Sneak into a theatre late at night and you might find the only source of light is a single bulb, uncovered, on a tall stand at center stage. This is the Ghost Light. The ghost light is a light that gets left switched on, on the stage while the theatre is empty. The primary reason for leaving a light switched on is safety. This is particularly helpful to whoever has to open the theatre and turn the working lights on. Empty theatres can be dark and scary places! Remember, they are specifically designed to shut out natural light and the main switches are usually on stage somewhere. Imagine how pathetic an onstage blackout would look with sunlight streaming in through a haphazardly covered window.
Why is it called a “ghost light“?
Theatre people are a superstitious bunch. Lots of us believe that most—if not all—theatres are haunted (usually by former actors). Ghosts need help, the thinking goes, when they tread the boards in a dark and deserted playhouse. Otherwise, they might bump into the scenery and it gives them enough light to perform on the stage. It is considered bad luck not to allow the ghosts to do this at least once a week, hence theatres usually only being open 6 days a week. Also, it’s bad luck (and bad business) for a theatre to be “dark”—i.e., without a show. Leaving a ghost light on is also superstitious way of making sure the house is always “lit.”
On the other hand, some folks say the opposite—that ghost lights ward off evil spirits by fooling them into thinking the building is occupied.
So before departing for the night, the stage crew switches on the ghost light—usually these days, an energy-saving compact fluorescent bulb. This helps make sure no one accidentally crashes into the scenery, which is set up differently for every show. Or mistakenly steps off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit in the dark. Yikes! And...you know…..for the ghosts.