Theatre Myths - Ghosts At The SJT

This section of the website features articles by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd concerning historical myths about the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The Myth: The Stephen Joseph Theatre is haunted by the ghost of a cinema usher called Mabel.

True or False: 100% false.

The Explanation: Firstly, this is not an article debunking ghost or the supernatural in general. I have no idea whether ghosts are a fiction, a reality or some unproven scientific phenomenon and do not intend to explore this issue within the article. I do however know, with complete confidence, that one ghost certainly does not exist and that is Mabel, the SJT ghost.

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. The stories differ slightly but the most common is 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.

It's a good - if somewhat gratuitous - story which has been given weight by being retold by the young Front Of House staff (and a few older staff members who should - and do - know better) for the better part of two decades and which refuses to die. But a story is all it is. Deliberately so.

Mabel was entirely the invention of a former head of the theatre's Education Department who used to give public tours of the theatre. Bored with the dry history of the building - and an accomplished story-teller in their own right - they started mentioning a ghost in the building's McCarthy auditorium; the end-stage space which retains many of the features of the original Odeon cinema and is situated where the centre of the cinema's circle would be. Over time, the story became more complex and involved and the ghost gained the name Mabel (there have been several other names, but Mabel is the most common and one which stuck) and the initial hazy details of her death became more detailed and gory. The story was repeatedly told to the public and also gained traction with the SJT staff.

Somewhat predictably, the story was exposed when a member of the public - having taken the tour and heard the story - was so inspired she went to Scarborough Library to find out more about poor Mabel and her gruesome murder. Of course, she found nothing. No newspaper articles or any other evidence of a murder or gruesome death. When she reported this, the person in question admitted Mabel was just an invention and fabrication.

Of course, so entrenched was the story that just because it had been debunked, it continued to survive and thrive. Which is the nature of stories, but attempting to say the ghost was mis-identified or something else entirely does prove slightly difficult given there are no reports of any member of the Odeon staff being murdered nor has anyone yet to produce any evidence or reports of anyone dying at the Odeon at any point during its history (even during the frequent bombing raids over Scarborough during World War II).

It is also worth pondering - for those who cling to the idea Mabel does in some way exist - a couple of small points. Why is there is no oral or written record of Mabel haunting the Odeon itself prior to its conversion into the Stephen Joseph Theatre? If - as the story goes - she died in the 1930s, it took her a very long time to begin haunting the building and it seems unusual no stories of Mabel are associated with the time the building was actually the Odeon cinema. And also, why is Mabel confined purely to The McCarthy? The Odeon was a vast 1,700 seat single screen venue - and yet Mabel is apparently confined to just The McCarthy at the SJT, a rather compact 164 seat auditorium which encompasses only a very small area of where an usher would have worked in the Odeon.

All of which is by-the-by, as Mabel was entirely the creation of an over-active imagination and she does not, nor has ever, haunted the SJT.

There is also the story of a ghostly presence in the technical box in The McCarthy, which was the former projection room; indeed this has often been purported to be the ghost of the original projectionist. As a local journalist during the 1990s, I once put this to a former Odeon projectionist for an article I was researching. 'Did you ever come across the ghost of the original projectionist,' I asked in innocence. 'I should bloody hope not,' came the memorable reply, 'I'm still alive….'

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.