Long before Halloween became the commercial bonanza it is, there really were things that went bump in the night -- sinister local happenings that were popularly attributed to resident witches, goblins and devilish creatures. Over time, these folkloric apparitions were absorbed into the expanding ranks of Halloween ghoulies, with the result that contemporary chill seekers now boldly go where their superstitious forebears feared to tread. In that perverse pursuit, Long Islanders are wickedly lucky: Three of America's most historic haunting grounds are within 250 miles.
And don't forget: Halloween is supposed to be scary. Minimum ages -- either required or recommended -- exist for many of the events mentioned below, so check before you go.
HOW FAR 240 miles northeast of Manhattan
No place is more associated with witches than Salem, and for decades history-seeking tourists have come to take in the sites, museums and theatrical productions based upon the infamous witch trials of 1692. Among the more enlightening are the Salem Witch Museum (978-744-1692, salemwitchmuseum.com, $9 adults, $6 ages 6-14) with its narrated tableaus; the Witch Dungeon Museum (978-741-3570, witchdungeon.com, $8 adults, $6 ages 4-13) with its wax figures; and the Witches Cottage (978-825-0222, witchescottagesalem.com, $10 adults, $6 ages 4-13; after 5 p.m., $12 and $8) with its professional actors and special effects.
But come October, the masses descend upon Witch City to revel in Haunted Happenings, a monthlong concatenation of all things Halloweenish (defined loosely enough to include vampires, zombies and Jason), whose dozens of activities collectively draw upward of 250,000. The lineup includes parades, costume balls, cabarets, haunted houses, harbor cruises, dramatic re-creations, a carnival and a coven of ghost, murder and paranormal tours -- truly something for everyone, from easily frightened preschoolers to unflappable young adults.
And while there weren't any witches in Salem in 1692, there are now, and many make their living demonstrating their art and peddling their wares.
For a basic introduction, follow a Wicca guide through the Salem Witch Village (978-740-2929, salemwaxmuseum.com, $8 adults, $6 ages 4-13), which depicts the evolution of witchcraft from medieval times. Load up on potions and witch paraphernalia at Crow Haven Corner (125 Essex St.), Hex (246 Essex St.), or Nu Aeon (88 Wharf St.), or delve deeper into black magic, the psychic and the occult at the annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo in Museum Place Mall. And if you're in town 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.
INFO 877-725-3662, hauntedhappenings.org
Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
HOW FAR 30 miles north of Manhattan
For 17 years now, the Historic Hudson Valley organization has been capitalizing on the enduring popularity of Washington Irving's early 19th century masterpiece "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- the story of how Ichabod Crane, a gangly itinerant schoolmaster with his eye keenly focused on Katrina Van Tassel's inheritance, comes to grief at the hands of his rival, Brom Bones, and the all-too-real "ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannonball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War."
Younger children are the focus of "Legend Celebration" on the grounds of Sunnyside, Irving's 1835 gingerbread home overlooking the "broad bosom of the Tappan Zee." The daytime event features puppets, magicians, live music and hands-on 18th century harvest-time activities. Costumes are encouraged ($14 adults, $8 ages 3-17).
Literary purists will want to be both physically and spiritually present on the nights when professional raconteur Jonathan Kruk, replete in 18th century garb and accompanied by suitably evocative organ music, recites "Irving's Legend" by candlelight inside the 1685 Old Dutch Church, the very sanctuary sought in vain by Ichabod Crane that fateful night ($16 adults, $12 under age 18).
For the more daring, there's Horseman's Hollow at 18th century Philipsburg Manor, where a gruesome gaggle of the dead, evil and hopelessly insane beset nocturnal travelers along a haunted trail and maze in "a town driven mad by the Headless Horseman." Elaborate costumes, makeup and special effects add to the macabre extravaganza that is not for the young or faint of heart ($20 a person, $25 on Saturdays).
INFO These attractions all run weekends Oct. 6-28, but dates, times and prices vary, with both Kruk's "Legend" recital and Horseman's Hollow requiring advance tickets. For specific information and tickets, contact Historic Hudson Valley, 914-631-8200, hudsonvalley.org.
The pine barrens of southern New Jersey
HOW FAR 110 miles south of Manhattan
As the most popular version of the story has it, either Mrs. Leeds or Mrs. Shourds, both of Leeds Point, was so distressed to learn of her 13th pregnancy in 1735 that she exclaimed in exasperation, "Then let it be the devil!" She got her wish, giving birth to a kangaroolike creature -- face of a horse, head of a dog, wings of a bat, horns and a tail -- that promptly flew out the window and began terrorizing southern New Jersey.
Over the years, several thousand people have claimed to have seen the indestructible Jersey Devil (the nation's only official state demon), including more than 100 during a particularly demonic week in January 1909. After a recent period of relative calm, sightings are expected to surge again, prompted by the release this past Friday of "The Barrens," a new horror movie "starring" you know who.
Although the Jersey Devil has no historical relationship to Halloween, it's then that he generally receives the most public attention. This year that confluence will be marked by two guided walks through his native pine barrens. From 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27, a ranger at Wharton State Forest will lead a Jersey Devil Bound walk and talk. After an informative introductory talk around a campfire, the group heads into the darkling woods in search of traces of the elusive demon (free; meets at Batsto Historic Village; for information, call 609-567-4559).
For the more detail-oriented and physically fit, New Jersey Conservation Foundation staff member Chris Jage escorts participants on an eight-mile Jersey Devil Hike to Leeds Point, his alleged birthplace and the scene of his earliest escapades. The five-hour hike begins at 9 a.m. Oct. 28. (To reserve a spot, register at njconservation.org or call 908-234-1225; $5 a person donation requested.)