The Devil Rides Out

Devil Rides Out title

As a freelance lighting and sound engineer in the late eighties, I was lucky enough to work in most of the theatres in Liverpool.  On my visits to each theatre I got to learn from the resident staff of the strange goings-on at the venues from time to time.  Each theatre, it seemed, had its very own resident ghosts and a plethora of ghostly tales to go with them.

One such theatre, the Neptune, located in Hanover Street in Liverpool city centre, 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 couldn’t 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 a music hall to a theatre.  The Crane brothers still watched over their beloved venue until, in the early twenties, tragedy struck when, 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 Liverpool Corporation and was 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 was in a bit of a pickle.

The Devil Rides Out poster

The Devil Rides Out poster

Collette had landed the job of Stage Manager on a brand new show, a musical version of Dennis Wheatley’s classic novel ‘The Devil Rides Out’.  Things were going badly wrong.  Some of the people she was working with were not ‘up to scratch’ and the production schedule had slipped very badly.

With only one week before the show, set, props and costume construction 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 manager and for her to be in despair I knew that the situation must be very bad indeed.

Collette explained that if the show were to be saved, she needed professional people around her that she could rely on to get things back on track.  The next day I became the Assistant Sound Technician on the Devil Rides Out.

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 occurred there with regularity.  In particular, there was the regular apparition of a ghostly, suited figure, which was attributed to the ghost of the suicidal Crane brother, seen walking or just standing in the upper circle, usually on the first night of a new production, but not regarded as sinister by the staff.  It was almost as if Mr Crane was fondly looking over the productions in his cherished theatre.

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

Technicians often spoke about the times when, late at night, they would be working alone; sorting out stage set, checking lanterns, sound equipment, communications etc, and they would suddenly feel like they were being watched, hear voices or footsteps from parts of the theatre that they knew were empty, or catch sight, for a fraction of a second, of someone walking backstage when they knew they were the only person there.  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 someone went up to check, there was no child to be found, and with only one entrance/exit, no way that any child could have left the room unnoticed.

Book Cover

Book Cover

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.

Dennis Wheatley

Dennis Wheatley

The main character in the book, Duke de Richleau, attempts to thwart the evil, devil-worshiping, black magician, Moccata, from sacrificing his friends, Simon and Tanith, to the devil, allowing the devil to cross over into this world to wreak havoc.  It was turned into a very successful hammer horror film in 1967, starring Christopher Lee as the Duke and Charles Grey as the evil Moccata.

Duke de Richeleau

Duke de Richeleau

And now, in 1993, it had been given the musical treatment by local writer/film-maker, Colin McCourt.  It sounded like an interesting project, but I wasn’t sure if it would translate to the stage successfully.

When I arrived at the theatre my first job was to create the sound-effects that were needed for the production.  They wanted some scary stuff: screams, creaks, eerie wind, 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 coming 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, while others recorded the productions music.  I worked round the clock, with no sleep for three days and nights.  I had long since gone past exhaustion.

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

While I was there I had an 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 would 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 to the whole musical.  All three of them were trying to mark off five points, 72 degrees apart on a large circle, which would form the points of the pentagram once joined up.  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 rubbed out the chalk marks of the previous effort.

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

I decided to lend a hand, and, after a further four attempts, we got it right.  The basic shape was taped in and then painted over with white paint to make it more permanent.

We all stood back and admired our handywork.  Stuart looked at the stage-plan and back to the circle and then cursed under his breath.

“We’ve drawn it upside-down to the plan.  Will it matter?” he said.

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

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

“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.

Pentagram

Pentagram

———————————-

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

No known graphical illustration associating the pentagram with evil appeared until the nineteenth century.  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 being good and evil.  According to some, if cast upside-down, the symbol of protection becomes the symbol of evil.

———————————-

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, and had been without sleep for almost as long as the rest of us.

We ate our food and then decided to head off home to get a few hours’ sleep.  In seven hours’ time we would be running a dress-rehearsal and would need to be alert and on the ball.

As we headed off down the long backstage corridor, walking towards 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 us, but she wasn’t 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 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***ing weird 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 it to be stone cold, I just had to get out of there.  The stage was giving me the f***ing creeps.”

For the smoke machine to go off whist switched off was very weird indeed.  As technicians we all knew how they worked.  Smoke or mist is produced by spraying liquid vegetable dye over a heated coil of wire, which then vaporises the oil and produces thick smog.  If the machine was switched off it would be impossible to do anything other than to spray a pool of vegetable 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 lots to be done.

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

———————————-

After six hours’ sleep we returned to the theatre.  Brett, the new Director, who was also one of the principle actors, 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 very uneasy or agitated, or both.

The actors chatted nervously in the green room and the dressing rooms, waiting for the final adjustments of the stage lighting to be completed, while Brett stalked the corridors in a foul mood looking for people to pick verbal fights with.

Bernie

Bernadette Nolan

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 thought 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 here isn’t open until tonight.”  She told the journalist that she had heard someone working behind the bar and that possibly, if they asked nicely, they could be served with a coffee or tea.  Hopefully, the journalist walked up to the bar and called to the back for assistance, but there was no-one there.  Upon checking with other staff at the Institute they discovered that there hadn’t been anyone behind the bar at all that morning.

