Friday, September 16, 2011

Raising the Spirits: Clermont at Halloween

Clermont State Historic Site seems to have been designed for Halloween. Coming down its bushy paths in the fall, the house looms ahead, its tall, slate roofs poking their way through the Hudson River fog. After dark, the isolated setting and twisting paths combine to create an eerie beauty that suggests the ambience of a 1920s silent horror movie. What’s that shadow over there? Was that a noise in the woods?

This year Clermont will embrace its spooky setting for its fifth year of Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours on October 21st & 22nd, and 29th & 30th. These tours are one of the highlights of the museum's season, introducing visitors to true, sad, and unusual tales of Clermont's long history. Tours run from 6:00 to 9:00, and tickets are $10 for adults and $4 for children.

Few visitors get the thrill of seeing Clermont after dark, because ordinarily the site’s gates close at dusk. It is only for rare events, like Independence Day or Christmas tours, that the grounds are open at night.

Visitors who come to Clermont for the Spook Tours will be asked to step into the year 1921, when Halloween was only just beginning to resemble our modern celebration. A brightly-adorned children’s party, complete with decorations recreated from period publications, will welcome guests intially. But 1920s mysticism goes awry when an attempt to speak to a long-lost ancestor calls back a host of Livingston ghosts! Ghosts who appear for the tour will share their stories of pirates, death in the dining room, portentious dreams, the 1777 house fire, and a pet cemetery. Stories for the Legends by Candlelight Spook Tour were researched in the museum’s archives and inspired by the many faces of Clermont’s portraits. Are the stories spookier because they’re true? Visitors will have to decide for themselves.

Exactly how the Livinsgstons of the 1920s celebrated Halloween cannot be known. They left us few records of the holiday. Two photographs exist that demonstrate their love for one tradition: carving jack-o-lanterns. Photographs from the 1910s and 1920s show the two Livingston daughters Janet and Honoria showing off their pumpkins with familiarly-toothy faces carved on them. Another image that could have been from Halloween shows the girls pearing into the eerie glow of Chinese lanterns, a common symbol of Halloween dating at least as far back as the 1880s.

Other information to re-create a 1920s Halloween at Clermont was drawn from magazines and handbooks that encouraged women of the day to decorate their houses with orange and black crepe paper and silhouettes of black cats and witches on broomsticks. The 1910s and 20s witnessed a surge of Halloween parafanalia, including special greeting cards, printed paper plates and napkins, and books that described fortune-telling games and scarey skits to liven up a party. Although trick-or-treating did not become a popular passtime until the 1930s, costumes were still fast becoming de riguer at the fashionable Halloween party.

Rehearsals for Clermont’s Spook Tours will begin in October, and community members interested in participating in a “spirited” interpretation of the museum’s history are encouraged to volunteer. Opportunities exist for acting, decorating, and more! Pumpkins entered in the Halloween Harvest Jack-o-Lantern Contest will also be displayed as part of the tour on Saturday night. For more information on the Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours, Jack-o-Lantern Contest, or the Halloween Harvest, call Kjirsten at (518) 537-4240 or visit

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