This year in New York City, Halloween weekend kicked off with pouring rain. I watched as the sky turned black around 9 pm on Wednesday and raindrops started to splatter onto the sidewalk. But the rain didn’t seem to stop anyone’s Halloween plans. After all, this was the year after the pitiful experience of lockdown-induced virtual Halloween, and New York City was ready to celebrate with scary intensity.
Ismail’s Halloween costume was supposed to be a surprise. He had only given me vague hints about it over the previous week: it involved a cigar, a hat, a beard. When I unsuccessfully guessed “Popeye,” “Ernest Hemingway,” and “Wolverine,” he gave me the very last hint: an olive emoji, which left me ten times more confused than I already was. I donned a crown and a red dress as the Queen of Hearts and took a cab through the thunderstorm to Brooklyn to an industrial building on Greenpoint Avenue. This is where our Halloween adventure was to begin.
I was greeted by Ismail dressed up as dead Che Guevara, with half a face of beautifully drawn skull-and-flowers makeup that would slowly melt off throughout the night. We walked to the second floor, where we entered a spacious studio space that made me feel as though I had just teleported into another universe.
Cotton spiderwebs draped from the ceilings, dotted with plastic spiders that Ismail would occasionally scare his friends with. Pink and purple ambient lighting flooded through the room, giving the space and ethereal glow. The dance floor was filled with costumes both well-thought out and last-minute. Some notable costumes included spaghetti and meatballs, Little Red Riding Hood, and a trio of the tinman, scarecrow, and Toto from The Wizard of Oz (Toto, who was an actual dog, stole the show). A group of four friends paid homage to France in matching gold shorts and silky teal tank tops, imitating Claude François et les Claudettes. “No one knows who we are tonight,” one of them said, “but we’re still dancing and having fun.”
Up by the DJ booth, a fog machine emitted plumes of thick fog every few minutes. One of the DJs for the night, Ben, told me between sets that “with the pandemic and not being able to do this kind of party, tonight feels like liberation.”
And he was right. People at the party danced, lounged, and talked late into the night. At one point, I was given an intricate, flowing dance performance by a long-haired man dressed as a ram. When I finally left, the hallways outside were blindingly bright with white walls and no clear exit. It felt like we barely escaped a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Shining set as we sprinted through the still pouring rain to catch a car home and prepare for the weekend festivities still to come.
On October 31st, Ismail and I met up in Washington Square Park, where Halloween was in full swing. People milled about in their costumes. The person next to me wore an intricate pump system that made fake blood drip down her mask at the push of a button. By the fountain, a woman with a paint palette offered last-minute face painting to complement peoples’ costumes. Axe murders, Disney princesses, and nuns all milled about at the park.
Ismail was still Ché Guevara, but without the melting face paint this time. He was also still chewing on the same unlit cigar from the Friday-night version of his costume. The end now looked like a fraying rope, but it only added to the aesthetic of his get-up.
In New York City, where outlandishness is sewn into the fabric of daily life, we saw some especially strange costumes. The winner was a man walking a harness that was supposedly attached to an invisible dog. A girl in costume believingly stopped in her path and stooped down to gently pet the air around the harness, saying “what a good dog.” Ismail and I looked at each other quizzically and continued on.
As we ate dinner before the NYC Village Halloween Parade, the pinnacle of the weekend, Ismail pointed out a white haired man and said “ that’s Anderson Cooper!” I assumed it was someone in an Anderson Cooper Halloween costume and remarked, “that’s a pretty impressive costume.” Turned out it was the real, one and only Anderson Cooper walking back to his West Village home to celebrate the holiday with his family.
The blurred line between costumes and real life didn’t end with Anderson Cooper. As we walked, we guessed which cops were real and which ones were costumes. It was quite an impossible task. At the intersection of MacDougal and West 3rd St, a group of (I believe real) cops engaged in an animated discussion about how to best place barricades between spectators and the stream of extravagantly dressed parade performers who would fling candy at them in just a few hours.
Walking down 6th Avenue, we noticed a rainbow arching through the sky. Coincidentally, it matched the rainbow colored clown’s wig perched on the head of a woman who sat people-watching on a street side bench. She told us her name was Alma. In her 20 years of living in New York City after immigrating from Puerto Rico, this was only the second time she had ever come to the parade. But this time, after the dreariness of the pandemic, she “didn’t want to miss it.” Even two hours early, people lined up against the erected barricades to secure the best views possible of the post-COVID parade.
We ended up at a rooftop party as the sun was setting. It was the perfect place to watch the parade, directly over 6th Avenue where the procession would move from south to north. The Empire State building shone orange and green in the distance, and dark clouds hovered somewhat menacingly to the south. But the air stayed crisp and clear, and the clouds above us were silhouetted in salmon pink.
The party had an entire spread of wine, cheese, bread, and fruit. The dancing ram from two nights ago was there with his friend, who looked like a terrifying shaggy bush with a deer skull mounted on top. The man in the bush costume, whose actual name was David, told me he used to work at a company that built lights for strippers in Las Vegas, but he eventually moved back to NYC to work for a children’s book company. I made a mental note of the incredible juxtaposition of his careers. His costume was inspired by one of the characters in a children’s book, he told me, as he posed for Ismail’s photo with the dancing ram.
The sun sunk below the horizon and the jingling of some bells around 7 pm announced the beginning of the parade. As the night grew darker and darker, New Yorkers dressed up as marching bands and dragons and ghosts and playing cards appeared in the street below. A man dressed as the coronavirus provoked chants of “Run! Run! Run!” from the crowd. A minute after a mariachi band passed by, two people dressed in the same costume ran to catch up, apparently late to their spot in the hallowed parade.
Ismail and I spent the rest of the evening taking street-style photos of people in garish costumes wandering around the West Village. Making our way through tightly packed crowds of witches and pumpkins a whole year after the less-than-exciting adjustment to “remote Halloween,” it was clear that the ongoing threat of COVID-19 wasn’t going to stop New York City from celebrating the most haunted night of the year in the most New York City way possible.
By Trisha Mukherjee and Ismail Ferdous
Trisha Mukherjee is a NYC based writer and audio journalist working on stories related to global human rights. Ismail Ferdous Bangladeshi photographer and video maker, member of the Agence VU’ .