By Kari Miller
October is undoubtedly one of the loveliest months of the year in these parts. As the dog days of summer give way to crisp mornings and pleasant sleeping weather, we begin the transition to a more inward and introspective time. We celebrate the harvest with delicious soups and hot apple cider and enjoy the brilliant show of fall leaves. And then, of course, there is Halloween.
Halloween is the second highest grossing commercial holiday in America (Christmas is first), with Americans spending $6 billion annually on candy, costumes and decorations. This popularity is easy to explain, I think. The holiday melds ancient, non-Christian traditions with the solemnity of All Saints Day in a heady mix that has something for everyone. The celebration can be as fun or funky, goofy or ghoulish, silly or sacred as we wish to make it; and yet, one way or another, it brings us face-to-face with that most universal and compelling of human mysteries: death.
Here in the Greater Hartford AGO we celebrate in pretty light-hearted fashion with our annual “Pipescreams” Halloween extravaganza. AGO chapters all over the country, as well as many college music departments, hold similar events, some quite elaborate. The Halloween/All Saints Day Concert put on by The US Naval Academy, featuring the organ, is billed as an over-the-top show of music, light, drama and dance, “celebrating the triumph of good over evil.” Obligatory on every concert, of course, is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the “unofficial theme-song of Halloween,” but beyond that, there are plenty of other great pieces, both original and in transcription, to entertain an audience and demonstrate the organ’s wide range of expressive possibilities from dramatic to quirky to creepy.
I was a bit surprised to discover that there are also a fair number of churches that put on a regular Halloween show. For instance, Old South Church in Boston presents an annual “Scared for Good” organ concert “sure to rattle your bones,” benefitting a local food pantry. Perhaps one of the more unusual church events I came across (organ-less, alas) is the “Fright Night” presented by Church of St. Andrew, a historic Episcopal church on Staten Island. Held not in the church proper but in an attached stone building and the cemetery, it offers an unabashed “haunted house” experience, as visitors are led through and accosted by parishioners costumed as ghosts and ghouls. Then again, this is a church accustomed to strange goings-on; in 2008 they were investigated by The Eastern Paranormal Investigation Center on account of unexplained noises such as chimes ringing in the middle of the night – and “that feeling you get when your hair stands up.”
When it comes to haunted churches, self-ringing chimes do appear to be a common feature, as well as other strange noises such as organ music playing at weird times. (an insomniac music director, perhaps?) Another church plagued by rogue ringing is Most Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, reputedly haunted by two ghosts: a former pastor and a bell-ringer who was supposedly murdered in the bell tower. I think I might prefer to spend some time in Old Rock Church in St. Olaf, Texas. Abandoned since 1917, it is apparently inhabited by a whole congregation of gentle and faithful spirits who make odd noises and sometimes sing ghostly hymns. I would like to hear that.