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Cover Story

Welcome to Halloweentown

Taking a closer look at Orlando's obsession with everyone's favorite pagan holiday

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A cottage industry of smaller players also feed at this seasonal trough. From "Boo" nights at area zoos and church-sponsored pumpkin patches to neighborhood haunts like the 7th Annual Kissimmee Haunted House at the Berlinsky Community House and Altamonte Springs' Petrified Forest scare trail, Orlando organizations at every economic strata are hopping aboard the haunted hayride. Even arts institutions are in on the act: Leu Gardens will offer ghost stories in the dark on Oct. 26, the Enzian's Eden bar will host a sprawling Halloween carnival Oct. 27, the Mennello Museum celebrated Pumpkins & Pies on Oct. 20, and both CityArts Factory and the Orlando Museum of Art adopt Dia de los Muertos themes for October's Third Thursday and November's First Thursday, respectively. (And all of the above cost under $25; many were/are free.)

CityArts Factory's annual Day of the Dead-inspired "Monster Factory" exhibit (which shut down Pine Street last Thursday for a street party featuring performances by Yow Dance and Empty Spaces Theatre Co.'s Phantasmagoria) returned for a third year because it reliably boosts attendance in the Downtown Arts District, according to DAD executive director Barbara Hartley.  

"It's really become a counterculture. It's grown over the years … this is our biggest year," a face-painted Hartley told me as attendees arrived. "People love to dress up, [they love] the art. … It actually brings in a lot of the same audience, but [with] even greater turnout. There are more people from multiple backgrounds that just enjoy this time of year." And Halloween doesn't just bring CityArts more passive patrons, but also increases interest from artists and assistants: "It's people participating in the art, and the volunteers. They love it so much."

One of the area's smaller – and more affordable – Halloween adventures takes place at Titanic: The Experience, a walk-through historical exhibit featuring artifacts salvaged from the famed shipwreck. For the first time in several years, they recently resumed offering ghost tours of their I-Drive attraction. I last took the Titanic ghost tour in 2006, during the infamous Nights of Terror (a short-lived would-be HHN-killer featuring a trio of haunted houses and live entertainment; it folded unceremoniously in its first season amid a flurry of unpaid bills). Then, as now, Joe Zimmer serves as tour guide to Titanic's purportedly psychoactive collection. Zimmer, a former SAK Comedy Lab improviser and Houdini aficionado who used to debunk séances in New York, wasn't a paranormal believer before joining the Titanic attraction when it first opened 13 years ago. He was converted when, while closing the attraction one night, he "felt almost as if someone dragged a finger across the back of my neck. … It happened two more times as I was walking across the room."

Since then he's spotted a phantom "officer in a black suit" who fails to appear on security recordings, experienced invisible hands "tugging at the back of my jacket" and heard "footsteps at all hours of the night after everything is turned off."

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