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Cashing In On Halloween

Halloween is boffo at the box office. It’s not your father’s Halloween. In recent years the holiday has soared in prominence and become an economic powerhouse. Time magazine had an article in its culture section entitled “Monsters Inc.: Inside the Weird World of Professional haunting.” This was a followup to last year’s smaller article on “Tombstone Tourism: A Second Life for Cemeteries.” The New York Times published “House Haunters” while my local paper had a front-page article “In the Lower Hudson Halloween Is SCARY-BIG BUSINESS.” Clearly something big is occurring and historic organizations often are cashing in.

Regular readers may recall that when the Path through History began, I reported that Historic Hudson Valley was in the process of abandoning or diminishing its emphasis on traditional tourism. Instead it was switching to the blockbuster approach just as Hollywood has. The change occurred when a program on the pirates of the Hudson had huge attendance. It opened the organization’s eyes to the potential of the spectacular.

That approach carried over to creating major events for Halloween. Those events now aren’t just for a single weekend but extend of many weekends as the appeal of such family and adult programs has skyrocketed. In case you are not aware, Historic Hudson Valley is located in Sleepy Hollow, yes that Sleepy Hollow as North Tarrytown decided to re-brand itself after GM closed its plant. As a result it has enormously powerful built in historic legacies which it maximizes to the hilt. It has the grave of Washington Irving, his home, the Old Dutch Church and burial ground. The latter are across the street from the Dutch Philipsburg Manor, one of the Path sites which really can’t compete with Halloween. The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is next to the Church burial ground and naturally has midnight tours.

The numbers are staggering. According to the local paper the attendance last year was 80,000 and over 100,000 are expected for the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor . There is some serious money involved here as people eat, shop, and lodge locally contributing sales tax and revenue to the community. The new television show Sleepy Hollow with its aerial shots of the Hudson River and the Tappan Zee Bridge will only generate more tourism even though it distorts the actual village. The real village of 10,000 people has become a TV small city of 144,000. That is the number of people who will be raptured according to the Book of Revelation. The TV show has taken a few liberties with Irving’s book but it does show an awareness of the stories which are of interest.

Of course, not every community is blessed with the legacy of Washington Irving. So create your own. Haunted houses are big business. People make a living designing them. These building s tend to open in late September and remain open until early November possibly bringing in $1,000,000. This year one estimate has 31,000,000 visitors paying $15-30 per person. The Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park has six houses on its 45 acres. There is even an industry trade organization, the Haunted Attracted Association.

What does this mean for historic sites? What does this mean for historic sites that have no connection to Washington Irving, Halloween, or 45 acres of land. Can historic sites cash in?

We are a storytelling species and we like stories of gore. Without zombies, werewolves, and vampires, Hollywood would be in big trouble both on the big screen and TV. There are to ways to cash in on this without sacrificing your integrity as an historic organization. The first is cemeteries. Pretty much every town and village has one. That means there are people buried there, people with stories dying to be heard.

According to the Time article on “Tombstone Tourism,” Richard Moylan, president of the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, had an epiphany in 1999. He was in Baltimore when he visited the local Green Mount Cemetery and saw an empty place even on a beautiful day. Times have changed since the rural cemetery movement began in the 1830s. Back then, pre-Central Park, rural cemeteries were scenic idyllic settings appropriate for family visits for restoration, contemplation, and a pleasant experience.

New York embraced the rural cemetery movement and these cemeteries can be found in Poughkeepsie, Albany, Troy, and elsewhere. Moylan’s revelation was that if you open the cemetery, people will come. And so they did. On organized tours. Cemeteries are now open for business. This is especially true on Halloween. Danielle Fontaine, Sleepy Hollow’s director of marketing and sales recognizes the need to balance the tourism against the business of being a working cemetery…and that the money generated by the former helps defray the expenses of the latter. They are boffo at the box-office and you never know who will leap out from behind a tombstone in the dark of night!

