Horseman Courses

The recent passing of nonagenarian Angela Lansbury left me in a nostalgic mood, and sent me back to a childhood favorite–the hit mystery series Murder, She Wrote. And what better episode to start a re-watch with than the series’ most Halloween-centric installment: season 3’s “Night of the Headless Horseman.” As signaled by the title, the episode riffs on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A love triangle is drawn at a Vermont private school, as the nerdy schoolteacher Dorian Beecher and the bullying riding instructor Nate Findley compete for the affections of Sarah Dupont, the headmaster’s daughter. Walking toward a covered bridge at night, Dorian is twice menaced by the eponymous goblin (whom Dorian believes to be Nate in disguise), once having a jack-o’-lantern hurled at him. On the morning after the second run-in, the body of the dispatched Nate is found (in surely the series’ most grisly turn) with his decapitated head missing from the crime scene. As always, Jessica Fletcher solves the murder and exonerates her friend Dorian in this witty, Irving-evoking episode.

While getting ready to write this post, I came across a strangely related item in my Facebook feed. It was an ad for the Headless Horseman Equestrian Event on October 30th in Montague, New Jersey. According to the Halloween attraction’s Eventbrite page, this is an “Interactive Archery/Swordplay and Horseback Riding Event,” in which participants (“Costumes Encouraged!”) can “Fight the Horseman!” Sounds like there won’t be any cravenly flights by Ichabod Crane-types in this neck of the woods…


Inside Scoop

The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, forms one of the brightest shrines in our Macabre Republic. This seasonal event serves as a fiery beacon to Halloween lovers, guiding them into autumnal pilgrimage (which I feel blessed to have made on three different occasions over the years). Alas, I didn’t purchase tickets for a 2022 outing, but the next best thing to an actual visit is watching this short video, titled “Get the Inside Scoop on Blaze: Hudson Valley.” Teeming with images of the Blaze’s displays, the video also delves beneath the rind to show how this pumpkin wonderland is realized every fall by carving artists and creative designers.


[Haunted Overload in Lee, New Hampshire]

Hi folks. I just wanted to highlight a new feature I’ve added to the sidebar of this website’s home page. It’s called “Dark-Tripping Through the Macabre Republic,” and provides a series of links for actual places to visit all across Gothic America (many of them I have yet to experience, so this also serves as my own Macabre Republic bucket list). I won’t pretend that this listing is exhaustive; if there are any prime spots that you would recommend adding to it, please let me know.


Even Pulpier Fiction: Reconsidering the Recursive Structure of Trick ‘r Treat

While being interviewed for the documentary “Trick ‘r Treat: The Lore and Legends of Halloween,” producer Bryan Singer alliteratively high-concepts Mike Dougherty’s film as “Crash meets Creepshow.” As an anthology horror film–one that employs comic-book-style opening credits–Trick ‘r Treat certainly mimics George Romero’s 1982 film (the zombie look of the kids who drowned in the Halloween School Bus Massacre in Trick ‘r Treat also recalls the vengeful revenants in the “Something to Tide You Over” segment of Creepshow). With its ensemble cast of characters whose narratives intersect in life-changing ways, Trick ‘r Treat also pairs well with Crash. Director Paul Haggis’s Academy-Award-winning picture, though, only plays minimally with chronology. The better comparison might be with a film that pushes the envelope further in terms of nonlinear (fragmented and looping) narrative structure: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino and Dougherty similarly suffuse their respective films with macabre humor and lurid imagery. Both Pulp Fiction and Trick ‘r Treat are quite self-conscious in their referencing of other movies. For example, Trick ‘r Treat pays ongoing homage to Halloween, from the use of behind-the-mask subjective camera work to Brian Cox modeling the appearance of his Mr. Kreeg character on John Carpenter (Kreeg’s incredulous ejaculation [when encountering the resilient Halloween demon Sam], “You gotta be fucking kidding me” also echoes a line from another Carpenter effort, The Thing). Pulp Fiction (with its oddly philosophical and profanely witty hitmen, Jules and Vincent) and Trick ‘r Treat also compare in their featuring of anti-heroes as main characters. As a stern enforcer of the rules of Halloween, Sam can be likened to Tarantino’s gangsters punishing those who violate the code of the criminal underworld.

One of the quirks of a looping narrative structure that recurs to earlier moments in the timeline is that a character already killed off returns onscreen. Most notably, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega is gunned down in the middle of Pulp Fiction but is still up and walking around in the closing scene. Likewise, the Halloween-hater Emma is dispatched by Sam in the opening of Trick ‘r Treat yet is later seen alive once again as the film circles back to the street parade earlier that evening. Such dynamic proves thematically appropriate to Trick ‘r Treat, since Halloween is a night known for blurring the lines between the living and the dead. As school principal/chocolate-poisoner Steven Wilkins (who resembles real-life murderer Ronald “The Candy Man” Clark O’Bryan) lectures to Charlie, “This is the one night when the dead and all sorts of things roam free and pay us a visit.” For sure, supernatural figures roam free in Trick ‘r Treat, penetrating other stories and proving alpha-predators (as seen when pseudo-vampire Steven attempts to pounce on the wrong victim and suffers comeuppance at the jaws of actual werewolf Danielle).

