From Samhain, All Souls’ Day and the Day of the Dead, to good old Halloween, the dregs of autumn turn up some seriously inspired celebrations around the globe. With as many names and related festivals as it has arcane traditions, Halloween itself – whose namesake derives from the more evocative ”All Hallow’s Eve” – remains one of the world’s oldest (and perhaps most misunderstood) holidays.
Celebrating the autumnal shift into the long, dark days of winter, it is the essential elements of mystery and morbidity that lend these festivities their bewitching intrigue. Historically, many cultures - from Pagan and Aztec to Celtic - have recognized the last day of October and the first two days of November as a time when the dead were thought to return to earth and walk among the living. Afraid of ghosts? That is what costumes, thought to ward off evil spirits, are for.
So before you write off Halloween as nothing but tricks and treats for the kiddie set, why not head to a city that takes its traditions - not to mention its fun - seriously? From a New Orleans moonlit cemetery tour to the flamboyant debauchery of Hong Kong's hippest party district, these international destinations all come alive at the witching hour.
New York City: Get your groove on with the Village People
Since 1973, this epic parade - rumoured to be the largest Halloween celebration on earth with an estimated two million attendees - has remained an iconic New York moment. Show up early and stake out a prime spot on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, where the whole city seems to converge in a true melting pot experience.
From the people watching (picture a provocative array of costumes designed to thrill, shock, and defy explanation) to phantasmagoric floats, live bands and circus performers, this event is an only-in-New-York madcap delight. This year's theme, Memento Mori (a Latin phrase that translates to "Remember your mortality") commemorates the 20th year of one of the parade's signature spectacles, the giant, must-be-seen-to-be-believed Day of the Dead puppets. Want to join the parade? Arrive at 6 pm to line up, and don't forget your creative costume.
Oaxaca: Party with the dearly departed at El Diá de los Muertos
Something about the phrase El Diá de los Muertos - that's "The Day of the Dead" in Spanish - simply rolls of the tongue with the kind of mysterious energy that this Mexican cultural capitol exudes. Held on All Saints' Day (1 November) and All Souls' Day (2 November) according to the Catholic calendar, this Aztec-influenced festival commemorates the memory of deceased family, friends, and ancestors.
Throughout this Unesco world heritage site, the candlelit streets overflow with parades, colourful markets and impromptu parties, along with costumed revellers in wildly macabre masks. And do not skip a trip to a panaderia, where a mind-blowing array of morbid sweet treats will be on display. Try a sugar-spun coffin, or the eggy, yeasty pan de muerto (bread of the dead).
Seeking a true local Oaxacan experience? Head to one of the nearby cemeteries, where families spare no effort in their quest to create the most extravagantly decorated gravesite, replete with elaborate flowers and the eerie glow of countless candles. With plenty of singing and dancing, some graveside chicken mole (or another favourite dish of the deceased) and a shot or two of tequila, it is an experience that's as moving as it is magical.
New Orleans: Vampires and voodoo in the Vieux Carré
Take the decadence and debauchery of Mardi Gras. Now add a sexy witch costume, an eerie soundtrack and a dash of voodoo magic, and you have got yourself a N'awlins style Halloween. With a intoxicating dark side that is celebrated all year round, the Big Easy cranks up the fright factor in inimitable style come late October (and with weather that is perfect for parading around in that daring costume). Expect this behemoth of a shindig to last several days, with parades and parties in the streets building to a frenetic energy on the days leading up to the 31 October.
For a deliciously sinful vibe, start on notorious Bourbon Street and strut your stuff through the heart of the French Quarter, an exotic spectacle of Halloween fashion. Expect "treats" (Mardi Gras beads) to rain down from the elegant balconies for "tricks" (usually a smile and a wave will do, though expect to see plenty more). Feeling adventurous? Head to historic Jackson Square to seek your fortune with a mystic, brave a moonlit cemetery tour, or dress your wicked best at the city's sexiest party, the Endless Night Vampire Ball at the House of Blues.
Hong Kong: A global party
Mix plenty of international expats with a general dash of local traditions, and you have got one of Asia's most festive Halloween celebrations. Head to the Lan Kwai Fong district to find the epicentre of the party-all-night action. The restaurants and bars here are known to take their Halloween decor seriously, so it is also the perfect spot to kick off the night with atmospheric dinner and drinks.
Got kids in tow? Head to Hong Kong Disneyland, where the "Mistress of All Evil" - otherwise known as Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty's dark nemesis - presides over the park. Expect plenty of special-effects delights, from a ghostly rollercoaster to show-stopping pyrotechnics designed to impress even jaded adults.
Dublin: Unleash your pagan side at Samhain
Originating in Druid and Celtic rituals, Samhain literally means “summer’s end”. Drawing upon its rich Celtic history (and claim to fame as the birthplace of none other than Dracula author Bram Stoker), Dublin offers a mysteriously romantic twist on the holiday.
Annual events include a carnival-style parade along with plenty of traditional bonfires around town. Care to mix your horror with a bit of history? Brave a haunted Dublin tour, watch Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho accompanied by live orchestra at the National Concert Hall, or join gothic horror enthusiasts at the Bram Stoker Dracula Halloween Horror festival, complete with a vampire cloak race (bring your own fangs).
For a posh night out, shake your devil’s tail at the Monster Weekend bash put on by Lillie’s Bordello, arguably Dublin’s sultriest nightclub. For a truly otherworldly celebration with a decidedly ancient flair, don’t miss the superstition-rich festivities at the National Leprechaun Museum. Along with Celtic-inspired stories and games, expect to be haunted by costumed characters straight out of Irish mythology.
Sarah Chandler is an American Lonely Planet author currently based in Amsterdam. Last year she celebrated Halloween at NYC's epic Greenwich Village parade.
The article 'Get spooked: Sensational Halloween destinations' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.