That’s how Jim Johnson described Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.” The 1820s short story is the inspiration for the grand finale of sorts at Hallowe’en at Greenfield Village – where visitors cross the bridge and encounter the infamous Headless Horseman.
Irving’s story, Gothic literature, legends and other spooky tales are fundamental elements for much of the fun at Greenfield Village’s annual Halloween event.
“After the renovations to Greenfield Village, we decided to lift our Halloween event to a new level,” said Jim Johnson, who is senior manager of creative programs at The Henry Ford. “With the village as our backdrop, we wanted to find our own niche that had something for everyone and was family friendly.”
Just being in the village at night is a unique experience, and it provides the perfect setting for a Halloween event inspired by the past.
Jim said they looked at how the holiday evolved. “We found interesting things about how the celebration of Halloween changed over time,
“Customs started to take shape toward the at the end of the 19th century and almost click through a process that takes us to where we are today - where we decorate our homes and go house-to-house for trick or treating.”
Coming into the 20th century, Halloween wasn’t necessarily a kids’ holiday – other than they commonly pulled pranks like knocking over outhouses, putting wagons on rooftops, etc., Jim said. In order to curb the kids’ enthusiasm for a little mayhem, municipalities got into the action by planning themed parties and offering games and treats as a diversion from the destruction.
To meet the party trend, at the turn of the century and into the 1920s and 30s, there were a multitude of Halloween party guides and booklets published mostly by women, and candy and novelty companies.
A popular inexpensive resource was Dennison’s Bogie Books. Dennison’s sold crepe paper used to decorate and make costumes. Jim Johnson keeps these reproductions on hand for reference and inspiration.
Adventure stories and Gothic literature were popular at that time and have sustained elevated interest at Halloween time. Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventures of buccaneers and buried gold in Treasure Island continues to inspire as seen in recent movie tales of tropical pirating. At Greenfield Village, pirates with sensibilities old and new populate the Suwanee Lagoon and walk among visitors, giving them a taste what it might be like conversing with an 1880s-style high seas treasure seeker.
With a nod to Gothic literature, Dr. Frankenstein has a perfect workspace - setting up shop in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory.
Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein still holds the attention of audiences today, even though the book was first published in the early 1800s.
Another famous character from Gothic literature is making his debut at the village this year. A silent film based on Bram Stoker’s 1887 Dracula is shown near Sarah Jordan Boarding House.
Visitors are captivated by the large projections of the 1922 vampire film Nosferatu (Dracula).
Works of the master of the macabre – Edgar Allen Poe – are highlighted in two prominent stops.
The ravens resting on the railing at Eagle Tavern are treated to the eerie tale twice: narrated once by a famous actor and once by a fictitious man. Visitors can hear the chilling story told by actor Christopher Walken and again by cartoon character Homer Simpson.
Poe makes another appearance near Town Hall where actor Anthony Lucas provides a mesmerizingly haunting performance of the mad man at the center of the Tell-Tale Heart.
A first person account of the Brother’s Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel (with a surprise twist) keeps audiences of all ages intrigued.
Throughout the village – authentically or whimsically – many costume creations are inspired by characters from famous stories of old. Hunchbacks, witches, Little Red Riding Hood, mermaids, fortunetellers, strong men, Merlin the Magician...
… and even a character from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.
Near the end of trick-or-treating through the village, visitors can take a seat and listen to the tale that sets the scene for the remainder of their journey – through the dark candle-lit tangles of the Mulberry Grove (not-too-hauntingly) transformed into Sleepy Hallow.
Actor Seth Amadei gives a riveting account of the series of events that led up to the mysterious disappearance of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.
Visitors just have to pass through the hallow and over the bridge …
Hallowe’en at Greenfield Village - inspired by old, new, mystical, whimsical and just the right amount of spooky.
Sunday is – at long last - the day we head to Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village. I say “at long last” because the countdown to the next Halloween pretty much starts while our kids are inspecting their candy haul from making the neighborhood rounds.
Our littlest goblin can’t wait to see the “gary gelletons.” Those glowing and dancing skeletons in the gazebo near the covered bridge made a quite a lasting impression during last year’s visit. I recorded a bit of their performance on my phone, and hands-down that clip is the most revisited video in my mobile library. Clifford, now three, has watched it countless times. Whenever he sees it, he feigns frightful shivers, and as much as he enjoyed the video, we enjoyed his reaction. (So thanks to The Henry Ford for that little gift that just kept on giving.) Whenever we pass that gazebo during summer visits to the village, he reminds me of those bony, xylophone-playing dancers.
I took my son Henry to the village Saturday to watch the plowing with the 1904 Port Huron Steam Engine and Percheron horses at Firestone. It was chilly, so we decided to head to Eagle Tavern to get warm and have lunch. (I’m always ready for an excuse to stop in for Squash Soup and an order of Bubble and Squeak.) Henry pointed out some of the decorations already in place for Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village.
“These look different in the daytime,” he said looking at the headstones arranged on the Village Green. Then he noted that the coffin looked “too new.” He said he thought it should look more worn. When I explained to him that a fresh pine coffin meant a fresh body, I learned that even in broad daylight a fake cemetery can move a shudder through the shoulders of a 10-year-old boy.
With each year, even as the older kids know some of what to expect, they seem to anticipate it with excitement and a little nervousness.
We have so many fond memories. Our 20-year-old still tells the story of when she was little and was so mesmerized by the huge bonfire that she completely missed the silent Grim Reaper - until he was right in front of her. Her ridiculous reaction was anything but silent, and we still laugh about it.
We also look forward to being inspired by some of the more 900 jack-o-lanterns that light the village since we’ve yet to carve ours.
Our kids are good historians of our visits over the years. They always keenly look for their favorite things, seeing what’s replaced what, what costumes are new, what vignettes are different or have been moved, etc. It seems someone always misses something, since there is so much to see. I look forward to the discussion on the ride home.
I know, my daughter looks slightly petrified in this photo – but have no fear – she can’t wait to see the Headless Horseman again this year. She’s determined she won’t be the slightest bit frightened.
A few weeks back, I had the opportunity sit down with Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programs at The Henry Ford, and learn about a few changes in which I’m sure my kids and others will delight. I can’t wait to see what he described and see my children’s reactions.
But until then, mum’s the word. Or maybe even Dracula is the word. Who knows? Should be exciting with just the right amount of spooky and not-too-scary fun.