Guising is another familiar element of the October 31st holiday, and this, too, ties in to the narrative structure of Trick ‘r Treat. Masked tricksters run rampant in the Ohio town of Warren Valley, just as the film itself playfully jumps around between stories that ultimately are shown to overlap. Seeming trick-or-treater Sam (beneath his burlap mask lies an eldritch Halloween avatar) embodies this shiftiness as he pops up throughout in observance of various scenes of mayhem, and then in the climax performs acts of grim mischief himself against the beleaguered Mr. Kreeg. Dressed as a pajamaed child, Sam might look innocent, but he’s a violent menace to anyone lacking in holiday spirit. As Brian Cox narrates in the above-mentioned documentary, “Trick ‘r Treat‘s interconnected tales remind us that on Halloween, identity is as fluid as fog, and even the gentlest soul can shapeshift into a vicious killer.”

Trick ‘r Treat‘s chronological quirks succeed in drawing viewers back into the film. Throwaway lines and minor details (e.g., eating “bad Mexican,” “Sheep’s Meadow”) assume added significance in retrospect. The film encourages repeated viewings, which create new insights. I pop in the DVD every October, but it wasn’t until my most recent viewing that I noticed the man in the hot dog costume forming one of the werewolves’ victims (presumably this is Coach Taylor, last seen humping a pig-outfitted woman at Mrs. Henderson’s party; another adult guilty of hyper-sexualzing Halloween appears to have been fatally baited by the werewolf girls in risque costume).

At a swift 82 minutes, Trick ‘r Treat has half the run time of Pulp Fiction, but proves twice as committed to recursive techniques. Dougherty’s film makes its interweaving/backtracking intentions known earlier and more often. Tarantino’s revered vehicle has garnered plenty of attention for its permutation of cinematic narrative form, but the crafty complexity of Trick ‘r Treat no doubt deserves further appreciation.


Sleepy Hollow Threesome

What better way to celebrate the Halloween season than with a trip to Sleepy Hollow, New York? Last weekend I did just that, seeing a trio of terrific attractions.

First up: an afternoon tour of the Lyndhurst Mansion, the Gothic Revival marvel that provided the exterior shots of Collinwood in the original Dark Shadows TV series. The mansion was dressed up for the season inside and out, creating a wonderful atmosphere even in daytime (at night, Lyndhurst stages “Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities”; this year’s event brings the murder-mystery game Clue to life). One of the surprising things I learned on the tour is just how faux the mansion is in its design (e.g. the dining room walls are painted to have the appearance of wallpaper), such fakery being en vogue at the time of its construction.

Nightfall brought a second excursion: the chiaroscuro splendor of a lantern-lit tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. This two-hour walk-through offered ultimate ambiance as well as vigorous exercise (along the cemetery’s sloping and mostly-unpaved pathways). Stops along the way included Washington Irving’s gravesite and the actual mausoleum used for Carolyn’s funeral scene in House of Dark Shadows (we found a special surprise waiting for us when we were allowed to venture inside). For me, one of the highlights of the night was visiting the burial place of lesser-known poet Francis Saltus Saltus and learning of his macabre poem “The Delights of Doom.” Our tour guide, Sandy, was simply amazing; she brimmed with enthusiasm and personality as she showed us the sights and regaled us with tales. I wholeheartedly recommend requesting her if you ever decide to take one of the cemetery’s tours.

The evening concluded with a crossing over to the Horseman’s Hollow haunted attraction on the grounds of Philipsburg Manor. The actors sported splendid make-up and were positively fiendish in their performances. Although lacking the grand scale of the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York (reviewed here), Horseman’s Hollow is an enjoyable haunt, presenting good sets (I particularly liked the ghoulish schoolhouse) and genuine scares. The attraction was a bit difficult to access, in terms of parking and finding the entrance, but the long walk to it down a barely-lit beaten path proved just as eerie as anything encountered inside.

These three attractions formed a perfect trifecta of fall entertainment, and don’t even cover everything there is to experience in Sleepy Hollow. If the opportunity to make a trip there ever presents itself, I encourage you to race over there quicker than Ichabod on a midnight dash.

Scareful Measures

This past week, I was able to cross off an item that has long been listed on my Halloween Season bucket list: a trip to the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, New York. After finally experiencing the vaunted attraction firsthand, I can happily report that its renown is well deserved.

The night journey began with the hayride, which delivered plenty of thrills. As the riders sat with legs dangling off the sides of the wagon bed, we were brought frightfully close to the woodsy scene and the various sets adorning the trail. Spooks cropped up from every angle, but what completed the immersive experience was the ongoing narration about the Headless Horseman (who shows up both in saddle and on foot). My only complaint was that the hayride guide on our particular wagon droned her lines in such monotone voice, she made Ferris Bueller’s teacher sound like a revivalist preacher.

Next patrons had to navigate a series of themed haunts, including the Lunar Motel, the Horseman’s Tomb, and Two Raven’s Manor. I was dazzled by the darkly gorgeous arrangements, the grandness of their scale and their attention to fine detail. The scenes are nirvana for avid home-haunters, and if not for the slew of harrying actors hurrying visitors along, I would have been content to just stop and admire the incredible decorating.

Probably my favorite portion of the whole attraction was the corn maze; this agricultural labyrinth proved ripe with creepy ambiance. Uncanniness abounded, as the travelers could never quite be sure if the figures lurking in the stalks were mere props or momentary mimes waiting to spring into startling action. Timely as it was terrifying, the maze also managed to scare the It into people via the simple placement of a singular red balloon.

When respite from the terrors became necessary, there was an entertaining outdoor stage show conducted by illusionist Ryan Dutcher. The gift shops teemed with stunning (if steeply priced) decorations. And the titular treats of the Deadly Donuts cafe were truly to die for.

All in all, the event made for a memorable autumn evening. For anyone residing within a few hours’ drive of the Historic Hudson Valley, I highly recommended heading out to the Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses.