Secret Horrors of the Castro Theater: A True Story — San Francisco
One would never expect such real-life horror to happen at the gorgeous, historic Castro Theater in San Francisco. That fateful night, I was slinging candy and popcorn. The air was thick with that hot buttery scent as I salted the last bag of popcorn and patrons scurried into the theater. The manager clunked the heavy double doors closed. The calm after the storm. It was also the calm before the storm of Hallows’ Eve that was a few nights off. Back then, Castro Street was the place to be on Halloween. A mad street party of drunken monsters, fairies, queens, and ghosts all trying to one-up the other with outrageous costumes or no costumes, no clothes at all. The street would become a bacchanal of wild bodies and minds all facing their fears head-on with glee. But that night was a night of quiet spiritual preparation, a night to visit with the ghosts of the dead conjured into light on the screen. It was one of those nights when the light of the film seeps into minds and creates a neurological lace, a solace and grace, that collectively haunts and bonds strangers and neighbors. And, strangely, losing oneself in the collective dream can enable one to face fears.
Indeed, there were many fears to face in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Fears of death, the dead, AIDS, the fear of police beatings, the fear of losing one’s community, one’s best friend, one’s partner. An indescribable sorrow had fallen upon the city. The Castro Theater became a place of refuge for many regulars who made the theater their gold-gilded living room, their church. Some suffered in silence. But during films some of the regulars would sit with us on the stairs that grandly cascade from the mezzanine into the lobby, bookending the candy counter. We would hear about their friends, lovers, and partners whom they had lost in recent years. We would hear about their courage, coming out to their parents and consequently being disowned. We were young but we understood that we were part of their new hometown, a hometown of acceptance and dignity. A menagerie of regulars made up this community, some gay, some straight, some boring and some eccentric. A gay man who loved wigs and large earrings but preferred to retain his deep voice and pants was quite a charmer; an elder Asian gentleman often pulled out of his trench coat gifts of green thousand-year-old eggs, a delicacy; a dapper man in Art Deco suits brought the young ladies single red roses; older twin sisters always dressed alike in leopard print coats and hats or 1950’s baby blue dresses, just to name a few.
On this quiet night, near Hallows’ Eve, the theater held about a hundred souls, not many compared to the thousands the theater would hold on weekends. The organ pipes bellowed loud and low, waves of rich resonance filled the emptiness of dark corners. There were plenty of squeaky red velvet seats open but each regular sat in their favorite spot. Some sat near the aisle, some smack in the middle, some up close to be bathed in the light, and some farther back so that the golden proscenium framing the screen and the audiences’ heads would remind them that they were not alone.
Around half an hour into the film, I was sitting on the stairs braiding my co-worker Mary Rose’s long blond hair when a couple ran out of the theater and through the front doors. We wondered if there was an emergency at home.
About an hour into the film, I was refilling the butter when a high-pitched scream of a young queen and the slam of the side doors made me jump and spill butter on my shoe.
Ten minutes later, a woman came out of the theater. She was hyperventilating and headed for the restroom. Mary Rose and I wondered if there was actually a ghost haunting the theater as our manager Mr. Shankle had warned us. We were told a young girl had fallen from the balcony decades ago. Many people swore they had seen her ghost floating about the theater. We had been instructed to watch out for her because she was not necessarily happy about her situation.
The truth ended up being far more horrifying than a ghost.
Curious-er and curious-er. Mary Rose and I wondered out loud what was going on, but such shenanigans were not uncommon so we kept on with popping the corn and restocking the Goobers. If there was ever an issue in our theater, you could bet that someone would come out to complain. It was their living room after all, and how dare anyone disturb the peace by talking to the characters in the movie, or sexing with the chair, or manically moving from seat to seat. But no one complained.
About five minutes passed and a lovely older woman, a regular, who had shiny chestnut waves of hair and always wore a flowing chiffon scarf around her neck, approached the candy counter.
Quietly, with a slight lisp, she requested, “A sssmall popcorn with butter in the middle and on top pleassse.”
I could barely hear her, but I knew her usual, and so I had already started to shovel the popcorn as I replied, “My pleasure. What is going on in there? It’s not a horror movie yet people are running out in terror. Perhaps it’s the ghost?” And I raised an eyebrow at her in jest.
“Oh my. I have no idea.” The gentle woman slowly shrugged as if she had a stiff neck.
I shoveled more popcorn into the bag, added a few more pumps of butter, shoveled more, added more popcorn and more squirts. I smiled at her. I liked our regulars.
As I reached across the counter, her popcorn in my hand, a snake head the size of child’s fist sprung out of her chiffon scarf! Its dark pin eyes looked right into mine and its slit tongue kept reaching for my fingers as a sharp evil hissssssss streamed out of its muscular jaws! I gasped and jerked back, popcorn spilled all over the counter! My eyes bulged at it and then at the lady. The snake kept hissssing and hissssing. It jerked its body closer to me, stretching itself halfway across the counter. I stepped back farther and pressed my back against the hot coffee pot not caring about the burn. As the snake kept hissing, a smirk formed slowly across the lady’s face. I could see now, now that I was looking, under her scarf a thick body, the size of a child’s arm, dark and shiny, wrapped around her neck and shoulders, snuggled under her scarf. She stroked the python and coaxed it back under her ethereal shawl, back into her bosom. Apparently, she was not afraid her monstrous friend would strangle her. She picked up the half-full bag of popcorn from the counter. She didn’t pay, nor did I care. Slowly she shuffled back into the theater. And that was that! No ghosts, no horror movie, just a regular.