Halloween 2021- Pepper's Ghosts and the horror of existential anxiety
Halloween originates in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. At the end of autumn, the recently deceased would begin their journey to the world beyond, as long-dead souls returned to their former homes. In this time of spiritual rearrangement, living people lit bonfires and donned scary masks to avoid the detection or ire of these ghosts. Over hundreds of years, these traditions have evolved into alcohol-fuelled parties, children dressed as firefighters begging for Snickers bars on suburban streets, and yearly rewatchings of The Conjuring. One notable aspect of Samhain has becoming overlooked in our modern revelry. Samhain coincides with the beginning of winter- Halloween hundreds of years ago was steeped in very real fears of starvation and illness. It was a time for mourning the dead and ruminating on matters of health and family. Death creates angry spirits to appease, but it also creates grief and existential dread.
For Halloween in 2019, as a way of coping with a far less serious existential dread, I built a Pepper’s Ghost.
At the time, I felt lost and lazy. My days were no longer filled with projects and deadlines, but with new concerns. I worried about paying my bills. I felt unprepared, even after 4 years of tertiary education and about $24,000 in HECS debt, to become a writer and dramaturg. This year, as Halloween approached, my mindset was a little different.
A Pepper’s Ghost, for those of you not in the know when it comes to phantasmagorical stagecraft, is an optical illusion that was a brief novelty on the stages of Europe in the mid-19th century. Using large angled planes of glass and a light source, the illusion works by projecting the reflection of an actor or object onto a stage to the amazement of Victorian theatregoers. While not widely available in theatres during the 19th century due to the enormous spatial and monetary costs involved in installing them, the science behind the illusion remains a fixture of entertainment. Disneyland still employs a version of the illusion in several rides, as do music festivals and millionaires interested in creating lifelike hologram celebrities. It is a simple enough trick to pull off- the work for me was in deciding what venue to create.
I have always managed to take on these kinds of projects and juggle my other responsibilities. When I was in uni, I managed to write and support multiple productions at the same time while working 20 hours a week. I have always found comfort in this kind of discomfort, an itch scratched by late nights and early starts. It was my dream. And so, when uni ended, so did my commitments. In those days immediately following the end of my life as a student, I panicked. I spend hours lovingly building my first Pepper’s Ghost out of cardboard, calculating the angles of glass and lights to create that magical, lifelike effect. At the end of it, I gave my creation to my sister. I didn’t need the finished product- I just needed the act of creating it.
There is no prize for guessing what has caused a void in my schedule this year.
The theatre I decided to model my new Pepper’s Ghost on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. The theatre is often touted as being one of the most haunted in the world. According to their website, the most famous supernatural resident of the Theatre Royal is the Man in Grey. Appearing in his grey long coat and tricorn hat, spotting the ghost is seen as a mark of good luck for any actor. The Man is often seen pacing the circle and dematerialising into the wall. He has been known to shush ushers and kick seats. Another notable resident is famed pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi. Legend holds that Grimaldi, who lost the use of his legs to a disease that eventually claimed his life, is a jealous spirit who takes his revenge by kicking the shins of actors performing at the theatre. There is also pantomime performer Dan Leno, who is also said to manifest as a scent of lavender filling the auditorium.
While the ghosts at the Theatre Royal made it the perfect candidate for my project, it was the auditorium itself that inspired me. The Lane is one of two Restoration theatres still operating in London, opened in 1663 after King Charles II lifted Puritanical bans on theatre. The theatre has recently been refurbished by way of a £60 million contribution from Andrew Lloyd Webber, restoring the Greek revival interior created by architect Benjamin Wyatt over 200 years ago. The paranormal residents of the theatre are hopefully pleased with the kilos of gold leaf and thousands of square metres of painting that the new auditorium is adorned with. The Lane was and is renowned for its staging of ‘gaudy’ musicals and family fare. Architect Steve Tompkins, the man tasked with the recent restoration efforts, describes the Lane as the “…real “People’s Palace” of its day.” I was immediately drawn to this inconsistency- an opulent auditorium shining with gold and marble, with a reputation for ghosts and musicals and other silliness. It’s everything I love, and miss, about going to the theatre.
About two months ago, I hit the wall. In the past I had been able to work from dawn till dusk as a dramaturg on a show, completing a thesis, and serving customers without my mind cracking. I tried to never show any fractures that would appear. I just kept going. After all, making art has always been an unhealthy affair. If I kept working, I was able to silence the voice inside me telling me to try harder. If my plate was too full, that was better than letting my mind become hungry.
It may come as no surprise that during this lockdown, I have been struggling with anxiety.
For as long as I can remember I have been running away from a feeling of failure and laziness. I would rather spend hours crafting a proscenium arch out of cardboard and beads than thinking on the churning feeling inside my head. I would rather pour my soul into painting each and every paddle pop stick constituting my stage floor than pour even a second of thought into asking why I needed it.
This Pepper’s Ghost started as another way to cope. I was coping with lockdown by creating, because my mind was stretched so thin I was unable to create anything else. I couldn’t write a word. I was paralysed by my mental illness finally winning. But now, as I bask in its victory, I am beginning to feel a weight lift. This year's Ghost is a monument to my failure. My failure to unfairly judge myself anymore. My failure to fill my plate beyond capacity. My failure to ignore signs and symptoms that I have been living in fear of for years.
So, Happy Halloween. I encourage you to reflect not only on candy and booze this weekend. Think on those ancient Celts, cloistered together inside indefinitely, meditating on their family members present and gone. This year, I am finally living with my fear and not running away from it. Like a spirit inhabiting a theatre, part of me will always be a little ephemeral and flighty. But my existential terror need not define me.
This Halloween, remember not only to indulge in your fear- embrace and move through it too.
Wilson, R 2021, 'A visual feast: Theatre Royal Drury Lane by Haworth Tompkins', Architects Journal, 14 Sept, <https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/a-visual-feast-theatre-royal-drury-lane-by-haworth-tompkins>.
Gore-Langton, R 2021, 'The history of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the theatrical history of England', The Spectator, 7 August, <https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-history-of-the-theatre-royal-drury-lane-is-the-theatrical-history-of-england>.
Raven, C 2019, 'London’s most haunted theatres', westendtheatre.com, 31 May, <https://www.westendtheatre.com/21739/visitinglondon/travel-guide/londons-most-haunted-theatres/>.
Dickson, A 2015, 'Inside the world's most haunted theatre', The Guardian, 29 Oct, <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/oct/29/most-haunted-theatre-ghosts-superstitions-theatre-royal-drury-lane>.
LW Theatres Group 2021, 'About Theatre Royal Drury Lane,' LW Theatres, <https://lwtheatres.co.uk/theatres/theatre-royal-drury-lane/about-theatre-royal-drury-lane/>.
London Paranormal 2021, 'Haunted theatres', London Paranormal, <http://www.londonparanormal.com/theatres/>.
Royal Theatre Drury Lane auditorium © Philip Vile and Haworth Tompkins
Pepper's Ghost illustration is public domain
Halloween postcard is public domain