Posts Tagged ‘pentagram’

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The Devil Rides Out

July 19, 2012

Paranormal Investigation is an unusual business, and after almost a quarter century of active study, I can safely say that I have encountered some very odd things along the way. As all Investigators will tell you, there is one question that always pops into the conversation once people find out what you do for a living……

‘What is the scariest thing that you have ever experienced?’

Usually, I tell people that the scariest thing that has ever happened to me occurred when I unwittingly attended a ‘Grab a Granny’* dance night at the Grafton Nightclub in Liverpool (I still get flashbacks!). But after the joke (?) subsides, I then describe the strangest paranormal experience that I have so far encountered. The story goes thus…

The Devil Rides Out

In the late eighties and early nineties, I earned a living as a freelance lighting and sound engineer. This job took me all over the country from as far North as Aberdeen to as far South as Cornwall (and all points in between), where I worked on a wide variety of shows and touring productions.

Whenever I visited a theatre for the first time, I always made a beeline for the resident staff to ask them if they considered their venue to be haunted – to which the answer was always ‘yes’. Each theatre, it seemed, had its own resident ghosts and a plethora of ghostly tales to go with them.

One theatre in particular, the Neptune (now renamed The Epstein), located in Hanover Street in Liverpool, really did deserve its spooky status, as many resident technicians would happily testify. Odd things happened there with alarming regularity and, as I will relate in more detail, it was a place where I experienced something that I could not explain – something that left me chilled to the core.

Built in 1913 above the famous Crane brothers music shop, the venue was originally designed as a music hall, but over the years, amateur drama groups started using the venue in increasing numbers, leading to its status being changed from ‘music hall’ to ‘theatre’. The Crane brothers took a very active role in running their beloved venue until tragedy struck the family in the early twenties. In a fit of depression, one of the brothers committed suicide by hanging himself from the theatre’s upper circle.

The theatre continued under Crane family ownership until the late sixties when it was bought by the Liverpool Corporation and raised to the status of a civic theatre – a move made in order to preserve its wonderful Victorianesque interior styling and its ornate proscenium arched stage.

In February 1993 I received a frantic phone-call from an old college friend called Collette who had a huge problem. Collette had landed the job of Stage Manager on a brand new show which was due to open at The Neptune – a musical version of Dennis Wheatley’s classic novel ‘The Devil Rides Out’. Unfortunately, things were going badly wrong and the production schedule had slipped alarmingly.

With only one week before the show was due to start, construction of stage set, props and costumes were well behind schedule; the music master-tapes and sound-effects had yet to be made, cast and crew morale was at an all time low and the cast had threatened to walk out unless the director was fired and a replacement found. Collette was a very able Stage Manager and I realised that for her to be in such despair, the situation must be very dire indeed. Collette explained that if the show were to be saved, she needed people around her that she could rely on to get things back on track. The next day, I became Assistant Sound Technician on The Devil Rides Out.

The Front Entrance to the Neptune Theatre, Liverpool

As previously stated, the Neptune was a theatre that I was very familiar with, having served most of my college apprenticeship there. I knew, therefore, all the stories told by backstage staff of the ghostly goings-on that allegedly occurred there on a regular basis. In particular, there was the much witnessed apparition of a ghostly suited figure, which people attributed to the ghost of the suicidal Crane brother, seen walking around the upper circle, usually on the first night of a new production. Although unnerving, its appearance was not regarded as sinister by the staff.  It was almost as if Mr Crane was still looking after the productions in his beloved theatre.

However, there are distinct parts of the Neptune that do feel particularly unnerving. For instance, the dressing rooms on either side of the stage and the under-stage corridors all feel very sinister, especially if you happen to be in them alone.

