when we weren’t rehearsing and even burned a cat whisker onstage the first night we were in the space to appease her. I remember stifling some laughter at the time.” Even so, she says she “was definitely a believer after that door slammed.”
The Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center, Bloomington, Ind.
Around Halloween in 1995, Michael Mark Chemers was serving as house manager for Scott Zigler’s staging of The Trojan Women at Indiana University. The play was running at the University Theatre (now Indiana University Cinema), part of a complex that was constructed in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project. (In 2002 it became part of the Norvelle Center.) Chemers says the show was controversial because Zigler’s concept critiqued the U.S. military, and news had just broken about U.S. servicemen beating and raping a local woman while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. So when mysterious things began happening in the theatre, Chemers notes, the team suspected it was an ethereal being voicing its disapproval of the production.
“One night, the performance was interrupted by a clanging, as if metal on metal, that was resounding through the theatre,” he recalls. He points out that it “was an old building, with strange nooks and crannies and whatnot,” including stairways that led nowhere and doors that opened onto 60-foot drop-offs. Though Chemers could tell the sound was coming from the house left wall, he couldn’t figure out what was causing that racket, and it happened again the next night—only during the performance.
Theatre department chair R. Keith Michael suggested a radiator might be turning on. So Chemers called the physical plant and they came over with the theatre’s original architectural plans, which showed a lighting perch for follow spots, concealed in the house left wall so it wouldn’t be visible to the audience. “I was like, ‘I’ve been all over this area, and there’s no perch there,’” Chemers recounts. “We walked around on the outside, and sure enough, we could see the perch from the stage. So I talked to the TD, and he said, ‘Nobody’s been in there as long as I’ve been employed here, which has been, like, 20 years—we never use it.’”
Once the team located that room, they found the door blocked by heavy furniture; when they moved it, they discovered the door had been painted over. It took them hours to get through, and Chemers says there was no other way to the perch. “So we enter the perch, and it’s covered in dust,” he remembers. They found the radiator, but it wasn’t connected to anything, plus the building had had central heating for decades. “So it’s just a piece of metal sitting there, with no pipes leading to anywhere,” he says. But wait: “Sitting on top of the radiator is a brand-new galvanized metal wrench, and it’s the only thing in the room that doesn’t have dust on it. So we all looked at each other, and we realized that something had brought this wrench in here and was using it to bang on the radiator during the performance.”
Chemers concludes, “It was not possible for anyone to get in there without being seen, plus the dust was undisturbed. So we took the wrench away, we put the door back, and we put the furniture back in front of it—and it never happened again. The only conclusion that we all could come to was that some other thing had decided to be a theatre critic, decided that they didn’t like the show and had taken a wrench up there and started banging on the radiator.”
So who or what was responsible? “The chair of the department suggested that it might have been the previous chair,” Lee Norvelle—who would become the facility’s namesake—”who had died several years previously. And he was like, ‘He really wouldn’t like this show.’” Chemers adds, “There’s also a bust of him with a light on it at the back of the house, so you had the sense that he was a presence there. Anyway, that’s the case of the Ghost That Didn’t Like The Trojan Women.”
The Saenger Theatre, New Orleans
In early 2014, while Melanie Paulina was working as a house manager at the NOLA venue, she heard someone shout her name across the theatre—twice. So she asked her manager “if anyone had reported ‘weird’ things, and the look she gave me said, ‘Yes,'” Paulina recalls. “She asked me if I heard someone whisper in my ear, and I said, ‘No, he yelled my name across the room twice.’ It sounded like a coworker looking for me, so I looked around and there was no one else up on the second floor where I was. I even called on the radio to see if anyone was looking for me, and they said no.”
Barksdale Theatre, Richmond, Va.
Actor Emily Cole-Jones’s encounter took place at a Halloween party following a performance of Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming in 2010 at Barksdale Theatre and the Hanover Tavern, which are now part of Virginia Repertory Theatre.
“There were throngs of people in costume in the pub area and in the dining room,” Cole-Jones recalls. “Two other cast members and I were sitting in some chairs along the wall just inside the entrance to the dining room and as I was scanning the crowd, I noticed a collie walking in front of the fireplace. I thought, ‘Who let a dog in here?’ because there was an exit to the outside at the far end of the room, and I figured someone had left the door open. But almost as soon as I noticed the collie, it vanished! I did a double take and asked my friends if they had seen it. Nope, just me!” Then, during the 2011 run of Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas, she says, castmate Nick Shackleford “came rushing into the third-floor dressing room, saying that he had just seen a big fluffy dog on the second floor on his way upstairs. When I asked him if it was a collie, he freaked out. It was.”
What were these canine spirits doing at the theatre? According to Cole-Jones, the Kilgores, the Tavern’s previous owners, who founded Barksdale Theatre in the 1950s, had lived upstairs of the Tavern with their two large collies. The theatre’s paranormal activity doesn’t end with those dogs, she notes: “Other actors have reported seeing other ghostly characters in other parts of the building Weird stuff would happen onstage too—lights flickering randomly when there had been no other problems, random props falling, rolling, etc.”
West Virginia State University Capitol Center Theater, Charleston, W. Va.
One night Mel Larch was the last person in the dressing room after the theatre’s performance of, fittingly, Jack the Ripper. “As I started to leave, the lights went out in the room,” she says. “I knew there was no one else down there with me (it was in a basement area), so I just said loudly, ‘Hey, I’m still here!’ and the lights came back on. From what I understand, it’s a ghost that is protective of the actors, but not above playing pranks either.”
Fallon House Theatre, Columbia, Calif.
Several times during rehearsals for Sierra Repertory Theatre’s productions of Little Shop of Horrors in 2003 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 2007, “a door to a back stairwell would slam shut and scare us pretty badly, since it was already shut and sometimes locked!” says performer Elizabeth Suzanne. Also, she recalls, “The costume storage area was a long, dark underground chamber with tightly packed rows of costumes. If you walked more than halfway down the long rows, you couldn’t see the end of the room very well, so it was pretty spooky.” On multiple occasions, when she was there alone pulling costumes, “I felt someone touch me on the neck, and once even whisper in my ear”—not exactly words, she says, “more of a hissing sound.” But these incidents weren’t too much of a bother, Suzanne says. “I always enjoy the ghosties, even when they scare me a bit!”
The Station Theatre, Urbana, Ill.
In the summer of 2006 Mathew Green was appearing in his first production at the Station Theatre. About halfway through the performance as Charley in Charley’s Aunt, Green recalls waiting in the stage left wing to make his entrance. Then, he says, “I felt someone step up from behind me and stand next to me behind the curtain. From the corner of my eye, I could see light, fluffy ruffles, and I sensed a female presence, which I assumed was one of the young ladies in the cast, dressed in a period frock. When I turned to speak to her, however, there was no one at all beside me. As I turned around to see where she had gone, I found that there was no one behind me, no one walking away, and no one in the entire backstage area but myself. I felt a little chill at this, but there was no time to dwell on it. I heard my cue line and the show had to go on.”
Have a theatrical ghost story we didn’t include? Email the author with the subject line “Theatre ghosts” or leave a comment below.
*An earlier version of this piece misspelled Mathew Green’s first name. It is Mathew, not Matthew.