Our favourite haunts

June 2, 2023

Up until recently, the Palace Theatre in London roped off two seats and bolted them down for every performance. No living customers were allowed to sit in those seats, because they were permanently reserved for the ghosts of Anna Pavlova, a world-famous ballerina, and the well-known actor Ivor Novello, who died in 1931 and 1951, respectively.

This may seem strange to rational-thinking folk, because theatre seats are typically occupied by living people, with a pulse and everything. And if you’re a businessperson, you may be wondering why the management at the Palace would be so willing to give up on that revenue.

But if you’re in show business, you’ll probably understand. Because you know that ghosts are real, especially in theatres, and you certainly don’t want to anger them, because there’s a chance they’ll ruin your show. Ghosts haunt theatres everywhere, and us people on this side of the pale just have to live with them.

Plenty of stories abound, and staff members are probably your best resource for ghost stories at your favourite theatres. Indeed, the staff at the Palace Theatre have sworn they’ve seen Pavlova dancing around on the stage between shows. I’d put good money down that if you were a tourist in any town, and decided to add the theatre to the list of local attractions to visit, staff members there would tell you about the ghost(s) they’ve seen. For those of you without the willingness or the means to just up and quiz strangers in strange towns, simply conduct a random Internet search on your favourite browser.

Which is all quite charming and mostly harmless, but the question remains: why theatres, of all places? We have a few theories.

The first is that it’s just part of the tradition of dramatic superstitions. Actors are highly superstitious people, and they hold many strange beliefs, some popular and some obscure. You can’t wish someone “good luck” before they go on stage – you have to tell them to “break a leg.” You have to refer to one of Shakespeare’s plays as “The Scottish Play” and not by its actual name. You need to keep one light on in a theatre at all times – not just for practical purposes, so you don’t accidentally fall in the orchestra pit; but also so the ghosts can see their way around.

The second reason is because theatres are usually bigbuildings, and if you’re the only person in a giant building, it gets prettyspooky. Weird sounds come from hidden corners, drafts of air blow here andthere, things move in dark corners. If you’ve ever spent more than 10 consecutiveminutes alone in a theatre, you’d be convinced there’s someone else there too.

The question naturally arises: is the Lester Centre haunted? The answer is, yes, of course it is. It’s a theatre after all. I’ve had some personal experience with this, when one night there were doors open that I’m sure I didn’t open myself. I’m not too sure who the ghost is, but I like to think he/she is a friendly ghoul. After one night when it seemed I was being followed around the hallways, I decided to copy the Palace Theatre and keep one seat – A14 specifically – down after each performance. After a while, this seat stayed down without me touching it, and all the other seats in the theatre were up. If that’s not evidence of a ghost, I don’t know what is.

As for the Palace Theatre, it no longer keeps two seats roped off for each performance. The reason? Harry Potter, of course. Since 2016, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been playing at the Palace (with a small break during COVID-19), and with some tickets fetching 2,000 pounds, management decided to break the superstition and sell the seats. So far, there have been no stories of angry ghosts, and the show has experienced frequent sell-outs during its run. But I’m guessing something else is happening when the lights go out and, late at night, when the audience has vacated the building, and the actors have left their jobs for the night, a lone theatre usher goes to those seats and silently puts them down, so the Palace’s ghosts can rest for the evening.

~Chris Armstrong