Specters on Stage—Guide to Haunted Southern Theatres

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

—Williams Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

The world of the theatre is filled with mysticism, superstition, and spirits. As a theatre person, nearly every theatre I have worked in has this mysterious side, especially in the connection to the spirit world. In his Ghost Hunter’s Guide to New Orleans, author Jeff Dwyer contends that one can be almost certain that a theatre will be haunted.

There are few certainties in ghost hunting. But when it comes to haunted places, ships and theaters offer ghost hunters the greatest opportunities for encounters with the spirit world. Theaters often harbor the ghosts of actors, writers, musicians and directors because something about their creative natures ties them to the place where they experienced their greatest successes or failures. Stagehands and other production staff may haunt backstage areas where they worked and, perhaps suffered a fatal accident. They may also be tied to room where props are stored. The ghosts of patrons remain long after death because they love the theater or, more likely, they loved an actor who performed regularly at that location.

Much of the mysticism in theatre revolves around actors, especially in how they take on a character. Even the language of an actor bears parallels with the language of ghosts and spirits. Some actors will describe an experience akin to possession when they are inhabiting another’s body and lose themselves. Certainly, within the ritual of preparing for a show, there may be a ritual in applying makeup, getting into costume, and warming up. I’ve watched as some actors will walk the set, absorbing the energy of the world of the play, all of which resembles summoning. If the play utilizes masks, actors may put on the mask in a nearly religious manner. Onstage, the actors are in tune with the energy that surrounds them, including that from other actors, the set, the audience, the crew, and the audience. Once the actor has finished his hour of strutting and fretting upon the stage, these spirits are banished to the world of fiction. But, are they really? Perhaps some of these spirits linger in the theatre?

As for the directors, writers, musicians, technical crew members, and the backstage functionaries, many imbue their work with their own passion, thus leaving a little bit of themselves behind in their work. Even once these people pass on, they may return to the theatres to feed their passion in the afterlife.

The practice of leaving a ghost light onstage when the theatre is dark is wrapped up in superstition and practicality. Some will argue that the light assures the theatre’s spirits that the theatre is not abandoned and provides light for their own performances. In a way, this could be a sacrifice to the genius loci, or the spirit of a location. As for practicality, non-superstitious thespians will contend that a ghost light provides illumination to prevent injuries if someone enters the darkened space.

Theatres are often inherently dangerous places where actors, crew, and even some patrons can, and do, get injured. Indeed, there have been numerous accidents throughout history where deaths have occurred on or just off stage sometimes leaving spirits in limbo within the space. The haunting of the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia comes to mind. One of the spirits in this 1913 theatre may be that of a careless stagehand who became entangled in the hemp rope-operated fly system (a system that is still in use) and accidentally hung himself. Other deaths may be blamed on medical conditions that have claimed have claimed lives while people are at work.

As for lingering spirits of theatre patrons, a love for theatre or a particular space may be reason enough to return in the afterlife. Though it seems that most of the hauntings by members of the audience are residual in nature with phantom laughter and applause sometimes being heard.

Contributing to theatres’ haunted natures, some theatres occupy spaces that were not intended to be performance spaces. These repurposed buildings may already be haunted, and the spirits adapt to the new use of the location. Among the numerous examples of these types of theatres are the Baltimore Theatre Project in Maryland in an old building originally constructed for a men’s fraternal organization and the Hippodrome State Theatre in Gainesville, Florida, formerly a post office and courthouse.

Over the decade I have worked on this blog, I have covered a number of theatres and theatre spaces. In addition to places that have formerly served as theatres, I have added movie houses, larger structures that include a theatre, structures that are associated with theatres, and the Maryland home of the Booth family, which included some of America’s most famous and infamous actors in the 19th century.

Alabama

Lyric Theatre Birmingham Alabama
Balconies of the Lyric Theatre. Photo by Andre Natta, 2006, courtesy of Flickr.

District of Columbia

Tivoli Theatre Washington DC
Tivoli Theatre, 2005, by D Monack. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Florida 

Floirda Theatre Jacksonville Florida
Florida Theatre, 1927. Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society.

Georgia 

Wink Theatre Dalton Georgia
Wink Theater, 2018. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Kentucky 

Louisville Palace Theatre Kentucky
The house and stage of the Louisville Palace. The theater is designed to ensconce the audience in a Spanish Baroque courtyard. The ceiling is an atmospheric ceiling with clouds. In the 1960s, this balcony was enclosed as a second theater, but this alternation was removed in the 1990s restoration. It’s not hard to imagine spirits spending their afterlife in such a magnificent edifice. A handful of spirits have been reported here including a man in 1930s clothing that has been seen in this balcony. When approached by ushers, the man disappears. Photo taken in 1928, courtesy of the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Louisiana

Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium Louisiana
The elaborate facade of the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium. Photo by Michael Barera, 2015, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maryland 

Maryland Theatre Hagerstown
The modern entrance to the Maryland Theatre, 2014. Photo by Acroterion, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mississippi

Temple Theatre Meridian Mississippi
Temple Theatre, 2008. Photo by Dudemanfellabra, courtesy of Wikipedia.

North Carolina 

Carolina Theatre Greensboro North Carolina
Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre in 2008. Photo by Charles Brummitt, courtesy of Wikipedia.

South Carolina

Riviera Theatre Charleston SC ghosts haunted
Riviera Theatre, 2011. Photo by Lewis O. Powell, IV. All rights reserved.

Tennessee

The proscenium arch of the Orpheum Theatre, 2010, by Orpheummemphis. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Virginia

Hanover Tavern Virginia
Hanover Tavern, 2007 by BrandlandUSA. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

West Virginia 

Apollo Theatre Martinsburg West Virginia
Apollo Theatre, 2009, by Acroterion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
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