People visiting Savannah today have no idea of the long arc of Halloween and its sway between beyond thrilling to doldrum ho-hum and then once more, being back on top! Shannon Scott Tours & Events definitely part of it being back where it belongs culturally! Allow us to explain!
Not surprisingly The Irish brought Halloween here at least formally and on a larger basis, in the 1820’s. Per the solstice hours, they burned 50-foot bonfires in at least 2 of the city squares in Savannah, and until the 1950s, in order to embrace the spirit of dancing around them in pagan regalia in order to scare demons from the crops. Which when Savannah was indeed a truly agrarian society in all ways, this was of immense value! Admittedly having simply come from Midwestern, suburbian, Trick-O-Treating, myself, when learning more about Beltane, Samhain or how some Savannahians participated in this sort of ritual before it was cast to the suburbs for some of the lame-same, I was left feeling, well, a little left out of some greater tradition. Not too many people know that beneath some of the squares are intact 6000 to 8000 gallon cisterns which is part of the city’s 1730’s design genius. Only one square, a later Victorian edition, still shows at least some seeable roof design from the square layout. All the same, it was in Washington Square and Johnson Square, where they burned 50ft bonfires until the 1950s when historic preservation became the growing trend and it was decided opstay urningbay bonfires. I often wonder if when that happened, it was a cold stop or presumably there were purists and others who simply lit them in the swamps or countryside or on nearby islands and one wonders about those event stories! I should mention that every Savannah kid worth his salt downtown would spend weeks of collecting boxes, and crates from any willing vendor or business along Broughton Street and City Market and then would store them in the still accessible cistern in Washington Square for the big burn night! I must confess, Savannah seems dull by this measure, and think we should work hard to recreate these bonfires somewhere!
Beltane Fire Dancing
After Halloween was really relegated to tricks and treats and suburban life, there must’ve been 40 years of nothing downtown Savannah. I remember some of it in the late 1980s and 1990s. Halloween was a long dull, thud. The Savannah College of Art & Design students had yet to really pick up some of the slack. There were minor efforts along the way but the downtown canvas was really rather barren. I recall one hour, even as late as 2007, Halloween had fallen on a Friday night which to any purist means its all weekend, but when arriving to the door of a nightclub on Broughton Street in full Vampire Hunter D costume, the bouncer gave me a strange look as he prepared to deny me entrance and snarled, “Halloween was last night dude!” Had I not known the club owner, I might not have gotten inside! So yes, even that late ladies & gentlemen, Halloween overall was a desert at least across the city with only token parties at gay clubs and of course, some legendary house parties. But there was no real “Halloween scene.”
One of the key players in a true return to Halloween is Pittsburgh native, SCAD grad, and all-around true-to-life Savannah artist-in-residence, W. “Gerome” Temple, of whom I can say proudly, was my roommate on Jones Street and before that, good very good friend. He loved the macabre and Halloween and we’d bemoan how lame it really was in Savannah. Many may not believe that one person can be like the firing pin or blasting cap to a new age or movement, but Gerome in many ways, was that. Now, per his humble ways, he’s unlikely to take as much credit as I’m giving him, but I’m telling you Halloween in Savannah owes a great deal to him as that impetus factor, and if I don’t mind saying, to myself. I, on the one hand, was running the city’s most famous ghost tours and drew controversy to myself when launching The Hellfair Ball as a sort of cultural opposite to Savannah’s time-honored, Telfair Ball. It went over like a leaden balloon and had 3 government agencies present paperwork to me. Something about my business license and alcohol. But anyway, it was a stab out in the direction of something fun and outlandish and only ever did it once as I had enough challenges. But sometime in 2003, Gerome decided he was going to build a giant puppet, semi-inspired by Frank The Rabbit in Donnie Darko.
Artist W.Gerome Temple with his puppet costume creations.
Naturally Gerome would take his rmassive rabbit puppet, which when worn, stretched to 12 to 15ft in height? With moving arms marching around created quite a stir downtown Savannah at night and seemed very in line with puppets seen in Day of The Dead festivals, other religious holidays in the world in Spain, Portugal and yes, would be right at home in any Mardi Gras here or abroad. The match was struck and it honestly seemed to breathe a new spirit across the Savannah lands, foretelling of greater Halloweens to come. Within the year, Gerome set upon creating his 2nd puppet, we’ll call him The Red Devil and if memory serves me, Gerome did more than one workshop for young parents and their kids. All part of it.
W. Gerome Temple marching puppets in Savannah in front of St. John’s Cathedral (Irish!)
My rentry to Halloween really simple came about because of Bonaventure After Hours and my evening tours. Nearly any Savannahian will tell you, that in spite of some political attitudes towards it now, some of which pretend that no Halloween anything ever happened in Bonaventure. And to be honest, until I started doing evening tours, I hadn’t fielded too much comment about the memories of locals respective thereof. Yet, in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, adults would take costumed children by the hundreds through Bonaventure Cemetery to humor and really just have some good natured spooky fun. It was all innocent really. Naturally they all wanted to see Little Gracie, and perhaps were told about the sightings of her by at least 2 or 3 sexton families that had lived on the property. Feel free to read my other blog postings, Heaven’s Playgrounds Part 1 & 2 for further insight. Strangely, none of that “fun” is any longer permitted in Savannah cemeteries. In fact, costumes have been outlawed for one reason or the other and makes for some interesting daytime photo shoot encounters I assure you – the costume police! “But, but, but – what about the goth kids? They just dress that way!” Sorry goth kids, you’re on notice!