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louisville

A Look Back at Beloved Louisville Halloween Traditions

Writer  /  Andrew Toy
Photography Provided

Springtime seems to be when the world comes to life. However, we’re cut from a different cloth here in Louisville. For us the world comes to life in autumn, when the leaves show their darker colors before disengaging from deciduous trees, when clouds gather more frequently, and gusts of wind twirl the piles of leaves into orange whipped-cream toppers. Gone are the heat-stroke days and the stale, humid air. September 22 marks the official first day of fall on the calendar, but usually it’s the first weekend in October when fall begins. Autumn, in Louisville, is when houses come to life by displaying caricatures of the dead.

With an extensive history of haunted houses and folklore that dates back to before the Civil War, the citizens of Louisville have had a love affair with the dark, the horrifying and the unknown for many generations. This is evident all year long, but most notably during the Halloween season. And let’s face it – nothing is more unknown than how Halloween will proceed during this strange and unsettling year of the coronavirus. 

With few movie releases to inspire masks and costumes (but plenty of face masks to go around for thousands of Halloweens to come), there’s no telling what our beloved holiday will look like this year. If kids are allowed to trick-or-treat, will participating homeowners be required to mark a line six feet from their doorstep and hope they make the treats into the bags? Will Halloween parties be confined to 10 people or fewer? Will people be too afraid to venture out altogether? 

While we don’t have a witch’s crystal ball to see what will happen this year, we can at least look back at what Louisville has done in the past to celebrate Halloween. Be sure to look up the relevant information before planning to attend these events. 

In years past, what normally kicked off the Halloween hullabaloo was the Louisville Zombie Walk, which normally takes place on the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway. It typically takes place during the last week of August, when thousands of living corpses gather amidst live music and zombie costume contests. 

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What about closer to October? Well, that’s when all the haunted houses open their creaking doors to lure unsuspecting spectators. Frightening tours include the Devil’s Attic, Nightmare Forest and, the most twisted, Black Orchard Haunted House. Some will be open this year and some may not. A good place to see information and scheduled times, as well as ratings of each tour, is LouisvilleHalloween.com. The most COVID-friendly, if you will, is Danger Run. This is a scavenger-hunt-style game played completely in your car, and plays like a self-guided ghost tour.

If you ever find yourself strolling down Old Louisville in the fall to gaze at the multicolored leaves above your head, you most certainly won’t want to miss one particular house that used to be a tuberculosis sanatorium. In the early 1900s, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium housed patients that were so close to death, they were practically zombies. In fact, so many sickly patients died that a body chute was installed in order to transport the bodies directly into the crematorium. Sure, the building is creepy enough with that background lingering in your head, but when Halloween rolls around, it’s transformed into an even haunt-ier house.

Zombie walks and haunted houses aren’t the only way to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve in Louisville. There are plenty of kid-friendly ways to observe Louisville’s favorite holiday, including The World’s Largest Halloween Party held at the Louisville Zoo. This has been a favorite event for families with little ones for years. The zoo transforms into a maze of fairy-tale characters, dinosaur displays and sea serpents. If it’s open this year, kids will have the chance to get their pictures taken with pop-culture favorites such as Elsa and Anna, Woody and Buzz, and Spider-Man. And yes, there is a ton of candy to be enjoyed. 

Sure, the temperature drops this time of year and it starts to become chilly out, but isn’t that a good reason to start drinking pumpkin-spice lattes and gorging on bowls of chili? In 2014 the Crescent Hill Community Council hosted a free event at the Peterson-Dumesnil House, where attendees got to enjoy hot dogs, special “Crescent Hill recipe” chili, s’mores, ghost stories, and fellowship with costumed neighbors. Sorry to get your hopes up, but it doesn’t look like this event will be happening this year. However…

Not all events need to be scheduled. Suppose you get done with work late and you want to do something festive at the last minute. Just turn off Frankfort Avenue onto Hillcrest and there you’ll encounter Louisville’s most decorated suburban street. This street is to Halloween what Candy Cane Lane is to Christmas in any other neighborhood. Many residents of these houses decorate their yards with their take on ghoulishly zany graveyards – skeletal arms reaching up from tombs, and quirky headstones. Some residents display their affection for creepy circus clowns baring teeth. Some displays feature pirate ships and abandoned skulls. 

Of course, no Halloween would be complete – as one family on this street is well aware – without Charlie Brown complaining about his bag of rocks and his pal Linus looking out forevermore for the Great Pumpkin. But watch out – if you walk down this delightfully cluttered street, you just might meet a few “statues” that aren’t as fake as they seem. Who knows, it could very well take a lot more than a mere pandemic to squelch these homeowners’ Halloween-decorating spirits this year. 

Let’s hop across the river for a day trip, shall we? Sure, it’s not in Kentucky, but it’s a popular enough tradition that it counts. If you venture into Indiana, you can have a family fun day at Huber’s Orchard and Winery picking apples and pumpkins, and shopping for pumpkin bread, pumpkin jams, candy sticks and scarecrows. There’s a play area for kids, ducks to feed, music and food. 

Let’s not forget that Halloween is a fun (if it can be called that) time to stroll through cemeteries and think about the dead below our feet. A favorite in town is Cave Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of George Rogers Clark, Revolutionary War officer and founder of Louisville.

What’s a holiday without a parade? In the past, the Highlands would host a full-blown Halloween parade complete with food vendors, live music, kids and adults dressed up in their goofiest and scariest costumes, showy Oldsmobiles, games and more.

What about those families with young kids who are too sensitive to endure grown-ups dressing up as killer clowns and Sith Lords? Ever heard of Blackacre Conservancy? It’s a nature preserve and homestead located on Tucker Station Road. This little jewel of a park has special events all year long, and like the rest of Louisville, Halloween is their signature holiday, when they host the Corn Island Storytelling Festival. Order your tickets online and show up with lawn chairs. Refreshments may or may not be provided this year – check their official website for updates. 

Last but not least (this one is open this year for families in cars), there’s the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular in Iroquois Park. It’s certainly a spectacle not to be missed, especially since other events will be so limited this year, and this would be the perfect time for those who’ve put it off. If you think there are a lot of pumpkins at Huber’s Orchard, you haven’t seen anything like this.

Our beloved Halloween may be a bit limited this year, but Louisville will still find creative and unique ways to observe and celebrate the holiday while remaining safe and in compliance with coronavirus-related rules. Not all events will occur like in past years, but there just might be some new frights that we can take part in during this freaky and weird Halloween of 2020.

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