Book quote on desert background.

“Theaters traditionally always closed for at least one day a week, leaving on the ghostlight, to appease the ghosts. To allow them one day on the stage to perform their acts. To live and love and hate and triumph on the stage like the living.”

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

The ghostlight allows the dead to come back for a day.

I grew up in the theater, mostly backstage. It started in elementary school with school musicals. I remember working so hard on learning to sing songs from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. My mom made my costumes, and I was proud of those shows and myself for being up there.

In junior high school, I took acting lessons after school and, because I felt like I could not dance to save my life, I joined the “drill team” for more movement practice. I vaguely remember not wanting to continue, but my mom wouldn’t let me quit. I’ve always been shy, self-conscious. My mom thought those classes would help me and I remember being angry and fighting her about it.

Here’s a weird thought though, did I fight with her about them? I’m not sure about memory anymore. I think we build up bigger stories on what little we actually remember about our lives. The farther back you go, the bigger the story.

I continued theater in high school, acting when I absolutely couldn’t get out of it (and badly), and eventually moving backstage to do tech work; designing and building sets and running the shows as the stage manager. Those classes propelled me forward into university as a theater major, possibly the least useful Bachelor of Arts degree ever created. Luckily, I caught wise during the third semester and dropped out, but I paid a lot of money for that lesson.

I got a job a Knott’s Berry Farm as a stagehand, moved through the ranks there for several years, and then returned to Disneyland as a stage technician. It felt like eons as I went through it. Looking back on those ten years of my adult life…not so much, a blink in time. And all so long ago now, fading into the past.

The ghostlight brought it flooding back.

Theaters are full of superstitions, some based on actual safety issues. Whistling on stage is bad luck, because the riggers above and backstage were usually ship riggers and they signaled each other with whistles. The wrong whistle heard at the wrong moment could get a piece of scenery dropped on you.

Ghostlights are another superstition built around a safety precaution.

The stage is raked down toward the audience and drops off, usually at least three feet at the foot without a warning like a handrail. Past that front edge is typically the orchestra pit, filled with chairs and music stands. So, when the stage is empty and unlit, there is a ghostlight set up; a single bulb on a stand, rolled out to the center of the stage and kept lit just in case someone wanders in and doesn’t realize where they are. It keeps creepers from getting themselves killed and becoming new theater ghosts, which, trust me, we really don’t need.

As a stagehand and a manager, I have been the one to put out the ghostlight many times. It was one of my favorite things to do and I often stood there with it awhile to take a breath. A theater week can be exhausting, six long days of activity. Crews and performers fill the building from top to bottom. And theater people are not low-key or reserved in any way. At the end of the day, and especially at the end of the week, setting that light up and shutting everything else down, was somehow special, comforting. If I could go back in time, I’d take those moments more often and consciously meditate a while.

This story used the “ghostlight” as a transportation device from hell. The “ghosts” of humans can use this device to spend one day back on earth. They used it to finish things they had left behind when they died or visit with the living. They had to return before the light burned out though, or the hounds of hell would come to get them.

It seemed a perfect literary device for such a simple safety precaution, adding more spiritual drama to an already loaded superstition.

If you were stuck on the other side of the veil, aware that the old world existed, would you want to come back for a day? What would you do? Relive a moment, visit a relative, or comfort a friend? Would you have a mission you’d want to complete, some unfinished business?

Interesting idea, isn’t it?


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