The Phantom of the Art House

Our fearless ghost buster goes looking for spooks in Tampa Theatre

The crowns stenciled on the outside of each step of Tampa Theatre"s two lobby staircases resemble little malevolent skulls if you look at them right. It probably helps to be alone in the dimly lit 76-year-old landmark in the middle of the night, searching for ghosts, with a slasher flick-fueled imagination and a nervous system drawn so tight you could scrape a grill clean with your neck-stubble. One side door has been left unchained in case I need to leave in a hurry, gibbering madly, hair gone shock-white, saliva running freely from my unhinged jaw.

Outside, the classic summer lightning and heavy, rain-swollen air provide an archetypal horror-show vibe — the dark and stormy night, the fog-shrouded moors.

Old buildings settle constantly. When most old buildings settle, it sounds like well-worn bones cracking as they get comfortable. That"s unnerving enough. When the Tampa Theatre settles, it sounds like hunched under-dwellers striking wet sacks of meat with iron bars.

I"ve been here only 45 minutes, and my apprehension has already ratcheted up several notches. Sitting behind the concession stand, which I designated "safe" with all the rationality of an 8-year-old, I don't need ghosts to frighten me. Every vicarious cinematic or literary thrill I"ve experienced is here, amplified by the Theatre"s legend, low lighting and ominous, shadowy ornamentation.

Through the semi-gloom, movement on the far side of the theater proper registers in my peripheral vision. I turn my head so slowly I can hear the vertebrae in my neck grinding against one another.

There it is again. Furtive, shuffling movement near the auditorium's far wall. I work my way as far toward the auditorium doors as I can without breaking physical contact with Home Base, bringing my notebook with me, because perhaps the shade would like to be accurately quoted regarding its preference for the Doric column style over the Corinthian, or something. Vaguely perceptible activity continues across the theater, localized on the other side of the final row of seats. Wondering if — kind of hoping that — someone came back to look for their purse or something, I let my hand slide off the concession stand and begin a crouched advance on the auditorium entrance.

"There are a lot of reflective surfaces in the building, so it"s very common to walk through the theater and see things out of the corner of your eye," says Tara Schroeder, the Tampa Theatre's film and marketing manager. "But that's just physics."

I wouldn't be the first person to see something genuinely inexplicable inside the Tampa Theatre; I probably wouldn"t even be the first to find sufficient reason to vacate the premises in one hell of a hurry. Over the years, several employees have reported instances of what could be called "supernatural activity," most since the late-1960s death of projectionist Foster "Fink" Finley, who espoused his love for the building often over the course of his nearly 30-year tenure. Mr. Gail Garber, who's cleaned up after theatergoers for the better part of a decade, spending countless nights there in the process, has never bolted. He is, however, all but convinced that something roams the balcony after hours.

If everyone in the city had to select one place they thought might seriously be haunted, the smart money would be on this eccentric, expansive and storied structure as a landslide winner.

Creeping toward the murky auditorium and its approximately 72,974 opportunities for concealment, I realize that I haven"t seen whatever's in there move for a minute or two. Noticing it for the first time made me uncomfortably anxious; losing it after finding it makes me feel exponentially worse. The terrible night-thing knows I know, and is compensating.

Jerking around to check other areas of the theater, I once again catch motion. And again when I snap my attention back to my original target. It seems to be moving when I move.

Because it's me, reflected in a relatively small mirror mounted on the relatively large far wall. It takes my overworked, carcinogen-blackened heart a while to descend from my Adam"s apple back to my sternum. Standing at the threshold of the auditorium, I feel the way the girl in the slasher flick looks when she finally finds the courage to throw open the closet door, and the slasher"s not lurking inside.

Then I realize that that"s usually when the real scare happens.

As I'm peering into the auditorium, odd nerves still firing like a nearly finished bag of microwave popcorn, the house lights suddenly burst on in a blinding explosion.

Schroeder once accompanied a team of paranormal investigators on a search of the building, a search that yielded some intriguing results. And she's had her own "instances" there, as well, not to mention the time former Planet writer David Jasper accompanied a team of specter sniffers to Schroeder's own house, which she also seems to think is haunted. The staff's unsettling tales, along with a plethora of online speculations penned by researchers of wildly varying competence, were more than enough to once again shift the Planet staff into ghost-hunting mode. But who"s going to spend a night alone, locked in one of Tampa"s oldest and scariest places?


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