In the theatre everyone, actors and technicians alike, seemed very drained, yet strangely, tempers were running high.  There was an unusually high amount of tension in the atmosphere, and everyone seemed to be affected by it.

Brett, for instance, was 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 with 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, now standing under at least 50,000 watts of stage lighting!  But, as I found out when I crossed the stage, it was definitely very cold up there.

As the dress-rehearsal progressed, cast members were beginning to feel spooked backstage as they waited for their curtain-calls, especially the ones in the lower dressing room directly under 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, asking who had ‘cast’ it.  It wasn’t long before she revealed to us that she was a white witch and she was very uncomfortable with a pentagram being there on the stage, especially since it had been ‘cast’ upside down!

Stuart and I told her about the problems we had had drawing the thing on stage in the small hours of the morning, and she insisted that if the circle wasn’t blessed then we were in for big trouble.  She said that, in effect, we had opened up a gateway to hell, and that all manner of unspeakable evil could break through.  She insisted that it be ‘blessed’ with salt water but Brett, the Director, refused point blank and told her it would be a 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.

———————————-

Just before curtain-up, as the theatre was filling up with audience, Jackie, who was alone in the lighting box, suddenly began to feel very uneasy; getting the distinct feeling that an invisible 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 plugged in to the comms link 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 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.  Getting a better look at the stage, now the curtains were apart, Jackie could see that there were no lighting units even close to where the mysterious light had been.

———————————-

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 flat performance, despite the show being a sell-out.  On the technical side, Jackie and I both missed a few cues due to our desks not responding quick enough, 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.

The sound-effects that I had created were all on separate tapes.  During the first show I put one down on the sound desk while I cued up another tape.  When I came to put the first tape back into its box, I couldn’t find it where I had left it just moments before.  It had vanished into thin air right underneath my nose.  After the show, I searched all over for it, but to no avail.

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 either horrific nightmares or at least a very troubled night’s sleep.

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

As I sat behind the sound desk, I was amazed to find my missing tape, exactly where I had left it on the mixing desk.  I hurriedly put it back into its case and placed it with the others.  It was then that I noticed another tape was missing, the ‘howling gale’ sound-effect which was crucial to the climax of the show.

Analesha, the usherette and white witch, begged us to let her purify the circle with salt water, and, after seeing the previous night’s performance, also requested that we not do a scene in the play where a copy of the Bible was torn apart and spat upon.  She pleaded with the Director, but he again refused both requests.

Chalk Circle

Chalk Circle

In the original book and the film, the most powerful scene 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 surrounded by salt and holy water, where the four cardinal points had a holy candle strategically positioned, and the four heroes had laid down in the shape of a cross.

The climatic part of this scene is where 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, another 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 all over the comms.  “This is brill, keep it coming!”

After the show, Brett, the Director, asked us to repeat the ‘impromptu tech’ that we had added for that performance for the next night, telling us that we were ‘naughty for not sticking to what we were supposed to be doing’ but praising us for our inspiration.  No-one really listened to Jackie and I as we told of our multiple technical problems.  Jackie and I compared notes on our disasters … we were totally perplexed.  Could it have been a power surge?  We weren’t sure..  The only thing we were sure about was that something very weird had occurred.  And for us to ‘repeat’ what had happened for the next night would be a big problem.

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 flat they heard a loud bang seemingly coming from the inside of their front door.  Fearing that they were being burgled, Jackie’s boyfriend put his ear to the door.  He jumped back in surprise.  He could hear 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 burglary, no open windows, no signs 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 very sore throat.  When she visited the bathroom and looked in the mirror, she was horrified to discover dark marks, like bruising, all around her neck; almost as if someone or something had attempted to strangle her in the night.

It appeared that whatever was in the theatre had followed her home.

When she came back to the theatre that night, she was a nervous wreck.

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

During the pentagram scene, Jackie and I tried to replicate what had happened the night before, but despite pushing up everything to its very limits, 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 weren’t even 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.

Newspaper Article

Newspaper Article

This prompted local 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, taken of the pentagram on stage, a strange eerie mist appeared on the photo that he swears was not present when he took the picture.  It had appeared on the stage right above the circle, but the nearby smoke machine was turned off at the time.

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 the performance, she secretly blessed the circle with salt water.  Save for the odd door slamming, the sinister atmosphere in the theatre died down, as did the weird happenings.  However, just before the penultimate show when I was cueing the tapes for the performance, I heard footsteps walking down the aisle in the auditorium, but when I turned round there was no one there.

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 tugged at her tee-shirt.

Then my sound desk went mad, and sounds began to rise sharply in volume even though my hand was nowhere near the controls.

As 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.  Consequently, the backstage area got flooded with fog.  Again, the device was unplugged and 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 marking the pentagram and didn’t feel happy until we had repainted the stage, to remove all trace of it altogether.

———————————-

Many years after the strange events that occurred, and after ten years of active investigation into the paranormal, I often think about what really went on in that theatre in February 1993.  Was the whole event caused by group hysteria, fuelled by the fear that Analesha, the white witch, had of the pentagram, which did indeed spread throughout many of the cast and crew?

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 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.

At the end of 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?

Mark Rosney

Para-Projects

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~ by markrosney on October 9, 2009.

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