Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
These days, most of us see Halloween as an excuse to play dress-up, stay out late, and gorge ourselves on candy and spookiness. But, like most widely observed bacchanals, Halloween has fascinating roots in history that have been obscured by our modern interpretation of the holiday.
Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, during which observers would light bonfires and wear hair-raising costumes to scare ghosts away. It marked the time when summer had ended, harvest had been collected, and winter was dawning. Pope Gregory III made November 1st All Saints Day in the eighth century, and absorbed some of Samhain’s traditions in the process. The night before became known as All Hallows Eve, which then morphed into Halloween, and along the way, the festive fire play with costumes evolved into festive candy collecting with costumes.
We may be biased, but we think New York, with a long, rich history of ghosts, hauntings, and macabre spookiness, is one of the best places to get into the Halloween spirit. If you’re feeling daring, read on for our favorite creeptastic destinations this spooky season.
Start in New York City, which is rife with ghostly haunts.
PAUL’S CHAPEL (209 Broadway)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
St. Paul’s Chapel was built in 1766, but alongside it is a graveyard that dates all the way back to 1697. The chapel was opened as a “chapel-of-ease” for those who didn’t want to walk farther south to Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. St. Paul’s survived the Great Fire of 1776 thanks to a brigade of citizens who poured water from buckets on it. Several famous citizens — including George Washington — preferred it to all other churches in the city. In 2001 on 9/11, it became the site of an around-the-clock relief ministry to rescue and recovery workers. Come for the history, but stay for the eeriness. One infamous alleged specter is English actor and gambling fiend George Frederick Cooke, who was buried there in the 17th century. During one of his gambling bouts, he sold his (future) dead head to research, and now his headless ghost has been reported wandering the graveyard and nearby streets.
POE’S HAUNT (85 West 3rd Street)
Edgar Allen Poe lived here for eight months between 1844 and 1845 and produced some of his iconic masterpieces, including The Cask of Amontillado and The Raven. His home was partially demolished when New York University constructed Furman Hall, but some of it remains, including part of the 19th century brick façade. Students have sworn they’ve seen Poe’s ghost climbing the stairs of the building, which sounds like the beginning to a good Poe story.
JAMESIAN SPOOKS (29 East 4th Street)
Photo: Merchant's House Museum
Dubbed “Manhattan’s Most Haunted House” by the New York Times, the Merchant’s House Museum delights in its terrifying ghost. The museum is located in a home the Tredwell family occupied for almost a century. The museum’s mission is to shed light on their privileged domestic lives during the 19th century -- and does it ever! Gertrude Tredwell, born in an upstairs room in 1840, the last of eight children, was widely believed to live a cosseted, restrained life typical of a spinster. Her story was said to be the basis of Henry James’ Washington Square Park. When she died in 1933 at age 93, she couldn’t bear to leave. Strange sights, allegedly of Tredwell wandering the home, unexplainable smells, alarming sounds without a source, have all been reported.
THE MANHATTAN WELL (129 Spring Street)
In 1800, a woman named Gulielma Sands was found at the bottom of the Manhattan well, dead. One of the biggest scandals in New York City history unfolded, with Levi Weeks being tried for her murder. He was accused of impregnating her, promising to marry her and then killing her. But as the brother of successful builder Ezra Weeks, Levi had access to a powerful network of fixers. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were among those who represented Weeks, and he was acquitted in the face of widespread outrage. While reports of hauntings are scant, the corner (now home to Swedish brand COS) has become a reminder to many of the sexism and elitism still affecting the judicial system today.
GRAVE PARK (West 4th Street)
Though Washington Square Park has become known as the best place in the city to play a serious game of chess, it was once a burial ground. During horrific yellow fever outbreaks in 1791 and 1821, it became a mass grave. In 1827, it became an official park, but human body parts — and hauntings — have been reported multiple times. As recently as 2015, archeologists uncovered human remains.
Ready to leave the Big Apple? It just gets scarier!
THE SAGAMORE (110 Sagamore Road, Bolton Landing)
Consistently one of the highest-rated resorts in the country, The Sagamore Resort on Lake George has a storied history dating back to the 1880s. Secluded on a private 70-acre island amid the regal splendor of the Adirondacks, it has hosted celebrities, dignitaries, and the regular-old semi-elite with legendary hospitality and pampering. Along with the award-winning, 18-hole, Donald Ross-designed golf course, water and land activities, top-flight food and wine, luxe accommodations, you may run into some supernatural apparitions. Look out for a ghostly pair of lovebirds in the restaurant, a woman wearing a pink dress on the porch, an elevator phantom, and a childish prankster ghost on the greens.
BANNERMAN CASTLE (An island in the Hudson River)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The idea of going to an unpopulated island in the middle of the Hudson River, and one that harbors an ornate and abandoned castle is creepy, even without supernatural ooginess. But the island on which Bannerman Castle resides has swirled with rumors of hauntings even before Frank Bannerman IV erected it in the early 1900s. Native Americans avoided it, and so did early colonialists. Now, it’s a frequent stopping place for curious antique and architecture buffs; it hosts musical and theatrical performances and tours; and it remains a must-visit for anyone looking for encounters with the other side.
WOODLAWN CEMETERY (1200 Walnut Street, Elmira)
Elmira’s haunted past comes to life at Woodlawn Cemetery, especially during the month of October, when notable tenants like Mark Twain “appear” to tour-goers. Several members of Congress are also buried here, as were Confederate prisoners from nearby Elmira Prison (a.k.a. “Hellmira”), ex-slave and sexton John W. Jones, former Governor Lucius Robinson, and Twain’s wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens. The lantern-lit tours sell out every year, so book ahead.
If you want to gorge on paranormal activity, the Haunted History Trail in the Hudson Valley is the best way to do it. Visitors learn about the great spirits invoked by Native American tribes, events that occurred during early Dutch colonial times, ghost hunts by investigative teams and just garden variety hauntings.
What’s your favorite way to celebrate Halloween: do you seek out the ghosts and goblins, or just try to score the best candy?