Tag Archives: high school theater

Theater Macbeth Superstition


“Ok so I’ve been doing theater since I was a little kid. And I remember the first time I heard of this superstition, I was like, 7 I think. I was in my first musical and someone started talking about the M word. And I was like, “what’s the M word?” And they refused to tell me and I didn’t know why, and I thought they were like, talking about McDonalds or something. Cause we were backstage in the dressing room of the theater. So they tell me it’s a word we can’t say in the theater because it’s cursed and will make the play go bad, and that someone said it last year during the music and an actress fell of the stage and broke her leg. And when we get outside the theater when we leave, they tell me the word is Macbeth. And from then on I knew you weren’t supposed to say it. I was in a theater camp a few years later and I remember our teacher taught us about the curse. And one of the kids actually said Macbeth, and we all got so mad, and our teacher actually made him go outside to reverse it. He had to go outside the theater, spit over his left shoulder, and turn around three times. We all like followed him outside to watch him do it. Then I remember when I was in middle school I was in the musical, and someone said it. And we swear that’s why any mistake in the show happened. Like one of our lead actors was sick during the show, and we said it was because someone said the cursed word, we call it the Scottish Play while in the theater. So it’s a big superstition in theater, everyone knows about it. I feel like it became less important when I got older, but I still like actually believe in it. I’m not super superstitious or anything, but that’s the one that I’m really serious about. I don’t tell stories about it as much anymore, it’s not as sensational anymore, but I’m dead serious when people threaten to say it during a musical. I fully will not say it in a theater, even if it’s stupid. It’s kind of like a badge of being a real theater actor, like you’re really one of us because you won’t say it.” 


B is an 18-year-old college student who lives in the Bay Area in California. She has been doing theater for almost all her life, and still considers it a big part of her identity. She relays the superstition with a bit of conflict, because while she sometimes thinks it’s a little silly and doesn’t really believe a single word can be cursed in a certain location, she still reveres the superstition and won’t actually say it. This is a theater superstition that has been around for a long time, and she’s heard it in theaters across many states in the US. 


This is a magic superstition, where the belief is that if you do a particular thing, it will lead to bad luck. It is also combined with a conversion superstition, with the description of the actions that must be done to get rid of the bad luck. Superstitions like these are common in careers like theater, because live theater has so many elements that are out of people’s control. Once the show has begun, anything could go wrong and the actors have no way to control it. They could blank on a line, there could be a tech malfunction, there is a lot of anxiety surrounding life theater no matter how well they prepare. This means that there are a lot of superstitions, because it gives people an illusion of control that could act as a placebo effect. They can think “This show will go great, no one has said the Scottish Play yet!” It’s also an example of cognitive dissonance. When things go wrong in live theater and people don’t really know why, they like to have something to blame to give an explanation to the unexplainable. “Why did I forget the line I’ve had memorized and perfect for weeks? Oh, because someone said Macbeth!” This superstition is also a form of ritual that creates identity, like in Van Genup’s Rites of Passage. When she was in her first musical, she wasn’t really part of the group because she didn’t know the superstition about Macbeth. Now that she’s older and more experienced, she takes it as a sign of her identity. She underwent the rite of passage of learning about the Macbeth superstition, so now it creates her identity as a thespian. Her maintained belief in the superstition shows how even when things aren’t necessarily scientific, people can still believe them despite their rational mind telling them it doesn’t make sense. Belief works even against rationality. And just because it hasn’t been scientifically proven doesn’t mean the superstition isn’t true. Maybe there is a correlation between someone say Macbeth and a show going wrong.

123 Shakespeare

Main Piece: 

Everyone comes early to rehearsal and they play 123 Shakespeare. What that is is there’s one person who starts, and you have to try— its in a field—  and the goal is to run away from the field without getting, I guess, eliminated and once you are, you join the eliminators. So it starts with one person. To eliminate them you have to drag them out of the zone of the field, and then they join your team, and you work together to get more people. And then once you have a couple more people, you have to start lifting people up and shouting “123 SHAKESPEARE!” while no part of them touches the ground. And then you have eliminated them. And you’re allowed to do whatever you’re comfortable with to be the last one standing, and that happened before every show. 


My informant is one of my friends from high school,  and was very involved in our school’s theater department. As he told me, 123 Shakespeare is a ritual game that’s done before the opening of every show, and was one of the most anticipated traditions of our theater department. However, it was also kept secret; only the cast and crew of the show knew about it, not the general rest of the school. It was additionally kept secret from anyone who was participating in a show for the first time. What would happen is that people would be told to come to rehearsal early, “not explaining anything, but [we had] the decency to say ‘bring a change of clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.'” Upperclassmen in the theater department would make up ridiculous rules as a prank, like telling newcomers “No tool boxes allowed,” “Guys, make sure you leave your hoverboards at home!”, and then reveal the actual rules of the game once everyone arrived on the day 123 Shakespeare would be played.


This came up when my informant and I were trying to remember traditions that happened in our theater department during high school. While I was involved in a few shows, my friend had more experience than I did, so I asked him what events he could remember, and he described 123 Shakespeare for the archives. 


I remember participating in 123 Shakespeare when I was in high school right before the spring musical, and it went exactly as my informant described it. Looking back on it now and knowing what I know about peer groups and folklore, I thought it was fascinating that this tradition was both a ritual, and a bit of an initiation for people who are getting involved with the theater department for the first time. The upperclassman keeping the secrecy of what 123 Shakespeare is establishes the social hierarchy of the theater department, and the joke of making up nonsensical rules can be viewed as a display of that status, and simultaneously accepting the new members into the peer group by initiating playful behavior with them. Similar to the wedding tradition of pulling pranks on the groom by the bride’s family, I think this game of 123 Shakespeare demonstrates a liminal space that new cast and crew members must cross before they can be fully accepted into the peer group of the theater department. This game stands between the tireless rehearsals and the opening night of the show, so this is the point in which they are invited to participate in a longtime tradition passed down through the generations of the theater department. 

Haunted Theaters and Ghost Lights

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.


“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.