Story by Sarah Ruppenthal | Illustration by Matt Foster
I don’t scare easily. As a kid, I was never afraid of the dark or the boogeyman lurking under the bed. The only thing in my house that goes bump in the night is me, fumbling my way to the kitchen for a midnight snack.
That is, until I spent one dark and stormy night at the historic ‘Iao Theater in Wailuku, and discovered that I’m not impervious to goose bumps, after all.
After cemeteries and creepy old mansions, theaters seem to be a popular venue for reports of paranormal activity. The ‘Iao is no exception. Built in 1928, the former movie house has gained notoriety for having a resident company of ghosts.
Michael Pulliam, a production associate at the ‘Iao, says generations of thespians and theater staff have given eerily similar accounts of witnessing mistlike, drifting images, odd lights and shadows; and hearing voices and footsteps when the theater was supposedly empty.
Others have actually felt the presence of something ghostly, like actress Alison Mikes, who says her pulse quickens every time she enters the dressing rooms backstage. “I get this feeling on the back of my neck, and that’s when I know I’m not alone.”
In 2009, an obake (supernatural) historian determined that there are at least two distinct spirits still hanging around after their final curtain call. Of the two, “Emma” has had the most commanding stage presence. While there is no evidence that she is (or, was) an Emma, she purportedly responds favorably to the name.
Evidently Emma is a benevolent specter. In one popular account, she warned a set designer that the theater roof needed to be fixed immediately. Her words of caution were ignored, and a large section of the roof crashed onto the sidewalk the next morning.
While there is no record of any nefarious deeds or mishaps at the ‘Iao, some believe it must be the site of unfinished business. Last March, members of a paranormal research team shooting on-location footage for an August 2012 episode of the Sci-Fi Channel’s Haunted Collector extricated a mysterious time capsule encased in the theater’s cement facade.
It was hidden in plain sight.
The cryptic contents of the capsule, which dates back to the 1920s, include two blank postcards, a gold barrette, and a reel of antique celluloid film depicting an unidentifiable young woman dressed in white.
The Hollywood crew wasn’t the first to investigate the claim that the venue is haunted. Or the last. That is how I came to be at the ‘Iao Theater one summer evening with ReGina Norlinde, a local medium.
Even the most ardent skeptic would agree the theater is spooky after dark. Once the audience, cast and crew exit the building, the lights go down and the cavernous space is blanketed in eerie silence. As we wandered the theater aisles, mezzanine and (of course) basement, I became acutely aware of every creak, draft and shadow.
It wasn’t until we were standing backstage, a space filled with murky darkness and discarded theater props, that a chill crept up my spine. Like Alison, I felt as if we weren’t alone.
But we were the only ones in the building that night.
Do I believe the ‘Iao Theater is really haunted? The jury is still out on that one.
But you won’t catch me there alone after dark anytime soon.