Haunted Theaters and Ghost Lights

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Afro-Latinx
Age: 20
Occupation: FIDM Student Studying Fashion Design, Food Service
Residence: 2715 Portland St Los Angeles CA 90007
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/13/21
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

My friend shared this story with me and another female friend one night in the kitchen after work. I asked this friend about her haunted house and she later shared that her classmates always left a ‘ghost light’ in the school theater. It was bad luck not to leave a ghost light. This friend also said that she believed her theater may have housed some recent ghosts.

This speaker went to an arts school in Tampa, Florida. She took classes in the drama department and was in school theater productions. Here is her story.

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“Theaters are traditionally haunted all the time… they’re just traditionally haunted,” the speaker said. “After you’re done striking a set or cleaning up or after you’re done rehearsing. You’re always supposed to leave a ghost light, or the ghost, or else that was bad luck.” I asked whether the light was meant to guide the ghosts, but she said that it existed to appease them/ She said ghosts do not like the dark, and that this was ironic.

One day after practice “a student forgot to put the ghost light on, you know, it’s not anything, not a very big deal. It’s literally like a stick and a light ball. And you roll it out onto theaters, like, but we just forgot about it. And then the next day, like a spotlight fell, and that was really bad.”

The speaker said that there were some specific ghosts she thought haunted the theater. “There were a couple of tragedies that did happen at our theater. And there was actually some of them were actually pretty recent. So I’d like to think there were good spirits rather than bad spirits,” she said. The drama director’s brother had passed away that year, and the speaker said that she would like to think that he came to see the productions at the theater. The speaker also added that a young actress had died of a disease in the past, and that there was a plaque in front of the theater honoring her memory. The speaker said that she would like to think that the actress’ ghost visited the theater as well.

When I asked what this meant to the speaker, she said that the young actress had “put so much of her craft into theater.” I suspect that knowing that deceased guests might visit the theater is comforting to the speaker, and that these two particular ghosts help future productions.

*

The speaker has shared other ghost stories and believes that these stories are real, so it makes sense that she would believe these ghosts could be real as well. She began telling this story discussing ghost lights and bad luck, but the story ended on a note of good luck. I was taught to act as if a god was always watching, and I know many people feel comforted to know that someone else is guiding them during stressful parts of their life. It might be comforting to know that ghosts are watching over stage productions as well, since the ‘good’ ghosts the speaker mentioned had theater or theater-adjacent backgrounds.

I did not know that movie theaters and stages are supposed to be haunted or that actors would leave a ghost light. My school had a small theater that we used for small class meetings when the drama department was not at practice. I can’t remember a specific light that was left on the stage, but the room was never completely dark. This was likely for security reasons.

The haunted theater trope may be due to the fact that theaters serve as a sort of liminal space when not in use. Theaters are such specific buildings, and sticking around after the show is not an expected reaction. Only janitors and stage crew might remain after a show is over.

Additionally, members who know about the ghost light are ‘real’ members of the theater community. They understand the traditions of other actors and stage crew, and they are part of an in-group.

This story also draws upon similar ideas as the article ‘Ghostly Possession of Real Estate: The Dead in Contemporary Estonian Folklore’ by Ulo Valk. Actors and other community members who believe in ghosts come to terms with tragedy by carrying out traditions in the hope that loved ones continue to exist in the ‘haunted theater.’ The ghost does not necessarily need to be buried near the theater, rather the theater belongs to them because their devotion to acting tied these ghosts to this particular spot.

For another ghost legend by the same speaker, see ” Haunted House in Indiana- The Funny Man and the Woman with the Red Eyes: Sleep Paralysis and Two Traveling Ghosts” in the USC digital Folklore Archive.