Occupation: Pastry Chef
Residence: Napa, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 20, 20202
Primary Language: English
Here is a transcription of my (CB) interview with my informant (AH).
CB: “Can you tell me about that ritual for theater ghosts?”
AH: “Uh so have you ever heard of the ghost light?”
AH: “So its tradition in theater that when you shut down at the end of the night that you leave a single light, its gotta have leads on it traditionally, and it even goes back to shakespearean times, you know they would leave a candle out or a lantern out so that the ghosts wouldn’t burn down the stage, but then, you know, sometimes the candle would burn down the stage. But you leave a light out in the middle of the stage, and so the rest of the theater is completely black except for that light in the middle of the stage. And so the tradition is that you leave a spotlight out in the middle of the stage so that ghosts of theater past are able to perform for their audience.”
CB: “That’s really interesting. Where did you first hear about that?”
AH: “I heard about it in theater at my high school. My theater technician teacher taught us that one”
CB: “And so, why do you think that people share it?”
AH: “It’s a very important tradition. Rumor has it that if you don’t leave a light out, its bad luck and your theater will be doomed to never have a successful show again.”
CB: “What does the ritual mean to you?”
AH: “Um, it’s more just something that I do because it was something that I was taught to do and less because it means anything to me. I think that it’s important to the theater community as a whole to put the ghost light out. It’s a superstition, and it kinda calms a certain type of feeling. And I find, but I’m not this way, but theater people in general tend to be more superstitious than your average individual.”
My informant has spent many years actively involved in theater programs, and attended a high school with a very active program. There are tons of stories of theater ghosts, and the tradition can be seen going back to ancient times. With the stories come different rituals to appease the ghosts and protect their theaters. My informant has shared with me varying different stories about theater ghosts which she believed in to different degrees. She expressed that she didn’t completely believe in this ritual, but that she often partook in it out of respect for the community and the sentiments associated with it.
My informant called me with stories prepared after hearing that I had been interviewing other members of our family for folklore. We had a fun and casual conversation, exchanging versions of stories that we had heard growing up.
I believe that many people within the theater community are attracted to superstitions because success in the arts can be very unpredictable. By working to appease the ghosts and performing traditional rituals, the theater community is able to reclaim a sense of agency over their success. The ritual also provides a scapegoat in case that a show doesn’t go well. The members would be able to avoid criticism of their personal performance, and instead blame a ghost. Theater is an incredibly old profession, and because of that traditions that have died out elsewhere are still passed down within theater communities. My informant cited the ritual as going back as far as Shakespearan times. I believe the ritual was likely a part of a larger theme of beliefs in ghosts, hauntings, and traditions that can appease them that are no longer popular.
For another variation of a ghost spotlight see Andy Wright’s article “The Story Behind the Ritual that Still Haunts Broadway” published on Atlas Obsurca. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-story-behind-the-ritual-that-still-haunts-broadway