Is the stage where the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was filmed really haunted?

For decades, the movie studios of Hollywood have entranced, mystified and entertained us with their visions of life. Sometimes real, sometimes tragic and always spectacular, the movies have enthralled generations of moviegoers. Some of the most popular films to be released have been those dealing with the dark side.... ghosts, monsters and the supernatural. Not surprisingly, many of the movie studios themselves have tales of ghost stories and hauntings!

Most believe ghosts to be the spirits of the dead who are unable to find their way to the next plane of existence. Or perhaps theses spirits refused to cross over so that they can complete some piece of business left undone in this world. They may want to pass along vital information to someone or perhaps their life ended so abruptly they don’t feel as though they got a chance to complete everything that needed to be finished.

In Hollywood, the need to continue a life that was cut short seems to be a common theme for ghosts. The local spirits seem to give meaning to the classic theater ghost.... a former actor or director who never was able to complete that final “big show” during their lifetime and for this reason remains behind to haunt the place where they knew the most happiness. Or the other classic theater specter... the stage hand who was killed in an accident and stayed behind at the place.

Working during the night at some of Hollywood’s older movie studios can be an interesting experience. According to reports from security guards and technicians, it can also be a hair-raising one. In the words of one long-time employee, “I’ve seen some things here that I wouldn’t want to try and explain to anyone!”, he recalled.

One reportedly haunted studio is UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, which has brought movie audiences some of the greatest horror films of all times. In the 1930’s, such screen fare as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy thrilled and terrified the public and all of these films remain classics today. These films created stars of men like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, who began Universal’s heyday in the 1920’s with such films as The Phantom of the Opera.

Antique Hollywood Postcards
Universal in the Hollywood Heyday

Lon Chaney

Released in 1925, this film became Chaney’s masterpiece and a special Stage was constructed, Stage 28, for the filming of the movie. The massive sets of the opera house was so gigantic that construction began on Stage 28 in 1923 and it has gone on to become a permanent fixture on the Universal lot.

And some say that Lon Chaney has become a permanent fixture as well....

... as the Phantom!

Visitors and employees to Stage 28 have long maintained that it is haunted. For years, there have been sightings by electricians, designers, carpenters, art directors and security guards of a man in a black cape who seems to come and go without warning. Those who have gotten more than just a glimpse of him say that the cloaked man is Lon Chaney himself.

In addition to studio employees, many visitors who do not know the history of Stage 28 have reported the man in the black cape. He is often seen running on the catwalks overhead. Even security guards who have laughed off the idea of a resident ghost, admit to being “spooked” by lights that turn on and off by themselves and by doors that open and close on the empty stage at night.

Could Lon Chaney still be making his presence known on Stage 28, the scene of his greatest screen triumph? Who knows? Regardless, Stage 28 has become the place of legend on the Universal lot.

Antique Hollywood Postcards
Culver Studios

CULVER STUDIOS was started by pioneer Hollywood film maker Thomas Ince, a man who is considered to be the “Father of the Western”. The French believed him to be film’s first prophet and he set production ideals to which the industry aspired for years to come.

Never heard of him? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Sadly, Ince is remembered much more today for his scandalous death than for his contribution to the art of movie making. Ince died in November 1924 while celebrating his birthday on board a yacht owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The real story of how Ince died will never be known... but Hollywood rumors tell a strange and suitably twisted story.

Thomas Ince

Today, is a known fact that Hearst was romantically involved with a sweet, but untalented actress named Marion Davies. Because he could afford it (and perhaps because no one else wanted her to work for them), Hearst created Cosmopolitan Productions as a company specifically for Marion. His newspapers and magazines proclaimed her to be a miracle of the movies and he did everything he could to entrench her into the Hollywood film colony.

Marion Davies

 Parties thrown at her beach house was the most extravagant in town and people grabbed at the chance of an invitation to a Hearst affair. Marion also earned high marks as a hostess, even if privately the party attendees made fun at her attempts as acting on the screen.

