By Ellie Brown
When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a small movie theater that showed only independent, cult, and foreign films. The theater was built in the early 1940’s and was decorated in the style of the era with heavy red velvet curtains, stained glass light fixtures, and dark wood. My co-workers were mostly college students at nearby Wayne State University or were enjoying their post-graduation “lost years”, like me. We slacked off, smoked pot in the basement and on the roof, picked the films for the summer midnight movie series, came up with cast lists for who would play each of us in a movie about our theater, and generally had the run of the place. Despite the minimum wage pay, tacky uniforms, and the misanthropy that comes with working with the public, it remains my favorite job. Except for this one thing…
Everyone started on ushering duty. Once this monumental skill set had been mastered, you could move on to concessions, and then to box office. At this point, you’d be rotated through each of these duties, depending on when you worked and who else was working with you. I learned quickly that everyone was relieved when we took on a new staff member, because this greatly lessened the chance of being on usher duty. At first, I figured this was because ushering included, not only taking tickets and directing patrons to the correct theater, but also included cleaning up after them when the movie was over. I never minded when people snuck in outside food, even though it was against policy. I just asked them to be sure to clean it up. Most people did, but there were a few times that I had to clean up chicken bones or something equally greasy and gross. People can be so disgusting.
The first time I cleaned theater three alone, it became clear why ushering duty was the short straw. This theater was the smallest, and was in the back of the building, away from the other two larger theaters, and so it wasn’t used as frequently. As soon as I walked in, I felt what I could only describe as oppressiveness. It was aggressively quiet, as theaters are soundproofed to keep out unwanted noise from the outside world. I had just cleaned the other dark, empty theaters, so it wasn’t the lack of sound, or the dim lighting, or even being alone that disturbed me. It was the uncanny sensation of being watched. I glanced around the small room to be sure I really was alone. “Hello?” I called out, feeling foolish. I wasn’t surprised to get no response, but you never know. Since I didn’t have much time before I needed to be back at the ushering stand, I got to work sweeping up popcorn and candy wrappers and picking up soda cups. I started at the back row and worked my way toward the front. The longer I was in there, the more intense the feeling of being watched became until the hair on the back of my neck was standing up and my breathing was coming in short bursts. I was sure I was sweating through my stupid bowling shirt. As soon as I finished the front row, I grabbed the rolling trash can and ran toward the exit. I flung the door open and pushed the can out in front of me, nearly toppling Nan, one of my co-workers.
“What the hell?” she demanded.
“Sorry,” I gasped. “I, uh, I got kinda spooked in there,” I admitted, sheepishly.
Nan rolled her darkly lined eyes. “Yeah, because that theater is haunted. Didn’t they tell you?”
Nan was a bit strange. She was about forty, much older than the rest of us, tall and slim, with unnaturally bright red hair, heavy eye make-up, and the emotional maturity of a teenager. She was beautiful, though, in a Suicide Girls sort of way, so most people tended to overlook her personality flaws.
I laughed. “Um, nope. I guess that wasn’t in the training manual.”
Nan stared at me blankly.
“That was a joke.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Well, it is haunted, you know.”
“Ooookay. Noted,” I said, as I walked around her and continued down the hall.
I could feel Nan glaring at me as I unlocked the door to the janitorial closet to stash the trashcan and other cleaning supplies. I thought about what she had told me. I figured that the most reasonable explanation was that theater three generally gave everyone the creeps, which are pretty easy to get if you’re stoned, and so it had developed a reputation for being “haunted.” Satisfied with my analysis of the situation, I flipped off the light in the closet and shut the door. I checked my watch. Shit. It was six-thirty on a Friday night, which meant we were about to get very busy. I hustled back to my post and proceeded to forget about theater three and its ghost.
* * *
A paper airplane whizzed by my head and stuck in the potted palm between the doors of theater one. Giggles erupted from the concession stand. I looked across the lobby to see Pat and Chris quickly try to look like they were working, bumping into one another in the process.
“Hey!” I yelled. “You’re gonna get us fired.” This elicited more laughter, as short of simply refusing to work it was nearly impossible to get fired. I grinned at them.
“I’m gonna go do the walk-throughs,” I announced, grabbing my flashlight from the small shelf inside the ushering stand. “When I get back, this lobby better be swept!”
“Pfft, that’s your job,” Pat snarked.
I nabbed the paper airplane from the palm and launched it at Pat. It stuck right in his blonde curly hair. Chris laughed so hard he snorted and Pat punched him in the arm.
“Owwwwww,” he wailed, and kept laughing.
Just like Beavis and Butthead, I thought, as I pulled open the doors of theater one. I flipped on the small flashlight, pointed it at the floor and started down the aisle. Luckily, I had never needed to confront anyone on a walk-through. Usually, just the presence of an employee was enough to shut people up or get them to put their phones away. I finished theater one quickly and moved on to theater two.
