Because the past several months have been filled with so many horrors, both natural and human-made, the so-called “spooky season” feels different this year. With everything going on inside and outside the theatre community, we didn’t know if folks would be interested in sharing anecdotes for our annual Halloween roundup of theatrical ghost stories.
Have no fear: The response to our call for contributions was as thrilling as ever, and we hope this collection of bone-chilling tales can help raise your spirits.
Midland Community Theatre, Texas
When Ariana Cook (she/her) was a member of the Pickwick Players, the west Texas company’s teen acting troupe, she expected the frights of their 1999 production of four Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, Night Chills, to be confined to the fictional world of the play. She was mistaken. Cook, now managing director of Cara Mía Theatre Co. in Dallas, recalls the legend of a ghost named Christine, who allegedly occupies MCT’s studio venue. As the story goes, Christine, the daughter of a contractor charged with constructing the space, met her demise there.
“While playing on the newly installed light grid, she fell and died,” says Cook. “There were many reports of strange sounds, footsteps, and moans from the catwalks of the studio theatre—and all were attributed to Christine’s ghost.”
During her time as a Pickwick, Cook says the apparition never made its way to the cavernous proscenium space—except during Night Chills.
“Backstage we began to hear moans during the show,” she says, and the noises weren’t coming from the sound system or the other actors. “Additionally, odd clanking sounds began to come from the grid above the mainstage, an area where Christine never roamed.” Another cast member, Barbara McNealy Lott (she/her), remembers that wasn’t the only peculiar activity during the run: “The elevator that normally always worked perfect during the day would shut down on odd floors.”
The majority of the unexplained occurrences, Cook observes, took place during the segment that dramatized “The Tell-Tale Heart.” One time during that portion of the play, notes Cook, “The stage manager angrily and urgently told the ASM to go around and account for all actors immediately, because she could see someone’s lower legs and feet as they scurried across the catwalks. This was forbidden during the performance, and the stage manager assumed that some teenager was playing around.” Lott underscores the gravity of the alleged offense. “Pickwicks going on the catwalk during a show was forbidden,” she says. “Going on the catwalk during a show would get you kicked out of the organization and the stage manager would easily see you and call you out.”
The assistant stage manager checked on all the performers and found no answers. “Everyone at the theatre was accounted for,” Cook says, also noting the difficulty of reaching the catwalk in the first place. “The catwalks of the proscenium space had very few access points, and all were watched. No one ever came out.”
This was all highly unusual. Lott says that in her numerous productions as a Pickwick and elsewhere, she never encountered the elevator issues, or the cast getting spooked, the way she did in Night Chills. Even so, Cook suggests the otherworldly presence was a benevolent one.
“We believe the ghostly nature of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories coaxed Christine to the mainstage,” she says. “We also believe she wasn’t there to scare us, but to give us luck. It was her way of saying, ‘Break a leg.’”
Bishop Arts Theatre Center, Dallas
Midland Community Theatre isn’t the only Texas company with a rogue elevator. When, in 2008 the Pegasus City organization moved into its 1914 venue, after a complete overhaul that replaced the entire interior, the electrical room for the elevator was located near the mainstage. Executive artistic director Teresa Coleman Wash (she/her) says that placement initially proved troublesome, admitting it isn’t the “best spot for an intrusive humming sound when your audience is on the edge of their seats at the height of a dramatic scene.” Because “someone would inevitably push the elevator button at the most inopportune time, when you can hear a pin drop, and ruin the entire dramatic moment,” Wash says, “we asked our ushers to minimize audience use of the elevator after the show started, and they were vigilant.” Despite the diligence of the house staff, she says, “on several occasions, sitting at the back of the theatre, I would still hear the noise (probably because my ears were more attuned) and rush out of the theatre, only to find no one was remotely near the elevators.”
A more recent addition to the BATC family says mysterious incidents aren’t limited to the elevator. Executive assistant Samantha Anderson (she/her), who joined the troupe about a year ago and also serves as resident stage manager, reports frequently noticing odd shapes—as recently as the past few days.
“Quite often when I’m working either at my work computer or laptop,” she says, “I’ll see almost, like, a black mass,” a shadowy presence right in her line of sight, near a couple of her colleagues’ offices. That’s not all: “Usually when we have guests touring the theatre, we’ll turn on the lights in the theatre,” Anderson says. “That means I’ll go up to the control room and turn the board on, and I’ve heard footsteps clearly walking across the stage as I entered the booth.” She adds that the stage floor, plus all areas of the theatre other than the stage, is entirely carpeted. “We also have lights that like to come on out of nowhere. It is usually one of the spotlights from the second floor, so I’m guessing our friendly ghost wants to put on a show!”
