They say never yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Wednesday night, it would seem, was the exception.
Shouts of warning rang out around the upper balcony of the Academy of Music Theatre while lights strobed in sickly hues of orange and red. A crowd of 50 audience members surged out of the plush, velvet seats and started making for the stairs. Below us, the theater was pitch-black, but if I squinted into the darkness of the box seats ringing the mezzanine, I could make out shadowy figures moving through the dark.
The Academy is bringing new life to its undead residents through its Haunted Historic Theatre Tours this October. Reinventing the true story of the night the theater was partially destroyed by a fire, tour guide Benjamin Reagan transported us back to 1911 — if only for about 45 minutes.
Though no one died in the fire, organizers have used it as a jumping off point for the haunted house style event, an experience that started before Reagan led us through the dark halls of the Academy. Approaching the building from the sidewalk an hour before the tour began, I could see ghouls pacing the lobby through the large glass windows — complete with singed clothing, pale faces and dark, hollow eyes. There was a dead girl in the ticket booth and the ghost of a firefighter stalking the staircase.
Among artifacts and photos from the mysterious fire — like the nozzle of an old fire hose and photographs of the Academy gutted by flames — the creatures drifted through the crowd.
Tabitha Abbott, director of operations and the event organizer, said she was inspired by a workshop she attended led by the creator of Howl-O-Scream, Busch Gardens’ annual Halloween-themed festivities.
Though she admittedly loves all things Halloween — and was appropriately dressed in a skull cardigan and “spooky” paraphernalia on opening night — she confessed to being something of a skeptic.
She says she has never seen a ghost in the theater, but most staff members will admit to some sort of paranormal experience — whether it’s movement behind locked closet doors, unexplained noises or pockets of cold air in the tight, twisting hallways.
Abbott said she heard several reports of hauntings from the construction workers overseeing the recent renovation of the historic theater.
“They legitimately thought they heard and saw things during the construction project,” Abbott said.
A group of workers even took home one of the lion heads that was part of the original theater, only to later return it — insisting that having it in their home was causing “disturbances.”
To get to the bottom of the mystery, the Academy partnered with the newly formed Hill City Paranormal group, led by Woody Watts.
Watts, who also owns Watts Creative Studios, a video and marketing agency in Lynchburg, said the Academy investigation was the group’s big break. They were locked in overnight a few months ago, though Watts said that time seemed to warp the longer they were in the building.
The Hill City investigators set up cameras throughout the theater, hoping to capture video evidence of the Academy’s supposed haunting. Watts said the experience was thrilling. The building was full of eerie noises, cold spots and enough ghost-story anecdotes to make a skeptic doubt their resolve, if only for a moment.
“Ask any employee, they’ll tell you a story,” Watts said.
Clips from their investigation were shown throughout the tour. “The Blair Witch Project”-style footage was shot through a green night-vision lens, and showed the team creeping through the empty halls of the Academy, searching for any sign of the specters that supposedly haunt the building.
Though Hill City Paranormal was conducting a real investigation, Abbott admits some of the clips were “embellished” for the tour footage — taking on the theatrical quality needed to tell the story of the Academy haunting.
The tour began in the upper balcony. As the hour wore on, the crowd descended through the three tiers of the theater, ending in a smoke-filled basement where the actual 1911 fire was started through unknown origins.
As Reagan guided attendees through the dark halls, the story of the Academy’s ghost was delivered in fragments, creating an interactive mystery aided by dozens of costumed figures. With gaunt eyes, ragged clothes and slack, silent faces, the spirits often loomed over the crowd, hid behind corners or crept among the audience, whispering ominous messages or staring with lifeless eyes.
The narrative of the Academy’s haunting unfurled in a mix of fact and fiction, spinning a ghost story around the figure of a performer robbed of the Academy stage. It culminated in an eerie stage performance back lit by a flame-licked screen, leaving the audience again scrambling for the exit.
Most of the tour was conducted in darkness with only the shaky beams of penlights and phones to light the way. It felt almost taboo to be wandering the halls of the Academy — like being in your empty high school after dark.
I immediately fell in with a group of teenage girls, and mob mentality descended in about 10 minutes. They screamed at every jump scare, clutching at each other as the walls seemed to press closer. Costumed figures popped around corners, draped themselves from overhead balconies and shouted from shadowed recesses in the theater walls.
The fear spread in ripples, and I could feel myself getting swept up in the building hysteria.
One of the teenage girls turned back to gesture at me, reminding me to “stay close behind.”
The crowd was briefly united in the fight-or-flight adrenaline that only a good haunted house can induce, and at the end of the tour they spilled out into the brightly lit lobby, a little shaken, but chattering and laughing.
Once the show was over and the ghosts had broken character to do photo-ops with Academy visitors, it was a little easier to put the night behind me. But it was hard to forget the pressing darkness of the empty, unlit theater. With so many alcoves, stairways and hidden crawlspaces, it was hard to deny that there was something in the shadows.
Maybe it was a trick of the light, just the sound of an old building settling and pipes clanging in the walls. Or maybe that was something more than an actor in stage makeup hiding around the corner. I’ll leave it up to you.