Houses too may have stories to tell. The odds are at some point in the history of your community there was a murder. Historic houses need to reach out into the community with stories to tell and its not going to be about the colonial ancestor with eight kids who then had 64 grandchidren! People’s eyes will glaze over before you get to the third painting. Think storytelling not docent. I know that many historic sites uses their buildings to tell a story, not just on Halloween, but at other times as well. Moving about the house as different people in costume act out an historical event from your communities history is a way to connect your audience to its past. I wrote about a musical performed on stage to tell the story of the Town of Rye. We are not blessed with the historic houses which can be used for such storytelling as we have no real historical society, no museum, and no such building; but many other communities do.

So if you are not performing a story in some way, think about why not. If you perform your story, people will come and that is what historic sites need, the people of their own community to come and be part of their legacy whether it is on Halloween or not.

10 thoughts on “Cashing In On Halloween

  1. Good thoughts, Peter. The town of Sleepy Hollow, amazingly, has all the right stuff to become the world center of Halloween. At the time that General Motors announced it was shutting down its Sleep Hollow (North Tarrytown) plant, I was working with a group trying to raise the funds to erect a strikingly beautiful life-size statue of Icabod Crane with horse on the slope of Sleepy Hollow High School, giving Icabod a great view of Broadway. I suggested that the last week of October be labeled “Sleepy Holloween”. Neither project, alas, was realized.

  2. Thanatourism is another term for it. Toronto-based Rue Morgue Magazine used to (and may still) feature sites of that nature in each issue (a venue historians might consider writing for, or having their books reviewed in, incidentally). Sites needn’t be ones considered haunted, or related to murders, but related to genre writers and settings in their stories, e.g. places mentioned in Lovecraft’s New York Circle: The Kalem Club, 1924-1927 and From the Pest Zone: The New York Stories by H. P. Lovecraft.

    Sites needn’t have to be paranormal-related (as a skeptic, that angle tends to make me cringe) or morbid. Many NY cemeteries are beautifully landscaped outdoor sculpture gardens, many stories related to the dead uplifting in nature.

    When Halloween merchandise rolls out in stores, why aren’t there any NYS-made NYS-specific Halloween items? Some NYS-based companies ought to be running with the Headless Horseman, Champ, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, King Kong. Miniatures of notable NYS buildings decorated for Halloween. Any number of things could be done.

    More coordination between horror/genre conventions in NY would help, enabling people to visit them all (if they cared to) rather than having to pick between ones scheduled for the same weekend. Even convention guests would appreciate that, since they could be booked at more conventions and earn more thereby.

    Genealogists sometimes travel and spend money for their research. Decoration Day, Veterans Day – it seems they’d been far bigger affairs than now: bands, poetry, lectures, sermons, flowers, parades that would include all the cemeteries were veterans were to be found.

    1. Thank you for your response. The key phrase in it is “more coordination.” This is exactly the area in which historical tourism in New York is lacking. Your comment on enabling people to visit multiple venues rather than having to pick between events scheduled for the same weekend, is the exact issue I have written about in the problems with the Ramble, New York State Heritage Weekend, and the Path through History project. Yes coordination would help but no one is going to do it.

      1. “coordination would help but no one is going to do it”

        I had in mind, for example, FantaCon at the Wolf Road Marriott near Albany and Scare-a-Con at Turning Stone Resort east of Syracuse (only about an hour and a half apart from each other) taking place the same weekend. The conventions ended up limiting the number of guests and attendees who could attend both (ideally you’d want guests and attendees to be there for the full weekend). There’s no benefit that I can see to not coordinating scheduling somehow so that everybody benefits, rather than everybody losing out. Somebody ought to do it; they ought to organize a “Horror Convention Association” or something like that – even just an e-mail list for such convention hosts.

