Why is the Sunderland Empire one of the UK’s most haunted theatres?

Sid James
Sid James
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A trio of ghosts is said to haunt the Sunderland Empire.

The theatre, in the city’s High Street West, has gained a reputation for being haunted.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The theatre's Tower Entrance lit up at night.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. The theatre's Tower Entrance lit up at night.

During a Heritage Open Day tour of the venue, Anthony Hope, from the creative learning department, revealed all about the spectres and the spooky goings-on.

The gallery, sometimes referred to as ‘The Gods’, is the highest point in the theatre and supposedly the most haunted area within the building.

A ghost known only as ‘The Grey Lady’ is said to occupy the gallery, although most theatres are believed to have a Grey Lady.

Anthony said: “She likes it up in the gallery because she watches over the shows and the audience to make sure that everything goes the way it’s supposed to.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. How the theatre looks with a packed audience.

Sunderland Empire Heritage Open Day tour. How the theatre looks with a packed audience.

“People have said that while they’ve been sat up in the gallery, they’ve turned around to see a grey figure standing behind them, but whether or not that’s just an usher in the shadows we don’t know.”

The second phantom is believed to be a lady named Molly Mizell, who was a theatre company manager with a touring production that visited the Empire in 1946.

She was a rather promiscuous woman who had a lot of trouble with men.

She was last seen walking out of the stage door, in tears, and with a letter in her hand. She didn’t turn up to work that night and she’s never been found. The police file into her disappearance remains open to this day.

The gallery is said to be the most haunted area of the theatre.

The gallery is said to be the most haunted area of the theatre.

Anthony said: “There are a few theories about what happened to Molly. One is that she’s stuffed in the top of the tower entrance, but I can assure you we’ve checked and she’s not there.

“Another theory is that she went down to the docks and ran away with the sailors, and the last is that a body found in the River Wear in the 1970s was her. It was just a torso and badly decomposed, and obviously DNA wasn’t what it is now and it couldn’t be identified so some people believe it could have been her.”

Molly is said to haunt the mens’ toilets in the dress circle and was last sighted very recently during a run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat earlier this year.

Anthony added: “A little boy from London who was here to see the show with his family gave everyone a fright one night. He’d never been to Sunderland before and couldn’t have possibly known this story.

“But he came out of the toilets and told a member of staff that he’d just been talking to Molly in there. The staff member told him no one called Molly was working that night. Everyone was too scared to go in and take a look for themselves.”

The third, and perhaps most well known spectre of the Empire is Sid James.

The famous Carry On actor died on stage at the theatre during a performance of The Mating Game in 1976.

He was sitting on a sofa next to actress Olga Lowe, who got no response when she said her line to him.

Known for his improvisations, she played along and continued talking to him, but still didn’t get a response.

Anthony said: “She knew then that something was wrong and ran off stage. The company manager came onto the stage and started shouting into the audience, asking for a doctor.

“Because Sid James had been in Carry On Doctor, everyone thought it was part of the show and just howled with laughter.

“Eventually a doctor came up from the audience onto the stage, crying with laughter, and only realised it wasn’t part of the show when the curtain came down dramatically.”

Sid is now said to haunt dressing room one – which he was using – and actors using it have reported hearing his signature dirty laugh echoing around the room.

Anthony added: “Some people who’ve been here for panto have said they’re never coming back because they’re so scared and others have refused to use dressing room one and requested to have another.

“Maintenance workers who’ve been in there alone to paint have also reported hearing the laugh and being tapped on the shoulder.”

The presence of ghosts at the theatre hasn’t been the only spooky goings-on.

One night a member of staff was stood in the dress circle bar below one of the many chandeliers hanging there, chatting to a customer, who was asking when The Phantom of the Opera was going to come to the venue.

The musical includes a scene when a huge chandelier falls to the ground and smashes.

Anthony said: “The front of house staff member said she didn’t know when or if the show would ever come to Sunderland and after chatting for a while, the customer left and she went back behind the bar.

“A second later the chandelier fell and smashed right where she was stood.”

Read more: Go behind the scenes to discover hidden history of the Sunderland Empire