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Vampire state of mind: how to join the world’s greatest Halloween parade

New Yorks Halloween bash is a wildly creative party and its easier than you think to become a part of it

As we turn into Varick Street in Lower Manhattan, a gore-splattered surgeon his face peeling is dragging a corpse down the sidewalk. Behind him, a bow-tie wearing, opaque-eyed zombie with dental health issues (half his mouth is missing) is checking his phone.

Recoiling, my husband makes one final escape attempt: Do we have to take part? Cant we just watch?

Foolish man. Im sporting black velvet wings and a silver updo. Like a schlock-horror teen approaching THAT abandoned forest cabin, surely he realises theres no turning back now?

Over my dead body. Ive waited years for this, I tell him. Besides, these people need us. Beneath my teenage sons Joes Vendetta mask, I sense a sardonic eyebrow raised.

Dont call me pumpkin parader in full costume at the 2017 event. Photograph: Mark Feigenbaum

Tonight, 60,000 spooks, kooks and the occasional smutty nun will put on one of the biggest Halloween parades on the planet. And were the opening act.

The roots of NYCs Village Halloween Parade extend back to 1973, when Greenwich puppeteer and mask-maker, Ralph Lee, took his kids and several of his creations on a spooky mooch around the neighbourhood. The following year, the march from Lees home to Washington Square Park was 200-strong. Featuring dozens of Ralphs giant puppets and masks and a bloke in a seven-foot-high lobster suit, borrowed from a Sam Shepard play the Village Halloween Parade was officially spawned.

In 1985, the procession relocated to Sixth Avenue where, under artistic director Jeanne Fleming, it has metamorphosed into the citys largest participatory parade. Free to join on the night, the only rule is no costume, no entry.

In a flap moth puppets on poles, part of the parades Ghost-Butterfly swarm. Photograph: Michael DiPleco

With imagination given free rein, the resulting artistry is astonishing. A zombie-eyed Medusa, her green beehive a swirl of serpents, wears a rubber python for a necklace, while a seriously terrifying horned demon, all flayed flesh and fur, sports a garland of dried fruits. Robotic-armed cyberpunks bare grilled teeth at La Catrinas, their exquisitely painted faces a conflict of vibrant petals and brutal stitches. Best of all, though, is a humongous Wild Thing, with his baby son, Max, in a crown and white sleepsuit. The devil is in the detail.

For someone who struggles to put on eyeliner, such professionalism could seem off-putting. But heres the thing: each year a menagerie of puppets, operated by 400 volunteers, forms part of the mile-long cavalcade. So, as no experience or costume is necessary (Just wear black made packing easier), Ive enrolled us into the Ghost-Butterfly swarm.

Signing up via the official website a few months before the event was easy. Its first come, first served but there are always cancellations and no-shows, so last-minute volunteers are usually welcomed. And on years where the weather has been foul or the subways have played up, Jeanne and her team have even had to grab people off the street.

Mercifully, before the Flanagan males can flit off, I spot our peppermint-tressed, peacock-feathered butterfly captain, Kristie, who hands us each a vast moth on a 10-foot-pole, and a standard-bearer belt to secure it in. With the cumbersome puppet now semi-supported, manoeuvring it one-handed, while using the other to animate its wings, is relatively easy.

Grisly tune one of the many bands that take part in the parade Photograph: Darial R Sneed

The drums are pounding as we cram into Canal Street. Nearly 60 bands, from bagpipes to samba, will play tonight, and theyre all tuning up. Then the clock strikes seven and were off lunging between gyrating stilt-walkers, a rattling puppet army of 12-foot-tall Dia de los Muertos skeletons and a vast spider-monkey.

All awkward British reserve is jettisoned as we work the two million spectators cramming the sidewalks; mischievously dipping our winged-spectres low to catch them by surprise. Happy Halloween! we yell.

Trumpets are blaring; the NYPD is smiling (even when I veer off-courseto spook a spectator-crammed side street: Mam, please return to the official route. Now.), and creative energy fills the air. Cats and werewolves are ensuring numerous Donald Trumps meet grisly ends and, is that really a Trump-tampon, declaring Make America Menstruate again?

Its not all horror: Marshmallow Men wobble, Pac-Men gobble and a Superman-caped Pitbull is along for the ride. And here comes Dorothy, Toto and the Tin Man, too (although the latter looks demented and I think the dog is dead).

Arms aching; bathed in sweat and grinning manically, we frontrunners hit 16th Street in just under two hours. Behind us, that herd of walking dead just keeps on coming. Absolutely knackered but buzzing, its been one of the most exhilarating nights of our lives.

Would we do it again? Hell, yes. In an undead heartbeat.

How to join:
The 45th New York City Village Halloween Parade will take place, come rain or shine, on 31 October, 2018. For details on how to take part in or watch the parade, go to
halloween-nyc.com. Prospective puppeteers should register ASAP, although due to no-shows, it is often possible to volunteer on the night.

Get involved! Five more Halloween events to take part in

Macnas Halloween parade, Galway and Dublin

The 2017 Macnas parade in Galway. Photograph: Julia Dunin

Giant puppets will parade the streets, with pyrotechnic displays and live performances on floats under the theme of Out of the Wild Sky, this years Halloween event by Galway-based performance company, Macnas. The parade begins at the National University of Irelands Galway campus; join or spectate along the route, or get involved as a volunteer steward or makeup artist. The following day, Dublin will host the parade, as part of the Bram Stoker Festival.
28 October at 5.30pm in Galway, 29 October at 7pm in Dublin (free), macnas.com

West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval, Los Angeles

One of the largest Halloween street parties in the world, with nearly half a million costumed revellers, live music and cultural performances taking over Santa Monica Boulevard. In previous years, Boy George and a Rocky Horror Picture Show tribute with Tim Curry have performed. All are welcome at this LGBTQ-friendly event, where therell also be food trucks, DJs and plenty of after parties.
31 October, 6pm (free), visitwesthollywood.com

Samhuinn Fire Festival, Edinburgh

Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

This city-centre festival celebrates the transition from summer to winter, marking what is often called the Celtic new year. A standoff between the kings of winter and summer will be among the traditional Gaelic stories recounted on top of Calton Hill, alongside fire acrobatics, drumming, puppetry and other costumed performances.
31 October, 7pm, 6 (2 low income, under-5s free),

The Monster Halloween Ball, Liverpool

The Lantern Company is putting on three days of Halloween family fun at Sefton Park Palm House this year. During the day, therell be mask-making and lantern workshops, while after dark monsters big and small can join the parade around the grounds followed by a costume party. Giant lantern puppets will be throwing shapes on the dancefloor, and therell also be costume competitions, food and games.
24-26 October, with evening parties at 5.30pm and 8pm (From 8.25, under-2s free), lanterncompany.co.uk

Kawasaki Halloween parade, Tokyo

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