By Jay Blotcher
There is no better place for Halloween than in the Hudson Valley. This is not parochial boasting, but a mere fact, as plain as the wart-dotted nose on a witch’s face. Outsiders may seem puzzled by this brash territorialism, but there is ample logic for it. Consider the elements that make a perfect Halloween. A crisp weather is one factor. Trees thick with dying leaves of multi-colored hues are another. And one must have a glut of bright-orange pumpkins.
When you’re assessing the Valley, you can check off all three qualities immediately. Naysayers may suggest that these environmental factors exist anywhere. That is a fair statement. But consider this: the quintessential Halloween story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, was set here in the Valley. Not in Boston, not in Concord, not in Providence, not in Bridgeport.
Could you imagine a headless horseman galloping through the streets of Los Angeles or Austin? Ichabod Crane running for his life in Omaha or Seattle? Of course not.
This brings us back to the main argument: If you’re looking for the ideal Halloween, the Hudson Valley is the perfect setting, whether your ideal method of observing this holiday is filling shopping bags with candy, taking hayrides, apple-picking, or just communing with the spirits that hover on the other side of the existential veil. (Halloween is the time of year when that barrier is most permeable, allowing us to catch up with the deceased.)
If you’re a stickler for tradition, then venture a distance down the Hudson into Westchester to soak up the atmosphere where it all began:
Irving’s Legend is a dramatic period recreation (Early American performance art?) of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, recited at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, New York several times during the month of October. Storyteller Jonathan Kruk conjures up the characters who seized your soul as a child: Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones, Katrina Van Tassel, and that goodtime guy on horseback, the Headless Horseman. Live organ music will guarantee goose bumps. These 45-minute performances take place at the 1685 Old Dutch Church, just across the street from Philipsburg Manor. Call 914-631-8200 for performance dates and admission fees.
The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze takes place at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson during October and November this year. This feast for the eyes features more than 4,000 hand-carved and illuminated jack o’ lanterns! This year, the spectacle offers an 18th-century riverside landscape plus a side trip to ancient Egypt, in which carved pumpkins are front and center. 914-271-8981; hudsonvalley.org/content/view/195/198/.
On the other end of the map is the Upper Catskills. As you venture further into these rugged mountains, you may have the feeling you have entered a time warp. Life up here can be as simple and unhurried as it was a century or two ago. Such a classic daily pace makes the Halloween spirit all the more realistic around these parts.
In the town of Margaretville, there is an annual Halloween Parade put on by the Central School. Sure, it happens during the late autumn afternoon, but school kids jump into their costumes and march determinedly, accompanied by doting adults. They fill the streets of this Delaware County town, and for added effect the mountain peaks rise dramatically in the near distance.
The town of Roxbury holds its annual Halloween Parade on October 31, usually held on Main Street. In cooperation with neighboring towns, Roxbury invites children of all ages to take to the streets in costume. Afterwards, the Stamford Fire Department provides doughnuts and cider at the firehouse, plus games and a costume contest for kids ranging from toddlers to 8th graders. To learn details about this year’s event, contact The Roxbury Arts Group at 607-326-7908.
The Andes Harvest Moon Festival is typically held the weekend before Halloween, presented by the Andes Merchants Association. This ambitious event offers something for spirits of all ages, including a costume parade. Among the activities in previous years: a contest to guess the weight of a huge pumpkin; a reading of Sleepy Hollow, and, for the strong of heart, haunted hay rides to the local graveyard. A Harvest Moon Ball at the Andes Hotel in the evening gives the parents a chance to strut their stuff, but kids are welcome to partake of finger food, music, dancing, and a costume competition. To learn about this year’s program, call the Andes Hotel at 845-676-4408.
In Hyde Park in Dutchess County, the annual Halloween Ghost Train roars to life again on Monday, October 24 at 7pm at the Hyde Park Train Station Museum. Ghosts at a train station? Between 1851 and 1958, the building on this property welcomed hundreds of thousands, from the wealthy to the working-class, between here and New York City. That’s the potential for a lot of ghosts. The Halloween Ghost Train offers stories to make the hair stand up on your neck. Admission is free. 34 River Road, Hyde Park. 845-229-2338.
