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What is a Ghost Light?

A ghost light is a single bulb left burning on stage in an empty theater, a tradition rooted in safety and superstition. It's a beacon for thespians and spirits alike, illuminating the darkness and keeping watch over the performance space. But is there more to this spectral sentinel? Uncover the tales and truths behind the ghost light's enduring glow. What stories might it reveal to you?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A ghost light is a light which is left burning in a theater after everyone goes home for the night. There are a number of explanations for the light, ranging from the supernatural to the mundane, and such lights are in common use around the world. Many theater people also use the term to refer to any sort of bare bulb left burning at light in an establishment after it closes, whether or not the establishment is a theater.

The obvious practical reason for using a ghost light is that it reduces the risk of injury for someone who is in the theater after it closes. Sometimes theater personnel work late, or come in early, and the light can help them navigate until they turn additional lights on. Stages have a number of areas where people could be potentially injured by falling or tripping, and ghost lights reduce this risk. A light can also serve as a liability protection in the event that the theater is broken into, because if a burglar becomes injured while the ghost light is on, the theater may be able to claim that it is not responsible.

Woman posing
Woman posing

The superstitious tradition behind the light is ancient, dating back to at least the time of Shakespeare, and probably even older periods in theatrical history. According to legend, a candle would be left burning on the stage to dispel the ghosts of previous performances, especially if those performances had gone badly. The candle may also well have deterred people trying to break into the theater, of course, by suggesting that someone was present.

Modern theaters usually use a ghost light for liability reasons, but they may use a more mystical explanation for the light's presence. Some say that lights are left on to allow the ghosts in the theater to perform at night, for example, while others fall back on the tradition that the light is supposed to keep ghosts away. These conflicting superstitions about the ghost or spook light illustrate the complex and very superstitious culture which surrounds theatrical performance.

A traditional ghost light consists of a bare bulb, sometimes surrounded with a cage to reduce the risk of fire. The bulb is mounted on a movable pole or stand which is carried onto the stage at night and plugged into an outlet which is left on. Some theaters prefer to hang their lights from the ceiling, simply turning them on at night as staff leave rather than going through the ritual of carrying out the ghost light and plugging it in.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the ghost light in theaters?

The tradition of the ghost light in theaters dates back to the early 20th century, though its exact origins are a mix of practicality and superstition. The practical reason was to prevent people from falling off the stage in the dark, while the superstitious belief is that it appeases the ghosts that are said to inhabit theaters, allowing them to perform on stage, thus preventing them from cursing the theater or sabotaging the set or production.

Is there a practical purpose for a ghost light beyond superstition?

Yes, the ghost light serves a very practical purpose in modern theaters. It acts as a safety light to prevent accidents when the theater is empty and dark. It ensures that anyone entering the theater can see the edges of the stage and any potential obstacles, thereby reducing the risk of injury. This is especially important in large theaters where the stage and the auditorium can be quite expansive.

Do all theaters use a ghost light?

While not all theaters may adhere to the tradition of using a ghost light, it is a widespread practice, particularly in the United States and Europe. Many theaters, both old and new, maintain the custom for both its historical significance and its practical safety benefits. The ghost light has become an iconic symbol of the theater community's dedication to safety and respect for the history of the performing arts.

What does a ghost light look like?

A ghost light typically consists of a single, bare bulb mounted on a portable stand. It is placed center stage or downstage center and left on when the theater is not in use. The design is intentionally simple to ensure it is easily visible and serves its purpose effectively. Some theaters may use a lamp with a shade or colored bulb, but the traditional ghost light is just a plain, exposed bulb.

Are there any modern alternatives to the traditional ghost light?

In today's theaters, while the traditional ghost light—a single bulb on a stand—is still commonly used, some venues may opt for modern alternatives. These can include LED lights, which are more energy-efficient, or automated lighting systems that turn on when someone enters the space. However, many theaters choose to keep the classic ghost light for its symbolic value and simplicity.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon138829

I've often wondered if having a light on all the time also keeps the theater from "going dark", which, of course, refers to a theater closing it's doors for good.

anon110078

Our community theater has a ghost light. Our technical director purchased one of those old post-type reading lamps that people used to have in their homes in the 1920's. Our house electrician dismantled the lamp, cleaned it and rewired it with an extra long power cord, and our light now graces our stage after rehearsals, between shows, etc.

Visitors to our theater enjoy hearing about the story of our ghost light and its purpose - primarily to allow us to find our way to the main dimmer racks backstage without taking an unexpected detour through the orchestra pit!

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