Technicians often spoke about the times when, late at night, they would be working on their own; sorting out stage set, checking lanterns, sound equipment, communications etc, when they would suddenly feel like they were being watched or hear voices and/or the sound of footsteps from parts of the theatre that they knew were empty. Sometimes they would, for a fraction of a second, catch sight of someone walking backstage when they knew they were the only person in auditorium. On one occasion, during a rehearsal, a stage manager saw a small child enter the lighting control room at the back of the theatre, but when a stagehand went up to investigate, no-one could be found. With only one door to the room, there was no way that anyone could have exited unnoticed.

While I travelled to the theatre I mused over the subject matter of the musical. The Devil Rides Out started off as a novel by Dennis Wheatley. Published in 1934, it is a classic tale of good versus evil. It contains all the (now) classic ingredients of a horror story, setting the benchmark for the modern horror genre.

In the book, the main character, Duke de Richleau, attempts to thwart the plans of the evil black magician, Moccata, by preventing him from using his friends, Simon and Tanith, as sacrificial offerings in a bid to help the Devil cross over into our world.

The book was turned into a very successful Hammer Horror film in 1967, starring Christopher Lee as The Duke and Charles Grey as the evil Moccata. Now in 1993, it had been given the musical treatment by writer/film-maker Colin McCourt.

When I arrived at the theatre my principle job was to create the sound-effects that were needed for the production.  They wanted some scary stuff: screams, creaks, eerie wind, animal howls, satanic laughter and the sound of a devil-horse for the climactic fight between good and evil. Whilst being introduced to the rest of the team, I quickly realised that Collette had not been exaggerating when she said that tensions were running high and nerves were frayed. Even as we gathered on stage, the new director – one of the stars of the show called Brett – was screaming for the technical work to be finished so that full dress rehearsals could take place.  I took a copy of the script and found a quiet room under the stage so that I could study it and work out exactly what sound-effects they required.

Over the next few days, I got more and more involved in other aspects of the technical work, wading in to help out as much as I could; by day helping in the theatre and by night in the recording studio working on the sound-effects. I worked round the clock with no sleep for three days and nights. In no time I had pushed myself beyond the point of exhaustion.

On the third night I finished the sound-effects and went over to the theatre, only to find that technicians were still frantically working away on stage. I retired to the quiet dressing room under the stage in order to check the newly-made sound-effects tapes and label them up in preparation for the up-and-coming dress-rehearsal.

Whilst sitting there, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched – which I initially put down to fatigue – but then again, maybe fatigue and the need to stay awake had heightened my senses, enabling me to sense things that I normally could not. After an hour of this intensely creepy feeling, I couldn’t take any more and got out of the room. Feeling the need to be with people, I went up to the stage to see what was going on. I looked at my watch and discovered that it was 2:15 am.

On stage, three technicians were marking out the stage floor. They were as exhausted as me and appeared to be in some difficulty.  I wandered over to Stuart, another old friend from college, and asked him what they were up to.

“We are trying to draw a pentagram on stage,” he said, “but we can’t get it quite right. This is attempt number 5.”

The story required that a Pentagram be put on stage as the centrepiece of the musical. All three of them were trying to mark off five points, 72 degrees apart on a large circle which, once joined up, would form the points of the pentagram. Because they were so tired, this basic task was proving to be beyond them. They began to laugh hysterically as they got it wrong yet again.

“How can something so simple be so hard?” questioned one of the techies as he erased the chalk marks of the previous effort.

“It’s because we are all knackered,” replied Stuart, rubbing his eyes.

After a further four attempts, they got it right. The basic shape was taped in and painted over with white paint to make it more permanent.

They stood back and admired their handiwork. Stuart looked at the stage-plan and back to the circle and then cursed under his breath.

“We’ve drawn it upside-down……will it matter?” he said.

I replied “I’m sure no-one will even notice. Come on, let’s get a coffee and then see what else still needs to be done.”

An eerie silence fell upon the stage. The four of us stood there completely still for what appeared to be an eternity before a loud crash from backstage broke the spell.

