Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #9: Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas

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Lambeth, Cheralyn. Haunted Theaters of the Carolinas. Schiffer, 2009.

I interviewed the author for Innsmouth Free Press right after this book came out in 2009. You can still find the interview here. I am, however, a bad and lazy reviewer with a metric ton of books to review all over my house. So, I only got to reading and reviewing this one now. Ten years later. Sorry.

Anyhoo, I thought this book was a fun romp with some creepy photos and layout (that cover – [shudder]) and an interesting premise. Though there are other books on haunted theaters out there – such as the imaginatively named Haunted Theaters (2002) by Barbara Smith and Haunted Theaters: Playhouse Phantoms, Opera House Horrors, and Backstage Banshees (2009) by Tom Ogden – Lambeth’s book offers two unique features. One is that it’s the only book about haunted theaters in North and South Carolina. The other is that Lambeth has worked in the field for decades. This means she hears rumors and accounts that someone outside the theater wouldn’t ever know about.

To be honest, I found the introduction about theater history, terms and customs a bit slow. That said, it was also necessary to get one’s bearings and it did introduce me to the rather creepy tradition of the ghost light (AKA the Equity Light). Unlike the ghost lights of the book I reviewed the other day, this is a single light (often a bare bulb) intentionally left onstage (usually downstage right) whenever the theater is closed. The safety angle is that it provides illumination for anyone working in the theater after hours to see their way around. Hence the alternate name.

But there is also a folkloric element. Some theater people believe that every theater is haunted by at least one ghost. Why the light would be left on for them is less clear. Obviously, with the safety element, you’re actively trying to avoid creating one more ghost for the stage. But whether the light is left there to placate them, comfort them, or keep them out depends on your source.

Of the 21 theaters discussed in the book (starting, fittingly, with the Waterside Theater for The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama on Roanoke Island in Manteo, NC), 16 are in North Carolina and 5 in South Carolina. One review on Amazon complains that there are a lot more theaters from North Carolina in the book than in South Carolina. While this is true, it’s usually the other way round in collections about both states (Charleston and Columbia tend to hog the spotlight), and I’m looking for NC folklore, anyway. So, it depends on your preferences.

It also makes sense if you consider that Lambeth is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and was living in Charlotte when she wrote the book. Nor is she a live theater snob. Some of the theaters covered either started life as movie theaters or were later converted into them. Live theater hit hard times a while back, as vaudeville faded.

Stories in the book range from the unsettling to the hair-raising. The Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, SC, for example is haunted by the ghost of an escort named Nettie Dickerson. It seems Nettie was unhappy about being considered little better than a high-class prostitute and was also a bit reckless. She liked to lean against an external iron balcony of the hotel during thunderstorms. One night, a bolt of lightning struck the balcony, “killing her instantly.” She’s been there ever since.

Many of these theaters are in older buildings that were allowed to fall almost to ruin at some point. They have a lot of history and, doubtless, lingering structural issues. However, Imaginon: The Joe and Joan Martin Center for children’s theater in Charlotte was built in 2005 out of recycled materials – and there are many reports of it’s being haunted by at least one child or teenage ghost. So, age and relative decrepitude don’t always have anything to do with it.

Employees and visitors in these theaters report a variety of phenomena such as cold drafts, disembodied voices, paintings that fly across the room, lights, rattling keys, and pianos playing by themselves. One alderman who died in the 1918 Influenza Epidemic plays the pipe organ in the Old Court House Theatre in Concord, NC.

Patrons can also end up checking in and staying forever, such as an African-American woman who was raped and murdered in the upper balcony of the Powell Theater/Chester Little Theater in Chester, SC sometime during the 1950s (according to local legend). She reportedly causes nausea, cold spots and the sense of being choked in that part of the theater.

The author herself heard some strange banging noises when taking photos in the Dana Auditorium at Guilford College in Greensboro. She also includes a ghost orb photo from a backstage stairwell in The Paul Green Theater/Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill, and another one in the house right section.

All in all, this is a fun collection for this time of year. But I wouldn’t suggest reading it after midnight or in the dark. That cover alone is super-creepy and the contents deliver on it!

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