During our seemingly endless lockdowns over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a book I’d been kindly gifted, Theatre Ghosts by Roy Harley Lewis.
This sober and well-researched investigation into credible theatre hauntings reminded me of an incident a decade ago when the author Mark Riley contacted me about his book Haunted Scarborough. During his research, he had found an interesting story about Alan Ayckbounr’s home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and wanted to include it in the book.
Always glad to help, I agreed to meet him at the SJT, where an inevitable, if awkward, question came up.
“Tell me about Mabel, the ghost of the cinema usher,” said Mark.
Biting my tongue, I replied, “There is no ghost.”
“But I’ve heard about it,” replied Mark. “From the ushers and the cleaning staff. It’s a local legend.”
I find deep-breathing exercises help at times like this.
“It’s not a local legend. It’s not even remotely true.”
That’s the polite answer. You see it’s bunkum, nonsense, hogwash, stuff and nonsense. It is nothing more than an urban myth which has spiralled out of control.
And before you starting Scully-ing me, let me make it clear. I’m not saying there are no such things as ghosts, the paranormal or supernatural phenomenon. Nothing of the sort. I’m saying that, very specifically, Mabel the ghost doesn’t exist. She is a figment of the imagination.
Now, I know I’m fighting the weight of opinion here as practically every usher, cleaner and assorted staff member at the SJT has claimed to have seen ‘something’, sensed ‘something’ or had a disturbing encounter.
Which is fine. Perhaps they did. Perhaps they experienced something inexplicable. They just didn’t experience Mabel. Because Mabel is completely and utterly explicable. The most mundane ghost as she is nought but words and tales.
Mabel is the creation of a former employee at the SJT who worked in the Education Department and who used to conduct tours of the building – and was also something of an accomplished story-teller. Unfortunately, they got a bit restless telling the same old dry facts and figures and so decided to take a few liberties and to spice things up a bit.
The SJT is a relatively old building – it’s built in the shell of a former Odeon cinema completed in 1936 – so, what do all old buildings and theatres need? That would be a resident ghost.
Thus was Mabel the Spectral Cinema Usher invented; a young women who haunted the theatre – although, curiously, never the cinema which had preceded the building’s redevelopment. After the person who invented her left, other people picked up the story and it became a regular part of the SJT tours but – as is the wont in theatre – the plot-line continued to expand and develop.
Mabel is purportedly the ghost of an usher who worked at the Odeon cinema on the site of which the Stephen Joseph Theatre now stands. She’s been referred to by other names too, but Mabel is the one which has stuck. The stories differ slightly but the most common is that one night after work during the early years of the cinema’s existence (presumably the late 1930s), she left the building alone and was attacked and murdered in Hanover Road, behind the theatre. Her killer never found and her ghost subsequently haunting the building. As the story gained traction, it developed from hazy ‘facts’ to an increasingly gory and detailed story.
Now the problem with a story like that is it catches people’s imaginations – hence why Mabel has persisted for the past couple of decades. Somewhat predictably, it caught one member of the public’s imagination, who – upon hearing this tale of horror during a tour – decided to investigate and add some meat to the bone.
Except there was no meat. There were no bones – literal or metaphorical. Just a tall tale.
The member of the public returned to the SJT and reported what she had found. Precisely nothing.
There was no usher called Mabel and no cinema usher was ever murdered on Hanover Road. There wasn’t even a record of any usher dying whilst on duty at the Odeon cinema. In fact, it’s difficult to find evidence that anyone even died within the Odeon cinema between 1936 and 1988 when it closed.
Ironically, there is also no oral or written record of a ghost haunting the Odeon when it was actually a working cinema – it took more than six decades for Mabel to make her first ‘appearance’!
Mabel was the ghost of a ghost.
I have often pictured the scene when the Theatre Manager had to listen to this and then sheepishly admit that it was all a fallacy and nothing but flim-flam to liven up the theatre tour.
I frequently tell people this story and I hope Mabel is never mentioned on the theatre tours. But I know she is. I know people still enjoy the story and believe it. She keeps returning from the grave, no matter how many times the story is debunked.
She may not exist, but I suspect she’ll live on at the SJT long after I’m forgotten.
When Haunted Scarborough was published, I was curious to see what Mark had written. I was delighted to discover he had written the unexpected and turned our conversation into a chapter on fictional ghosts and how these stories gain a ‘life’ of their own.
I also told him the story of another ‘legendary’ ghost, which I heard back in the early ‘90s whilst working as a journalist covering the conversion of the Odeon building into the SJT. Apparently the projection room was haunted by ghost of the original projectionist.
Whilst researching the project, I interviewed an elderly projectionist from the Odeon. I put to him the story and asked, had he ever seen the ghost of the first projectionist?
“I should bloody well hope not,” he said. “As far as I’m aware, I’m still alive…”
This article was originally published in the SJT Circular, the newsletter of the SJT Circle. If you’ve enjoyed a play by Alan Ayckbourn – or anyone else! – at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and would like to support the company during these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle offers varying levels of support with benefits for members. You can find out more at the SJT website here.
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and also the Honorary Archivist of The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The only spirits he has seen at the SJT are at the bar.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.