Over the weekend, I saw the film The Woman in Black.
I don’t bend to reviews—I like to make up my own mind. I admit, it scared me. Then again, I probably found it more terrifying because I have a little bit of a personal history with The Woman in Black.
Back in 1998, I was stage manager for a local theatre’s production of the play adapted by Stephen Mallatratt.
The theatre had been built in the early 1900s as a church, so backstage areas weren’t typical. My stage left quarters were cramped—I spent most of the play on a tiny stairwell in the dark. To my left was a foot-high crawlspace beneath the stage, crammed with insulation and old wiring; however, someone had nailed plywood over the joists so it could be used as a shelf, which was where I kept my script, coffee, and the few props I needed to work with during the show, because essentially—although we had a fine actress who appeared as The Woman in the Black in a couple of brief scenes—it was me who manifested her when she wasn’t “physically” present.
If you’ve seen the movie or play or read the book, then you know the nursery’s rocking chair and its moving of its own volition is integral to the story. Our “nursery” was upstage in a nook that was where the baptismal font had probably been. To shield the area from the audience when not in use but give it a distant, creepy feel during the couple of scenes when the nursery was visible, the area was cordoned off with a scrim. The rocking chair, of course, was the most prominent object behind that scrim. To create the rocking on its own effect, we attached fishing wire to the base of the rockers, just in front of one of the legs. The wire ran back to my tiny area on the back staircase, where it was looped for my index finger and, when not in use, secured on a hook. It was the appropriate length so that there was almost no play; if I wanted that rocker to move, I had to give it a good yank.
We didn’t start working with effects until a couple of weeks before opening. We were running Act II. I was downstairs, following along in the script and making notes on my positions, when the play’s director, Rich, screamed:
“Petersen, quit screwing around!”
“The rocking chair. That’s not until the next page.”
I was confused—I was at the base of the stairs. I wasn’t anywhere near the trick wire for the rocking chair; in fact, the fishing wire’s finger loop was firmly on the hook, although it was moving because the chair was moving.
“I’m not touching it!”
“Cut the crap and cut it out.”
Then the chair halted. Literally stilled. As though someone had forced it to stop.
“Thank you,” he said. “Okay, move on.”
I just sat there, trying to process. Well, I’d just struck the bureau and a few other items in a previous scene, maybe I had bumped into the chair.
I knew damn well I hadn’t. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have still been moving five minutes later.
There was another effect that gave me trouble a couple of times; it wasn’t in the original play, actually. It was one that Rich added, one that I felt was quite brilliant and also necessary.
Toward the end of Act II, they prepare to leave the house, and Kipps begins gathering his things. In the original script, he notices the nursery door is open, and this calls his attention to it so that he goes in and sees that The Woman in Black has completely destroyed the place, breaking all the toys and furniture.
Rich wanted an impetus for Kipps’ character to go and look—he felt that him just “noticing” really wasn’t strong enough, and I agreed. In a nod to 1980’s The Changeling, he added the emergence of a child’s ball: as Kipps was packing, the ball would suddenly roll out on stage…and then roll back offstage, attracting his attention to the nursery. Who was going to make that happen? Me, of course.
The ball coming back offstage to me required a certain twist of the wrist upon rolling that had taken me weeks of constant practice to master, but I had done it. I never had any fear that when I rolled that ball it wasn’t going to return. I think I could still impress people at parties by doing it today.
Basically, I rolled it out, it went about ten feet, spun, and then came back. Kind of like a yo-yo, if you can imagine that. It never stopped moving; it simply came back.
On opening night, I rolled the ball on cue.
It went ten feet, like normal.
But then it just stopped. Like it’d hit an invisible wall.
Marc, one of the actors, didn’t break character. He simply carried on with the scene.
I was panicked. I had to get that damn ball off the stage, which meant I had to wait for the lights to go out.
Then, from a dead stop and with incredible speed—as though someone had pushed it—it rolled back to me. It hit my hands with a slap.
That night, a little confused about how I’d screwed up the ball, I resolved to come in early the next day and practice the trick some more. The ball was placed securely backstage within the rungs of one of the stools so that it wouldn’t roll when it wasn’t supposed to. And it was wedged between those rungs to the point that sometimes you’d hear that scrape of rubber trying to wrench it free. That thing wasn’t coming loose on its own. I jammed the ball back between the stool rungs and left.
