The History of the Ghost Light

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  • Cristina D'Almeida

IIt’s usually known as an end of night procedure. You might hear people say, “hey don’t forget to put the ghost light on” before they leave the theater for the night. A night would not be complete without lighting it. So many have asked through the years what is the purpose of the ghost light in theaters? Why do we need to do this? I’ve often asked that question myself in my early theatre days, and it wasn’t until more recently that I grasped its true purpose other than it is there for safety reasons.

A ghost light is a small, single bulbed light, usually a floor lamp of some sort, that shines on the dark stage throughout the night when the theater is closed and unoccupied. The more logical reason as to why we light this at night is because it’s there in case someone is in the theater working late. It allows them to see where they’re going. Stages have so many hidden places, bumps, and holes. There’s always the orchestra pit that you want to stay clear of or any working equipment if the set is being built and of course the set itself. The light helps to avoid any of these obstacles.

In a more historical sense, the ghost light has many reasons. It is said that every theater has a ghost. The ghost light provides light at night for any spirits to be able to see and even “perform” or dance on the stage. It sounds spooky or creepy, but many have stories to share about it, and sightings of these spirits have allegedly happened. Through research and discussions, most spirits in theaters are not malicious. If you think about it, a theater is a happy place. It’s a theatrical and artistic space to have homed many shows and performers.

So anyone who has died in these places has no reason to feel any hate towards the buildings or its current performers, but there are probably some exceptions. If anything, they probably feel an attachment to the space or may have some unfinished business, but generally, these spirits are kind. That is not to say it won’t freak people out. I, myself, have never been comfortable with the idea that there might be spirits in the theaters I’ve worked. It makes my job harder for me sometimes because as I approach certain parts of the building, that thought of them being around never leaves my brain. It completely scares me. If these things are true, I think if you accept that they’re there or might be there and acknowledge them to some extent, then they’ll leave you alone. On the other end of the spectrum, some people do not believe in these ghosts at all and refuse to hear anything about them. That is something I realize and understand. However, whether you believe in them or not, I think we can all agree to some degree that the ghost light and these mysterious stories behind it, give theatre some extra fascination and appeal. The theatre is so historical, so these stories and past people go hand in hand because it’s part of history.

According to Playbill.com, it is said that the Palace Theatre, in Manhattan, New York, is one of the most haunted theatres on Broadway. Home to the Vaudeville days, film premieres and theatre, most notably and more recently Legally Blonde, so many actors and stars have passed through this place over a span of at least five decades. People believe that the ghost of acrobat Louis Bossalina occupies the theatre. Back in the 1950s, people say that Bossalina fell to his death and during the night, he can still be seen swinging through the rafters. Whether this is accurate or not, it’s a rather interesting story and one that gives the theatre some extra attraction.

In The New Amsterdam theatre, another haunted broadway theatre that houses Mary Poppins, they do not use one single ghost light. They have several ghost lights within the grid that stay on at night, so the theatre is never truly dark. It’s a pretty interesting take on the traditional ghost light, but you have to wonder if there is a reason for keeping so much light on other than for security.

Other names for the ghost light are equity lamps and equity lights. The Actors Equity Association might have been the true originator of the ghost light, hence those names.

Some stories might bring some truth to the ghost light superstition. Other people don’t believe in it at all; however, it is still respected as a tradition regardless of anyone’s viewpoint, and I think the tradition itself is a beautiful and magical custom, especially because it’s become a standard thing that almost everyone follows. It’s as if we all unite at the end of the day to follow this one single act. It shows respect to those of the past, and it’s an honor to do so.