One popular party spot was Hearst’s 280-foot yacht, the Oneida. Invitations to the boat were even more highly coveted than those for the beach house parties. The cream of Hollywood’s charmed circle received invitations to a party on board the yacht for November 15, 1924. The occasion was the 43rd birthday of Thomas Ince, who was in the midst of negotiations with Hearst concerning the use of his Culver City studios as a base for Cosmopolitan Productions. Guests included friends of Ince and production people for Cosmopolitan, along with British author Elinor Glyn, Charlie Chaplin and gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Ince, the guest of honor, missed the boat when it sailed from San Pedro because of his attendance at the premiere of THE MIRAGE, his latest film. He took the last train to San Diego, where he met the Oneida and joined the party. The celebration on board was said to be a wonderful occasion... up until a point. After that, came a hash of conflicting stories. The official version, printed in Hearst newspapers, couldn’t have been more simple. It stated that Ince, after drinking and eating too much at the party, died of acute indigestion. The story stated that he was taken from the yacht and rushed home, where he later died.

Unfortunately for Hearst, there were witnesses on board the yacht, including Charlie Chaplin’s secretary, who saw the bullet hole in Ince’s head when he was carried off the Oneida. Indigestion?

Marion Davies greets Tom Ince when he arrives aboard the yacht with balloons for this birthday celebration.

Which leads us to the real reason for the party and the invitation that was extended to Charlie Chaplin. Hearst was uncommonly jealous of other men’s attention to Marion and his detectives had recently informed him that Marion and Chaplin had been seen together during his absence. Hearst had invited the comedic actor to the party so that he could observe how he and Marion acted around one another.

"Ladies Man" Charlie Chaplin

It is believed that Hearst saw Marion and Chaplin slip off together during the party and that he discovered them together on the lower deck. In the confusion that followed, Tom Ince, and not Chaplin, ended up with a bullet in the head!

Ince’s funeral was held on November 21, attended by his family, Marion Davies, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Harold Lloyd. Hearst was noticeably absent. The body was immediately cremated and an official inquest was never held. But despite the fact that the evidence was no win ashes, Hearst hadn’t counted on the Hollywood rumor mill. In spite of the fact that everyone on board the Oneida had been sworn to secrecy, persistent rumors linked Hearst to Ince’s death.

The rumors finally prompted San Diego District Attorney Chester Kemply to call for an investigation. Only the ship’s doctor ever testified about Ince’s “poor health” and the probe was called off before any of the other members of the party were questioned.

Some thought it no coincidence that Louella Parsons was awarded a lifetime contract with Hearst soon after the incident as it was rumored that she had seen everything that had happened. Louella also felt the need to do a little covering up of her own and insisted that she had been in New York at the time of Ince’s death. The only problem with this story was that Vera Burnett, Marion’s stand-in, clearly recalled seeing Louella with Marion and Davies at the studio, ready for departure on the yacht. Vera valued her job though and decided not to make a big deal out of it.

Marion and Hearst managed to ride out the scandal unscathed but as DW Griffith remarked in later years, “All you have to do to make Hearst turn white as a ghost is mention Ince’s name. There’s plenty wrong there, but Hearst is too big to touch.”

In the years that followed, Hearst discreetly provided Ince’s widow, Nell, with a trust fund that was later wiped out by the Depression. Broke and penniless, Nell finished out her days as a taxi dancer. As for Hearst, the entire affair was eventually reduced to a sardonic joke in Hollywood as the Oneida became known as “William Randolph’s Hearse”.

Strangely though, death did not bring an end to sightings of Thomas Ince and rumors also started that said that what is now Culver Studios was haunted. Ince built the studios in 1918 but changed hands several times after his death. Cecil B. De Mille, Howard Hughes, David Selznick, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball made significant contributions to film and television history on this lot. Classics like Gone With the Wind, King Kong, The Untouchables, Lassie, Batman and ironically Citizen Kane were among the many shot here.

In addition, rumors of the haunting have persisted for years. Employees have reported ghostly figures roaming the lot at night while others recount being frightened by the apparition of a woman who appears on the third floor from time to time. She always disappears quickly, leaving a cold spot of a chilling wind behind.

Most famous are the sightings of Thomas Ince himself. Witnesses have reported seeing the ghost of a man climbing the stairs in the main administration building, heading for the executive screening room. This had been Ince’s private projection room during his tenure at the studio. Remodeling seemed to bring out the worst in Ince’s ghost back in 1988 when he began to reveal his displeasure over some major renovations.