“What the hell’s that?” exclaimed Stuart.

“Sounded like someone banging on the rear shutters. Are we expecting anyone else here at this time?” I asked.

Nervously, we headed backstage to investigate.

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The Inverted Pentagram – A ‘Gateway’ to Hell?

The symbol of the pentagram has a long history stretching back to at least 3500 BC.  It is often associated with magic and mysticism and more recently it has been used in Wiccan ceremony, but for a while it was also used by the Christian faith as a symbol of protection.

The first graphical illustration associating the pentagram with evil appeared in the nineteenth century, where Alphonse Louis Constant, a defrocked French Catholic Abbot, illustrated the upright pentagram of microcosmic man beside an inverted pentagram. It is this illustration and juxtaposition that has led to the concept of different orientations of the pentagram representing good and evil. According to some, if a pentagram is cast upside-down, the symbol of protection becomes the symbol of evil.

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The banging on the shutters only turned out to be a pizza delivery for the technical crew, thoughtfully ordered by the Theatre Manager who was also helping out as much as he could. We ate our food and then decided to head off home to get some sleep. In seven hours time we would be running a dress-rehearsal and would need to be focussed.

As we headed off down the long backstage corridor in the direction of the stage door, the huge fire door behind us swung open and then firmly slammed shut on its own. Turning round sharply, I expected to see Jackie, the resident lighting engineer and last technician in the theatre that night, following behind us. But there was no-one there.  ‘Odd’, I thought.

“Must be the wind,” said Stuart.

“Nah, those doors weigh a ton,” replied the Theatre Manager, “wind couldn’t budge them.”

As we stood there, a cold chill crept down the corridor from the direction of the fire door.  I suddenly felt very uneasy.  The door began to open again.

“Oh, it’s you Jackie,” said Stuart, as Jackie came through the door very fast, her face pale and drawn.

“What’s up Jackie?” asked the Theatre Manager. Jackie looked as though she had just seen a ghost.

“Something really f**king weird just happened up there,” she said, pointing overhead to the stage.  “The smoke machine just went off for about a minute. It wasn’t switched on at all.  Besides, the power to the stage was switched off too.  Don’t ask me why, but as soon as I had checked the machine and found that it was stone cold, I just had to get out of there. The stage was giving me the f**king creeps.”

For the smoke machine to work whilst switched off was a complete impossibility. As technicians, we all knew how they operated. Smoke or mist is produced by spraying liquid vegetable dye over a heated coil of wire, which then vaporises the dye to produces thick smog. If the machine was switched off it would be impossible to do anything other than to spray a pool of dye all over the floor.

We headed off for the stage door, completely puzzled and shivering in the unnatural cold that had suddenly enveloped us.

“You know,” said Stuart, “all hell’s going to break loose here in a few hours.”

We all nodded in agreement as, in a few short hours, the first and last dress-rehearsals were going to take place, and there was still a lot to be done.

Little did we realise how true Stuarts words would be, but not for the reasons that he meant.

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After six hours’ sleep we returned to the theatre. Brett, the new Director was already there by the time we arrived, and he was not amused by the state of things on stage. Although the stage set was completed, Jackie still had a few more lights to rig and focus, meaning that the stage was out-of-bounds for at least another hour.

The atmosphere in the theatre was horrible and oppressive.  Everyone was feeling uneasy or agitated. The actors chatted nervously in the green room as they waited for the final adjustments of the stage lighting to be completed.

Just then, the principal star of the show, Bernadette, came in and told us of an odd thing that had just happened to her. She had been alone in a bar in the old Royal Institute on Colquitt Street, waiting to be interviewed by a journalist. She had heard noises coming from the bar area and assumed that someone must be working in the back. When the journalist arrived, Bernadette suggested that they get a coffee.  The journalist looked puzzled and said, “But the bar isn’t open until tonight.”  She told the journalist that she had just heard someone working behind the bar and that possibly, if they asked nicely, they could be served with a coffee or tea.  The journalist walked over to the bar and called to the back for assistance, but there was no-one there.