After emerging from theater two, the smell of popcorn had begun to make my stomach growl. Technically, I should check theater three, even though there was currently no film playing. Sometimes kids liked to sneak in there to make out or smoke weed. I didn’t have a problem with this, but management sure did. I sighed. Okay, I’ll just open the door and look in and then I can go grab some popcorn and a diet coke from the concession stand. I crossed the hall and pulled open the door.
I hadn’t expected to see anything, so I was dismayed when movement on the stage caught my eye. Dammit. Was someone fucking around up there? I squinted. A faint shadow passed behind the screen. We used the areas behind the screens for storage, so it could be a co-worker, I reasoned. I had better make sure, though. Shit. I stepped in and the door closed quietly behind me. As I started up the aisle, that familiar sense of dread began to creep over me. My stomach growled. “Not now,” I muttered. I walked to the stage and stopped, listening. I heard a faint scuffling sound coming from behind the screen.
“Hey,” I called. “Hey, who’s back there?” No answer.
I climbed the three small steps and walked onto the stage. I stopped, listening again. Nothing, and no movement. It had better not be an animal or something, I thought, remembering the time a bird had gotten into the lobby. I smiled a little as I recalled the shrieking patrons.
Then the lights went out.
I was so startled that I dropped the flashlight, which also went out. “Of course,” I said aloud. The sound of my own voice in the stillness was comforting, so I said, louder, “Hey! Is anyone back there? You shouldn’t be. You can just leave out one of the exit doors and I won’t tell anyone.” I paused. What was that sound? I strained to listen and could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I took a few more steps forward. It was a rustling sound, but now it seemed to be coming from behind me.
A hand dropped onto my shoulder. I started and cringed, fear tensing my entire body.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN HERE?!” demanded Pat in a low growl, shining a flashlight under his chin, spooky-campfire-story style.
“For fuck’s sake!” I gasped, clutching at my chest. Pat laughed.
“So, I think a transformer blew across the street. There was this huge flash and a cracking sound, and then the power went out. I came to find you. We gotta get everyone out of the theaters.” He peered at me. “Are you okay? Where’s your flashlight?”
“I dropped it,” I said. “It’s here somewhere,” I looked around. “Can you shine yours over here so I can find it?” No response. “Pat?” I turned to look at him. He was staring at me, eyes wide and terror-stricken.
“Come on, dude”, I pleaded. “You already got me once and we have shit to do.” He began to tremble. “Pat?”
“Someone is touching me,” he managed to whisper in a strangled voice.
“Whatever. Help me find my flashlight.”
“I’m not joking,” he hissed.
“Do you need an adult?” I joked sarcastically.
“Ellie, I’m serious.”
Suddenly, I could see his breath. He was still holding the flashlight under his chin like an idiot. Goosebumps raced up my arms. Something wasn’t right. A whispering movement brushed past me. I froze. Then, icy fingers wrapped around my wrist. I felt a scream rising within me – and then the emergency lights came on.
“Hey!” Chris was calling from the back of the theater. “Come on, we gotta give people vouchers and shit.” He disappeared back into the hallway. Pat and I looked at one another and ran.
* * *
“I’m going to go clean theater three,” I announced and shot Pat a meaningful look.
He set his Coke and comic book on the counter. “Be back in a sec,” he said to Chris, who nodded absently as he counted the drink cups.
After the, uh, incident, Pat and I made a deal that we’d always help one another with theater three. Neither of us ever wanted to go in there again, but as we both had rent to pay, that wasn’t an option. The buddy system was the best we could do. I’m sure people made jokes about us making out in there or something, but I didn’t fucking care. That place was not right and we all knew it.
We approached the door and stopped. I double-checked to be sure we had everything we needed. This was going to be a precision operation.
“Ready?” I asked. Pat nodded.
We yanked open the doors. Each taking a side of the theater, we worked as quickly as possible. I groaned when I saw a pizza box jammed under one of the seats, half eaten pizza and napkins trailing out of it. This was going to take an extra fifteen seconds, at least, and in theater three that felt like an eternity. Pat was already done with his side and was starting up mine.
“Hey, quit fucking around over there!” he scolded.
“Some asshole snuck in an entire pizza,” I grumbled. “How did I not see that? Where did they even put it?”
Pat made a face as he swept up popcorn. “Gross.”
“Seriously,” I agreed as I dumped the box into the can and pulled on gloves to pick up the half eaten pieces from the floor. I crouched down to check under the seats to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything. Pat was sweeping in the row ahead, and someone was standing next to him.
“What the fuck?” I stood up quickly.
Pat looked annoyed. “What?”
“I saw someone standing next to you! Well, I saw their shoes.”
Pat looked slowly to his right and then his left and then at me, pointedly. “Dude, did you have a Safety Meeting without me?”
“I’m not high,” I spat at him. “I saw another pair of shoes when I was on the floor.”
“Well, maybe someone took off their shoes in here and left them. I’ve found stranger things.”
I dropped back into a crouch and looked. Nothing. I stood up and looked at Pat. He read the expression on my face.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here.”