Why Can’t I Find More Old Ghost Reports on Haunted Theaters? WHY???

If charnel-houses, and our graves, must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.

Macbeth (3.4.70-72)

This weekend’s episode of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle spotlights one of my Vera Van Slyke ghostly mysteries: “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost.” In it, Vera and Lucille investigate possible poltergeist activity in a Chicago theater and, specifically, a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth still in rehearsal.

An illustration from Macbeth: With an Illustration and Remarks by D–G (Thomas Hails Lacey, 1860). I splashed it with a few extra colors.

I introduce this episode by mentioning that I can’t remember ever visiting a theater older than fifty years that didn’t have some kind of ghost story attached to it. But I don’t mention that I once asked a paranormal investigator, after he had snooped around my local community theater, why such places seem so prone to haunting. His answer was concise: “Energy.” (I nodded and let it go at that, wondering why I’ve never heard of a haunted football stadium.)

I figured theaters must have a long and proud history of being haunted. Focusing on the 1800s and using my usual research sites — namely, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America for newspapers and Google Books for magazines and books — I wound up with unexpectedly disappointing results! Even the best newspaper report I found ends with disappointment:

From the front page of the June 22, 1891 issue of New York’s The Evening World.

I wonder if tales of haunted theaters simply became more widespread later. Were they somehow mixed with electric lights and especially the theater tradition of keeping a “ghost light” lit, a practice that presumably would have been too dangerous with candles or gas? Come to think of it, theaters lit by only candles or gas must have been comparatively shadowy places — were they spooky enough without having to add the strange appeal of a ghost-in-residence?

Or is a better explanation found in a series of early-20th-century theater fires?

  • 1903: Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre takes over 600 lives
  • 1908: Boyertown, Pennsylvania’s Rhoads Opera House takes about 170 lives
  • 1927: Montreal’s Laurier Palace Theatre takes 78 lives
  • 1937: Nantong, China’s Nantung Movie Theater takes 658 lives
  • 1941: Guadalajara’s Montes Movie Theater takes 86 lives

I’m sure there were several other theater fires. And such fires certainly didn’t begin in the 1900s — for example, Kamli, Japan, had one in 1893 that took almost 2,000 lives! These tragedies must surely have cast a macabre pall on theaters everywhere. Did they set the stage for stories about theater ghosts?

In sharp contrast, “The Ghost of Banquo’s Ghost” is one of the lightest of the Vera Van Slyke chronicles. It’s set in 1900, and while I can’t explain why I had trouble finding reports of theatrical ghosts prior to that year, I can warmly welcome you backstage at the Scepter Theatre and invite you to join Vera’s investigation of weird phenomena there. My dramatic reading debuts this weekend, and your complimentary ticket awaits you at the Tales Told YouTube channel.

— Tim

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