In the theatre, the actors and technicians began to complain of feeling completely drained, yet the atmosphere seemed to be charged with nervous tension. Brett, the Director, walked around like a man possessed, acting remarkably in character with his part, the evil devil-worshipping black magician Mocata, a character that Denis Wheatley had based on real-life occultist, Alistair Crowley.

Jackie eventually informed us that she had finished focusing the lights and had made the stage available for the actors. She then went upstairs to the lighting control room and turned on most of the stage lighting. The stage soon filled with actors.

Another resident theatre technician complained to me about how cold the theatre was, and this was echoed by the cast on stage, who were now standing under at least 50,000 watts of lighting, and therefore should have been feeling very warm indeed. Crossing the stage myself, I also got to feel how unnaturally cold it was up there.

As the dress-rehearsal progressed, cast members were beginning to feel spooked backstage as they waited for their curtain-calls, especially the actors situated in the dressing room directly below the stage. It was later described by one of the cast as ‘low level panic’, something that felt uneasy, but nothing you could put your finger on.

After two complete run-throughs of the show, the actors went off for a few hours to prepare for the first performance, while the technicians sorted out some last-minute problems.

At 6 p.m. a theatre usherette called Analesha walked into the auditorium and, upon seeing the pentagram, started to get very agitated. She wanted to who had ‘cast’ it, and why.  It wasn’t long before she revealed to us that she was a White Witch, and was very concerned about the pentagram, especially since it had been ‘cast’ upside down.

Stuart told her about the problems he had had drawing the thing on stage in the small hours of the morning. Analesha insisted that the circle needed to be cleansed; otherwise we would all be in ‘big trouble’. She said that, in effect, we had opened up a gateway to Hell, through which all manner of evil could break through. She insisted that the pentagram be blessed with salt water, but Brett, the director, refused point blank and told her it would be a slipping hazard on stage.

Just as he said this, the right-hand stage door flew open, and a blast of ice cold air shot across the stage. Analesha looked Brett in the eye and said “On your own head be it,” and walked off stage looking very disturbed.

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Just before curtain-up, as the audience found their seats, Jackie, who was alone in the lighting box, suddenly began to feel uneasy. She had the distinct feeling that something was in the box with her. She later described it as a ‘sinister, invisible something’ that she felt was out to ‘harm her’. Plugging herself into the comms link, she told everyone that she felt uneasy, and asked for any techies also on the comms to talk to her in order to take her mind off things. After a few minutes of chit-chat between the lighting box, sound desk and backstage technicians, Jackie called out to say that she could see a light that shouldn’t be there, bleeding around the top of the stage curtain.

She scanned the lighting desk and checked that all the on-stage lighting behind the curtain was switched off. She then asked the backstage people if there was anything that they could see that could be causing the illumination. Were any of the backstage striplights on?

“No”, came the reply from the technician in charge of the props.

Was there anyone in the rigging with torches?

“No” came the reply from the fly tower (the place, high in the ceiling, where technicians raise and lower backdrops and scenery to/from the stage).

We were perplexed. I was in the auditorium, seated behind the sound desk, listening to the commotion on the comms as the techies tried to find the source of the stray light. Eventually, the Stage Manager cut through the chatter and gave us our ready cues. The show was about to start.

As the curtain went up and the overture began, the mysterious light faded out. Now that the stage curtains were apart, Jackie could clearly see the spot where the mystery light had appeared. However, there were no lights positioned anywhere near where it had been.

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The first performance was a disaster. Later on, during debriefing, the actors complained that they felt completely drained of all energy – which was very unusual, especially for a first night’s performance. First nights are usually fuelled with adrenalin, but this had been a very flat performance, despite the show being a sell-out.  On the technical side, Jackie and I both missed a few cues, and Jackie told us all of her complete unease whilst sitting alone in the dark in the lighting box, despite having sat in there over 200 times previously without the slightest worry.

