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Legends & Lanterns: A ‘spirited’ journey through Halloween history

By: Ellen Lampe


During the last weekend of October, St. Charles transforms into a ghost town – literally – as “Ghostly Guests” invade Historic Main Street, traveling from other lands and times to tell their stories.

Though St. Charles’ Legends & Lanterns festival is in just its second year of operation, it has been an idea in the works for much longer – the concept spawning off of the St. Charles’ Christmas Traditions festival.

“I’ve been with the Christmas Traditions special as a cast member since 2006,” Ryan Cooper, founder and creative director of Legends & Lanterns, said. “It’s always been thrown around in the dressing room on break … ‘What would a spring festival or a Halloween festival look like?’ But nothing ever happened, it was always just talk.”

Cooper eventually made it happen. He came up with a multi-page plan of his vision for the festival, gained approval and got to work. He said the festival today is exactly as he imagined – and more.

“The heartbeat of the Christmas Traditions festival is getting to meet all the characters, so we knew we wanted that. We wanted something historical that people could learn about,” Cooper said.

The Ghostly Guests, Victorian Mourning and Scarecrow Contest have grown into the cornerstones of the festival. “It’s not scary, but it’s not childish; it’s history, but it’s fun as well,” Cooper said.

The Ghostly Guests are a vital part of bringing the festival to life. Better-known figures – such as Edgar Allen Poe, Medusa, the Big Bad Wolf and Blackbeard – share their histories amid the flickering lights of their enchanted lanterns. They’re joined by Baba Yaga, the Druid Priestess, Stingy Jack and the Gingerbread Witch, among others, whose stories may not be as familiar.

More than 20 Ghostly Guests will haunt Main Street this year – an increase from the original 13 in the festival’s first year.

“We were really surprised with the reception the festival got last year. We always thought this would have some fans, but the response we got from some people was overwhelming – beyond our wildest dreams,” Cooper said. “We realized there was a niche audience that wanted a Halloween festival like this.”

Like the Christmas Traditions festival, Legends & Lanterns finds its inspiration in the past – offering the vintage charm of Halloween as it was 100 or so years ago. The festival’s website describes it as bringing to life the holiday’s same rituals and customs used by the Druids and Victorians, and creating an atmosphere depicted in American ghost stories and Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Cooper said he gains inspiration year-round.

“I’m one of those people who sleeps with a little notepad by my bed. Throughout the year, while I may not be constantly focused on Halloween, I’m always focused on experiences around me and getting ideas,” Cooper said. “Then, the hard-core planning comes about in March, and casting in the beginning of June. So, from March to October, it’s all Halloween in my head.”

Accompanying the Ghostly Guests along Main Street and the surrounding areas are scarecrows, concerts, Hayrides through History and more. Every nook and cranny is filled with something to discover about the origins of All Hallow’s Eve. With the perfect mix of silliness and scariness, the weekend has something to offer guests of all ages.

Legends & Lanterns: Schedule of Events
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