        1. I think Peter’s idea of storytelling rather than just fact repetition is an excellent idea. To engage the visitor and help them identify or relate to the subject is of primary importance in heritage tourism.
          As to the coordination issue, I have been watching a parade of commissions, committees, corridors, paths, etc. since the mid-1980’s all promising coordination – and delivering nothing. I know of organizations that have individually tried to coordinate with other organizations and it works fine, to the benefit of all. However, that is the only way it seems to work here, on the individual level. Don’t wish or hope for coordination because it will never happen unless we do it ourselves on an individual level. I have absolutely reached the limit of my endurance for listening to officials at so-called heritage tourism meetings prattling on about coordination and how important it is and then not providing it in any way. If 25 years ago just one of those heritage tourism development projects I listened to had actually done what it promised; we would be talking about New York as a model of what can be done, not what can’t or hasn’t or won’t.
          I enjoy reading these blogs and the comments very much, thanks for writing them.

          1. Scott,

            You raise some serious issues here which I plan to address in future posts (as if I haven’t discussed them already). You are exactly right: people talk the talk of cooperation and coordination in the meeting … and then they o back to their day jobs where the pressing concerns on maintaining their own organization take over. The next result is there is no to do the work of organizing and planning that cooperation and coordination require. The collapse of the Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor Commission is a prime example.


  3. The story of the still unsolved1756 murder of Joseph Skinner, the first European so killed in the Upper Delaware Valley, and his spirit’s subsequent quest for justice was just one of several eerie ghost stories that highlighted the first annual Haunted History Lantern Tours at Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg, NY on the evening of Saturday, October 12 this year. The event was staged as a fundraiser by the volunteers of the new incarnation of The Delaware Company, a group that supports and promotes the history and historic landmarks of the Upper Delaware.

    The event was run from 5 PM till 9 PM and featured local ghost stories including the legend of Cahoonshee, the giant Amerindian whose spirit, like that of Joseph Skinner’s, is said to roam the river valley seeking justice, as well as the story of the Battle of Minisink and the strange spectres said to still populate the Battleground Park in nearby Minisink Ford. Music was provided by the King’s Highlanders, an 18th Century Scottish pipe and drum band, and cider and donuts were available for purchase. It was a family friendly event, with admission set at just $5, with proceeds going to The Delaware Company. Patrons were asked to bring their own flashlights for touring the Fort after dark.

    About 150 people showed up from miles around, ranging in age from 6 to 76. There were rave reviews, and while not all of those who attended came for the history, they all left with a greater appreciation of the subject and many vowed to return next season to tour the Fort Delaware Museum while it was open and in full swing. It was a good start to what we hope will be many more successful efforts to introduce locals to the region’s history

  4. The Knickerbocker Mansion in Schaghticoke, upper Rensselaer County, NY has been “Cashing in on Halloween” for the past ten years doing exactly what Peter suggests. Our program, which takes place the Friday and Saturday night before Halloween, is a Mansion tour where “Ghosts of the Mansion’s past tell their stories.” Five re-enactors play the role of people conntected with the Knickerbocker Mansion in a true historical situation , that also fits the Halloween theme. And each year a different era of the Mansion’s history is featured. This year it was the Civil War. We also serve a Souper Supper, which visitors really enjoy. This year was a record breaker for us: we had over 300 visitors and made over $4,000~ a good week-end for fundraising from the cornfields of Schaghticoke!

  5. The people usually disinterested in history, will allow ghost stories to catch them up. This provide a vehicle to preserve and perpetuate our heritage. Indeed, hundreds of performances as a professional storyteller, specializing in local history, taught me; haunt to hook them on history. Years ago, I could not turn New Rochelle school children on to Thomas Paine. His cottage stood begging for visitors in their city. Discovering a story of the “Common Sense” author’s ghost haunting nearby, I pandered a performance on Paine’s life into a spooky story time. The kids loved it. It sparked a barrage of questions from my young audience. They wanted to learn more about their local patriot. It felt like a cheap trick at first, but I hooked those kids on history.
    Now, I cash in on Halloween. It is the holiday season for me making it possible to earn a living. Historic Hudson Valley, hired me to give thirty-nine performances of my one person show of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The New-York Historical Society also hired me on Halloween to perform Irving’s classic. We had an enthusiastic, but small crowd. Next year we plan to feature more of the city’s more illustrious ghosts. Again, we want to catch up kids in a spirited web of history.

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