When I came back the next night, I went to get the ball and it wasn’t there.
“Yeah?” He was turning on lights.
“Was anybody here today?”
“Nope,” he said. “I have the only keys. Why?”
“I can’t find the ball.”
“That’s ’cuz you didn’t put it away.”
“I did, Rich. I know I put it away.”
“What do you mean? It’s right there.”
I came up out of the stairwell.
“Right there. In the middle of the stage.”
It was. It was sitting downstage center. As though someone had set it there.
Most of the performances passed without incident, although a couple of times I spied the rocking chair moving when it wasn’t supposed to. Eventually, I stopped being frightened by it; I’d just don the black veil and gloves I wore for striking/setting the nursery so the audience couldn’t see me, slip out there, and make it stop. Over time it became so commonplace I chalked it up to uneven flooring. The incidents with the ball never repeated.
The experience, though, that scared the absolute crap out of me, the one I’ll never forget, happened on closing night. At one point in Act II, I’d put on the gloves and veil and, in the dark, slip behind the scrim to strike the bureau and rocking chair and set a Teddy bear in place for an upcoming scene. I had quite a bit of time to do it, which was good, because I had to be absolutely silent.
I struck the bureau, then went to get the rocking chair. But when I turned around, I couldn’t see the rocking chair. Yes, it was dark, but not that dark. It was also closing night. I had done this maneuver, literally, fifty or sixty times. I knew exactly what I should’ve seen at that moment.
And I knew exactly what I wasn’t seeing.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Had Rich come back here and struck it because I was running behind? No. There was no one back here but me—and the only exit to the nook was the one from which I’d come; there wasn’t one on stage right. And I was right where I should be, according to the lines being spoken on stage.
Then, suddenly, while I watched, a black something—it looked like black tulle—shot off stage right, and the rocking chair was revealed.
I remember just standing there, thinking, what the fuck was that? Then I remember feeling sick, a chill on the back of my neck, and panic: indeed, what the fuck was that? Mentally I scrambled for Psalm 23, but all I could remember was the first line and something about a rod and a staff being comforting. Then I recalled my parents’ advice, it’s your eyes. You know, like when you’re outside at dusk and you think you see things moving in the trees because the light’s fading. That’s all. Now move it or you’re going to screw things up.
I collected myself and finished what I had to do. When the show went dark that night and I was about to leave, I remembered, as I was gathering my bag, that I’d left my cigarettes backstage.
I decided instead to just buy a new pack on the way to the closing night party. I was sure it had been a trick my eyes had played on me and I’d just gotten spooked—I mean, hell, I’d been living and breathing this damn ghost story for almost three months, and I still didn’t really have good explanations for the rocking chair or ball incidents—but there was no way I was going back up there alone.
These couple of experiences were not the first I’d had at that theatre, actually, and they wouldn’t be the last. At that time in my life—probably because I was there nearly all the time (I wasn’t only on the theatre’s board for a couple of years but performed or worked backstage for a countless number of shows)—I wouldn’t accept that these experiences could be anything other than me getting “spooked” and my imagination running wild. After all, every time I had issues with this type of stuff when I was younger (in the house I grew up in), my parents would tell me it was just my imagination. And I believed them.
I stopped working in community theatre in 2001 because, after six straight years, I wanted to do something else (that’s when I went into aquarium work). I had no issues working at either Norwalk or Mystic Aquarium, though occasionally, at Norwalk, which was in a refurbished oyster processing plant, I’d get spooked and feel like I was being watched—the place was kind of creepy at night, so it was, again, easy to write off.
I didn’t think about my experiences at the theatre or, more specifically, the ones I endured during The Woman in Black until I met Nathan. I don’t remember exactly how I ended up telling him about the theatre, but I did, and it led to his taking in a team and conducting a paranormal investigation.
He captured a couple of EVP’s that would forever convince me that the experiences I’d had during The Woman in Black and other shows were not my imagination. That, in fact, because of the almost taunting nature of the experiences, something had been, maybe, even, toying with me.
Why? I don’t know. What I do know is that The Woman in Black made a believer out of me. If not in ghosts, then at least in the fact that being spooked most likely isn’t in my imagination.
And that’s probably the scariest thought of all.