Halloween in Chicago
During scary season, this fun-loving city pulls out all the stops.
© Beth Gauper
A skull peers up from the vegetables at the Lincoln Park farmers market.
In high-spirited Chicago, Halloween is the most spirited weekend of the year.
We didn’t know that before we arrived last year, but then a few thousand Smurfs, zombies and cowboys bicycled past us
on the monthly Critical Mass ride through Lincoln Park.
A pirate skull was perched on the turnips the next morning at the farmers market, and we saw oversized ghouls and witches waving from the windows of mansions. Downtown, orange gushers rose from the fountain in Franken Plaza, known as Daley Plaza the rest of the year.
By Saturday afternoon, nearly everyone was in costume. On Rush Street, we chatted with Raggedy Ann and Andy, and we spent a jolly evening with Elvis and Darth Vader in a Lincoln Park bar.
We came dressed as Lame Tourists, but no one seemed to mind.
By 4:30 p.m. on Halloween, costumed trick-or-treaters were mobbing the manors of the Gold Coast, which were passing out
lavish boxes of candy by the hundreds.
We had no idea Halloween was that big in Chicago, but we were glad we'd stumbled into it.
“It’s therapy time,’’ says George Garcia, owner of Fantasy Costumes in the Portage Park neighborhood. “In this terrible economy, in this crazy world, people just want to have fun. They don’t have to buy gifts for anyone, they can do it just for themselves.’’
Garcia’s store, which he started out of his car 47 years ago, now occupies an entire city block and is open 24 hours a day in the 10 days leading up to Halloween.
“Halloween is big, it’s huge here,’’ he says.
Why Chicago? He didn’t know.
It could have something to do with the city’s history with gangsters and one especially unsavory serial killer, made
famous by the best-seller “The Devil in the White City.’’
At least four companies offer ghost tours year-round, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation offers walking tours of three cemeteries and “Devil’’ bus tours of the White City, the nickname of the grounds built for the 1893 World’s Fair.
© Beth Gauper
Robin Balster pops out of a trunk unskewered, in a magic trick with her husband, Tim Balster.
But most of the fun is family-style. The park district opens a haunted beach house, and museums join in, with Shedd Aquarium
even offering a Spooky Seas sleepover.
We did know about the big Chicagoween celebration in Daley Plaza, so that was on our schedule. First, we went on a Chicago Food Planet tour that took us into the neighborhoods north of downtown, where we were surprised to see so many houses sporting giant spiders, skeletons and carved pumpkins.
The stateliest and most historic houses had the most over-the-top decorations. On the Gold Coast, the yard of one mansion featured a two-story witch riding a broomstick amid hay bales.
In Mid-North, one of the few neighborhoods with houses that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, ghouls hung from the second-story windows of neighboring Victorians that were wrapped with cobwebs and police tape.
The yellow house, said our guide, Lauren McCabe, supposedly is haunted by people who didn't survive the fire. It's one of the
many legends that fuels Halloween in Chicago.
“This is the biggest holiday next to Christmas,'' McCabe said. "I can’t tell you how much candy gets sold. It’s phenomenal.''
By Saturday afternoon, the bars along Rush Street were filled with costumed revelers. We settled into Local Option, a craft-beer mecca in Lincoln Park that endeared us with the slogan painted on its walls, inspired by German cigarette warnings: “Scheiss Bier kann tödlich sein,’’ or, “Crappy beer can kill you.’’
The other patrons provided the entertainment. A bunch of roller-derby girls clattered by, and Popeye and Olive Oyl did the
limbo next to the bar.
A man dressed as a baby came in, with sunglasses and a cigarette duct-taped to his mouth, and the staff obligingly found him a high chair. The Blues Brothers and Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and Oscar were there, too.
The next day, we headed for Franken Plaza. We'd missed Saturday’s costume contest, hay rides and trick-or-treating, but
the party was going strong. Little kids in costume scurried around the orange fountain, a stilt walker roamed the crowd and a
storyteller was telling Not So Scary stories.
The most fun was on stage. Robin and Tim Balster’s Sheer Magic show was a series of classic illusions, including the cheerfully cheesy chestnut in which Robin was stuck in a box and sawed in half – not!
Then we got to watch the Midnight Circus, whose charismatic performers presented a fast-paced collection of acrobatics, pratfalls, unicycle tricks, juggling, jokes and exploding confetti bombs. We definitely would have felt we got our money’s worth, except it was free.
We left before the Chicago Dance Institute started teaching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller’’ dance and the Pyrotechnic fire and dance theater started.
© Beth Gauper
For Halloween, the fountain in Daley Plaza turns orange.
Trick or treating had started in the million-dollar rowhouses and mansions on the Gold Coast. At one, big rubber gloves
filled with candy hung from the wrought-iron fence by colored satin ribbons.
Smoke bubbles wafted from the balcony, where a soft-sculpture witch danced to music.
In one yard, a party of costumed adults was sitting around a table full of bottles. Occasionally, the hostess got up for
“We pass the stupid candy off on them, and we drink the wine,’’ she said.
We wished we had a passel of cute kids to collect candy for us, but we didn't feel too bad, because we'd already bagged free
treats at the high-end Hendrickx Belgian Bakery.
It was because we'd bought the last pistachio croissant, and it was the end of the day. But we noticed that many Gold Coast shops hand out treats, at least to those who ask nicely.
At Halloween, Chicago is a remarkably generous town. Next time, we'll bring costumes.
Trip Tips: Chicago for Halloween
© Beth Gauper
Raggedy Ann and Andy sip beers at a Rush Street cafe.
The Monster Bash is Saturday, with the costume contest at 12:15 p.m. and trick-or-treating 1-3 p.m. Midnight Circus and Magic Matt will return; check for performance times.
Halloween at Navy Pier: The Really Big Halloween Party features nightly fire spinning by Pyrotechniq, performances of Harry Houdini’s Upside-Down Water Chamber Escape Trick, dance parties and hayrides. It's Oct. 19-21, 26-28 and 31.
Chicago History Museum: This Lincoln Park museum holds a big slate of Halloween programs, including Paranormal Pub
Crawls, Creepy Cemetery Tours and bus, trolley and walking tours to infamous crime sites.
They sell out fast, so reserve as early as possible.
Chicago Park District: It holds many parties
and haunted houses, including one at its Theater on the Lake near Diversey Harbor, $10.
Other events: Many museums and attractions offer special programs in October, including the Lincoln Park Zoo, which holds its Spooky Zoo Spectacular for kids.
At Shedd Aquarium, Spooky Seas Family Sleepover is Oct. 26-27, $75
per person including breakfast and dinner.
Devil in the White City tours: The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a 3½-hour bus tour that explores the links between the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and serial murderer Henry H. Holmes. It's $55.
© Beth Gauper
The Midnight Circus performs all three days of Chicagoween.
Cemetery tours: The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers two-hour walking tours of Graceland Cemetery at 2 p.m. Sundays and an occasional "Women of
Influence: Graceland Cemetery'' and "Graceland: A Second Look'' tours. It also offers occasional tours of Rosehill and
Ghost tours: Reserve early for weekends and Halloween.
Ursula Bielski offers Chicago Hauntings Tours year-round on Fridays and Saturdays and daily in October. Motorcoach tours leave from Clark and Ontario in the near North, adjacent to the Rock & Roll McDonalds.
Chicago Supernatural Tours, started by the late Richard Crowe in 1973, offered
motorcoach tours on weekends year-round, as well as a four-hour Halloween Special Edition Tour.
For tips on planning a budget trip, see Cheap
For more about the city, see Chicago stories.
Last updated on October 9, 2012
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