Things go bump in the night at Victorian Ghost Stories

The mansion, shrouded in fog.
The mansion, shrouded in fog.
Photo courtesy James J. Hill House
Craig Johnson is having a busy, spooky season. The actor is one-half of the cast in Torch Theater's The Turn of the Screw at the Theatre Garage through the month. Then, as part of his "day" job as the site manager of the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, he'll perform in a series of Victorian Ghost Storiesat the mansion.

He even has a bit more on his plate this weekend, when he'll host a pair of late-night performances at the Garage.

Related stories:
Scares in store at 'The Turn of the Screw'

This is the 15th year for the Victorian Ghost Stories, which presents classic tales by 19th-century authors in a readers' theater format. The three actors -- dressed in period finery -- will present pieces by Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, the Grimm Brothers, Saki, and others. 

"We didn't want to promote the idea that the Hill House is haunted, but there was a big demand. And it is interesting how many great authors of the 19th century were writing ghost stories," Johnson says. 

Many of the stories take place in dark, old mansions. Changing technologies and the unusual social structure of the homeowners sharing the living space with an often-unseen staff brought out fear.

Take the telephone, for example. "Think of the unease people would have felt hearing a disembodied voice on the other end of the receiver," Johnson says.

Johnson is joined onstage by Laura Salveson and Ann Daly. Following the hour-long program, visitors will have a chance to tour the house, which can help to set the mood on an autumn evening.

"It is big and old and dark," Johnson says. The light bulbs used inside are period appropriate, so "it is never very light in here. There are shadows everywhere. It is an easy house to get spooked in."

Johnson, who has locked up the building many times over the years, knows that. "It's a big old house that creeks and settles. When the wind comes through an old security gate, it makes a low moaning hum that rises up and disappears," he says. 

Along with the ghost stories, this is a "different way to engage people's imagination and to enter to the past. This gives them a feeling about a place by stepping back in time," Johnson says.

Before the first James J. Hill House event Sunday, Johnson has a different task on his hands. Torch Theater is hosting late-night ghost stories of its own, following the Friday and Saturday performances of The Turn of the Screw over the next two weekends. He'll be the host of the first weekend, which features tales from Joseph Scrimshaw, Ari Hoptman, Mo Perry, Matt Anderson, and Rachel Finch. (A second weekend, with different performers, will be held October 27-28.)

So, why are we so engaged with stories that go bump in the night?

"What do we see in the corner? What's under the bed? In the nighttime, we don't have much light anyway, and we can see what true darkness is like," Johnson says.


Victorian Ghost Stories
6 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, October 21 and 28; Wednesday, October 31
James J. Hill House
240 Summit Ave., St. Paul
$10-$12, reservations recommended
For tickets and information, call 651.297.2555 or visit online
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