The World's Best Halloween Festivals

Article by: Karla Zimmerman|@karlazimmerman

Wed October 31, 2018 | 12:00 PM

Loads of rituals have sprung up around the mystical date of October 31 (as well as All Saints Day and All Souls Day immediately following). Some people commune with the dead, others hang out with giant puppets. Bonfires, skeletons, and sugary treats make frequent appearances. Here's where and when.

Samhain (throughout Ireland and Scotland)

Samhain Nathan Meijer Cc

Photo by Nathan Meijer Creative Commons.

Centuries ago, the Celts fired up an end-of-harvest party every October 31, during which they believed that the veil between this world and the next was thinned, and that the spirits of the dead could pass through. The revelers offered food (treats!) to placate the ghosts. Eventually, Samhain absorbed Roman and Christian elements and morphed into Halloween. Throughout the old lands, though, it remains an otherworldly celebration.

Día de los Muertos (throughout Mexico)


Photo by Art Gimbel

From October 31 to November 2, Mexicans throw a party for the dead. Technically this isn't a Halloween festival, but a celebration for All Souls Day. Families make vibrant altars for departed relatives using marigolds and sugar skulls. There are picnics in the cemeteries, mariachi bands in the streets, and hot chocolate and tequila to fuel the festivities—all to celebrate the souls who return to visit.

Village Halloween Parade (New York City)

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Photo by Dave Bledsoe Creative Commons

Evil clowns, muscled superheroes, snake-haired medusas and white-jumpsuited Elvises are among the 50,000 costumed locals in this rollicking procession through Greenwich Village. Giant puppets and brassy bands also march in the creative freak show, which takes place Halloween night and draws more than a million spectators.

Guy Fawkes Night/Lewes Bonfire (throughout Great Britain)

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Photo by C.B. Creative Commons

Each November 5, Brits ignite bonfires and blast fireworks to mark the date in 1605 when they stopped Guy Fawkes from blowing up Parliament. (It's a long, religion-fueled story.) Some dress in historical costumes, others burn effigies of famous traitors. The fiery rituals have become a de facto Halloween party.

Neewollah (Independence, Kansas)

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Photo by Granger Meador Creative Commons

If you spell a word backwards, can you reverse its meaning? The community of Independence, Kansas, managed to do just that when they coined the phrase “Neewollah” after a particularly prank-filled Halloween in 1918. Determined to re-design the holiday so that it entailed less trick and more treat, they replaced smashing pumpkins with parades, vandals with vendors. It worked, and nearly 100 years later, Neewollah welcomes 75,000 attendees to celebrate Halloween in a style that's more carnival, less carnage.

La Calaca (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico)

La Calaca Mishele Wells   23

Photo by Mishele Wells

Mix Día de los Muertos with modern art, and you get La Calaca, wherein artists crowd-fund their death-themed projects. The audience participates by, say, posing nude for a group photo installation or decorating tins for a community-made sculpture. Live music and all-night parties rock the streets throughout the fiesta's October 31 to November 3 run.

Voodoo Experience (New Orleans, Louisiana)


Photo by Clinton Steeds Creative Commons

OK, so Voodoo Experience is really just a big, raging music fest. But it's held over Halloween weekend and channels the spirit of the holiday. Stages put on everything from local burlesque troupes and jazz quartets to mega-bands like the Arctic Monkeys and Outkast (all in costumes, if you're lucky).

Banks of the Foyle Halloween Carnival (Derry, Northern Ireland)

Banks Of The Foyle Halloween Carnival Greg Clarke Cc

Photo by Greg Clarke Creative Commons

Europe's largest Halloween bash lets loose in the old walled city of Derry from October 25 to November 2. Ghost tours prowl the streets, masquerade balls arise in old churches, and night markets pop up serving traditional kale and boiled potatoes with ale. Kids get their due during storytelling sessions and origami monster-making workshops.

Festival of the Dead (Salem, Massachusetts)

Salem Tim Bouwer Cc

Photo by Tim Bouwer Creative Commons. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a spookier location than Salem, where the 1692 witch trials went down. And you won't find an eerier festival than this month-long event put on by a local warlock. Count on tarot readings, crystal-ball scrying, séances, ghost hunts, and a magical spirit-conjuring circle on Halloween night.

Originally published Thursday, October 23, 2014.