Ghost lights

On a theatre stage in the middle of the night, one light remains lit. It’s there to appease old ghosts… or prevent accidents that would make new ghosts.

Ghost light
Remi Jouan / CC BY

Have you ever been in a dark theatre? It’s a religious experience, like walking through the eerie hush and long shadows of an empty cathedral. But even a dark theatre has one light that remains on when everything else is closed and off.

The ghost light is a single bulb, often enclosed in a metal cage, that sits on the stage overnight. It’s a pragmatic necessity, really: whoever opens up the theatre in the morning needs to be able to see where they’re going or they’re liable to fall off the stage (and, I imagine, return as a ghost to haunt the negligent owners). One of its names in French theatre is the sentinel light – sentinelle – for just this reason.

Theatres are also superstitious places. The ghost light has gathered a number of superstitions – that it’s there to appease or scare off ghosts, or even provide resident ghosts with an opportunity to stage their own performances. I tried to dig up some evidence of a resident theatre ghost, and found Louis Bossalina, an acrobat who plunged to his death during a 1938 performance at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Except Bossalina didn’t actually die, and lived another 28 years. Then there’s the ghost of Charles Macklin, who in 1735 accidentally killed another actor backstage at Drury Lane (they were fighting over a wig). Macklin lived to a ripe old age but I guess guilt drove his ghost back to the theatre?


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