I’ve just finished directing a play in Columbia
at the University of South Carolina
in the historic Longstreet Theatre
. Working with the talented students at USC was a delight, and we got to use the full capabilities of the space with its enormous hydraulic lift stage.
As the director I was always one of the last to leave the building. It’s a sound theatrical tradition that every night before you leave the theater, you put out what’s known as a “ghost light.” It’s basically a bare light bulb on a stand that illuminates the theater just enough that anyone walking into the darkened building can see enough that they won’t break their neck.
Once you’ve put out the ghost light and turned off the rest of the lights, it can get pretty spooky: especially in Longstreet.
You see, like many of our public spaces in South Carolina, Longstreet has been around for a long time. It was originally designed as an auditorium and chapel, but it also was used for a more bone-chilling purpose: during the Civil War it served as a military hospital for those wounded in battle. And the basement level, with its low-ceiling, brick vaulted alcoves, was used as a morgue.
I’ve directed three shows in Longstreet over the years and I must admit I have never had an actual supernatural experience there – and I hope I never will. But I’ve heard of plenty of students who have.
Tales swirl around campus that an angry Confederate soldier still haunts the place where he died. People have complained for years of sudden temperature drops in the basement, strange sounds and a feeling of foreboding overtaking them when they entered the space.
One gutsy group of theater students put on a wonderful, original play a couple of years ago that they actually staged in the basement alcoves. That’s right, they staged the play in the old morgue.
Mary Tilden, who designed lights for that show, had a strange experience while working in the basement catacombs.
“I would sometimes have to walk up to the fourth floor of Longstreet to get something, and when I would come back, all of the lights would be on when I had had them off 15 minutes earlier.”
Tilden, a levelheaded young woman, tries to explain this with common sense, but seemingly innocent stories like this fuel the legend.
Longstreet also plays a role in another supernatural campus legend. Beneath the theater, and throughout campus, exists an intricate maze of steam tunnels. These tunnels have long since been closed and are now used only in emergency situations, but they still manage to play a major role in university legend.
In 1949, two USC students reportedly saw a strange man dressed all in silver disappear into a sewer portal outside of the theater. They also reported that the man seemed to have a third eye in the middle of his forehead. The legend of the Third Eye Man was born.
Years later in the 1950s, a university police officer is rumored to have spotted the Third Eye Man – again outside of Longstreet Theatre. Before backup could arrive, the man disappeared.
I try to remain mature and cynical in the face of these stories, but when you’re working on a play you sort of have to let your imagination run wild. It’s just hard to shut it off when you are left alone in the dark, imagining furious spirits and silver-suited men with three eyes around every corner. Things get even scarier when the fall winds start howling and we inch ever closer to Halloween.
The show I was working on has closed, but USC will present Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories Nov. 11-19. The play has been called a “deep and dark exploration of the youthful psyche,” so it should be right at home in Longstreet. The theater also will be home to the decidedly un-terrifying Noel Coward comedy Present Laughter this spring.
If you thought you would escape the world of the paranormal by attending a play in one of USC Theatre’s other venues, think again. They are presenting Shakespeare’s famously cursed Macbeth in Drayton Hall this spring. It’s a play full of premonitions, omens and witches, and a centuries-long tradition of bad luck, weird happenings and spooky events coinciding with its productions.
It’s enough to keep a girl from going to the theater – unfortunately, the plays at USC are just too good to miss.
for more information on future USC productions.