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When he was a kid, Josh Hitchens says, something knocked on his bedroom door at night — but it wasn’t like knuckles rapping. It was the sound of a limp but fiendishly persistent hand hitting the door, over and over again.
Hitchens and I have been crossing paths since we were theater students at Arcadia University. Later, we worked the same jobs at different times. Years ago, we gave historic tours at Eastern State Penitentiary, and I also spent a summer telling history-laced stories for Philadelphia Ghost Tours. Hitchens still works there while he runs his own company, Going Dark Theatre, and he revels in the job. Now, with his work on the theater scene (recently as director of reTHEATER’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch), we continue to meet.
But not as often as Hitchens claims to meet the supernatural in his new solo show, which debuted as part of the SoLow Fest. In it, a small, musty West Philly garage transforms into a theater late at night with some folding chairs (audience members do not receive an address until the day of the show).
The format, concept, and content of Ghost Stories seem simple, but Hitchens hits on something deeper, which resonates with me as a lifelong horror fan. In simple black clothes, he opens the show by reverently singeing a bit of sage and making a protective incantation.
He then sits behind a small table spread with a black cloth and tells stories about the ghostly and demonic encounters he claims to have experienced throughout his life, reading from a large black book. He speaks for a little over an hour, closes the book, and burns the sage again while the audience joins the incantation.
Hitchens is an intimate, compelling storyteller and these tales flow from pathos to laughs to chills under director Ryan Walter. Hitchens describes the shadows that haunted the stairs of his childhood home, a sinister ghost who beckoned to him from the edge of the woods, and the things that followed him for seven years after one scary night with a Ouija board.
It’s just a migraine. Right?
I used to relish believing in ghosts, and I have experienced a few things I can’t explain, but I laid my belief in ghosts to rest around the same time I stopped being religious. I’m sure there’s an explanation for the times in my life when I couldn’t believe my eyes (ocular migraine, maybe?). But I've never relinquished my love for a good horror story.
Hitchens weaves his struggle with depression through the show, and here’s another way our experiences intersect. A few years ago, I used to sense something similar to what he describes in one story: a black body lurking in my room just beyond my sight, emanating anger; if it had thoughts or speech, it would’ve said it wanted me dead. I think it was a manifestation of my own depressive episodes — a kind of dissociation from or projection of my illness.
Whether or not you believe ghost stories isn’t important. Every well-told story in the world has a grain of truth, and you can find ones here that mean something to you.
A hand in the dark
Consider Hitchens’s closing tale, which he heard from a man on his ghost tour one night. The man’s wife of 40 years died of a heart attack on the stairs of their home, but he continued to experience her presence. The stove inexplicably turned on and her favorite window opened; a cold spot appeared on the stairs. Once, in the attic, he saw her.
The man said he’d never admitted his experiences to anyone before taking Hitchens’s tour, and they cried together on a park bench, hands clasped, while the story poured out. Tears roll down Hitchens’s face as he retells it.
That’s when you realize scary stories demand a rare vulnerability from everyone touched by them. There’s a mask you have to drop before you admit that shiver, and nothing makes a dark house more comfortable than knowing people you love are somewhere in it, even if they’re just sleeping in their own beds.
I recently clenched a friend’s hand over the armrest while watching Hereditary, an excruciatingly scary film. Being afraid demands a primal human bond that laughter, suspense, excitement, or even sadness never will. Maybe ghost stories aren’t about fear at all, but about that underlying vulnerability and the magnetic connections that follow.
In Ghost Stories, Hitchens says that when you feel a presence in the dark, “it’s behind you.” Maybe that means it’s lurking, hunting you. Or maybe that means you have the choice to engage with it or not, believe in it or not, as you move forward. Whatever you do when you feel it, you’ll long for company — and maybe that’s what horror fans really love.
Fundraising is underway to bring Ghost Stories to the New Jersey Fringe in Hammonton, August 3-5, 2018, so if you can’t catch the show before the end of SoLow Fest, you may have another chance soon.
What, When, Where
Ghost Stories. By Josh Hitchens, presented by Going Dark Theatre, Ryan Walter directed. SoLow Fest. Through June 24, 2018, in a West Philly garage. Goingdarktheatre.weebly.com.
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