Believe it or not, most people not only enjoy being scared, they are willing to pay for the pleasure. As a result, Halloween has now become a $9 billion industry. To be sure, most of that is spent on costumes and candy that will be worn and distributed locally on the day itself. But for an increasing number of committed chill seekers, the six-week “scare season” isn’t complete without a trip to someplace significantly more frightening than their own neighborhood. And for most of them, the scarier the better.
So if your circle of familiars is looking for not-so friendly ghosts and other assorted ghoulies as Halloween approaches, read on. After all, you have nothing to fear, but fear itself. And that’s the fun part.
Note: Most commercial Halloween-themed activities begin in late September and last throughout October with generally more days and longer hours the closer you get to Halloween. And with Halloween falling on a Thursday this year, scare season should peak crowd wise the weekend of Oct. 25-27. So plan accordingly.
Houses of the Unholy, Ungodly, and Undead
Long gone are the days when haunted houses were low-budget, amateur operations, cobbled together a few weeks before Halloween by local civic groups and featured laughably unrealistic renditions of witches, vampires, mummies, and Frankenstein’s monsters. Nowadays they are sophisticated, special effects-laden horror complexes, operated by professional fright mongers who populate them with highly-creative mutations of the weapons-wielding menaces (and their victims) of more recent Hollywood thrillers: demented psychopaths, deranged homicidal maniacs, demonic clowns, and the ever-popular zombies. Blood, gore, and mayhem are their stock-in-trade and thanks to the wonders of modern makeup, the dozens of trained “actors” can be terrifyingly realistic when they jump out in front of you as you creep apprehensively down eerie strobe-lit hallways, wander through creepy outdoor sets, or ride on a haunted hayride.
And make no mistake, their purpose is to scare the bejesus out of you and do so repeatedly, generally via a series of variously themed haunted attractions. As a result, the best typically come with age restrictions (or recommendations) and health warnings, and provide emergency exits (but no refunds) for the faint of heart, stomach, or even bladder.
Long Islanders are fortunate enough to have one of the very best in the nation in Bayville Scream Park. But there are other top-notch ones out there just dying to be explored, including last year’s #1 ranked Headless Horseman (headlesshorseman.com) in upstate Ulster Park; Pure Terror Scream Park (pureterror.com), the Guinness record-holding largest in the world in upstate Monroe; Brighton Asylum (brightonasylum.com) in Passaic, New Jersey; Field of Terror (fieldofterror.com) in East Windsor, New Jersey; and 13th Hour (13hour.com) in Wharton, New Jersey.
Note: Prices, which range between $35-60, vary by date, with weekends typically being more expensive. You can save – and be guaranteed entry -- by pre-ordering tickets online, though service charges do apply. Those unwilling to compromise their frightful experience with potentially long lines should secure a fast pass for an additional $10-20.
Charmed and bewitched in Salem
Historically speaking, Halloween traditionally conjures up witches, and no place in the country is more associated with witches than Salem, Massachusetts. For decades history-seeking visitors have taken in the sites, museums, and small-scale theatrical productions based upon the infamous witch trials – and executions -- of 1692. But come October, a less intellectually motivated crowd descends upon Witch City to revel in Haunted Happenings, a monthlong concatenation of all things Halloweeny (defined loosely enough to include vampires, zombies, pirates, and Jason) whose literally dozens of activities collectively draw upward of 350,000. The positively spellbinding lineup includes parades, costume balls, cabarets, haunted houses, harbor cruises, dramatic recreations, a carnival, and a spirited array of ghost, murder, and paranormal tours – truly several things for everyone, from easily frightened preschoolers to unflappable young adults.
Among the more educationally enlightened are the Salem Witch Museum (salemwitchmuseum.com; $13 adults, $10 ages 6-14) with its eerie narrated tableaus and the Witch Dungeon Museum (witchdungeon.com; $9 adults, $7 ages 4-13) with its re-enactment of an actual witch trail and underground labyrinth of wax figures. And while there weren’t any witches in Salem in 1692, there are now and many supplement their living by demonstrating their art and peddling their wares. For a basic introduction, follow a Wicca guide through the indoor Salem Witch Village (salemwaxmuseum.com; $10) which depicts the evolution of witchcraft from medieval times. Stock up on potions and paraphernalia at a coven of commercial purveyors or delve deeper into black magic, the psychic, and the occult at the annual Psychic Fair and Witch Market in Museum Place Mall. And if you are there on Halloween itself, you’re welcome to join one of two authentic Samhain Magic Circles, one on Salem Common, the other in Gallows Hill Park.
Losing your head in Sleepy Hollow
For nearly a quarter-century, the Westchester County village of Sleepy Hollow (formerly North Tarrytown) has gotten on its own high horse and ridden helter-skelter into Halloween, despite the fact that the folktale that got it all started, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, has nothing to do with Halloween, which was still decades away from even becoming “a thing.”
Among the highlights of the ever-widening web of spectral events and performances: daytime and evening tours of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where it all supposedly happened ($20 daytime, $25 evening); a dramatic recitation of “The Legend” inside the Old Dutch Church ($28 adults, $22 ages 3-17); daytime and evening activities at Sunnyside, Irving’s 1835 gingerbread house overlooking the Tappan Zee ($12 adults, $6 ages 3-17), and the separate immersive and interactive Sleepy Hollow Experience ($45 and up adults, $25 and up ages 3-17); The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze featuring 7,000 carved and illuminated pumpkins at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson ($22 or 27 adults, $16 or 20 ages 3-17); a new musical production of “The Legend” at the Irvington Town Hall Theater, Oct. 19-26 ($33 or $45); and last but definitely most scary, Horseman’s Hollow, the nightly macabre and demented landscape on the grounds of 18th-century Philipsburg Manor, featuring . . . well, you have a pretty good idea who. ($22 or $28, fast pass $15.)