It’s that bubbling, nauseous sensation in the pit of your stomach, the awful, anxious awareness of hundreds of eyes resting squarely on you. But then your scene, your speech, your song ends, and you flee into the relative safety of the wings, hiding offstage with adrenaline pumping through your veins. But what happens when the sensation doesn’t go away? What happens when you’re alone in the dark, listening to the applause of an unseen audience, and you can still feel someone watching you, still feel invisible eyes digging painfully into your back? This feeling is not unfamiliar to those of us who regularly perform in the Roy Irving Theatre at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, NJ.
But beyond us, the legend of the infamous ghost who haunts the place remains one of the most stubbornly persistent among the entire student body. I and my fellow actors in the school’s drama society have taken to affectionately calling him Roy. But whatever joking fondness we have for our unseen fellow-thespian, only a precious few of us are brave enough to stay alone in the building after dark.
It is not necessarily a big place. There are no long, twisting corridors or trapdoors. But there is a lobby with two restrooms and a box office. A modest theater which can seat about 350 people. A costume loft and lighting booth. Wing space off stage left that leads to the lower-floor dressing room. And a winding stairwell that leads to another dressing room on the upper floor.
Perhaps because of its small size, just about every corner of the Roy Irving Theatre has a ghost story associated with it, and I have heard them repeated by every sort of student you can imagine. There was the group of social science majors who ended up throwing an impromptu party in the main theater one night. And maybe they regretted it. Because although the back doors were locked, some invisible force continued to push on them. Their radio turned off on its own more than once, and the lights flickered off twice overhead. Faulty wiring? Whatever the culprit, the ghost light of Roy Irving Theater remains a phenomenon with which many students on campus are familiar. It is that one particular overhead lamp which turns itself on mid-performance almost without fail. But never during rehearsal.
Along with doors closing by themselves in the dressing rooms and phantom whistling in the lobby, there is also a a phone in the wings of stage that is not connected to anything. While even in my long hours in the theater I have never heard it, more than one person has reported to me that it rings every once in a while. But no one has ever dared answer it. And if they did, what would they hear? A recording from Campus Safety about snow closings? Or a voice from beyond the grave?
I don’t know. But I do know that even if I only approach things like this with a mocking sort of superstition, I have had my own share of eerie experiences in the old place. In the downstairs dressing room, there is a bathroom with no running water which we now use to store our painting supplies. With its broken tiles, its rusted fixtures, and its lack of electricity, it does a good job of unnerving anyone who wanders in. While preparing for a show one afternoon, I was leaning into the dressing room mirror and smearing foundation over my cheeks when I caught distinct movement through the open door to that dismal little room. When I walked over to investigate, I fully expected to see a member of the crew. But no one was there.
Another time, we were in the middle of last minute rehearsals for the drama God of Carnage. With a four-person cast, a director, and a tech manager, there were not many of us in the theater that night. So during a break, everyone abandoned me to go get coffee. I decided to lounge on the sofa onstage, exhausted from school and work and practice. But staring out into the empty house, I saw someone moving between the rows of chairs, making a ruckus. A few moments later, my friends came in through the other door. So whom had I seen and heard?
I don’t know. It wouldn’t be first time I hallucinated from lack of sleep. All the same, I’m not the only member of the drama society who reports these things. I remember sitting with two friends in the main theater late one particular night when something began to unnerve us. And we all kept looking at the entry doors as if we expected someone to walk in. No one ever did. But we did flee into the cold to hang out elsewhere.
All the same, the Roy Irving Theater is our home. It’s where we work and where we play. It’s where the student body and the faculty can see two great shows a year. And it’s where we uphold not only fine arts at Saint Peter’s University but also the legends which give the campus community a rich and unique oral tradition all its own. And so, if you’re reading this over my shoulder, Roy, keep it up. Just find someone new to haunt.