Are San Diego's Theaters Haunted?
Beahr Garcia has worked security at The Old Globe theater for seventeen years. She’s often the last person in the theater late at night locking up.
Even though she’s in an empty theater at that point, it doesn’t always feel like it. "In certain pockets in certain places, you feel a presence, like someone’s watching you," Garcia explained as we sat in the desolate Globe theater.
Garcia has heard noises in the theater that can’t be explained. She believes they’re ghosts. One night, at about midnight, Garcia was doing paperwork and heard one of those noises. "All of a sudden I hear this woman’s laughter," she said. "It was kind of a playful yet creepy laughter."
Garcia thought an actor came back into the theater. She checked, didn’t find anyone, so went back to work.
"And the next thing you know I hear it again. This time it gave me goosebumps and I came on stage and it was ice cold." She shivers. "I’m getting goosebumps now," Garcia said, laughing nervously.
Garcia wasn’t on a dark stage that night. It was lit by what’s called a ghost light: a single light bulb on a stand placed on the edge of the stage. Most theaters have a ghost light that stays lit all night. The ghost light dates back to Shakespeare, when a single candle lit the theater after the show ended.
The most practical explanation for the ghost light is safety. Someone could get hurt if they walked onto a dark stage. There are often items and chords lying about, not to mention an orchestra pit to fall into.
Emily Roxworthy, a theater historian at UCSD, says there's another reason for the ghost light, albeit a more superstitious one. "One idea is that after the theater goes dark, the ghosts come out. And the ghost light might be able to ward off those ghosts."
Some take a more ghost-friendly approach. They believe the ghost light should be left on in case the ghosts want to stage their own play in the middle of the night. After all, legend has it most ghosts inhabiting theaters are dead actors.
"Some people think that actors can’t go to heaven," explains Sam Woodhouse, artistic director at San Diego REP, referring to an old legend. "So the spirits and souls of actors who have passed are living in the theater and the ghost light is there so when everyone goes home the actors can come out and act."
"You set something down and you’ll find it somewhere else later. I’ll see something out of the corner of my eye, a movement. Or I’ll see someone walking along the top of the grid. You look up and there’s nothing there."
Murray often performed at the old historic Lyceum downtown. It used to be a vaudeville theater and supposedly it had ghosts. One night, Murray and three other actors saw one as they waited off-stage left for an actress to finish singing her solo.
"We were all looking on stage and the lady was out there performing by herself and right behind her was a kind of shadow figure doing her movements with her and kind of making fun of her. We all saw it," according to Murray.
Some theaters risk it and don't have a ghost light. Roxworthy says one of San Diego’s newer theaters doesn’t have one and now the stage manager there thinks it’s haunted. "It's something that is terrifying the crew because front of house chimes will suddenly go off for no reason. They’ll see strange people in the theater. Things will fall off the wall for no reason and she says it’s because they don’t have a ghost light," Roxworthy said.
Working on this story, I found myself in a lot of dark empty theaters, lit only by the ghost light. They’re cavernous and any noise can startle you. Mark Robertson is a scenic carpenter at San Diego REP. He’s often in the theater late at night by himself. "You start to hear sounds and things start to move. It’s the kind of thing people always point to and say there must be a ghost and I think it’s true," Robertson said with conviction.
Murray believes ghosts come with the territory in live theater. "You’re creating things in the air when you do live performance. What happens to that energy when hundreds of people come together in a space and experience something together and then it’s gone? What happens to that energy when the lights go out?" Murray asked. He added, "something happens."
We may not know for sure what happens in San Diego’s theaters long after the audiences go home. But we do know that on stage, a single bulb keeps burning through the night.