Source and Relationship: Elaine, High School Theater Teacher
Type: Scary Story, Superstition
Folklore/Text: The PAC Ghost: “A long time ago, on a cold and windy night, a tech theater student was working late at night in the rafters of the Jesuit High School performing arts center. Suddenly, lightning struck the building and the student was flung from the rafters, 90 feet above ground, into the orchestra pit to their demise. Their body was never found, but we believe that they became a ghost to haunt Jesuit theater productions to come. Now, every time a door closes randomly or a gust of wind blows throughout the theater, we know that the PAC ghost is watching over us. This is why we always leave one light in the center of the stage at the end of the night, so our ghost friend can find his way around.”
Explanation/Context: While growing up I thought that my high school theater was the only school that attributed a ghost to the strange happenings around the performing arts center, as it turns out, theaters around the world experience this phenomenon as well. Theater buildings are often very historic and carry years of storytelling in its walls – the pieces that were put on linger just as hauntingly as an apparition might. There is an undeniable folklore with tragic mishaps in the theater, dating back to gladiatorial performances in ancient Europe; the most notable theater mishap, of course, being Abraham Lincoln’s assassination while he was watching a play. For centuries, the idea of leaving a “ghost light” in the center of the stage once everyone else has gone home has been customary in protecting the space from bad energy. In this case, though, the tale of the fallen student from the rafters has darker connotations that have warranted an even further superstition that any unexplainable noise or movement comes from that deceased students’ spirit.
“Tarzan, swinging from a rubber band, crashed into a frying pan, ow that hurts. Now Tarzan has a tan, and I hope it doesn’t peel! (peel is said in a falsetto voice) like a banana (beat chest). Jane, flying in an aeroplane, swept up by a hurricane. Ow, that hurt. Now Jane has a pain, and Tarzan has a tan, and I hope it doesn’t peel! Like a banana!”
According to my informant, this chant is a repeat-after-me type of chant that’s used as a pre-show warm-up in school theatres. My informant says that there will be one or two leaders who will start the chant, and after every line, the rest of the cast in the theatrical production will loudly repeat after them. According to her, it’s been done before nearly every single show she’s ever been in, and is used to bring everyone’s energy levels up before the show officially starts. Alongside different inflections in the voice when one performs this chant, there are also some bodily movements done as well, including beating ones chest like a gorilla during following the like “like a banana.”
Being involved in theatre myself, I immediately recognized this pre-show chant when my informant brought it up in our interview. Immediately, I could remember all of the vocal inflections done in the chant, and how it really did bring everyone’s energy levels up in order to create a great show for the audience. My informant and I grew up together, but now live in very different places, and I thought it was immensely neat that theatrical productions all across the United States are utilizing this pre-show chant as a means to hype everybody up.
Context: W is a 24 year old American born in California. As a young child W performed in major roles for a few productions at a local junior theater. This audio was collected over a discord audio call.
Intv: “So if I remember correctly you were in the lead role for a few productions at the junior theater. Can you think of any folklore that would’ve come out of that community? For example, like, saying Macbeth or something.”
W: “Well it’s funny you’d say Macbeth actually, because I remember when I was staring in Oliver, during the first couple shows, I don’t know why, but I’d keep saying Macbeth. And, like, it eventually started to really bother some people. I remember some theater kids moving away from me out of fear that I’d say it. It wasn’t until like the fourth day that the director came up to me and personally told me to stop because he had received so many complaints about it.”
Intv: “No way? Really? The director personally told you to stop?”
W: “Oh yeah, it became a huge deal to them apparently. I’m pretty sure after that I stopped saying it during any future productions.”
Analysis: When W told me about this story I couldn’t help but chuckle slightly at the idea of the director telling a roughly 12 year old boy to stop saying MacBeth, but it also speaks volumes on the legend surrounding this curse. It wasn’t the director who heard W say it off hand and told him to stop. He had received complaints from other actors regarding their concern over the production. All over a word.
CS – In Costume design there’s this term called a “French alteration.” Basically what that is, is when someone requests an alteration, like raising a hem a quarter inch, or something that won’t be at all noticeable on stage, like it’s just an unreasonable request and a waste of time. So some costume shop workers might say oh yeah we can definitely do that, no problem, a nice little French alteration. So it’s kind of a code word to others in the shop that it’s a waste of time, but it sounds fancy to people who don’t know what it means. And then you give the costume back to them and they see it on stage and are just delighted at the wonderful alteration job, and that extra quarter inch (not) lifted from the hem looks great.
The informant was talking to a coworker about wether of not they should do a small alteration that would not be noticeable on stage. The coworker argued that it was a stupid request for an alteration, and that they could easily say they did it, but not do it, and the person wouldn’t notice. The informant asked, “Like a French alteration?” The coworker had never heard the term, so the informant explained. They then agreed that the play’s director would not notice, but they decided to talk to the director rather than fib to them. There’s the saying that, “The customer is always right.” But the person who actually specializes in something is going to know more than the customer (in this case the play’s director). This term can make the “customer” think that they are right so they don’t put up an unnecessary fuss, and the costume tailor can avoid getting yelled at.
CS: It’s just a saying. And I think its partially because there’s nothing you can do about it, and it’s a way of sort of justifying and making yourself feeling better that one: you may have hurt yourself, and two: that you may have, like, made a stain on a costume that you may or may not be able to remove as well as you would like? Interviewer: So as far as you know its less of a superstition and more of a justification CS: Ya. Hahaha. Interviewer: When’s the first time you heard that? CS: Probably the first time that I , probably when I was in college and… I don’t think, I don’t think I ever heard that outside of theater. I think I heard of it mostly, you know, like— it’s something I thought about, like, I’m sure I must have poked myself and may have bled on a garment when I was learning to sew like in home ec, as a teenager, but I don’t think that I heard of it more that, at a costume shop, that it’s good luck for the actor, y’know. Interviewer: Good luck for the actor, bad luck for you. CS: Right? Ya. Interviewer: Any idea how long it’s been around? I know you said you he HS: I have a feeling that this one is, a long time. I just have that feeling. CS: Because people have been probably bleeding on costumes since costumes have been made.
The first time the informant told me this proverb was when another worker poked themself with a needle while mending a costume. I later asked the informant to repeat the saying and their explanation for the sake of recording it. This is an example of a proverb. I found it interesting that it is said so sarcastically, rather than earnestly. However, in other versions*, it is not necessarily sarcastic or bitter. Seeing that it isn’t a saying unique to making theater costumes—or unique to a bitter saying—the attitude with which a participant in this folklore says the proverb changes the intention of the proverb. The attitude also indicates that the saying is useful despite differing levels of belief in superstitions: the reciter may believe whole-heartedly that their drop of blood (it must be accidental) will give the actor a better performance. Or the reciter may not believe the proverb, but say it anyway, as participating in the tradition or just in case it is true.