That night all the technicians and some of the cast went to the local pub for a wind-down drink and an informal post-mortem of the show. We were all in complete agreement that it was the oddest first night we had ever experienced.

The next day, when the actors turned up at the theatre, many complained of having difficulty sleeping while others revealed that they had suffered terrible nightmares.

Everyone who entered the theatre by the stage door also complained that the long corridor under the stage was unbearably cold despite the heating being full on, and some of the supporting actresses were feeling incredibly spooked in the dressing-rooms under the stage.  One actress felt so uneasy that that she changed into her costume in the backstage toilet.

Analesha, the usherette and White Witch, begged us to let her purify the circle with salt water, and also requested that we drop the scene where a copy of the Bible gets torn apart and spat upon. She pleaded with the Director, but he refused both requests.

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The Circle of Protection, as seen in the movie. (c) Hammer 1967

In the original book and the film, the most powerful part of the story is where the hero, the Duke de Richelieu and friends have to protect themselves from Moccata and the forces of evil by forming a protective chalk circle. In the film version, the circle was not a pentagram, but a plain circle ringed with salt and holy water. The climatic part of the scene comes when Death appears on horseback and attempts to break the circle but, by the power of prayer, the entity is thwarted and sent back to Hell.

It was during this scene, on the second night, that things started to go badly wrong with the lighting. Lights began turning themselves on and off, despite having no power to them, making the effect of the scene even more sinister. Jackie was cursing over the comms telling us that the lighting desk appeared to have a mind of its own. In addition, I was having problems with the sound desk I was operating. One of my sound-effects, an eerie wind sound, rose in volume even though my hand was away from the desk controls. I began to curse too.

As weird things were happening to the sound and the lights, the energy from the actors on stage was amazing. The scene was generating so much more drama than we had previously seen. It was as if the actors were possessed, more so than the stage equipment appeared to be. As Jackie and I fought to get control over our respective desks, the Stage Manager was shouting praise to us over the comms. “This is fantastic, keep it coming!”

After the show, Brett the Director asked us to include the ‘impromptu tech’ in the next night’s show, telling us that we were ‘naughty for not sticking to what we were supposed to be doing’ but praised us for our inspiration. No-one really listened to us as we spoke about our multiple technical problems. As soon as the meeting was over, Jackie and I compared notes on what had happened. Could it have been a power surge? We were completely perplexed. The only thing we were sure about was that something very weird had happened, and for us to ‘repeat’ it in the next show would be impossible.

That night Jackie didn’t join us for the usual post-show drink. Instead, she and her boyfriend, also a technician at the theatre, went home feeling incredibly drained. As they approached their front door, they heard a loud crash come from inside their flat.  Fearing that they were being burgled, Jackie’s boyfriend put his ear to the door, only to recoil in shock as he heard someone or something scratching down the inside of the door! He regained his wits and shouted at the top of his voice, announcing that he was going to open the door. He waited a few more minutes, still convinced that they had disturbed a burglar, and then unlocked the door, flinging it wide open. Gingerly, he went into the flat and checked every room.  Nothing. No burglar, no open windows, no sign of anything untoward. Both he and Jackie, feeling more drained than ever, decided to go straight to bed. Throughout the night, they both had a fitful night’s sleep and experienced very scary dreams.

The next morning Jackie awoke, complaining of having a sore throat. When she visited the bathroom and looked in the mirror, she was horrified to discover dark bruising all around her neck, almost as if someone or something had attempted to strangle her in the night. She feared that whatever was in the theatre had followed her home.

When she came back to the theatre for the next show, she was a nervous wreck.

Analesha got to hear about Jackie’s bad night, and also about the constantly slamming stage and fire doors, which practically everyone in the cast and crew had now experienced. Determinedly, she persuaded two of the technicians to let her bless the pentagram with salt water. She did this without letting Brett or anyone in the cast know.

