Peer beyond the veil separating this world from the next at the Tampa Theatre
Halloween is a time for many people to pretend to scare or be scared. But in some places, it's not all make-believe. We go to the Tampa Theatre, where many believe the veil is lifted between this world — and what possibly lies beyond.
There's no getting around it. This place is creepy. Seriously creepy. Walk into the door of the Tampa Theatre, and the bright sunlight fades away into a chilly dimness. And the present fades into the past just as quickly.
Victorian-era lights cast an eerie glow. Statues and figurines poke their way out of the gloom.
It's easy to let your imagination run a little wild here.
"If you see something, hear something, smell something, feel something that shouldn't be there — please tell me," said Jill Witecki at the start of the ghost tour.
She's vice president of marketing for the 98-year-old cinematic time capsule, built even before movies learned to talk. The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ that rises from beneath the stage to score silent movies attests to that.
Witecki gathers everyone in the cavernous lobby, under a tapestry that looks like it could have come from the Middle Ages. Dim lights try in vain to reach rows of gargoyles lining the ceiling far above.
There are many stories of unexplained apparitions here. But Witecki points out that only one person actually died here. Robert Lanier, back in 1959. She passes out an old black-and-white photo of a man nattily attired in a suit.
While walking away from his ticket kiosk that fateful day, something hit him in the head. Right there in the lobby.
"Now these are the original tiles from 1926," Witecki said. "So you are standing right where Robert was found. In an expanding pool of blood."
Several people immediately looked at their feet.
No one is really sure how Robert left this Earth. But some believe he never left this building.
As did Joe the Janitor — given away by the jingling of his keys.
Then there was Paul, the manager. His name kept coming up when paranormal investigators camping out here one night said they found his name popping up on voice recording equipment.
And the Trickster, down in the basement, moving things around in dressing room number two.
But few apparitions have actually been seen.
One is the Woman in White. Her specter has been seen sweeping through the upper hallway.
During one visit, a psychic named "Red" had visions.
"(The psychic said) you've got a young woman up here. Her mind is clear, but her body was wrecked. She knows who she is, but doesn't know where she is. She doesn't know what this place is," Witecki said.
During one tour, a woman said her young daughter saw something.
"When mom turned around, she didn't see anything," Witecki recalled. "The little girl had seen a woman in a long white dress standing on the stairs, at the back of the hallway. And she thought it was a real person. Well, as soon as I started telling them what we were about to talk about, she knew exactly what she had seen."
Witecki said a sleuth tracked down a Tampa Tribune article from 1925. It said a woman had been struck by a streetcar on Franklin Street. Right outside where the theatre would open — 1 1/2 years later.
"She knew who she was. But she didn't know where she was," Witecki said. "Because this place didn't exist when she died."
Their most well-known apparition is Foster Finley. More commonly known as Fink. For 35 years, he worked alone, high above the balcony in the projection room. When he passed away — not here, by the way — Witecki says his spirit may have wandered back to the place he considered home.
One of their current projectionists was trying to get into the booth just minutes before that night's feature film was about the start.
"Rattled that handle, tugged on it with all her strength. Couldn't get the door open," Witecki said. "To the point that she finally called her boss and said I don't know what to do. I can't get the door open. I think the door's locked. And he said Caitlyn, there's no lock on that door."
Want to hear more? Well, take the tour.
That's what Chris Kluver of St. Petersburg did. He wore a black Scream-a-Geddon T-Shirt and said this was his very first ghost tour.
"I can feel like energy here," Kluver said. "It doesn't really feel bad, but you can feel stuff. And I kind of felt like I saw something out of the corner of my eye a little bit."
Kluver wondered whether that was his imagination running wild — or something.
"I think people might want to believe in this stuff than they might let on," he said. "People want to believe that there's more after you die. Through our energy kind of lives on and carries on to something else."
I asked Derek Gates of Clearwater if he believes in the paranormal.
"I'm a see it to believe it kind of guy, so not 100 percent," Gates said. "But I believe there is something out there. There's got to be some truth to it. I've had a couple of personal creepy experiences, so you've got to believe it a little bit."
Back inside the main theatre, Witecki said she has had two encounters of the unexplained kind. She wasn't scared - they are not malevolent spirits, she said.
But since she works here and doesn't want the hair on the back of her neck standing up all the time, Witecki said she has reached what she called an "agreement."
"Us — the ghosts and I. I will tell their stories faithfully. I will do my best to honor their memory," she said. "And they will leave me alone."
And maybe — just maybe, she said — if you find yourself in the Tampa Theatre late one night, they will leave you alone, too.