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Shadows in the Dark

Jay Duckworth • Theater History • September 19, 2018
Q2Q Comics - Superstitious  Written and Drawn by Steve Younkins

Q2Q Comics – Superstitious Written and Drawn by Steve Younkins

Superstitions in the Theater
If I am ever home alone and just feeling a little lonely, I put on a scary movie and about 30 minutes later I am pretty much convinced that there is someone in the house with me. My friend’s cabin in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey has a ghost called Hazel Grunzel, the first owner of the cabin. It’s strange how we always shut more doors than any of us open! Theaters are no different; almost every theater I have worked at has a ghost or two.

Ghostly Apparitions
 One of the most haunted theaters in the world is claimed to be the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London. The current theater opened back in 1812, but there were previous theaters dating back on this site to 1663, but succumbed to fires. Audience, actors, and backstage crew have spotted The Man in Grey with his tricorne hat and riding cloak. He is often seen in the upper boxes and if he is seen it brings good luck to the show. Anyone who has worked at the New Amsterdam has seen—or seen through—Olive Thomas. At 16 she won the title of ‘Most Beautiful Girl in New York City’ and she became a Ziegfeld Girl but strangely died at 25 after taking too many mercury pills. She can be seen backstage wandering in full Follies regalia and a blue bottle in her hands. 

But it’s no surprise that theaters are havens to spiritual activity since they are places of deep soulful feelings of love, envy, jealousy, and death. We are a people who have good luck talismans, rituals, and coded language. There are lots of theater superstitions that many of us keep alive that come from practical to downright silly ideas. These small rituals developed in the hope that we can have some influence or success to our desired outcome and somethings are wonderful holdovers from our ancient forebearers. They are as familiar to us as the seasons, the blooming of flowers, the falling of leaves, and the changing of the moon.  

Whistling in the Dark
Most of the ancient superstitions come from practical reasons like planting at a certain time of a year, or don’t walk under a ladder because you don’t want something dropped on you. Spilling salt is unlucky because of salt being so tremendously expensive. It used to mean that a demon is near you making you do something foolish otherwise why would you spill salt. That is why you toss salt over your shoulder, so it goes in the demon’s eyes. I’m sure you have been told not to whistle backstage. That’s from when there were no headsets and the way they signaled if scenery was to come in and out was a clap then a whistle. The scenery was counterbalanced with sandbags so whistling on stage, or offstage, was a dangerous thing; you could get hit by the set, or by a sandbag, and get head trauma. 

Even the box office has superstitions. If the first purchaser of seats for a new production is an old man or woman, it means to the ticket seller that the play will have a long run. A young person means the reverse. You are never to let a person enter the theater with a comp ticket before a person with a paying ticket. Doing so dooms the production to a financial failure. 

Don’t Look There
Vaudeville performers believed it was bad luck to change the costumes in which they first achieved success. Humming a tune near an actor backstage is still considered bad luck but mostly for the actor who hears it. Stage Managers and crew will always talk to the actor’s face and not their reflection. Opera singers and actors believe it will bring bad luck to have another person look into the mirror over their shoulder when they are putting on make-up. 

The main rag contributes its share of stage superstitions, as nearly every actor and stage manager believe it is bad luck to look out at the audience from the wrong side of the curtain when it is down. Back when the prompters stood in the left-wing, people believed that the prompt side held bad luck, while others contend it is the opposite side. House management, not being sure what side the bad luck was, placed a peep-hole directly in the center of the curtain.  

Dare Not Speak the Name
Warning on the theater door“The Scottish Play” is the correct way to refer to Macbeth when inside a theater, unless you are in performance or rehearsal. Believed to be cursed, not saying the name/title is one of the most widely held and adhered to theater superstitions. The play does have a rather dark history, with the belief that the bad luck began right with its first performance (circa 1606) when the actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, then in Amsterdam during a 17th-century production an actor was supposedly killed when a real dagger was used instead of a stage prop. The curse has struck the audiences at times as well with accounts of riots at productions in 1721 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theater and another in 1772 at Covent Garden. A tale of such a riot also occurred in NYC in 1849 when the rivalry between two Shakespearean actors of the day, British actor William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest, turned violent during a production at New York’s Astor Place Opera House, leaving at least 22 dead and more than 100 injured. 

If the word is said inside a theater the speaker is quickly hustled outside and must turn around three times, spit, utter a profanity, knock and ask permission to enter the theater again. Of course, you cannot do this with a full audience so during the 2013 production of the Scottish play at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre the producers posted a warning on the doors requesting the audience respect the theatrical tradition.

Remember to Light the Ghost Light
Now, remember to never apply make-up with a rabbit’s foot, dead or alive. Never open a show on a Friday. Never place shoes or hats on dressing room furniture. Never knit in the wings. Never say the theater is closed, but instead say it’s dark; that would just be asking for bad luck. Be sure to leave the Ghost Light burning on stage to keep the theater’s ghosts from leaving. And lastly, never throw away a technician’s coffee, because legend says those who do soon have strange cases of head trauma—just like whistling backstage. It’s spooky, but true. 

Broadway’s Haunting Tales
Broadway Up Close Ghost Tour
Every night when the thousands of audience members leave the Broadway theaters, the nightly ritual of setting the ghost light takes place. True it has a practical purpose for safety but perhaps more importantly it lights the stage for the ghosts when the theater is empty. Broadway, like all theaters, certainly has its share of ghosts and with them are some wonderful stories of the theater’s history. Broadway Up Close Walking Tour’s Ghostlight tour explores many of the superstitions rooted in days gone by, but still held by theater makers everywhere. Set against the backdrop of the ghost light superstition, the BUC guides share stories of the spirits that lurk in the shadows backstage. Owner and tour guide Tim Dolan and his Green Team look at the haunted tales of seven Broadway theaters. All have intriguing stories of strange occurrences, dark moments of the past slipping into the present and, of course, some ghostly sightings, like the Lady in Blue at the Belasco Theater, also where the disconnected elevator has been heard running…perhaps best to use the stairs. 


What’s your favorite theatrical superstition or ghost story? Let us know at We’d love to hear about the ghosts in your theater. 


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