This year, the Halloween festivities that normally occur at Bennington College had to be reimagined with the pandemic in mind. The Program and Activity Council successfully planned many fun activities that allowed students to safely celebrate the holiday.
However, plenty of Halloween traditions exist outside the college, and a re-envisioning of the holiday took place on a larger scale. Every Halloween for nearly thirty years, locals of Northern Bennington have paraded through town decked out in costumes. The coronavirus made it too dangerous for people to gather in such a way, but thankfully the orchestrators of the event had an idea: they rebranded it as a “stay-in-your-car” parade. Participants were encouraged to dress up both themselves and their cars.
Half an hour before the promenade was set to begin, cars began lining up on the road next to the college’s Visual and Performing Arts building. Volunteers for the Vermont Arts Exchange, the group that organized the event, checked in with the members of each vehicle, who ranged from local families to organizational representatives to students at the college.
One family, who was participating in the parade for the first time, told me the decision to do so was on a whim. “We initially weren’t going to do it,” the mother shared, but last-minute she thought, “we’ve got enough stuff down in our basement that we can throw something together.” The whole family spent a couple of hours covering their truck with cotton cobwebs, skeletons, and spiders, an activity that got “the kids… really excited.” As they drove along, her young daughter sat in the back of the truck, her face painted bloody, armed with a scythe and throwing menacing looks at people in the crowd.
Another car wasn’t so much costumed as was the wagon it carried behind it, which bore cutouts of Halloweeny figures and a sign reading, “Kindness Matters; Norshaft Lions; Together We Serve”. It was occupied by members of the Norshaft division of the Lions Club International, a nonprofit organization focused on serving communities worldwide. In addition to engaging in a variety of programs that aim to benefit the Norshaft community, volunteers “participate in North Bennington, Shaftsbury, and Bennington events,” and attend the Halloween parade every year.
As I walked along the line of cars, someone called my name. It was Graeme Cohen, ‘21, who was fitted in a skeleton jumpsuit and had spotted me from his own costumed car. Though he had not participated in the Halloween parade before, Cohen was very happy to be a part of it. “I’ve always enjoyed the community in town,” he said. He appreciates that “there are so many people in town that are… really accepting,” and he had a lot of fun seeing “everything, and everyone, [and] all the costumes.”
The bus that headed the parade was the Vermont Arts Exchange’s Art Bus. Normally, this is a black bus that brings art to people in the community, but today every inch was coated with wild colors and patterns. It resembled an abandoned bus, particularly with its number of skeletons positioned on the exterior, and with an ominous, indistinguishable figure sitting in the driver’s seat. At four o’clock, with the long line of cars anxious to get going, the Art Bus began its trek through town.
Along the parade’s path, locals gathered enthusiastically. Families stood on the street with children dressed up, shouting, “Happy Halloween!” to all who passed by. Someone cooked hotdogs, just barely out of the way of where the vehicles traversed. People recognized friends and neighbors in the costumed cars and cheered them on, to which the cars replied with lively honks.
Neil Kenyon, a plumber who works for Bennington College and has lived in the area for decades, clapped with his wife for cars as they passed by. They thought the parade was a good way to bring together the community, especially during this isolating time. “It gets everybody out,” Neil said. “We know a lot of these people—if you can see them through the mask.” His wife added that it’s important for people to have “a safe way to do Halloween in a small town.”
The executive director and co-founder of the Vermont Arts Exchange, Matthew Perry, felt similarly, which is why in August when he was planning for the event, he “knew we had to have another parade.” It’s been a staple of North Bennington’s Halloween celebrations ever since the VAE, whose mission is to “bring art to people of all ages, abilities, and incomes,” was asked by a local elementary school to take over the parade that it had begun holding with schoolchildren. Over the years, it has grown to include all types of people from the Bennington area who want to display their costumes, enjoy some live music, and chat in the warmth of the bonfire that is usually held afterwards.
Back in April, the organization held another stay-in-your-car parade, with the express aim of promoting thankfulness within the community. It was hugely successful, and over a hundred cars turned out that were decorated with signs of appreciation. “We’re being challenged,” Perry told me, “and we have to be creative.” Without the dedication of the entire Bennington community, this year’s Halloween parade would not have been possible. As the last cars disappeared over the hill on Prospect Street, I watched with a renewed sense of gratitude to be a part of it.