New Orleans may have its debauchery-fueled Carnival parties during Mardi Gras - where the streets fill with jazz bands, colorful characters, and the intricately-feathered costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians - but New York has a raucous nighttime festival all its own: the Village Halloween Parade.
It’s the world’s largest Halloween parade, and also shares the distinction of being the United States’ only major nighttime parade. The award-winning festival may be relatively obscure to non-New Yorkers, but the 42-year-old event attracts an audience of over 2 million, including some 60,000 participants.
It all started in 1974 when Ralph Lee, a puppeteer and mask maker who lived in Greenwich Village, envisioned a “wandering neighborhood puppet show” for his kids and their friends at Westbeth Artists’ Housing. The storied institution was founded in the ‘60s as a place to provide affordable studios and housing for artists and their families, becoming one of the first examples of repurposed mixed-use industrial buildings.
Over the course of Lee’s career, he used his collection of over 100 masks and puppets to stage the very first parade in the courtyard of the Westbeth, before then traipsing along West Street and ending at Washington Square. This established the tradition of mixing gigantic, intricately-made papier-mâché puppets with costumed revelers, a theme that continues today.
Throughout the rest of the decade, the event (and the parade route) expanded from year to year. From humble beginnings, its supporters grew from seminal alt-newspaper The Village Voice to include corporate sponsors like American Express and institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts.
By 1985, the size of the parade had ballooned to about 250,000 people, and it was re-routed to 6th Avenue to accommodate its growing size. Founder Ralph Lee also handed the parade director reins over to Jeanne Fleming, who continues to manage the event today.
Each year, the parade’s flagship puppets adhere to a unifying, typically-upbeat theme. Previous years’ themes include “Revival” and “Shine A Light.” As the parade moved into the new millennium, the focus shifted from child-minded entertainment event to a cross-generational gathering that embraced many different communities. “Naughty” costumes and members of the LGBTQIA community became an active part of the event.
However, this new face of the parade didn’t sit well with everyone. In 1998, it received flack for allegedly stoking homophobic attitudes, a claim refuted by Jeanne Fleming to The New York Times.
''One of the reasons people come to the parade is to see the drag queens,'' said Ms. Fleming in a 1998 article. “This is a crowd that wants to have fun. They are yelling: 'O. K.! Way to go!' People are coming for the wacky and the creative. They are not there to hurt somebody.''
But the parade’s significance to the fabric of the city wouldn’t truly be galvanized until 2001. Just seven weeks after 9/11, then-Mayor Rudolf Giuliani insisted the parade go on because of the potential healing it could provide to the beleaguered city. And so, with less than two months to plan, Fleming and company sprang into action: choosing the theme “Phoenix Rising,” they created a massive, fiery 20-foot Phoenix to lead the festivities, signaling that New Yorkers too were rising out of the ashes.
However, in 2012, the veil of disaster did actually halt the parade. As the threat of Super Storm Sandy loomed over the city, Fleming made the tough but reasonable call to cancel the parade. Almost unable to recoup their financial losses from the cancellation, the parade organizers rallied the community by conducting a Kickstarter campaign. Nearly 1000 concerned donors raised over $56,000, keeping the tradition alive for years to come.
To make up for 2012’s cancellation, 2015 actually got two Halloween parades. In addition to the one on Halloween, the parade was restaged for a scene in the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
In recent years, costumes have ranged from pop culture references like the Daft Punk duo to standard Halloween fare like zombies and skeletons. Plenty of specially-painted cars also ride along the parade, sharing the road with gigantic puppets made to resemble everything from dancing skulls to mythical creatures like the massive Banthas from Star Wars. And they all march to the beat of over 50 bands that play during the course of the parade.
If you wish to participate in this year’s parade, just show up in a costume—true to the spirit of the holiday, only costumed marchers are allowed. But, a lack of a costume doesn’t mean missing out one of New York’s hallmark events: like most crowded New York City traditions (Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New Year’s Eve in Times Square), sometimes it’s just more fun to watch.