During that night’s performance Jackie, alone in the lighting box and feeling extremely spooked, requested that someone sit with her during the second half. Her boyfriend dutifully went up and kept her company.

During the pentagram scene, Jackie and I tried to replicate what had happened the night before, but despite pushing everything up to the limit, we couldn’t match the previous night’s atmosphere. Jackie, in particular, had problems as she discovered that some of the lights that had fired off erroneously the night before hadn’t even been plugged in!

As performances went, it was a good show, and nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

The next day Bernadette was in most of the national newspapers.  The story had leaked out that there was something odd going on in the theatre.  Headlines such as ‘Devil Show Spooks Cast’ were everywhere.

Read all about it. Press coverage of the spooky goings on in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ show

This prompted paranormal investigator, Mark Glover, to turn up the next day.  He spent most of the afternoon in the theatre taking photos, measurements and making audio recordings at various locations.

As well as interviewing the cast and some of the crew, Mark made a few Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) recordings. On one of his tapes he picked up a number of anomalous voices that weren’t present at the time of the recording – and in one of his photographs, featuring the pentagram on stage, he captured a strange eerie mist hovering just above the circle that he swore was not present when he took the picture.

Analesha, with the aid of the technicians, performed her ‘purification’ ritual on the pentagram again, and things began to settle down in the theatre. Each night before performances, she secretly blessed the circle with salt water. Save for the odd door slamming, the sinister atmosphere in the theatre died down.

 On the last night Analesha didn’t get a chance to ‘bless’ the circle.

As she fretted in the aisles, the unknowing cast went on stage for the final performance …

As soon as we were into the full swing of the show, Jackie started to curse and swear as she once again lost control of the lighting desk. Lights began turning themselves on and off of their own accord. Seconds later, Collette the Stage Manager completely freaked out, shouting down the comms that she had just been pulled into the wings backstage by something invisible that had grabbed her tee-shirt. Then my sound desk went crazy, and sounds began to rise sharply in volume even though I was nowhere near the controls.

While all this was occurring, Brett and other actors on stage spied a sinister third figure in the lighting box that just fizzled out right in front of their eyes. They were so freaked out that they began missing lines. Then, during the final scene, the smoke machine went off during the finale, flooding the stage with dense fog. Technicians had to drag it off stage as they couldn’t stop it. Again, the device had operated whilst unplugged and being stone cold.

At the end of the final performance the actors and non-essential theatre staff went off to the end-of-show party, leaving a handful of technicians in the theatre to tidy up and strip down the set and equipment. The strip-down was the fastest I have ever experienced as we all wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as we could. Finally, we ripped up the tape that marked the pentagram and didn’t feel happy until we had repainted the stage to remove all trace of it completely.

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Many years after the strange events experienced during that production, I often wonder about what really went on in the Neptune Theatre during that fateful February in 1993. Was the whole series of events caused by group hysteria, fuelled by White Witch Analesha’s fear of the pentagram? Or was it, as Analesha thought, the careless ‘casting’ of a pentagram that allowed sinister forces to escape from ‘Hell’ to wreak havoc in our world?

One thing is for certain, the events really did occur, as I can willingly testify, but some critics have suggested that the ‘stories’ were merely an attempt at gaining publicity for the show. For this I have one simple counter-argument. The show was a sell-out long before the articles appeared in the newspapers.

Dennis Wheatley

At the end of the novel, The Devil Rides Out, Dennis Wheatley wrote:

I feel it is only right to urge my readers, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.

If, as Dennis Wheatley believes, the secret arts can conjure up the sinister forces of evil, and the careless ‘casting’ of a pentagram can produce a gateway to Hell, is the Devil still riding out somewhere in Liverpool?

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*Being accosted by Women old enough to have known my Great Grandmother when she was a child.