A suffocating baby, antebellum dolls with painted-shut eyes, a slimy man who follows little girls home. That’s the stuff of good old-fashioned scary stories, and it’s the stuff of Ghostlight, a series of theatrical ghost stories based on a script by local playwright Michael R. Duran.
Presented at the Byers-Evans House Museum in Denver, Ghostlight features four actors reading selected monologues from Duran’s work. Guests move from room to room in the historic home (built in 1883) to hear tales based on the author’s experiences in Colorado theaters.
“The thing about ghost stories is that they’re the hardest part of theater to perform,” Duran said in an interview before the show. “Usually, somebody walks in the door to see a show, and they already know that the set is fake, and that the actors are dressed up and they’re going to read lines, and there’s suspension of disbelief. In order for me to really enjoy the show I’m going to just go ahead and let everything go. But you say ‘ghost story,’ and everybody leans back and crosses their arms.”
True. At the beginning of the first reading, I watched as couples glanced at each other and exchanged half-smiles. Teenage girls giggled as the Stage Manager, played by Debbie Knapp, began a controlled freak-out, her eyes growing wide and forehead starting to wrinkle. Jack-o-lanterns glowed on the windowsills as Knapp recounted the sounds of a screaming baby in what was supposed to be a dark, empty theater. A small light illuminated her face and papers, and I couldn’t help but think of times spent, as a kid, telling ghost stories in a circle, the storyteller’s face illuminated by a flashlight thrust under his or her chin.
“Ghost stories demand incredible honesty from the actors. If you start winking at it or making a joke, then you’re killing it. The only way it works is if [the actor’s] terror in the moment communicates honest terror to the people in the audience,” said Duran.
I have no idea how long the Stage Manager’s story lasted, but before the end of it, I’d stopped noticing the reflection of headlights from cars passing by outside. It seemed a little silly at first, this woman before us, recounting how she’d stormed around a dark theater, following sounds of a screaming newborn to find nothing. How the sounds would stop and start again, moving from room to room, yet no matter where in the theater she went, she couldn’t find anything.
When the story was over, nobody screamed and nobody jumped in terror. But a few, at Knapp’s prodding, began telling their own stories. They’d heard this or that building was haunted, or everyone in their old office could feel another presence in a certain room. By the time we moved to the next room for our second tale, no one’s arms were folded and I got the feeling everyone would be sharing stories on the ride home.
“When I first started thinking about Ghostlight, it was a play,” said Duran. Then he realized that monologues would allow each audience member to become involved and write their own details. “First I wanted for everyone to like the characters, so I tried to make them fun, the kind of a person you’d want to know. It was what I was doing to fight that unwillingness to suspend disbelief, the ‘you better prove it to me’ attitude.”
Asking an audience to suspend disbelief for adult story-time is one thing, but convincing everyone that the events happened is a different task altogether.
“One of the most monumentally haunted places I’ve ever been was a theater in Steamboat Springs; it was an old train station,” said Duran. “I think there are places that hold emotions and things that have happened. And in a train station, there are people leaving, coming together again, people who are still waiting for someone who never showed up, people waiting for sons and fathers and uncles to come home from the war, and when they arrived, they arrived in a box. People who just died normally and were being shipped somewhere else.
“There’s a high level of emotion in there, and there wasn’t a person [in the Steamboat theater], no matter what they believed, that did not have a monumentally frightening experience.”
Even now, there are a lot of theaters, a lot of on-stage moments, that Duran would love to return to. So why not return in the afterlife?
“I think it’s 90% of the world that believes in an ultimate being. And a lot of people believe that there is a life after life,” said Duran. “And yet, when you say the word ‘ghost,’ all of that shuts off. What’s the difference?”
I can’t answer that question, but I do know good storytelling when I hear it.
If You Go
Ghostlight, presented Oct. 23, 24, 30, 31. All shows start at 7 p.m. at the Byers-Evans House Museum, 1310 Bannock St., Denver. Tickets are $10 each and reservations are recommended. Call (720) 233-0811 to reserve seats or for more information.
Colorado Homegrown Tales
Byers-Evans House Museum www.coloradohistory.org/hist_sites/Byers_Evans/byers_evans.htm
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.