Halloween was a real treat and at its peak in New Paltz

(Photos by Lauren Thomas)

It was hard having nearly no celebration of Halloween in New Paltz during 2020. Yes, some creative “trunk-or-treat” events were organized to ensure that the annual sugar distribution continued unabated, but major events were cancelled throughout New Paltz. The fact that Halloween in 2020 fell on a Saturday — which would have ensured all-hours celebrating — under a full moon to light up the night was especially galling. Halloween is a big deal in New Paltz. Since it was lost to the terrors of a pandemic, it’s become common to hear Village trustees referring to the days around Halloween as the “high holy days” in this community, emphasizing the cultural importance given to a holiday centered on fear, costumes and hyperactivity. The anticipation that built up over the past year exploded all over town this week, with visitors and locals throwing themselves into every opportunity and attraction with astounding zeal.

Halloween is one day a year when it seems like everyone in town is wearing a smile, and in 2021 the number of people in Town may have reached a new peak. No one is keeping statistics about the holiday, but there are anecdotal reports supporting that observation. On Saturday the staff at the Town’s Youth Program had to add a second guide running groups through that haunted house — something Jim Tinger, director of the program, has never seen on the night before Halloween. Reservations for the events at Historic Huguenot Street and Elting Memorial Library were snapped up. For the trunk-or-treat event organized for elementary school students, Town police officers brought 1,200 treats to hand out from the back of a decorated patrol car and ran out. Village trustee William Wheeler Murray’s personal estimate of parade marchers pegged the iconic event at around 3,000 participants. A resident of Prospect Street, inside the “hot zone” where trick-or-treaters number in the hundreds for a slow year, Murray said that the knocks on the door in 2021 were about 30% higher than in 2019 — when Halloween didn’t fall on a school night. That spike was despite the fact that the peak fell off around two hours earlier than Murray recalls from years past.

It wasn’t just the number of people on the streets, either. It seemed like every single person was throwing themselves into Halloween with unmatched zeal. That was particularly noticeable at the various haunted attractions and spooky scenarios that were put on around town.

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The youth group at Elting Memorial Library haunted the courtyard, using that space and a small part of the old library building to weave a tale of murder and mystery that had a perfectly-timed twist ending to send visitors scurrying out the door to the relative safety of Main Street. The attraction, which was free but required reservations, was built around a cohesive narrative that was liberally spiced up with jump scares. The teen actors knew their lines and had their timing down, working seamlessly with the unsettling decor to keep visitors off balance and on edge. This new youth group is showing a lot of potential.

Tinger has been turning the Youth Center building on Main Street into a creepy fundraiser for decades, and considering the turnover rate of participating kids, it would be easy to fall into a formulaic routine. The pandemic frustration that fueled Halloween 2021 has also led to a big spike in the number of teens who use the program and were willing to help out this year. Throw all that energy into this year’s theme — a classic haunted house tour — and what results is downright chilling. Some years, this teen-driven haunted attraction is a gory scream-fest of monsters and fake blood, but what made this year’s offering striking was the amount of silence in that building. The quiet allowed the anticipation to build, the hairs to stand up on arms and necks and the shadows to grow larger and more menacing. The young actors were focused and disciplined and the results were electrifying.

At Huguenot Street, the “haunted” event comes only after dark. Groups were taken around the historic neighborhood by a variety of dead persons, all while preparing for the postmortem of a couple denied marriage in life in part because of a large age difference. The stops were mostly outside, keeping to the rule of thumb that it’s safest for people to gather if they are outside, six feet apart, and masked — or at least two out of three. The characters were portrayed by actors of a variety of ages, all of whom were excellent at projecting their voices such that everyone could hear as the tale progressed. This year’s Haunted Huguenot Street culminated in the old church with a Samhain wedding for Hugo and Annie, centuries overdue.

Not everything worth doing happened in the village core, though. Branden Jansen, a longtime resident who was feeling like the Halloween spirit was falling away locally, worked with family members to transform their Carolyn Drive back yard into a dark and foreboding fog-filled maze. Aiming for the younger visitors, the Jansens didn’t have any outright scares, opting for props like dancing skeletons with glowing eyes — plus the creepiest swing set that’s ever been seen in New Paltz. They also had plenty of apple cider and donuts from Minard Farm, which were handed out to all comers to this free event. While this wasn’t the same scale as what Dan and Ann Guenther did with their Center Street home in years past, it was certainly in the same spirit — the spirit that makes Halloween a “high holy day” in New Paltz.

There was another event at Historic Huguenot Street that was also aimed at thrilling the tiniest of costumed visitors. What’s been a free-ranging trick-or-treat event in the past was changed up into a Halloween fair this year, and one that required reservations to keep the numbers at a safe and manageable level. To keep massive clumps of joyous children from clumping together, the free-range treat stations were replaced with a scavenger hunt. Participants are given a set of clues, and must roam up and down the street to collect gold-colored tokens. Once that’s complete, they are entitled to collect a hefty bag of goodies, one that feels like more than enough reward for all of that walking and thinking. Should a 50-something-year-old be undertaking a scavenger hunt designed for children, and collecting candy at the end? Even eating candy can be a job requirement, sometimes.

New Paltz has such a deep Halloween history that there are traditions without which it wouldn’t feel the same. The aforementioned Guenther haunted house was a focal point for well over a generation, but was finally put to rest. The legendary Night of 100 Pumpkins wasn’t held at The Bakery this year due to crowding concerns, but veteran carvers are eager for its return in the future. Other recurring details are not as stationary, such as the floating ghost costume that a group of Village residents take through the parade and town, or the “hearse guy,” Steven Esposito, who dusts off a 1987 Cadillac Deville every year. It’s the lead car in the parade, and Esposito also has parked it on Huguenot Street since trick-or-treating there became part of the holiday lineup. The hearse always has a variety of fake human body parts in the back, for anyone who is brave enough to venture close enough for a peek.

“I heard that they weren’t handing out candy this year after parade,” and to help make up for that Esposito bought $300 worth of full-sized candy bars. The big Hershey bars are traditionally distributed in the firehouse after the parade, but that’s another thing that was modified due to pandemic concerns. The firehouse was not open this year, but firefighters did hand out treats out front before the parade. This is the last year that the parade route will end at the Plattekill Avenue firehouse, because the volunteers are moving into new digs next to the justice center on North Putt Corners Road soon. It remains unclear if the parade route will be changed, or just the experience at the bottom end.

Whether one thinks “holy” is an appropriate word or not, it’s clear that Halloween is deeply embedded in the culture of New Paltz, and no pesky little pandemic is going to scare it away anytime soon.