Few countries celebrate Halloween like the United States. Every year, Americans spend billions of dollars on candy, decorations, costumes, and nights out. It is a time when mischievous children play pranks on one another, adults reminisce about their misspent youth, and communities come together and have some lighthearted fun.
While Halloween has become increasingly commercialized in recent years, a number of small towns and cities still offer their own community-driven festivities. These places have quaint Halloween traditions which are often overlooked by thrill seekers. But as the autumnal weather sweeps in, a number of small town attractions – from witchcraft expos to haunted hayrides – start to draw tourists in from around the world.
So, with the spooky season upon us once again, we take a look at some of the coolest (and strangest) Halloween traditions throughout America. An honorable mention must go to Georgetown University, whose students visit the local cemetery and start howling at the moon (the “Healy Howl”).
10 Pumpkin Boat Racing
The residents of Goffstown, New Hampshire, celebrate Halloween by paddling down a river in giant pumpkins. The unusual event kicks off with a pumpkin weigh-in. The oversized gourds, many of which weigh over 1000 pounds, are so heavy that winches are needed to lift them onto the scales.
The Pumpkin Regatta is the brainchild of Jim Beauchemin, pumpkin fanatic and founder of the New Hampshire Giant Pumpkin Growers Association. He recalls the moment he pitched the idea to event organizers in 2000: “So when I presented that idea to them, they kind of looked at each other and said this guy’s serious.” Fortunately, Beauchemin was given the green light. The first boat race attracted around 500 people, and the two-day event quickly spiraled in popularity.
After the weigh-in, the pumpkins are cut open and carved into something vaguely resembling a boat. The seeds are then scooped out and given back to the farmer, which are used for the next bumper crop of pumpkins. The teams, armed with a mountain of arts and craft supplies, set about decorating their makeshift vessels. From Sleepy Hollow’s headless horseman to The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Jack Skellington, the creepy boat designs can get pretty intricate. The boats are then hauled into the Piscataquog River, ready for the klaxon. During the 2018 regatta, one of the contestants dressed up as Harry Potter and stormed to victory aboard a Golden Snitch pumpkin.
9 Coffin Racing
Every Halloween, the locals of Manitou Springs build their own coffins to compete in the city’s annual coffin race. Each team is made up of five contestants, including four runners and one corpse (an “Emma”). The runners – dressed up as clowns, zombies, unicorns, Deadpools, and all manner of weirdness – push their caskets towards the finish line, along an uphill course. The event is preceded by the Parade of Coffins, where a procession of antique hearses makes its way through the streets of Manitou.
This bizarre spectacle is inspired by the death of a local woman. During the late 1800s, a Massachusetts girl named Emma Crawford contracted tuberculosis. Hoping the local mineral springs would improve Emma’s condition, the Crawford family moved to Manitou. Emma grew up to revere nature. She started climbing a local mountain (dubbed the “Red Chief”) after seeing an American Indian gesturing to her. Her fixation with the landmark became so intense that she chose the summit as her future burial place. Emma would die just two years after moving to the Colorado city. A dozen pallbearers took turns carrying her coffin up the mountain. The body remained buried for 40 years, until a freak storm dislodged Emma’s casket and sent it sailing down the mountain.
Manitou’s first coffin race took place in 1994. It is said the uphill course represents the mountain on which Emma was buried, with runners competing to see who can return their Emma in the quickest time. Awards are handed out for the best coffin design and fastest course times.
8 Pumpkin Rolling
In 1969, a group of high schoolers went around stealing pumpkins from local residents in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The pranksters loaded the pumpkins into a truck and tossed them down a steep road in the downtown area. The thefts plagued the small village for years as future generations of school children took up the mantle. But the controversial prank soon became something of a Halloween tradition.