For those with steely nerves who require a more intense scare, locals report becoming unhinged every year at the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park. Sprawling across 45 acres of eerie grounds are several attractions that are choreographed as well as a Hollywood monster movie with actors dedicated to their roles. Expect to be jarred, spooked, and generally entertained by the one-mile hayride, a corn maze, and haunted houses designed to frighten you for a fortnight. How intense is this experience? The Headless Horseman Hayrides are not recommended for children under 10. This attraction was named America’s Scariest Haunted House in the Northeast by MTV. (However, there are hayride events held during the daytime for younger kids.) Ride tickets $37.95 per person. 778 Broadway, Route 9W, Ulster Park, NY. 845-339-2666; headlesshorseman.com.
If you’re unable to head south to New York City for its annual Halloween Parade through Greenwich Village, don’t worry; the Woodstock Halloween Parade offers the same caliber of eye-popping costumes, created by the artist community of this region. Through Tinker Street they will roam every October 31, transforming the entire village into a wild happening. 845-679-6234.
In the United States, Halloween parties were not popularized until the 1920s. Therefore, we get a vivid recreation of how the well-heeled Livingston family may have celebrated at the grand mansion known as Clermont State Historic Site. The annual event Legends by Candlelight Spook Tour offers candlelight tours of the museum and grounds. Guides will spin tales of the role that ghosts and spooks played in the history of this site. This vivid history lesson takes place this year on Friday, October 21. Tours start every 30 minutes beginning at 6:30pm with the last tour starting at 9:30pm. $10 per adult, $5 per child or Friends of Clermont. Reservations encouraged. 1 Clermont Avenue, Germantown, NY. 518-537-4240; friendsofclermont.org.
Centuries ago in Ulster County, fears of devils and other evildoers were far more prevalent. (The ignorance endured as recently as the 1920s, when a local woman was accused and tried for witchcraft in allegedly bewitching a cow.) Discover our superstitious heritage during New Paltz’s elaborate Haunted Huguenot Street, the annual seven-house tour in New Paltz. Sponsored by the Huguenot Historical Society, this history-filled, one-hour walk along the 17th-century streets offers a true journey into the past. Tour guides will explain the ghostly legends of this region and explain the source of superstitious cultural customs that Colonial settlers conjured to better cope with things that go bump in the night. After visitors’ pulses are quickened and their hair gone gray, they will be served cider, donuts, and autumn fruits. Recommended for ages 12 and older. $9 per person. 845- 255-1660; huguenotstreet.org/haunted.html.
Elsewhere in the Village of New Paltz, The Bakery has its annual pumpkin carving contest, Night of 100 Pumpkins. Contestants must bring carved pumpkins to the store by October 30. On Halloween, all handiwork will be lighted with candles and displayed for judging. Prizes will be awarded in several categories. Free pumpkin bread, cocoa, and hot cider. The Bakery, 13a North Front Street, New Paltz. 845-255-8840; ilovethebakery.com.
And, finally, the evening ends with the annual New Paltz Halloween Parade, sponsored by the Lions Club. It gathers at the Middle School parking lot at the corner of Main Street and Manheim Blvd at 6pm. When the parade steps off, numbering several hundreds of participants, the celebration flows down Main Street and ends at the Fire House. Refreshments are handed out to participants.
Since 1994, the New Paltz Youth Program runs a haunted house at its youth center, still referred to by its former name, the Teen Seen. A safe place for New Paltz youth, it becomes, for one night only, a house of horrors, operated by the program teenagers who create the set design and also become performers in the elaborate environmental theater event. The Youth Program’s Haunted House features a new theme every year. (One example: School of Screams.) Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children under 18. October 30-31, 6-11pm. Proceeds go to improve services for the area’s youth. 220 Main Street. 845-255-5140.
Kevin McCurdy’s Haunted Mansion returns to Poughkeepsie’s Bowdoin Park this autumn. This state-of-the-art scare fest offers visual illusions to unnerve even the most hardhearted. $22 admission. For schedule, call 845-297-2288 or visit thehauntedmansion.com.
Frankenstein’s Fortress is the Stanfordville, NY-based creation of a man who knows from living hell. Local native Pete Wing is a Vietnam War veteran whose experiences in battle scarred him for life. As his website observes, “This was his introduction to true Horror and made films from his youth pale. Surviving the black hole of alcoholism and coming out the other side has had its effect on his art and production values, most of which has a deep based dark humor.” Returning stateside, Wing began work with several film directors, honing talents that are on display at Frankenstein’s Fortress. Admission $15 for adults; $5 children under 10. 86 Creamery Road (follow Route 82), Stanfordville. For times, call 845-868-7782 or visit frankensteinsfortress.com.