7 Unforgettable Production Nightmares
Inspired by the creepiest of true events. In hospitals, prisons, haunted theaters, late-night dark roads...
1 | Haunted Hospital
Ever wonder if your local hospital is haunted? We’re not talking about the foreboding ones in old stone buildings; we’re talking modern hospitals with busy operating rooms filled with advanced tech. Think about it—shouldn’t hospitals and hauntings go hand-in-hand? Much as we hate to admit it, patients die within these walls, year after year after year.
At Mills James, we do a lot of filming in hospitals, and our crews are equipped with sensitive audio and video recording gear. Believe it or not, some of that equipment is similar in function to the tools paranormal investigators use to capture Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)—human-sounding voices from unknown sources heard on recorded media.
Recently, we were filming an interview with a healthcare client in one of their hospital operating facilities. As we were setting up our gear, our audio technician called over, concerned that the microphones were picking up strange voices—voices we couldn’t identify.
What could be the source? Disembodied spirits calling out from beyond? Scooby calling Shaggy?
The director knew we couldn’t get a clean recording, so the audio tech sheepishly called out, “Quiet, please. We’re filming here.”
The voices suddenly stopped.
And the interview with the surgeon proceeded without further interruption.
As our crew was striking the gear at the end of the shoot, they overheard the surgeon instructing a nurse to, “Make an entry in the GR.”
You never heard of a GR? It’s the Ghost Report—a listing of spirit sightings, near-death experiences, and other strange phenomena that happen at hospitals more often than you’ll ever know. Not all medical facilities keep a log, but if you can summon up the nerve, ask your nurse about it.
2 | The Case of the Missing Talent
It was the end of a long and terrible summer. Pools were closing; children were crying. This could only mean one thing—back to school season.
We were setting up for the annual convocation kickoff meeting for the city school system. The event would feature a popular celebrity keynote speaker hired to set a highly inspirational tone for 4,000 eagerly awaiting teachers and administrators.
Minutes before the event was to start in the packed ballroom, the producer’s phone rang—it was the celebrity’s agent. The speaker was running 20 minutes late.
Our event producer frantically rearranged the agenda to stall. The show could still start on time.
The opening music started.
The producer’s heart was racing.
The lights faded up.
The producer’s heart was now skipping.
And, one presenter after another delivered their brief message, as if no one told them to stall. (Because no one did, of course, since the speaker was only running 20 minutes late.)
Thirty minutes passed, and still a no-show.
At this point, the producer was full-on Edgar Allen Poe.
We started vamping for more time by showing some videos and extending a Q&A session. Still no trace.
After more than an hour had passed, the school superintendent ascended to the podium and sheepishly apologized to a disappointed audience that, unfortunately, the speaker was “unavoidably detained” and canceled today’s appearance.
What could have happened? It’s one thing to be a little late, but to vanish without a trace and leave a huge audience hanging at a signature event? Did the speaker have a heart attack? Should we call 911 and file a missing person report? Was it something even more sinister?
We never learned what happened and can only speculate. One thing we do know, however: on that fateful day, that celebrity entered—The Blacklisted Keynote Speaker Zone.
3 | Hell on Wheels
It was a night like any other in Florida. Hot. Humid. HAUNTED.
The crew had just wrapped another successful live event. Exhausted from a hard day’s work, a tech and his driver packed their gear to the brim of their shiny new Peterbilt rental truck (Pete, they’d named it) and started back north to HQ.
Halfway through South Carolina, the dials on Pete’s dashboard began fluctuating frantically. The near-mint condition truck then lost all power.
Perplexed, the driver pulled over and stepped out into the steamy night to investigate the scene. The drive shaft had fallen off.
“Strange,” the driver thought. “It must have wiggled loose somehow.”
The two-person crew called for a tow and made it to a lonely motel just outside of town—not the worst place to wait for a replacement truck, but not the best.
The driver was pulling the dingy curtains closed when he noticed Pete’s hazard lights were blinking.
“That’s weird,” he thought. “I turned those off.”
Just then, the phone rang. Their stomachs dropped; the gear on that truck had to be in Cleveland the next day.
The driver and tech had to find another truck … now! Three hours later, that replacement truck arrived—four feet shorter than Pete was. They’d have to fit 26 feet of gear into a 22-foot space.
Pete just stood there, shaftless and occasionally blinking, as if to mock them.
Reluctantly at first, then super-fast—like all those times you ran horrified up the dark basement stairs hoping your family didn’t notice you were terrified of the dark—they pulled the gear from Pete to the new truck, swearing they heard creaks and groans from inside Pete’s trailer the entire time.
Wide-eyed and four gallons of sweat later, those two miraculously managed to Tetris all the gear into that smaller space. And, drive away.
With no time to spare, they booked it up to Cleveland with one goal: to live to drive another day.
The same could not be said for dear old Pete, who now sits quietly in a South Carolina junkyard, waiting for a new owner.
4 | High-def Ghost
Sometimes when we review video footage we’ve shot in the field or studio, objects appear in the scene that we hadn’t noticed on the shoot. Usually, it’s something we just overlooked—like a pop can left on a set background—that we rotoscope out later.
One day last year, this happened, but it was different. Creepy different.
