NEWPORT — Meg Cowan, director of the Newport Opera House, has witnessed her share of ghostly events inside Newport’s historic opera house, from a spectral apparition, unseen voices conversing, and even the sound of a repeatedly-slamming fold-up chair in the empty balcony.
“I was on a ladder on the main floor, hanging a picture,” Cowan told the Eagle Times. “It was pitch black in the balcony area. And this is a creaky, very old floor. So if anyone was up here, I would have heard them walking around.”
On Tuesday, Cowan stood in the aisle where the sound, which occurred several years ago, had emanated. To replicate the sound, Cowan took the edge of one of the wooden, fold-up seats and rapped it sharply against the seat back. The sound echoed unnervingly through the currently empty theatre.
“It did that about six times, back and forth, loud banging like that,” Cowan said. “Keep in mind I was the only one here. It was dark, it was spooky, and I froze.”
In Cowan’s account, after the rapping subsided Cowan heard two adult voices engaged in a muffled conversation, followed by “a young child’s giggle.”
Cowan shared several similar experiences during an interview with the Eagle Times while discussing the opera house’s upcoming show, Real Ghost Stories with Adam Berry, a paranormal investigator and host of the TV series, Kindred Spirits.
Stories of ghostly encounters in historic theatres are not unusual. During a 2019 interview with the Eagle Times, board members of the Claremont Opera House shared their own strange encounters with the paranormal, such as the abrupt sound of piano keys sweeping downscale when there was neither person nor a mouse within vicinity of the piano.
Cowan said the Newport Opera House’s activity is not malignant nor something to fear. It is just a presence.
Berry, in a phone interview with the Eagle Times, explained why old theatres and music halls seem prone to hauntings.
“I think it’s more common than not,” Berry said. “There’s many theories around it, but I personally believe that what happens in a theatre, between the arts being created onstage and those who are watching it, there is some sort of energy that is exchanged between the actors and the audience. And I think that [spirits] recognize that energy.”
Some spirits might have had a personal connection in life to a particular theatre, whether as a performer, employee, or an audience member, Berry said. It is also possible that spirits may vacate a venue once the energy dissipates, such as during the pandemic when performance halls remained shuttered for over a year.
Many theatre companies embrace a tradition of leaving a “ghost light” lit whenever the theatre is dark. Berry said the practical reason for this is for safety, though the tradition behind that “is to leave a light on for the spirits in the theatre.”
“So even if they don’t believe in spirits, they still leave a ghost light on at the end of the night,” Berry said.
Berry, who formerly hosted the TV series Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters Academy, said he typically approaches new haunting claims with skepticism. Berry and his colleagues are typically “inundated” with thousands of emails or phone calls from people claiming to have a spirit. In many cases the investigative team finds either a logical, scientific explanation for the activity or no evidence of the paranormal.
“Our whole goal is to first figure out what it is before considering the paranormal,” Berry said. “You don’t want to tell someone a place is haunted if it’s not.”
Real Ghost Stories, which comes to the Newport Opera House on Saturday, Sept. 18, will be a night of true “spooky campfire” storytelling from the TV host, who will share his personal encounters with the paranormal. Some stories will be his accounts during filming of his television shows. Other stories, like Berry’s visits to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the Hotel Washington, in Bretton Woods, were not part of Berry’s television shows.
“The Hotel Washington is extremely haunted,” Berry said, laughing. “It doesn’t look like it on the outside, but I had one of my craziest experiences ever in that building. I rarely talk about it, but I am going to talk about it [in Newport].”
Berry said he is unbothered by whether people believe in spirits or not.
“I’m totally okay with someone not believing,” Berry said. “Maybe it’s not their time to experience it, or they aren’t in the right place, or maybe they’ll never experience it because they are too closed off. But they can still relish in the thought of it, because that’s kind of fun.”
For tickets to Real Ghost Stories, visit the Newport Opera House website at newportoperahouse.com. The Opera House encourages guests to wear masks inside the building.