Theatre Ghosts: Part 1—The Ghosts We Inherit

C. Austin Hill

Who doesn’t enjoy a good theatre ghost story?  I love those moments, after rehearsal, when everyone shares their spectral experiences…or those moments IN rehearsal when something happens that is beyond explanation.  This will be the first in a 3-part series on ghosts in the theatre.  In this part—The Ghosts We Inherit, I will share some of my ghostly encounters.  Part 2 will be called “The Ghosts We Conjure”, and Part 3 “The Ghosts We Leave Behind.” 

Legend has it that my theatre is haunted, and I’ve certainly had enough weird moments in there to agree.  It makes sense, as Tennessee Wesleyan College dates back to 1857, and one building on campus was used as a hospital during the Civil War.  That building—Old College—is a hotbed of paranormal activity where photos have captured full-bodied apparitions multiple times.  Why Townsend Hall, where the theatre is, should be haunted is unknown.  The building was built in 1924 as an auditorium/gymnasium, and has been renovated several times since.  I don’t know of any deaths in the building, or any obvious cause for paranormal activity.  But the building certainly seems haunted.

The reports of activity are varied, but they center on areas backstage.  On many occasions we hear footsteps when nobody is back there.  Several times we’ve heard bangs and crashes and have been unable to identify a source.  I suspect that our guest is of the technical theatre sort, because whenever acknowledged, activity immediately stops…as though our friend was embarrassed to have been heard.  Most of my students have decided that the ghost is female, though others have reported what sounds like the sound of a man breathing.  The presence of a graffito indicating that “Sylvia was here” on one of the backstage walls has caused most of my students to call our ghost Sylvia.

One evening, after the final tech rehearsal for The Crucible I gathered the cast and crew on stage for notes.  There were over 20 people on stage and I could clearly see that there was nobody backstage.  After notes, I offered some words of encouragement, telling my company how incredibly proud I was of their hard work.  I also mentioned that the theatre ghost must be really excited that we were doing a show as intense (and supernatural) as The Crucible.  No sooner had I spoken than the work lights turned off.  These lights were scoops that plug into the wall—there is no switch, and they do not run through the board.  For these lights to turn off, they would have had to be unplugged.  We all had a big laugh at the outstanding timing of what must have been a coincidence.  Nothing prepared us for what was about to happen.

Sitting in the dim (the house lights were on), I stood to move towards the plug for the lights.  I took one step, and the lights turned back on.  I stopped and indicated that clearly “the ghost” was messing with us—it must have been a short in the cord, a blip in the power (even though the house lights never dimmed), a problem with the fuse.  We all had a laugh, and I told my company that this had only confirmed what I thought about the power of their work.  The lights went out.  Again.

I moved again towards the plug, and after one step the lights came back on.  This time, I thought I’d be really bold…I insisted that I’d only believe that this was supernatural if it happened again.  And the lights went out.  And back on. 

I have always insisted that I’d be very disappointed to work in a theatre without a ghost.  I love the idea that there are those who enjoy the theatre so much that they opt to return.  Of all of the theatre ghost stories I have heard, I seldom hear of any encounters that feel negative or dangerous…and this makes perfect sense.  The theatre, at its best, is a place of energy and passion.  All of us who have performed can attest to the power of these spaces and of this art form.  Isn’t that why we all keep coming back?  I believe wholeheartedly in my theatre ghost.  I think that “she” is there to help us, to watch us, to remain (or become) a part of the energy in our building.  I have heard her, I might have seen her once, but of course it was dark, and from a distance, and might have been nothing.  There is one spotlight booth that I do NOT like to look at…which seems odd even to me.  But I also believe that she is a part of the space that I have inherited.  She is a welcome part of the family.

The best thing about ghost stories is sharing them with others…what are your stories?