Halloween in New Paltz is not for the faint of heart

(Photos by Rich Corozine)

That people have spotted ghosts on Huguenot Street in New Paltz should come as no surprise: those stone houses were occupied for centuries, and many people were born and died within those walls. Whether or not one believes that disembodied ancestors roam the oldest neighborhood in New Paltz, the fact that there are incidents reported in diaries, newspapers and other records going back through those generations should definitely not be surprising, particularly when it’s near Halloween and such tales are eager to be shared during the Haunted Huguenot Street tours.

Josiah Dubois spied a “lady in brown,” and the account of that experience was one of the tales shared with visitors to Haunted Huguenot Street this year. He himself lived early in the 19th century, and presumably that lady in brown came from an earlier time still among the stone houses now known so well. His tale set the scene for a layered look at history which would not be possible without at least a nod of the head toward the idea of an afterlife: represented by actors, long-gone residents of New Paltz shared recollections of their encounters with other residents, even more long gone.

The middle of the last century seemed to have been a time when that veil was thin. A caretaker named Phoebe encountered a presence in Hasbrouck House, where she lived; it turned lights on and upset her dog before leaving them alone. The Heidgerd family lived next to the cemetery in the 1950s and ’60s, and recorded several encounters, including with Ezekiel Elting, whom they considered a “crotchety ghost.” During the tour, visitors were led in the dark through that same cemetery, passing figures in white who whispered facts about their time on earth: birth and death dates, spouses, parents, children.

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It could be that the Heidgerds had their experiences due to a fascination with spiritualism, but in that they were by no means the first Huguenot Street residents to dabble in a discipline which had taken the country by storm. Tour-takers were exposed to this at its peak by attending a Halloween party hosted by the Deyo sisters in 1895. A talking board was the focus of the affair, a tool for contacting those beyond which has been much maligned in movies and television in recent decades. Whether or not it’s a useful tool, what the sisters — the actors portraying them, at least — patiently demonstrated is that the association of talking (later “ouija”) boards and evil forces had not yet been made in 1895. Dressed in over-the-top witch costumes, the sisters seek marital advice for one of their number, only to get it from long-dead Josiah Dubois himself, wrapping up a fascinating tour in a tidy package. To put a bow on it, talking boards were even put on sale in the gift shop.

On Halloween in 2017, the chills which former residents experienced echoed still during the popular trick-or-treating event. A masked man brandishes a fake leg at a toddler, eliciting heart-rending screams and cowering into the hem of mother’s cloak. Halloween in New Paltz is not for the faint of heart.

For those willing to risk such panic in their quest for candy, the chilly weather might have meant heavier goodie bags for those who were dressed warmly enough to stick it out from door to door. In the bright afternoon sunshine the littlest New Paltzians collected from each of the historic houses, but folk of all ages strutted their finery: superheroes rubbed elbows with pharaohs and mummies, Star Wars characters (think Wookiees and sith lords, not Jar-Jar) jostled past infants dressed as pumpkins and tiny police officers, and dogs galore roamed the road, perhaps fresh from a photo session at New Paltz Animal Hospital. Halloween in New Paltz does not cause boredom.

Central to Halloween in New Paltz is the parade, for which Main Street has been closed off every October 31 since sometime in the 1960s. It shapes how the community celebrates this day, a quirky 21st-century fusion of superstition, horror, pop culture and sarcasm. Off Huguenot Street, the most likely places to get hit up for candy are the homes within a few blocks of the parade’s end, as well as every single business that appears open. That includes the obvious, like the chocolate shop on North Front Street, but also places not clearly associated with joy and childhood, like the insurance agency on Main Street where slices of pizza were being handed out on paper plates. Halloween in New Paltz is not a day when healthy eating is the norm.

Another staple Halloween experience is the Night of 100 Pumpkins, a carving contest with entrants displayed on the grounds of the Bakery. Last year’s assortment included a number of parodies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but apparently no one was moved to carve likenesses of Neil Bettez, Marty Irwin or Maryann Tozzi, each vying to take the job of supervisor for the town. (More’s the pity, as the ratio of Clinton to Trump pumpkins last year may well have predicted that election’s outcome.) With politics taking a back burner, entrants focused on the whimsical (“somewhere over the pumpkin”), the artistic (a gourd transformed into an octopus), and the creepy (a giant mouth about the chomp down on a pumpkin face). One really dedicated entry was comprised of at least 90 palm-sized gourds, each one carved as a proper jack-o’-lantern.

Shifting piles of leaves on feet, pint-sized ax murderers, and jungle animals joined an assortment of werewolves, skeletons and vampires seeking to suck candy into their bags; the lessons in bartering would come later. A dead bridal couple pays no heed to a tin man, lion and good witch clad in a pink hoop skirt. Patrons in the many restaurants along the parade route crane their necks to see what’s passing by the windows. Halloween in New Paltz is a day for gawking.

A hush finally falls over the village as town police officers close the road. Two high-school students, skateboards in hand, debate the best moment to take a ride down the Route 299 hill: too soon and they’ll get bogged down by the cars still being cleared from the route, but too late and the parade itself would ruin the fun. “This is the only time you can do this in daylight,” said one, hinting that he was no stranger to Main Street at 3 a.m.

The parade itself is led by a proud horse, with a skeletal demeanor and a tall rider. The New Paltz Community Band has mastered its version of the “Addams Family” theme, and halfway down another band has joined in with the theme from “Ghostbusters.” As always, spectators join in to march and marchers peel off to seek sugary booty. It’s a chilly evening, but not so cold that a warmth hasn’t descended upon village roads. Maybe it’s because of the tradition of opening the door to strangers, but people tend to say hello to those they pass on the street more often than on other days. Perhaps that’s the warmth that let one stalwart fellow walk through the 52-degree streets dressed as a shirtless heavyweight boxer. Halloween in New Paltz is not for the thin-skinned.

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