If you’ve never dumped an entire pot of glitter paint on your naked body and donned five-inch platform shoes to go join a crowd of revelers on Duval Street in Key West, Florida, then you’re missing out on one quintessential American Halloween celebration. But the beauty of Halloween in this country is that each city celebrates in its own style and historic tradition. The Key West drag queens are doing it their way, while over in Salem, it’s witchy and weird, and the Southwest is actually more about the Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos. Here are five U.S. destinations where Halloween spirit hits a high.
Sleepy Hollow, New York
The Headless Horseman (Photo: Visit Sleepy Hollow/Facebook)
Thanks to Fox, the sinister legend of Sleepy Hollow and its Headless Horseman is front and center, instead of being stuck in the folklore catalog that only area locals really appreciate. Despite some deviations from the original story, producers are nailing the real-life Sleepy Hollow vibe of woodsy Hudson Valley scenery and the various creepy spirits that lurk around these parts.
Not only do locals like their Headless Horseman legacy, they’re oftentimes true believers in the supernatural activity around the region. Halloween is a chance for every hamlet and haunted farm to drag out its skeletons, bring out the horses and wagons, and indulge in some howling hair-raising fun. In the actual town of Sleepy Hollow, there are cemetery tours and dramatic tellings of the Washington Irving original tale at Old Dutch Church, plus the Horseman’s Hollow haunted experience in a 300-year-old mansion. In neighboring towns, Croton-on-Hudson lights up with The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, Tarrytown offers Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities, and Ulster Park has Headless Horseman Haunted Hayride — one of the top 10 haunted attractions in the country.
Visit the Salem Witch Museum (Photo: Salem Haunted Happenings)
Salem has its own early colonial history with a supernatural undertone and recent TV tie-in; but this one’s grimmer, because people definitely suffered for it in real life. The historic site of the Salem witch trials saw women persecuted, tortured, and executed (20 of them). There are surviving landmarks all around the area, and since the 17th century, people have learned not only to respect the legacy, but to be proud of their witchy ancestors — especially around Halloween, which is big business for Salem Haunted Happenings. Now styled as the Halloween Capital of the World, the region offers a carnival, a haunted magic show, re-enactments of the Salem trials, and many haunted houses. Ghost tours and “witch walks” are also a popular tradition, particularly after dark.
Key West, Fla.
Things get wild at the Fantasy Fest Parade. (Photo: Fantasy Fest)
On the opposite end of the fright spectrum, Key West throws a rager of a party where fear is not a factor at all (unless you fear nudity and cross-dressing). Key West Fantasy Fest is a self-described bacchanal replete with drag queens, costumed characters, dancing, and Brazilian Carnaval-style headdresses. Fantasy Fest typically runs for 10 days right before Halloween; the 2014 event is happening right now until Oct. 26. On the weekend schedule: the mile-long Fantasy Fest Street Fair, the Animated Dreams and Adventures costume contest, the Smokin’ Hot Tuna costume contest, the Living Art Airbrush Expo, so many dances and themed parties you can’t even count them — and the 3Wishes.com Fantasy Fest Parade.
New Orleans, Lousiana
Enter if you dare! (Photo: House of Shock/Facebook)
It’s probably inked in blood somewhere in the Halloween rule book that you can’t do a Halloween in America roundup without mentioning New Orleans. It’s considered the most haunted city in America, where psychics, mediums, voodoo practitioners, vampire groupies, and “green fairy” chasers push the border between the living and “other.” It’s also where college students, jocks, and tourists get wasted and do random conga lines down Bourbon Street. On Halloween, the living and the spirit realm happily party together.
Top billing for major city events goes to the annual Friday-to-Saturday night party by House of Shock, a famous haunted house that’s closing after 22 years and throwing its grand finale this Halloween. Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat Fan Club will hold its Undead Conference at various venues around the city, while the LGBT community represents in the French Quarter, with the wild and crazy costumed epicenter being Bourbon Street and Saint Ann. Year-round haunted tours of the French Quarter, the Garden District, the cemeteries, and the known vampire haunts are a must-do around this time of year. Recommended experiences include a visit to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, The Mortuary Haunted House, and New Orleans Cemetery Tours.
Celebrating the dead while raising funds for the living. (Photo: The All Souls Procession)
The Mexican population in Tucson has created a tradition that can’t even be said to piggyback onto Halloween. Although many U.S. cities do a Dia de Los Muertos celebration on Nov. 1, Tucson’s All Souls Procession takes place on Nov. 8-9 annually and is now in its 25th year. Tucson is small; some locals would say it’s not really known for anything in terms of annual events. But this event has just started to draw national attention — and with good reason.
It started tiny — in fact, with just one woman who was mourning her father’s passing. Today it’s grown to draw almost 100,000 people for two days of parties, concerts, workshops, art projects, dances, poetry readings, and processions. The original purpose was simply to celebrate death and the dead, in the way Mexico does most famously during Dia de Los Muertos. But the secondary purpose of this particular festival is to raise funds for the living needy. The Procession, which is the main event, is staffed completely by volunteers, and the funds raised go to charities. Some volunteer-hosted parties also have a charitable component.
WATCH: The Fantasy Fest Parade in the Key West, Fla.