Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Jack-o-lanterns are big business in the Hudson River towns that Washington Irving dreamed of.
Ambling past 7,000 flickering pumpkins at the Great Jack-o’-Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, it’s easy to imagine why Washington Irving described this area north of Manhattan as a “spellbound region,” full of people who are “given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently hear music and voices in the air.”
That’s from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the 1819 story that put the nearby river town on the map (eventually). Halloween is big business in the Hudson Valley: Several local towns capitalized on Irving’s spooky 19th-century yarn as a way to address 20th-century economic woes. In December 1996, the village of North Tarrytown voted to formally rename itself Sleepy Hollow, and it now pays homage to the story year-round. The town’s street signs and even its ambulances are branded with illustrations of the Headless Horseman.
Come fall, the pitch is ratcheted way up. Each October, the nonprofit Historic Hudson Valley lumps some of the nearby towns’ attractions—including Van Cortlandt Manor and Irving’s estate, Sunnyside—together under the umbrella of Sleepy Hollow Country, which plays host to dramatic readings of Irving’s tale as well as Horseman’s Hollow, a haunted trail that ends at the ruins of Ichabod Crane’s schoolhouse. The flamboyantly spooky Blaze is the season’s signature event, attracting some 150,000 attendees over 38 days of programming, which stretches until the weekend after Thanksgiving.
The enormous pumpkin lighting is the brainchild of the creative director Michael Natiello, who was working as an interpreter at Van Cortlandt Manor when he lit on the idea of an Irving-themed Halloween happening in 2005, when attendance was lagging. “Museums and historical sites had to scurry and figure out how to get visitors back on site,” he says. The first Blaze ran over eight drizzly evenings and drew 18,000 visitors.
Since then, the event has “grown in every way: attendance, scope, and production values,” says Rob Schweitzer, who manages marketing and communications for Historic Hudson Valley. The Manor is a short walk from the Amtrak and Metro-North train lines laid parallel to the Hudson River. While the bulk of the audience comes from about a 75-mile radius, Schweitzer says they’ve noted visitors from all 50 states.
Natiello spends all year planning this highly coordinated production: There are electricians, lighting designers, and sound engineers. (Their contributions are evident in a gaggle of pneumatically powered Jack-in-the-box pumpkins triggered by motion sensors and bopping in time to a soundtrack.) The gourds—both vine-grown and foam—are sculpted and stacked into towering dioramas. Simple faces—toothy grins, crazed eyes—might be done freehand, while elaborate tableaus are plotted out and transferred by rubbing carbon paper with charcoal. Artists, designers, and print makers brandish tools such as pins, nails, and forks’ tines to carve the designs.
“It’s almost down to a military operation,” says Schweitzer. Troops of volunteers scoop and seed gourds as early as June; each night, a 30-person team spends three hours lighting all of the votive candles nestled inside the pumpkins. The aesthetic is a spooky one: Blue light splinters through threadbare tree branches, knobby like knuckles. Scary sounds drift through the air. And everywhere you look you see Jack-o-lanterns: perched on branches, wrapping around the porch, stacked on top of each other to form cauldrons and a gigantic spider web, from which dozens of crawlies seem to skitter.
The scale of the event reflects the degree of commitment this area now has to the Irving story, which has become a major economic engine. Back in 1996, North Tarrytown’s General Motors assembly plant had shuttered, taking with it some 4,000 jobs, and the town embarked on a contentious rebranding campaign, weighing whether to formally adopt the moniker Irving had given it more than a century before. Proponents viewed it as a savvy lure for visitors; some business owners were reluctant to redo their signs, checks, and business cards. In some districts, voter turnout for this ballot trumped presidential elections, The New York Times reported. When the results were announced in favor of the change—1,304 for, 710 against—the bell of the Old Dutch Church, a fixture of Irving’s tale, pealed for 15 minutes in celebration. And Sleepy Hollow—and its neighbors—embraced its destiny as a ghostly tourist destination.
To that end, Blaze organizers try to make sure the event works as a regional marketing extravaganza, installing placards that tout the area’s other historical bonafides. “Anybody can get a bunch of jack-o-lanterns, carve them, and put them somewhere,” Schweitzer says. “We want this to be unique to the location.”
Stippled lacy patterns recall the creamware dishes on display inside Van Cortlandt Manor. An illuminated pumpkin path riffs on the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge, and a train hauling circus animals is an ode to the transient performers who trundled along the old Albany Post Road, which cut through the property. And, of course, there’s Irving’s Horseman, all aglow.
“Sleepy Hollow was just a place in Irving’s imagination,” Schweitzer says. “The community brought it to life.”