Today, many residents leave their pumpkins out for the children to collect. By the end of October, a lorry full of gourds is ready for the hotly-anticipated Chagrin Falls Pumpkin Roll. The event, which is overseen by the local police department, kicks off at around midnight. Hundreds of pumpkins are hurled down Grove Hill, casting a shower of pumpkin seeds and guts into the street. The kids then slide down the pulp-strewn street on their sleds.
While the police seem OK with the Pumpkin Roll taking place, the mess is a different matter. The cops slap the children with a fine for illegal dumping, which is then used to pay for the ensuing clean-up operation. Undeterred, the children organize fundraisers to pay the fine.
7 Spooktacular Painting
Shopping in the small township of Freehold in October is an extraordinary experience. Stand in front of almost any storefront window in the downtown area and there, staring back, will be some sort of ghoulish imagery.
In the run up to Halloween, over 100 students from across the Freehold Regional High School District descend upon Main Street to paint the windows of local businesses. Braving New Jersey’s autumnal weather, the young artists spend hours painting their Halloween murals. Past entries have included a sharp-toothed Cheshire Cat from Alice In Wonderland, the murderous clown Pennywise, and a werewolf version of New Jersey legend Bruce Springsteen.
The Spooktacular Window Painting Contest dates all the way back to 1947. A local school teacher came up with the idea to stop miscreants from causing trouble. “There was a concern in town about the Halloween mischief damage done each year, cutting clothes lines and drawing on business windows, with wax being most popular,” explained one Freehold resident. “In 1947 it was decided to have a Halloween parade, a window painting contest and two Halloween parties in town to keep the children occupied in non-destructive activities.”
6 Paddleboarding Witches & Warlocks
Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith tale had this to say of the humble witch: “A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest… because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her”. The same could be said of the witches of California, who spend their downtime sailing across the peaceful waters of Morro Bay Harbor, cackling maniacally with each paddle.
Every October, spectators crowd the embarcadero and watch as hundreds of witches set sail for charity. The annual Witches and Warlock Paddle first started out as a birthday celebration among friends. “We have friends who have October birthdays, specifically Halloween and right before Halloween,” explained one of the coven’s initiates, Annette Ausseresses. “I also do punting and dragon boat paddling, and a lot of my teammates ask when the witches paddle was.” So, in an effort to raise money and food for the San Luis Obispo Food Bank, the locals don their pointy hats and put their paddleboards and kayaks to good use.
After the story hit the headlines, paddleboarding witches started to appear all over America. Halloween events are now held in the Florida Keys and Portland, Oregon. The Oregonian witches raise awareness of HIV by paddling six miles down the Willamette River, with clothing donations going to Our House of Portland.
5 The Kenova Pumpkin House
The Kenova Pumpkin House in West Virginia puts on an impressive 3,000-pumpkin display every Halloween. Hundreds of pumpkins are carved daily throughout October, with around a thousand volunteers donating their time to achieve this staggering feat. Processing so many pumpkins is no easy task, however, requiring coordination between carving, cutting, and washing stations.
The Pumpkin House is actually the home of Kenova’s former mayor, Ric Griffith. The 70-year-old pharmacist’s first display featured just five pumpkins. But that was way back in 1978. Griffith and his daughter now spend hours doodling designs on thousands of pumpkins, ready for the volunteers to start cutting. The entire community joins in with the festivities, with local schools donating pre-carved pumpkins and youngsters helping to scoop out the seeds.
A trail of pumpkins is carefully arranged along the porch and porch roof, spilling out onto the front yard. At the heart of the display lies a massive pumpkin wall that illuminates the entire house in a warm orange glow. According to Griffith, each pumpkin represents one of the city’s 3,000 residents. The Kenova Pumpkin House has become a tourist hotspot, attracting a whopping 30,000 visitors each year. The event gets so busy that food vendors often set up their stalls along the street.
4 The Skeletons Are Alive
This year marks Northville’s ninth annual “Skeletons Are Alive” event, where an army of the undead takes over the downtown area. Officials place over 100 skeleton displays around the Michigan city, recreating scenes from popular events, movies, and TV shows. Displays have ranged from the infamous White Walkers of Game of Thrones to John Goodman’s ashes speech in the Big Lebowski. Skeletons of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton even went head to head in a reenactment of the 2016 presidential debates.