Our crew was shooting an on-camera talent stand-up for a TV spot in Studio A. Everything in the scene was shot beautifully: the set was custom-built for the project; the lighting was tightly controlled; the professional talent was dressed and styled to perfection. And, the monitor displayed it all in high-definition for a delighted agency art director.
Until we watched the recorded footage later in the edit suite.
We couldn’t believe what we were seeing on the monitors. There, floating above and around the talent, was a strange, white light—an out-of-focus, gauzy aura that seemed to glow from within.
We called back the Director of Photography. Everything in the camera monitor looked fine during the shoot.
The engineers couldn’t explain it either. It couldn’t have been a reflection or lens flare since any of those optical anomalies would have been obvious in the recording monitors. The camera checked out OK, as did the digital recording cards.
All explanations exhausted, one of our visual effects artists just had to quickly roto out the apparition to repair the footage. A sigh of relief left our bodies as we finished the spot on time.
Was this a paranormal presence that only ultra-high-def imaging could detect? Will this type of ectoplasmic radiance reveal itself even more in the future as we move to HDR 8k cinematography? Should ‘Ghost Removal’ be a new service from our Visual Effects Group?
So many questions, so few answers—especially after we saw that video later online, and the apparition was back.
5 | Spirited Away
When you see a hockey mask, you immediately think of Jason, the serial killer from Friday the 13th, don’t you?
That’s an image the NHL would rather you didn’t have, even though the Columbus Blue Jackets have a good horror story of their own. The CBJ’s home, Nationwide Arena, sits on the site of the old Ohio State Penitentiary, the 1834-vintage stone fortress infamous for one of the worst prison disasters in American history. In 1930, a fire roared through the prison, and 320 inmates were burned alive, still locked in their cells. Today, arena patrons report the smell of smoke, the screams of anguished men, and mysterious disappearances—especially in the arena’s parking deck, the site where the charred remains of the hopeless prisoners once smoldered.
One grey, Ohio November day, Mills James had a video shoot at Nationwide Arena. As our van pulled into the parking garage, the producer/director suddenly noticed that the camera was missing. How could that be—the most critical piece of gear on the truck? It had been in plain sight all morning, but now … vanished—disappeared without a trace. Our production assistant rushed back to grab a camera and deliver it just in time, with seconds to spare. We were about to call action, and then—dun dun DUN—no digital memory cards. Gone. Thankfully, the equipment manager was able to run some SD cards over to us and save the shoot.
But how will we ever explain to the boss that our equipment was spirited away by the flaming ghost of a prisoner jailed for petty theft in 1929? What code do I use for that on my expense statement?
6 | Phantoms in the Opera Hall
There’s nothing like the sound of a child’s laughter. Unless it’s midnight and you’re rigging lights high above the stage in a haunted theater.
Even though 141 years have passed since the cavernous Cincinnati Music Hall was built, there’s residual energy in the bones buried beneath the building’s foundations.
In 1878, it made perfect sense to construct the music hall there. The land already belonged to the city as the site of a decaying orphanage, abandoned asylum, and potter’s field filled with unmarked graves of long-forgotten inmates and children. Surely a new red-brick Victorian Gothic theater filled with joyful music would overcome the dark, somber atmosphere of the former occupants of the site.
Our crew members have learned to pat down their goosebumps long enough to work events in this building so notoriously paranormal.
The freight elevator that starts up without anyone pressing the button.
The late-night specter of a man in a top hat sitting in box seat number nine, forever waiting for the music to strike up.
The little girl in a dirty orphan’s dress, calling “Mommy!” as she darts between the massive transformers in the sub-basement power room.
The music box faintly echoing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” in the distant, dark hallways.
And the "ghost light," a lone light bulb on an iron stand left glowing every single night on the dark stage when the theater is closed and vacant, that turns itself off and on for no apparent reason.
You say this grand old building isn’t haunted? Then join our pre-professional program! You’ll get to help our crews set up there at three o’clock in the morning. A great way to learn the ropes. And chains.
7 | Over It
If you didn’t have a reason to fear clowns, now you do.
When working for a community theater, there are a lot of peculiar tasks that are accepted as “just part of the job.” Being crushed by a fifteen-foot clown is not one of them.
Years before his time at Mills James, one of our audiovisual techs was called in to support a circus-themed children’s dance show. The set was built entirely by the kids’ parents. While this was a generous donation of time and labor, the structural integrity was lacking.
The showstopper was a fifteen-foot-tall clown face, constructed in pieces and assembled face-down on the stage—partly because it was easier to build, partly because no one wanted to look at it.
A fate one can only avoid for so long.
“Hmm,” thought the crew. “How are we supposed to flip over a fifteen-foot clown?”
It wasn’t long before they came up with a plan: Rig it to the fly system with no counterweight, fly it up as a tech pulled the bottom forward (while staring up at the face in horror), then gently land it on its back.
The hoisting began.
The clown face slowly floated up off the floor.
Our tech walked underneath the clown face as it rose out of the shadows, ready to grab its base.
The clown made eye contact with the tech.
The amateur construction failed, and the grim mask of unsettling joy that loomed over our young stagehand cracked. He jumped to the side just in time to watch the face come crashing down around him.
“I still have nightmares about it,” our tech describes in horror. “A giant clown hysterically laughs as it crushes me, my life flashes before my eyes, and the last three words I hear echo through my head are: You’ll. Float. Too!”