New York City, New York, USA
Halloween is a big event in America, and nowhere more so than in New York, where a massive parade takes over much of downtown Manhattan – from the bottom of SoHo to the top of Chelsea – making it the biggest Halloween celebration on the planet and the only major night parade in the US. It’s a totally over-the-top, costumed street party, at which it’s impossible not to have a good time. Like its counterpart in San Francisco, New York’s Halloween has become something of a gay event in recent years, although everyone, gay or straight, young or old, uses it as the last pre-winter excuse to go nuts in the streets while wearing just about anything from a Frankenstein mask to a clingfilm wrap bridal gown – maybe at the same time.
Halloween started as a pagan festival, when Irish Celts tried to ward off evil spirits with noisy processions and ghoulish costumes, but it was America that made it into a national institution. Across the USA, there are few kids of any cultural background that haven’t slipped on some kind of crazy garb on October 31 in an effort to score some candy. What makes New York special is that the majority of “kids” dressing up in the streets have day jobs, and most of them are after another kind of treat. The other unique feature of New York’s Halloween is that it’s centred on a puppet parade, a tradition that couldn’t have more wholesome roots. On October 31, 1973, a puppeteer named Ralph Lee went from house to house in Greenwich Village, putting on his puppet show for the neighbourhood kids. Today, both the crowds and the puppets have grown substantially in size, but the event is still basically run by one person and relies entirely on the participation of volunteers. Jeanne Fleming took over Ralph Lee’s role as parade director in 1982, and still spends most of the year coordinating the activities of more than a hundred volunteers, who design and assemble the parade’s oversized papier-mache monsters. In 2001, the Halloween Parade was the first major event in New York City to take place after the tragic events of September 11, with the theme that year being “Phoenix Rising” and the star puppet a new-born bird rising out of the city’s ashes. In 2005, the phoenix rose out of the waters that swamped New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was carried by evacuees from the sunken city living in New York, once again reinforcing the annual event’s ability to unite and inspire. The Halloween Parade runs up Sixth Avenue from just south of Spring Street in SoHo to 23rd Street in Chelsea. Nearly two million spectators descend on downtown Manhattan to check out the costumed paraders each year, so getting an unobstructed kerbside spot from which to view proceedings requires getting there well before the starting time of 7pm – try two hours earlier and you might be OK. It’s worth it, though, as there’s nothing to beat the views of the tremendous skeletal puppets that loom overhead against the black sky, pointing their bony, foot-long fingers towards the crowd. The parade usually runs about two to three hours from start to finish; if you stay in one spot, you can see the whole thing pass in around an hour. After the parade is over, the more serious revellers show off their costumes along Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, which is usually blocked off completely into the early hours; if you plan to join them, try to catch the parade in the nearby vicinity, ideally between 14th Street and Bleecker Street.
Superior Concept Monsters
Over the years, the huge papier-mache creatures – or “Superior Concept Monsters”, as the group that designs the parade’s largest and most original puppets call them – have grown to become the size of buildings, requiring nearly a thousand people in total to manipulate. Known as “sweepers” for their rapid, broad movements, these massive, sculpted creatures are constructed on steel-rod skeletons, and symbolically “sweep the negative energy from the streets” for the year to come. Watching the parade is all very well, but if you’re really going to do Halloween in New York, you need to put on a costume and take to the streets. This is community theatre on a grand scale, with tens of thousands of participants, and if you want to understand what it’s all about, you’ve really got to get involved. You could opt for the classic scary – witches, vampires, etc – and non-scary – French maid, King Arthur, Winnie the Pooh – look, or dress up as an “overnight wonder” from popular recent movies or current events, such as Kenny from South Park (big orange Eskimo Parka, mumbled speech) and Michael Moore (pillow gut under shirt, beard, cap, camera always rolling). You could go down the conceptual- costume route (don a pig-nose mask and wave a Canadian flag and you’re Canadian Bacon) or raise the outfit ante with a really scary number, the kind that’s done so convincingly that no one’s even sure it’s a costume at all. And then there’s always the option of going in drag – scary in a whole other way and not really a costume for some. But Whatever you choose to go as, go the whole hog, and remember that, above all, it’s the costume that will determine what sort of night you have – and who you end up spending it with.