Pandemic, election brew an extra-spooky Halloween

Laura Bonilla, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 29 2020 11:28 AM

Halloween decorations are seen on display during the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, New York on October 22, 2020, featuring over 7,000 hand-carved, illuminated pumpkins set against the mysterious backdrop of Van Cortlandt Manor’s 17th-century buildings and riverside landscape. Croton-on-Hudson, a quaint village an hour north of New York that's thrived thanks to a tale written some 200 years ago, is holding its annual Halloween bash -- with the election and the pandemic lending an extra dose of chills. The October 31st holiday is an industry of its own in this picturesque corner of the Hudson River Valley. Tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world venture there seeking the spirit of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", an 1820 story by Washington Irving about a headless horseman who haunts a superstitious schoolteacher. Timothy A. Clary, Agence France-Presse

CROTON-ON-HUDSON, United States - Croton-on-Hudson is a quaint village an hour north of New York City that has thrived thanks to a spooky tale written some 200 years ago. 

The town is still holding its annual Halloween bash this year -- with the US election and the coronavirus pandemic lending an extra dose of chills.

The October 31 holiday is an industry of its own in this picturesque corner of the Hudson River Valley. Tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world venture there seeking the spirit of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," an 1820 story by Washington Irving about a headless horseman who haunts a superstitious schoolteacher.

But the coronavirus has killed more than 226,000 people in the United States and is still sweeping the nation. It's forced the cancellation of many Halloween events and haunted house attractions, where maniacal clowns and monsters terrorize visitors in the dark.

Still, Croton-on-Hudson is clinging to its major "Jack O'Lantern Blaze," where more than 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins come to life for a sound and light show in the gardens of the historic Van Cortlandt mansion.

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"I am just so glad that this was going on this year to keep just something for them," said Sarah Nocerino, referring to her primary school-aged daughters, who visit the festivities every fall.

"They've had so much that they couldn't do this year, it was nice to have a tradition that we can still participate in for Halloween," the 36-year-old from nearby Connecticut told AFP.

'HALLOWEEN IS CHRISTMAS HERE' 

Organizers have reduced capacity by 33 percent, and aren't selling food or drinks. 

But visitors, many in costume, can still stand in awe of the pumpkins, which morph into everything from a huge Statue of Liberty to a planetarium and a carousel with skeleton horses.

Not to mention a Museum of Pumpkin Art (MoPA), which features Edvard Munch's "The Scream" along with the Mona Lisa and a Banksy. 

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The fete usually draws more than 100,000 visitors and boosts area businesses. 

But this year, tourism is scaled back and most of it is local.

"We take all the precautions for a safe experience," said Rob Schweitzer of the Historic Hudson Valley non-profit behind the event. "It's really good for a morale booster also!"

And another town near Croton, once called North Tarrytown, is itself now called Sleepy Hollow after residents here voted to change the community's name in 1996. 

In the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, a group of teenagers tour the Old Dutch Church on a late October afternoon.

"Halloween is Christmas here, it's probably the biggest public celebration that we have related to seasonal events," said John Paine, the 54-year-old church custodian, in front of Irving's grave that's situated among the oak and cypress trees that are losing their ochre leaves in the brisk autumn wind.

The author's tombstone has been replaced several times, as fans of his work hammer off pieces as souvenirs. 

Since the name change, it's Halloween all year long in Sleepy Hollow.

The Headless Horseman's image appears on sculptures and even ambulances, while fire trucks and street signs are orange and black.

The church -- dating back to 1685 -- that figures in Irving's tale canceled its annual theatrical performance of the legend, but tours of the cemetery by lantern continue.

According to Paine, the fellow New England town of Salem, Massachusetts -- where the famed witch trials took place in the 1600s -- "is big enough that they can do (spooky festivities) year round."

"We only get our one shot in October; it'd be a sad season indeed if we didn't have pumpkins and ghosts and goblins and skeletons."

'SPOOKY BUT SAFE' 

Falling days before a polarizing vote between the Republican president Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden, there is a strong electoral undercurrent this Halloween.

"You know what's scarier than Halloween? People not voting!" said Dana Nessel, the attorney general of Michigan, in a Twitter video where she sports a skull mask.

Stores are proffering vote-by-mail costumes, as well as a wig of Vice President Mike Pence with a fly on it, mimicking the infamous insect incident during his debate with rival Kamala Harris.

Some lawns feature decorations inspired by COVID-19 and prop skeletons wear masks.

From California to Massachusetts, several states have discouraged kids from participating in the traditional trick-or-treat on October 31. Some cities have cancelled their events altogether.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of the risks, recommending that candy be left far from the door and in individual bags.

In New York, the annual Halloween parade that attracts some 60,000 people is being replaced with a virtual puppet show, performed by unemployed Broadway artists.

But Croton-on-Hudson is keeping its goblin parade, said its mayor Brian Pugh.

"Seven months into the pandemic, the emotional toll of social distancing is draining many people's spirits," he said.

"I hope that residents will take advantage of these opportunities to safely celebrate and enjoy a Halloween that's spooky but safe."

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