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What does Duke have to offer for Halloween?

student life

Worshipers at Duke Chapel participate in the All Hallows' Eve service, which takes place by candlelight Oct. 31.
Worshipers at Duke Chapel participate in the All Hallows' Eve service, which takes place by candlelight Oct. 31.

In the street, costumed children go door to door asking for candy. Their parents linger behind and watch. When it grows dark, young trick-or-treaters and their parents return home. Everyone settles in.

For Reverend Bruce Puckett, director of worship and community ministry for the Duke Chapel, this is only the first half of a typical Halloween. When his son finishes gathering up his due of candy from the neighbors, Puckett heads to the Duke Chapel to prepare for an entirely different kind of holiday tradition: the annual All Hallows’ Eve service.

All Hallows’ Eve

“I have a 6-year-old son and so Halloween becomes … all the things of dressing up and eating candy and all that kind of family fun sort of stuff that’s then followed by this … beautiful time of reflection and thinking about faith and the commitment of people who’ve gone before us,” Puckett said.

The service is part of a celebration of All Saints’ Day, during which the Christian church memorializes those who have recently died and remembers its saints and martyrs, Puckett said.

According to the program from last year’s service, the early church adopted the Jewish custom of recognizing sundown as the start of a new day. Following with this tradition, the All Hallows’ Eve service is conducted in relative darkness, lit only by candles and a few dim overhead lights. A video of last year’s service begins in the dark. Then, small flames encroach and give way to the silhouettes of people pacing down the aisle. The lights come up slightly and the service proceeds.

“Part of the service is reading a kind of first-person account of one of the saint’s lives,” Puckett said. “We have undergraduate students who stand and act as if they are the person, they are the saint and they read the story of the saint from the … first-person perspective, so we always have students who are eager to participate.”

Puckett voiced some surprise at the willingness of undergraduates to take part in the service. He expected they might want to be other places on Halloween night, but named only one: Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street.

Franklin Street

An estimated 80,000 revelers descended on Franklin Street during Chapel Hill’s 2007 Halloween celebration. The following year, the town took a series of measures to limit outside participation in the festivities. As then-mayor Kevin Foy said on WRAL, “We're having a party at Chapel Hill — it's a Halloween party. But you are not invited. It's a local party.”  The “we” he referred to was Chapel Hill residents and students at UNC-Chapel Hill. And that meant the “you,” the uninvited, referred to, among others, costumed Duke students.

Citing public safety issues and cost, the town took measures to limit attendance, including canceling transit shuttles and limiting traffic into the downtown area — all in service of a “Homegrown Halloween.”

Ran Northam, community safety communications specialist for Chapel Hill, did not witness the celebration at its most crowded, but has heard stories.

“A lot of people will tell the stories of how it really acted as a sea of people to where you were shoulder-to-shoulder and you couldn’t move,” Northam said. “You were forced to move wherever the crowd moved you to … so it really did begin to feel unsafe … and that was the impetus to really start to get control on the number of people if at all possible.”

Shortly after Chapel Hill’s announcement, Duke University Union decided not to provide buses for students traveling to Franklin Street for Halloween. Duke Student Government subsequently engaged in a weeks-long discussion with town officials, seeking a solution and failing to find one.

Nine years later, the mantra of “Homegrown Halloween” persists in Chapel Hill. For Northam and his colleagues, keeping the celebration local and safe requires extensive planning. Halloween is more than a holiday; it is a focal point of their professional lives.

“We’re always keeping our eye out and putting out safety messages all during that time, so it’s certainly a different aspect for us town employees than it is for those who are attending [Homegrown Halloween], and it’s different than any community I know of, that’s for sure,” Northam said. “So there’s definitely a different light to it, but I’m glad to have seen it myself. I think it’s something that is very interesting to experience.”

According to estimates on the town of Chapel Hill’s website, efforts to reduce crowd size have been largely successful. Twenty-five thousand people converged on Franklin Street last year, the smallest crowd since 2012.

DUU Week

For Duke students unwilling to make the trek to parties across town, DUU has the answer: Celebrate Halloween here on campus.

A full year before Chapel Hill launched its Homegrown Halloween campaign, DUU began Devil’s Eve, an on-campus celebration. The 2008 festivities included burgers, kegs and a dance performance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Over time, this iteration of Halloween at Duke seems to have faded away.

DUU Week, this year’s on-campus Halloween celebration, is considerably larger, involving all of the organization’s 13 committees. Programming begins Oct. 26, with a screening of the cult classic “The Room” and Halloween trivia at the Devil’s Krafthouse, and concludes with a dance party Oct. 31 at the Duke Coffeehouse featuring performances by Orange Drink with Luxe Posh and Treee City.

“Each of our committees are collaborating on this and it’s a really exciting time for us, and I think it definitely fills a void of Halloween programming at Duke,” said junior Kristel Black, executive vice president of DUU.

The idea for DUU Week came to President Lesley Chen-Young while she was running for her current leadership position.

“There are a couple things going on, but certainly a lot of the focus is on Franklin Street, and that’s kind of our thinking behind DUU Week — really bringing Halloween back to Duke, to campus,” Chen-Young said.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

On the first, third and fifth Fridays of every month, Bryan Wendeln is known to some as the Criminologist. If you’ve never seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” that means nothing to you. But to the regulars who frequent the Friday performances of “Rocky Horror” at Raleigh’s Rialto Theatre and never miss a Halloween show, that means a whole lot.

Wendeln is a member of the Low Down Cheap Little Punks, the troupe that acts out “Rocky Horror” alongside the film, which has been playing at the theatre for over 30 years. He plays the narrator, referred to as the Criminologist.   

“The show started playing at the Rialto back in 1986 and our group came along in various incarnations probably around 1991 or 1992,” Wendeln said. “I joined in about 1991 or so, so I’ve been around for about … 26 years this year.”

The group’s Halloween show, which falls on Oct. 27 this year, regularly sells out the theatre. It is the performance the cast builds toward, the blowout where everything is as good as it gets.

“For most of the folks in the cast, this is the thing that we work towards all year long, is to perfect our show, make it look better, specifically for the Halloween show — and then, of course, that carries on throughout the rest of the year,” Wendeln said.

It is often said that Duke doesn’t have a distinct way of celebrating Halloween. Perhaps that’s a positive rather than a negative. The absence of expectation opens up all the possibilities at Duke, in Durham and around the Triangle. It allows for the forming of new traditions, new ways of celebrating. And what someone is looking for in Halloween, whether that be familiarity or faith or dancing or Dr. Frank-N-Furter, will determine where they go to find it. The Criminologist says, “I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.” Why not oblige him? Halloween is the perfect time.


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