No matter their theatrical aspirations, Wash won’t permit specters free rein over their space. “After several years of this vexation, I concluded the spirits of 1914 were running rampant in our beloved theatre home,” she says. “We decided to fight fire with fire and began practicing sage smudging on the regular. I refuse to be intimidated in my own house.” Has the new ritual made a difference? Yes, she says: “When most theatre doors are closed all around the country, not only are we surviving but we’re thriving during a pandemic. That’s proof enough for me.”
American Players Theatre, Spring Green, Wisc.
Whereas Bishop Arts Theatre Center has opted to confront its spirits head on, actors Kelsey Brennan (she/her) and Andy Truschinski (he/him) describe a time they found themselves unwittingly summoning a spirit by welcoming darkness.
What were they doing in the dark? It was 2008, and the two performers were rehearsing for the troupe’s apprentice showcase presentation of Romeo and Juliet in which Brennan and Truschinski played Juliet and Romeo, respectively. Brennan recounts that they “kept getting the same note about the balcony scene: Remember that it is so dark that you can’t see each others’ faces.” So they decided to rehearse a few scenes on a night when there was no show—the only way they could get away from all light.
“When the theatre is dark at APT, it really is dark. There are no stage lights, no path lights, no house lights. Just the moon,” Brennan says. They used their cell phones to illuminate their way up the hill and to the stage, where they started rehearsing the balcony scene. “It was perfect,” Brennan says. “I couldn’t see Andy’s features at all, only his outline set against the glow of the beige theatre seats.”
Soon, though, Truschinski began to feel like he was being watched. “Half my mind was paying attention to Kelsey,” he says. “The other half was wondering about what was happening behind me, as my back was to the audience for most of it. It was just a strange feeling, not necessarily foreboding, but just that ‘raise the hair on your arms’ kind of tingling.” Not long after, “I turned around, but I caught a glimpse of something out in the audience coming down the aisle that was darker than the dark we found ourselves in.” Similarly, Brennan says, “In the middle of the scene, a second figure caught my eye. He appeared at the very top of the house, walked down the center aisle, and sat just on the edge of the eighth or ninth row.”
Truschinski and Brennan separately determined this figure must be their director, who had given them the note about darkness. They finished and waited for feedback; when none came, they moved on to the scene in which the two characters meet. It was unlike their director not to offer guidance, but Truschinski guessed he didn’t want to intrude.
“The weird thing to me, though, was that this shape—not sure what else to call it—seemed to just float there in the audience,” Truschinski says. “Again, at no point did I ever feel like I was in danger. I just got that distinct feeling of something else was there with us.”
They proceeded with their rehearsing. When they got to the moment when the characters kiss, they turned out in unison and again awaited comments from their director. “There he was, all shadow, sitting on the aisle of the row, the seat pushed down by the weight of him,” says Brennan. “Again he said nothing. This time, I was spooked.”
They silently agreed they should leave. Brennan followed Truschinski up the center aisle of the house into the lobby, and got to see the figure up close. “He was still a shadow,” Brennan says, “now feet away, seat down, silent, friendly, not foreboding, but clearly someone or something other than our director. I must have been imagining him.” When they reached the top of the hill, Brennan grasped Truschinski’s hand and started to ask, “Did you see that person—” and he interrupted, “walk down Aisle Five and sit down?!” They’d had enough. “We sprinted down the hill convinced that we had encountered something supernatural,” Brennan says.
Truschinski realizes that not everyone will believe they actually saw something that night, and understands why some are skeptical. “I’m not a person to go out there and lightly throw around a ghost story, or any stories of the supernatural, for that matter,” he stresses. “To this day, I can’t fully explain it, but it’s strange to see something darker than the dark. That’s a sensation that will never leave me.” Though Truschinski was hesitant to tell others about this experience, he and Brennan found a number of folks quite receptive, even suggesting that their uninvited guest was the spirit of beloved local actor Stephen Hemming (he/him). Hemming’s last role was Friar Lawrence in APT’s 1995 R&J, and his ashes were scattered at the theatre.
One person making that connection was longtime Core Company member Sarah Day (she/her), who was also a close friend of Hemming’s. What led her to believe it was him in that seat? “Because he so loved Shakespeare’s plays, and all the work done on our stage,” she says, “it seemed to make such sense for him to want to ‘see’ them—the next generation of players, and to be a witness to them continuing the tradition to which he had dedicated his life.” That theory feels right to Brennan, especially since Hemming’s final performance was as the Friar: “I like to think that night in 2008, he reprised the role”—just for the two of them.
American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, Va.
Actors playing Juliet in the dark aren’t the only people who might encounter a ghost in a balcony. Suzanne Lochner (she/her), the company’s assistant box office manager and senior house manager, recalls one such incident. According to Lochner, during intermission at a December 2017 matinee of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!), an audience member in the balcony faltered while getting up.