The first to encounter him were two workmen who looked up to see a man in an odd, bowler-type hat watching them from the catwalks above Stage 1-2-3. When they spoke to him, he frowned and then turned and walked into the second floor wall. Later that summer, special-effects man Eugene Hilchey spoke to another worker who had also seen a man wearing an odd hat, this time on Stage 2-3-4. Hilchey was convinced the man’s description matched that of Ince. The worker’s statement was enough to cement his belief. The ghost had turned to the workmen and said “I don’t like what you’re doing to my studio”. Then he vanished into the wall.

Even after the renovations, much of Ince’s original studio remains as it was and a sense of history here is very strong. Today, Culver Studios remains one of the busiest lots in town. Hopefully, Thomas Ince’s spirit can find a little peace in that!

Perhaps the most haunted of all of the Hollywood Studios is PARAMOUNT. Over the years, the ghostly sightings and strange reports here have become as much a part of the legend of the place as the movies themselves. Being the last major studio to be actually located in Hollywood, Paramount makes the perfect setting for ghostly activity. It is located right next door to Hollywood Memorial Park, which is no stranger to ghost stories itself, serving as the final resting place for stars like Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and many others.

Antique Hollywood Postcards
Paramount Studios in the 1930's

In fact, many of the stars who worked for Paramount are buried in the cemetery and the stories say that some of their spirits have been seen walking directly through the walls from one lot to the next.
Apparently, when you love something as much as these former actors loved their work, it is hard to separate yourself from it. Even death is not powerful enough to keep them away!

Hollywood Memorial Park is located closest to stages 29 through 32. The reports of spirits seen entering the studio lot describe them as wearing clothing from the 1930’s and 40’s. Out of all of sound stages in that area, Stages 31 and 32 seem to have the most activity. Footsteps are often heard tapping through stages that have been secured for the night and it is not uncommon for equipment to turn on and off and operate by itself.

It is well known that the stage doors here make a very loud sound when they are opened or shut. There is simply no way to muffle a door that closes on these stages. When someone enters or leaves, it is plainly heard. There is a story that tells of three guards who secured Stage 32 for the night. One of the men had gone outside and he closed and locked the door behind him. The remaining two guards looked around the place, making sure that everything was in order, and then suddenly heard someone walking behind one of the stage flats. They walked over and looked behind the partition but no one was there! Moments later, they heard the stage door being opened. Puzzled, but convinced that it was the third guard, they secured the rest of the stage and left to find the third member of the team sitting outside. He had not entered the sound stage.

Another guard had a more frightening experience on this same stage. He was working by himself to secure Stage 32 for the night. Shortly after finishing his rounds, he turned the lights out and then was leaving to go check in and make a telephone call to his girlfriend. Just as he was leaving, he heard someone walking across the stage. He wondered how they could see as the stage was very dark and was filled with props and scenery for the next day’s filming. He knew that it was difficult to move around even when the lights were on! Somehow though, the footsteps continued, crossing the darkened stage unobstructed. The startled guard turned on his flashlight and checked out the sound, but he saw no one. The door had never opened but there was no one in the building. After that, he never closed down that stage by himself again!

Paramount Studios has many entrances and some of them are walk-in gates, like the one at Lemon Grove, located a few feet from the cemetery. It is here where many of the ghosts from the graveyard are also said to enter the studio lot. Some of them, according to guards posted here, actually appear as heads that poke through the cemetery wall and then disappear. Others actually walk through the gate itself, like the ghost of silent film heart throb Rudolph Valentino. While his ghost many be one of the most well-traveled in Hollywood, many insist that he haunts Paramount as well.


Valentino died in 1926 at the age of 31 and was buried in Hollywood Memorial Park. He was driving force at Paramount in his day and rumor has it that he was buried in his white costume from the film, The Sheik, for which he is best remembered. Regardless, it is in this costume that his ghost is sometimes reported.

In addition to Valentino, other Hollywood Memorial ghosts sometimes appears at the gates. This does not please the security guards at all, especially those who work the night shift at the Lemon Grove gate.

