October 31, 2013

Ghosts, Ghouls, and Goblins: Halloween Thrills at National Treasures

Lyndhurst entryway at Halloween. Credit: Krystyn Silver
Lyndhurst entryway at Halloween

Creaking stairs, mysterious drafts, and flickering lights are year-round attractions at most historic houses. And there’s no better time than Halloween to celebrate those things that make chills run down your spine.

This year, three of the National Trust's former and current National Treasures sites -- Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, N.Y.; the Village of Zoar in Zoar, Ohio; and Haas-Lilienthal Housein San Francisco -- are going all-out for the spookiest time of year, presenting Halloween-inspired tours and sharing stories sure to raise a few goosebumps.

But these events do more than make the hairs on the backs of visitors’ necks stand on end. They’re also an opportunity to draw new audiences to old sites.

"We already have a lot of locals who come here, but this is a way for us to build visibility by creating a fun, approachable event that draws new people from all over into our house," says Laura Dominguez of Haas-Lilienthal House, a 19th century mansion offering a special Halloween-inspired tour. "We hope they’ll be inspired to come back and take our ‘normal’ history tours."

As we celebrate All Hallows’ Eve, we’ll take you on a quick tour across the country to see how these three sites invite you to celebrate the Halloween season … that is, if you dare.


The asymmetrical towers, turrets, and pinnacles at Lyndhurst, a sprawling 19th-century Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y., lend the site a spooky feel year-round. (There’s a reason two Dark Shadows movies were filmed there.)

Lyndhurst exterior at Halloween. Credit: Krystyn Silver
Lyndhurst at Halloween

Throughout the entire month of October, the site offers plenty of Halloween fun for the whole family, day and night -- and costumes are always welcome. During the day, guests can tour the mansion, which is decked out in festive fall decorations, for what Krystyn Silver, Lyndhurst’s preservation manager, calls "a history tour with a twist."

An added bonus? Visitors can see items from the site’s collection normally stowed away in storage.

“We have more than 11,000 items in our collection, so we love to use the holidays as a chance to bring out objects that aren’t normally on view,” says Silver, who has had her own mysterious experiences at Lyndhurst -- like responding to alarms that go off in the middle of the night, only to find no one there.

And for the ninth year, the Scarecrow Invasion Field at Lyndhurst features hundreds of scarecrows around the property created by local school groups and businesses. All clothing worn by the scarecrows is donated to local charity organizations.

Lyndhurst's Scarecrow Invasion at Halloween. Credit: Krystyn Silver
Lyndhurst's Scarecrow Invasion

Come nightfall, Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities (a play on the name of one of the mansion’s former owners, railroad magnate Jay Gould) takes visitors on a completely different tour of the mansion, introducing a frightful cast of characters and the kind of music designed to make your skin crawl. Visitors can also take horse-drawn carriage rides through the scarecrow field and catch screenings of the Dark Shadows movies, playing on continuous loop in the visitors’ center.

Can’t make it to this year’s events? Not to worry. Halloween always promises plenty of hair-raising events in Lyndhurst and its neighbor, Sleepy Hollow (yes, that Sleepy Hollow).

"We’re already thinking about what we want to do next year," Silver says.

Visit lyndhurst.org for more information on these spook-tacular events, which run through Nov. 3.

Village of Zoar

With the changing leaves, crisp fall breezes, and the scent of apple cider in the air, the Village of Zoar is never more beautiful than it is in October. Or creepier.

Halloween decorations in the Village of Zoar. Credit: Andy Donaldson
Halloween decorations in the Village of Zoar

Some say you can still hear crying coming from the old Boys Dormitory, which once served as communal housing for young children in the village, and is now a private residence. Then there’s George, the ghost of a man who, while traveling down the Ohio and Erie Canal, fell ill and died in the Canal Tavern of Zoar, a hotel and tavern dating back to 1829. A mischievous spirit, George haunts the Canal Tavern today, knocking objects off shelves, stealing pots and pans, and pulling pranks on the tavern’s staff and customers.

The Village of Zoar, founded by a group of German Separatists escaping religious persecution in their homeland in 1817, was a thriving communal settlement for 80 years. Today, the remarkably well-preserved village features museums, shops, inns, and numerous public events throughout the year.

Ghost tour in the Village of Zoar. Credit: The Zoar Community Association
Ghost tour in the Village of Zoar

And this past weekend, at the Village of Zoar’s fourth annual Ghost Tours, visitors were led through the village, down the alleyways, and into the cellars of the centuries-old buildings by costumed guides and re-enactors who shared Zoar’s history as well as its more bone-chilling tales.

"Zoar, with the buildings that are more than 200 years old, and are so big and overbearing, really lends itself to creepiness at night," says Jenny Donato, the executive director of the Zoar Community Association, which hosted the sold-out event. (In fact, the Ghost Tours have been sold out every year since they began.)

To learn more about the Village of Zoar, visit historiczoarvillage.com.

Haas-Lilienthal House

It’s rumored that the chauffeur still roams the halls of San Francisco’s Haas-Lilienthal House, an 1886 Queen Anne-style Victorian mansion in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood.

Haas-Lilienthal House, exterior and staircase. Credits: 3dpete, Flickr; Jason Whittaker, Flickr.
Haas-Lilienthal House

Visitors to the house this past weekend tried to catch a glimpse of this lingering guest and the other spooky apparitions at the site’s first-ever Mayhem Manor: Twisted Tours of Terror, a Halloween tour that enlightens visitors on the architectural and cultural history of the house, while introducing a few thrilling tales (and scares) as well.

"The tour features residents from the house’s past who, for one reason or another, refuse to leave," says Laura Dominguez, communications and programs manager at San Francisco Heritage, the nonprofit group that is headquartered in Haas-Lilienthal House and is hosting this Halloween event.

Haas-Lilienthal’s house manager Heather Kraft conceived of the event, writing, casting, and directing the tour while also designing many of the sets. She credits the positive support of San Francisco Heritage’s staff, board, and docents for making Mayhem Manor happen.

Haas-Lilienthat House, interior. Credit: Jason Whittaker, Flickr
Inside the Haas-Lilienthal House

"Visitors can expect it to be a combination of theater, horror, improvisational comedy, psychological terror, and old-fashioned fun," Kraft says. "The goal is to keep it fresh for each [tour] group and hopefully give people something a little different than the typical contemporary haunted house that relies so heavily on gruesome scenes of gore."

Kraft says she found inspiration from the nine years she and her husband have spent living in the house.

"There have been more than a few ‘bumps in the night,'" she says. "Inexplicable electrical outages, mysteriously misplaced objects, and many movements in my peripheral view. I can’t explain any of it."

If you find yourself in the neighborhood tonight, a final Halloween tour is running from 7 to 10 p.m. All proceeds from this event benefit San Francisco Heritage.

For more information about the organization, or Haas-Lilienthal House, visit www.sfheritage.org.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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