The play is the thing for a theater ghost

They say every theater has a ghost. The theater at Winona State University is no exception.

Almost as soon as I enrolled in my first theater class, I heard about Christopher. Legend had it that Christopher was a student who fell to his death while mounting some lights, breaking his back when he landed on the seats below.

And, because ghost stories aren't good ghost stories without the "ick" factor, the story went that no one found Christopher's body until students returned from Christmas break two weeks later.

Ick.

The tale of Christopher was passed down from older theater students to younger theater students, and since theater people are typically imaginative, no one doubted the ghost's existence. Even the teachers acknowledged the ghost on occasion, hollering, "Christopher, cut it out!" when things would start going wrong.

And things would go wrong, always on the opening performance of every show, whether the performance was in the main theater or in the "Black Box," which was a small square theater with interior walls painted entirely in black.

For the first matinee of "Treasure Island," the ushers, myself included, had crammed at least 200 kids into the main theater. When the children were seated and the play was about to begin, the theater plunged into total darkness.

Then we had 200 kids, screaming.

In the fervent hope that I could bring a little outside light into the theater, I groped for the heavy theater door. When I finally found the door, I frantically shoved it open ... and in the process scraped the bottom of the door over the bare foot of another theater student. I don't recall if I broke or sprained her toe, or merely just peeled the nail off, but it was nevertheless a traumatic experience for both of us.

Emergency lighting was installed in the theater after that, but that didn't stop Christopher's pranks.

Not being a terribly exclusive ghost, he would mess with the whole Performing Arts building, including the classrooms. While I was giving my final speech for my Oral Interpretation class, the lights dimmed for no particular reason. I gave my speech in near darkness. When I was finished, the lights brightened.

Apparently Christopher hadn't cared much for my speech.

But the theater remained Christopher's first love. He had his own chair in the lighting booth, and if you moved the empty chair, the lights would go haywire.

The lighting booth was Christopher's turf. Once, as I rehearsed in the main theater late into the night, I swore I saw a blue light in the overhead lighting booth.

Still, I didn't really believe in Christopher until Halloween during my senior year.

I was directing "The Crucible" at the time, and since it was Oct. 31 and I was prone to dramatics, I thought that it would be fun to rehearse by candlelight to get a feel for the whole creepiness of "The Crucible's" subject matter - the Salem witch trials.

I took all my actors into the Black Box and lit a candle. We sat in a circle around it and read lines aloud.

My plan worked. My actors said their lines in nearly hysterical tones. I instructed them to remember their unsettled feelings and convey them during the play.

The rehearsal ended and we remained in a circle. Someone suggested running up to the local cemetery, where the ghost of some long-dead bad guy was supposed to play the fiddle and dance on his grave every Halloween. We joked that we would probably just sit around the graveyard, have a few beers, scream like girly-girls when a squirrel crossed our paths, and then go home without seeing anything but the trick-or-treaters passing by.

Besides, it was too early to head for the cemetery, so we sat there, swapping stories about the theater ghost.

I didn't have much to tell, as the only personal encounter I'd had was seeing that blue light in the main theater's light booth. As I told my story, embellishing along the way, my skin broke out into goose bumps and I actually imagined that a blue light descended from the sound booth and hovered near my shoulder. Seeing it out the corner of my eye, I was sure my eyes were playing tricks on me, creating blue light as a means for compensating for the utter darkness around us.

Just a trick of light, I told myself.

I could have convinced myself, but at that moment, one of my actresses squeaked, "Heather? There's something blue standing over your shoulder."

At that very moment, the candle flickered and went out.

We screamed bloody murder and did a mass exodus to the theater door.

Which, for some reason, was locked from the outside.

We screamed like girly-girls. We also pounded on the door, frantically shook the doorknob and screamed as if Norman Bates was hot on our heels.

Someone who had been working in the box office heard us and opened the door.

We burst into the lobby, where the sunset shone through the windows.

We did a lot of jumping and screaming until we settled down. When I was feeling braver, I reached into the Black Box and flipped on the overhead lights.

Nothing was there, except for the burned out candle sitting in the middle of the room.

What had really happened? I never did find out. It was probably someone playing a Halloween trick.

I'm sure that there was a logical explanation. Nevertheless, that night the cast and I decided to go to our respective dorms and apartments and hand out candy to trick-or-treaters, and leave the scary stuff behind.

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