3 Small Towns, 3 Big Halloween Celebrations

Americana, Festivals, History
on October 27, 2014
halloween dog

Everybody loves Halloween. But sometimes carving pumpkins, bobbing for apples or stepping out for trick-or-treat just isn’t enough. For true zealots of the holiday, a trio of especially spooky towns—Salem, Mass., home of the infamous witch trials; Anoka, Minn., “The Halloween capital of the World”; and Independence, Kan., home to the Neewollah Festival—are perfect places to celebrate Halloween with unbridled party passion.

Salem, Mass.

When you hail from the home of Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as the notorious site where 19 girls were executed as witches in 1692, it’s best to embrace your distinctive hometown’s past—both good and bad.

“Salem’s unique because it’s a melting pot of Halloween traditions and history,” says Erik Rodenhiser, 47, better known as “Zombie George,” an actor and owner of Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre who entertains visitors lining up to watch shows featuring historical figures such as the villainous Sheriff Corwin of witch trial fame, as well as legendary witches and ghosts. “Some people come to watch, some participate, some go crazy with elaborate costumes,” he says. “It’s a chance to step out of who you are for a short period of time.”

Salem Halloween

Rodenhiser, who designed Dracula’s castle, one of Salem’s first haunted attractions, is an enthusiastic member of a community that offers a month’s worth of Haunted Happenings every October, beginning with an Annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo; gathering momentum with séances, haunted house tours and an annual Zombie Prom; then topping it all off with the Official Salem Witches’ Halloween Ball. hauntedhappenings.org

Anoka, Minn.

They don’t call it the Halloween Capital of the World for nothing. Back in 1920, Anoka, Minn., elders so-crowned their town when, tired of Halloween pranks— cows let loose on Main Street, outhouses tipped over, soaped-up windows—they organized the first official U.S. Halloween parade and town-wide festival to steer kids away from trouble.

Nearly a century later, the annual 10- day Anoka Halloween celebration, which last year raised more than $25,000 for scholarships and local elementary school libraries, is bigger, better and family- friendlier than ever.

Anoka Halloween

“It’s not about ghosts and goblins,” says longtime volunteer and Anoka resident Jill Bendiski-Minor, 50, whose 2014 duties include stuffing some 3,500 goodie bags. “We focus on family fun and community.”

On the menu this year: the Spooktacular Carnival, Gray Ghost 5K, Orange Tie Ball, and a fly-by, courtesy of T-6 Thunder North American Flight Team, as well as several parades, including the Grand Parade (Minnesota’s largest); Light Up the Night (featuring illuminated floats on a darkened Main Street); and the Big Parade of Little People, a kids-only costume parade.

“With just kids, it makes you feel really special,” says Bendiski-Minor, who in third grade won Best Costume for her Raggedy Ann get-up, handmade by her mother and grandmother. “That little plaque still hangs on my wall,” she says. anokahalloween.com

Independence, Kan.

Normally, Independence, Kan., is home to just over 1,000 people. But at Halloween,this town bubbles over like a colossal cauldron of witches brew when more than 75,000 loyal fans and new visitors arrive for the annual Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards) Festival, a week-long tradition established in 1919.

“It’s like a huge homecoming,” says 2014 Grand Marshall Ann Crow, 63, who along with her husband, Stewart Snow and brother, Steve Wilkin—all third generation volunteers—and some 500 townspeople will turn out from Oct. 24-Nov. 1 for 2014’s “Get Egg-cited” celebration. “Tourists are amazed how the whole town transforms into this festival.”

Job one for dozens of adult volunteers: getting decked out and dancing along the Doo-Dah parade route. For the Kiddie Parade, some 800 kids (and often, their pets) dress-up as Cinderella, Spiderman or Sponge Bob and ride their bikes decorated with orange and black crepe-papered wheel spokes.

Neewollah Festival

The final treat? The Grand Parade, where 30-plus bands from all over Kansas as well as Missouri and Oklahoma toot their collective Halloween horns in the annual Neewollah Marching Band competition. neewollah.com

More Halloween Hoopla

Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

As the setting of author Washington irving’s classic story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, this village has a mega-spooky claim to fame. Halloween events include the Sleepy Hollow cemetery lantern Tour and Horseman’s Hollow at phillipsburg manor (note: not recommended for young children). visitsleepyhollow.com

Port Isabel, Texas

This tiny south Texas town celebrates Halloween Mexican-style during their annual Los Colores de Muerto or Day of the Dead festival with guided tours of historic cemeteries, live music, food, altar exhibits and costume contests. portisabelmuseums.com