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The phantoms of Providence past, present, future

Reflecting on Brown’s harrowing Halloween history and pandemic present

Providence might just be the locus of hocus pocus; the spooky city boasts bounteous emblems of the ghastly and supernatural. These have served as the inspiration for many storytellers — from H.P. Lovecraft to Providence Ghost Tours, the fictional and historical narratives of the undead and otherworldly seem inseparable from the College Hill landscape. 

In 2010, the Providence Ghost Tour’s owner, Courtney Edge-Mattos, told The Herald that she “wholeheartedly” believes in the tales she tells on her tours. Some tour-goers have even cited an apparition outside of the H.P. Lovecraft house at 65 Prospect Street, Edge-Mattos recounts. Perhaps a spirit still resides in the shadows where the author wrote the famed short story “The Haunter of the Dark.” 

And it is through Lovecraft that the tradition of Halloween feels closely tied to Brown’s campus as well. In a 2016 New York Times article, Noel Rubinton ’77  (former editor-in-chief of The Herald) referenced the horror writer’s fondness for Brown. “Lovecraft dropped out of high school, yet Brown was a center of his universe as he walked among its buildings most of his life,” Rubinton writes. “His writing is infused with the results of his prodigious research in its libraries.”

The sites where Lovecraft did his “prodigious research” have come to honor him too, as the John Hay Library now hosts an extensive collection of Lovecraft stories. 

But the creepiness of the Hay extends beyond Providence-inspired fiction: The collection boasts three books bound in human skin. One of the books, “The Dance of Death,” is a 19th century edition of a medieval tale that emphasizes death’s inescapable pervasiveness. This apt creepiness is a frequent feature of skin-bound books, because “there was some tie-in with the content,” Sam Streit, former director of the John Hay Library told the Los Angeles Times in 2006.

The question remains: what happens to Providence’s phantasmic prowess during a pandemic? Do our superstitions and spidey-senses for the supernatural sublimate amidst social distancing? Or does the self-isolation incite a tangible tenor of terror? 

It is true: Spooky, swarming and sweaty Halloweekend parties may be no more, but the culture of Halloween is far from dead this October season. Perhaps one could say that the creepy holiday has been zombified on campus — necromanced into a series of socially-distanced University “Halloweek” events.

On Saturday at 11:59 p.m., the yearly Midnight Halloween Organ Recital will be made available in a digital format so as to abide by pandemic guidelines. “Mark Steinbach, Brown University organist and senior lecturer in music, will perform the annual Midnight Halloween Organ Recital on the 1903 Hutchings-Votey pipe organ,” wrote the University in an Instagram Story announcement. 

Though audience members will watch the concert on Zoom rather than sprawled over the floors of Sayles Hall, the Halloween spirit will still mingle with the Providence air. The music will creep through the Hutchings-Votey Organ’s  “three manuals, with fifty-one speaking stops, more than three thousand pipes, wind reservoirs, and over one hundred miles of wiring,” according to Encyclopedia Brunonia.

And, as Steinbach previously told The Herald, “In the ‘vestiges of a daily chapel,’ in a hall of ostentatious portraits, the organ usually assumes a foreboding air. But for Halloween night, with gaudy spider webs tangled around its pipes, the instrument becomes a symbol of unity on campus.”

Some students long for the Brown Halloween experience that once was — the sort of unity incited by the organ concert in Sayles’ Romanesque structure. Amelia Anthony ’22 said her favorite Halloween memory on College Hill was at a house party last year, when she dressed as pop-singer Billie Eilish and her two friends as postmodernist writer David Foster Walllace and rapper Eminem. The trio, costumed as canonical creatives, “danced for three hours straight,” she said. “We observed the ebbs and flows of the party while dancing and really felt the spirit of Halloween.” 

But Anthony’s Halloween spirit has not dissipated in the midst of the pandemic, and she still remains optimistic for a spirited Oct. 31. Perhaps some sartorial splendor will be the medium that allows for the Halloween essence to persist. 

“I usually brainstorm my Halloween costumes for the whole year,” she said. Anthony, who plans to dress up as Amelia Earhart this year, suggests that the costumes might imbue the holiday with its usual vigor, even if dancing occurs alone in rooms rather than a crowd.

Another hopeful Halloween-lover, Hana Odson ’21,  is dressing up as ‘for the love of god,’ though she’s not quite sure how the pun will materialize itself in costume yet.

All students are encouraged to submit their very best Halloween vestments virtually through the Instagram Halloween Costume Contest hosted by the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center. The contest will take submissions until Sunday, and prizes will be awarded to the top three costumes. 

“We hope to provide opportunities for virtual and in person community building during a week where students would typically have a lot of opportunities to come together in person,” said Joie Steele, director of the Campus Center and student activities.

The Student Activities Office is not only sticking to virtual means of spooky socialization though, as there will be socially-distanced opportunities to get in the Halloween spirit on campus. “Some of the events were traditional things that were shifted to be virtual this year, and some events were planned to provide opportunities for students to come together in person on a smaller scale,” Steele said. 

These smaller, socially-distanced events include “Treats Under the Tents” and a Pumpkin Carving Contest, both of which are on Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The “Treats Under the Tents” serves as a “designated location for Grab & Go pumpkin spice cupcakes and apple cider donuts made from scratch by Christina Smith, bakeshop manager of Brown Dining Services,” according to the event description.

According to Steele, all of the in-person events were structured specifically to abide by University social-distancing protocol: “Registration for the ‘Treats under the Tents’ event was designed to evenly distribute attendance across the five large tents that already existed on campus,” she said. “All food offerings will be grab and go, and pumpkins will be picked up at multiple locations for students to carve at home.” 

At the Halloween-themed confection stands, registered students can also grab a pumpkin for the Pumpkin Carving Contest, which is to be returned to Sharpe Refectory by 2 p.m. Saturday for a virtual judging Halloween night. 

And perhaps it is in these events that we might see hope for a future of Halloween celebrations at Brown. 

“Halloweek provides a great way to group both new and existing events in one package. This might be something to build on even after we can return to a full in-person campus experience,” Steele said.

It seems, then, that Providence’s phantoms of Halloween are steadfast. Not even a pandemic can pause Halloween on College Hill, as the petrifying potions and spectral stories promise to persist through costume, community and chronicle.


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