This year, the local church erected its own display: a wedding of the damned, featuring a canine ring bearer. The church will give away a small prize to the winner of this year’s Skeleton Scavenger Hunt. The director of the Downtown Development Authority explained the appeal of Northville’s spooky display: “Every year people call in, just to see what the new skeletons are. They want to come down and check out what we’ve added.”
3 Thriller Flash Mobs
New Orleans goes all out for Halloween. Just before noon, choreographer Kenneth Bryan leads a dance troupe of zombies towards the steps of City Hall. The street, which city officials close every Halloween, heaves with crowds of revelers. The dancers slowly start to rise from the ground as familiar music pierces the silence. Donning a red leather jacket, Bryan channels his inner Michael Jackson to deliver an electric rendition of Thriller.
The routine involves weeks of intense choreography. Bryan holds special dance classes to train people from Louisiana and the surrounding states. He even tours the city, hosting dance lessons at the Children’s Museum and parts of the city’s legendary French Quarter. School children from across New Orleans often join the flash mob during later dances, and a separate teen dance takes place at the Gernon Brown Recreational Center.
Bryan practiced Michael Jackson’s dance moves as a youngster. He started the Thriller flash mob in 2013, in an effort to lift the community’s spirits. “I love that I have been able to dance everyday and share the love and joy of dancing like Michael Jackson,” he said.
2 Smashing Fridges and Cars with Giant Pumpkins
“Pumpkin drop day!” Those were the words of the President of the Pumpkin Grower’s Association Kyle Fox, as he plowed through a field of corn. One of his buddies, for reasons unknown, clung to the car roof like a frightened koala bear. With Fox and co at the helm of the annual Utah Giant Pumpkin Drop, anything can happen.
Thousands of spectators flood into Hee Haw Farm to watch giant pumpkins pulverize all manner of objects, including cars, fridges, and pianos. The behemoth squash is dropped from a height of 175 feet (around 14 stories), obliterating anything in its path. Children can then ride the crane lift and throw small pumpkins to their deaths. Some of the pumpkins are filled with ping pong balls, which attendees must chase to win prizes. But the pièce de résistance came at the end of the 2018 drop, when a car was dumped into a pumpkin-filled swimming pool.
The event is sponsored by the Giant Pumpkin Growers Association and helps raise money for March of Dimes. For every pumpkin dropped, $10 is donated to the nonprofit organization. “It’s a unique and fine opportunity to see 1,000 pounds of pumpkin drop out of the sky,” explained Matt McConkie, the reigning champion of the beehive state’s pumpkin weigh-off.
1 The Zombie Bike Ride
Every year, the Fantasy Fest Zombie Bike Ride attracts thousands of cyclists to Key West. Over 10,000 people in fancy dress took part in the event in 2019. The Roosevelt Boulevard comes alive with the sound of groaning zombies and cackling clowns. Participants like to get creative with their bike decorations, too. AT-ST walkers, child catcher cages, Oregon Trail wagons, and zombie dragons are just a few of the incredible designs on display.
The first Zombie Bike Ride was organized by the owners of a local bicycle store called WeCycle. The group decided to combine its love for everything Halloween with the city’s proud bike culture. “I love the Halloween spirit and I love the art, mysticism and supernatural celebration of Day of the Dead. It’s fun,” said WeCycle President Evan Haskell. “I usually dress up and walk into whatever face painting booth is available. I can’t believe how much the event has grown.”
The Key West Artisan Market hosts a pre-bike ride party. Bars and food stalls are littered along the shoreline and local musicians perform for the crowds. The party also raises awareness of various charitable causes. Last year’s featured charity was Little Pink Houses of Hope, which provides vacations for breast cancer patients and their families.