“She lost her footing as she reached the stairs and started to fall backward toward the railing,” says Lochner. “She would have fallen over the railing if a ghost”—or some other unseen presence—“had not intervened! The patron said as she started falling, it felt as though someone grabbed her from behind and turned her 90 degrees. Her only injury was a twisted ankle.” The incident was reported to Lochner by a couple seated on the opposite side of the balcony.
That couple, Angie and Andrew Dietz, confirmed to me that they observed what Lochner describes and added that they drove the individual home after the performance. Right after the would-be fall, Lochner says, one member of the couple came down to notify her while the other stayed with the patron. She says they told her they witnessed the other theatregoer falling, certain she’d go over the railing, “when all of a sudden they saw her fall arrest in midair, and she turned as if someone had caught her and set her down.” It appears that someone or something not only wished to protect the audience member, but also wanted to make sure she got to see the rest of the show.
The Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, S.C.
While some spirits save a person from harm, others are out to make mischief. Beth Curley, director of marketing and resident graphic designer of Charleston Stage, the theatre company in residence at the Dock Street Theatre, has had a handful of eerie experiences in her 15 years with the organization. Sometimes when she’s working late and she’s the only one in the building, there are signs she’s not alone. All of her encounters have taken place in the third-floor administration offices, including once when she says she heard the faint sound of a woman singing down the hallway.
“I kept trying to rationalize it and convince myself that it could have been sounds traveling up from the street level into the theatre,” she says, “but the singing seemed like it was coming from inside the theatre, down the hallway from the office I was in.”
The theatre has a unique history—the first playhouse on the site was erected in 1736, the current one was built as a WPA project in the 1930s, and multiple named ghosts allegedly reside there—so perhaps it’s unsurprising that uncanny occurrences are common. A number of them involve machines, including (you guessed it) the elevator. One time, Curley recounts, she went into the elevator and waited for the door to close, “but for some reason the elevator door would kick back open as if it sensed someone was trying to enter. Shortly after the door would close, and I would feel the temperature in the elevator drop and get cooler.”
Box office manager Erika Greco (she/her) spent a lot of time at the theatre in fall 2019, around the run of Nevermore! Voyage Into the Netherworld (a film of which is streaming through Nov. 6 for a donation of $10). During that period she had a number of unexplained experiences, one of them in the elevator. Because of her role she’s often the last staffer in the building; once she went back into the building after hours to retrieve an item from her office. “I wasn’t paying much attention and got in the elevator while scrolling through my phone,” she says. “The elevator door began to close, then suddenly it reopened. I looked up from my phone, fully expecting to see that someone had stuck their hand in front of the door to hold the elevator, but no one was there. No one was in the entire building. I decided whatever it was I had forgotten could wait until the morning and got out of there as fast as I could. I was not riding the elevator with whoever or whatever had just stepped on!”
On another occasion, she was preparing her lunch in the kitchen and the washing machine “started shaking violently. Not the adjacent dryer, just the washer. I walked over to it, and the washer was off, with nothing in it, but still shaking intensely. I gently placed my hands on the top of the unit, barely touching it, and it stopped shaking, just as abruptly as it had started.”
Greco recalls one more incident that truly terrified her. It was late one night in the third-floor office, and everyone else had gone home. “I was minding my own business getting some work done, when suddenly the lights went out in the hallway outside our office”—but only those lights, not the ones in the office, which would have gone out if there’d been a power outage. “I was shaken, thinking that an intruder could be in the building, so I packed my things quickly and headed for the stairwell that I use to exit the building.”
When she opened the door, however, the lights in the stairwell were off as well. There’s no light switch for the stairs on that floor, so she’d need to walk down in total darkness. “Not happening. So I backtrack and take the elevator downstairs into the theatre’s main lobby. After my previous experiences with the elevator, I did not want to do this, but it seemed better than the pitch-black stairs with lots of doors and dark corners.” When she got off the elevator on the main floor, it was dark there too. The most bizarre part? “The classical music played in our lobby before shows was blaring! I ran through the theatre as fast as I could, keeping a close eye out for signs of life (or afterlife), not seeing anyone. Thankfully I got out of there safely, and even worked up the nerve to peer back in some of the windows to see if I could find any staff members who might have messed with the switches or played a joke, but there was no one to be found.”
Greco relayed these experiences to me while sitting outside. As she did so, she says, “a lizard just jumped on my back and scared the daylights out of me.” She adds with a grin, “Welcome to Charleston, y’all, where if the ghosts don’t getcha the critters most certainly will.”
Russell M. Dembin (he/him) is a former managing editor of this publication.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!