The gate is located at the northeast corner of the studio lot facing Lemon Grove Avenue and a wall is all that separates it from the cemetery. It is here where most of the uninvited visitors are usually seen but these sightings are mostly harmless, leaving the officers confused over where the “trespasser” disappeared to. These sightings can leave a few rattle nerves however.

One night, a veteran security guard was working the late night shift. Most of the guards know everyone who comes in an out of the gates because they see them every day. On this evening, the guard noticed an unfamiliar face lurking about. He followed the man to a corner of the wall to the cemetery and thinking he had him cornered, he waited for the suspicious visitor to come out. After a minute or two, he looked around the corner... just in time to see the man vanish into the cemetery wall! From that time on, he refused to work the Lemon Grove gate at night.

Perhaps the most haunted site on the studio lot is the Hart building. It is one of the oldest buildings on the lot and was once part of the DesiLu Studios, owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. They say that the spirit of a woman haunts the upper floors and one of the things witnesses notice about her is that she gives off the strong smell of an old, flowery-like perfume. She tends to be seen mostly by men and stories have circulated that she often takes things from desks and private places and throws them onto the floor.

One story has also circulated about a security guard who was working in the Hart building one night. He was checking the place to be sure that all of the windows and doors were locked when suddenly, one of the doors slammed shut on its own. Strangely, the door is on a suspension hinge that only allows it to shut very slowly. Instead, it had slammed shut as though someone were violently pushing against it.

There have also been stories about windows and doors that have unlocked on their own, lights turning on and off and claims of being touched or tapped on the shoulder. Another well-known tale (and one allegedly in the security record) involves an actress who decided to set up her production offices on the third floor of the Hart Building. The story goes that an executive of the company went into the bathroom and was washing his hands at the sink. He looked up into the mirror and saw that his eyes were glowing red! Frightened, he ran into his office and told his secretary to look at his eyes. She sat him down in chair and peered into his face. She saw the red color too and began screaming, then ran for the door. The executive tried to get up from his chair but claimed to feel hands pressing down on his shoulders. Finally, he managed to escape. Not surprisingly, the production company moved out of those offices the following day.

On December 30, 1993, another strange occurrence was entered into the security record. A skeleton security crew was assigned for the holidays as this is typically a low production time. One person was always assigned to the main gate and about four others were always on duty to patrol the lot. Each officer was given an particular area to cover. A trainee was present on December 30, along with a seasoned veteran officer. Together, the two men were assigned to cover an area between the Chevalier and Ball buildings. As they walked along the path between the buildings, the trainee noticed someone looking down at them from the second floor of the Ball Building. Moments later, the person was gone! He told his partner and they went to investigate. However, neither man had the keys to get into the second floor so that called a supervisor over to the scene.

While they waited for the supervisor, another guard arrived on the scene and while they told him what had happened, they saw a light come on in the Chevalier Building across the way. The older guard and the third officer went to investigate as no one was supposed to be in the building. They searched the building but turned up nothing. Finally, the supervisor arrived on the scene and left the veteran officer outside. He then sent the trainee and the third man around the bottom floor to check things out while he went up to the second floor to search for the intruder. He checked every room himself and made sure that each door and window was locked. No one could have entered the building without a key and no could have left without the security guards seeing them. That night, however, they found the place empty and deserted.

This would not be the last strange incident to take place in the Ball Building either. As this is a small building, most of the staff members here know the other employees by sight and see them on an almost daily basis. Late one night, a man and a woman were leaving their office on the second floor. The building was empty and quiet and they were sure of being the last ones in it that evening. However, on their way out, they passed an old woman who was walking toward them. Neither of the staff members recognized her and they thought that perhaps she was lost. Moments after she passed, one of them turned to ask the lady if she needed some help. In those few seconds, she had vanished!

HOLLYWOOD HAUNTED by Laurie Jacobson & Marc Wannamaker (1994)
HOLLYWOOD & THE SUPERNATURAL by Brad & Sherry Steiger (1990)
GHOSTS OF PARAMOUNT STUDIOS (web article - unpublished)
HOLLYWOOD BABYLON by Kenneth Anger (1975)

(c) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.