Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Theatre “Ghost Light” Superstitions

A bare bulb atop a rudimentary pole, it stands at center stage, lit by the last person to leave the theatre each night and extinguished by the first person to arrive in the morning. Though stark in statue and artless in form, the ghost light fulfills many functions…some practical, some supernatural.”
--Jim Dougherty

No one knows for sure the origin of "ghost light" but they have been used in theatres for centuries. A ghost light is a light that is left on in an unoccupied theatre. Without this light, a theatre would be in complete darkness. 

The typical modern ghost light consists of an exposed incandescent light bulb, surrounded by a wire cage and mounted on a portable stand. This light is most often placed somewhere on center stage.

This dim glowing nightlight is left on in theatres for first and foremost a practical reason. A completely dark stage is a dangerous place, hazards like falling into an orchestra pit and tripping on set pieces or props pose a real threat to theatre workers. But one strong belief competes with these practical reasons. 

A prevailing superstition is that most theatres are haunted and the ghost light is kept on to appease ghosts.

Before electricity was invented theatre ghost lights were gas lamps. Each theatre had its own gas generator. Leaving a flame burning overnight was very important—this active flame would prevent pressure from building up in the lines, which could cause an explosion. Several hundred theatres in the 1800s burned down for this reason so the invention of the electric light bulb was literally a godsend. 

With this history, a conviction arose that a ghost light should be left burning in order to keep theatre ghosts happy.

This superstition continued after the invention of electricity. One theatre myth states that leaving a ghost light on overnight is protection from otherwise restless or resentful ghosts who would create havoc if they realized no one was in the theatre. 

Another superstition or belief is that if a ghost light is not left on bad luck will befall whatever production is being performed. 

Not all theatre ghost superstitions cast ghosts in a negative light. It is often believed these ghosts were former actors and that a ghost light gives these spirits the opportunity to perform on stage, which keeps them happy. It is also the reason given for theatres closing one day a week.

As mentioned above one superstition that surrounds ghost lights is that a “dark” stage creates sadness or bad luck. 

It is believed a dark stage often denotes no show is running due to a lack of funding, or even worse because an unsuccessful production has closed down. Not wanting to upset any ghosts that might be around some theatre workers keep this light on. 

The ghost light has played such a significant role in theatres in the United States over the years that theatrical companies located in Seattle, Oklahoma City, Iowa, Florida and Pennsylvania are all named for it.

One recent story connected to a ghost light happened at the Magic Castle located in Hollywood, California. 

The Magic Castle is a member only club for magicians. Situated in an older mansion it has a variety of venues or stages where its members perform. The stage manager for the club states on at least five separate occasions when he has forgotten to leave the ghost light on—mischief has occurred. 

During performances, both the stage lights and the sound systems have malfunctioned.


Matthew Gilbertson said...

I enjoyed your article. I am a Grad Student in MN and am writing a research paper about the Ghost light and was wondering if you had any sources for your article? I would love to use some of the information but can not if it cant be traced down. This is a big obstacle I am running into, there are many stories but not many primary sources.

Any help would be appreciated.

Virginia Lamkin said...


It has been awhile since I posted this--I now use another computer and my main source from England I have lost but here are the sources I could find.

The quote at top is from the Ghostlight society in Santa Barbara, California--Lobero Theatre--Jim Dougherty--Jdougherty@lobero.com

Here are titles of 3 books I referenced:

Haunted Scranton After Dark in the Electric City by Anthony C. Bernardi

The first person account from Magic Castle was retold from Idiot's Guide: Ghosts and Hauntings by Tom Ogden

Another book I used was The Haunted Actor: An Exploration of Supernatural Beliefs Through Theatre by Alex Matsuo

Kevin Rhodes said...

Matt: Email me. I'm writing a screenplay on the ghost light, and would love to compare research notes. Kevin