Admit it: this year has been an underwhelming Halloween season. Take it from me, a woman who has the Munsters theme song on iTunes rotation all year round — over fall 2016, everyone has been so genuinely stressed, fearful, and spooked about the election that they can only manifest subpar levels of enthusiasm for haunted houses, ax murderers, and that story about that woman who won't ever take off her green ribbon choker. I get it, I really do — when the future of the world feels like it will be permanently altered by whatever happens over the course of the next nine days, it is maybe hard to muster excitement for "Monster Mash" or eerie cackling.
But I believe that Halloween is important — not just for the snack-sized-candy economic sector, but for all of us. Halloween gives us a way to explore our fears in a safe, controlled way, secure in the knowledge that we're doing it at the same time as millions of others — an extremely valuable feeling right now, I'd say, when so many of our lives feel utterly controlled by fear. So if you totally blew Halloween this year, and your last-second trip to your local Halloween superstore yielded only a Cher wig and a slightly irregular children's-sized Minions costume, don't fret — there's another way to engage with the spirit of Halloween, and you may not even have to venture very far from that park across from your office building — because that park may be, uh, filled with dead bodies.
Filled with very old dead bodies, that is — if a park in your town is filled with new-ish dead bodies, please do not enjoy any Halloween eeriness and proceed immediately to the nearest police station to report it. But a number of public spaces throughout the U.S. and beyond are built over old graveyards — sometimes by accident, and sometimes because, well, there are only so many square miles within city limits, OK?
Have these urban planners never seen Poltergeist? That, my friend, is a question for next Halloween. This Halloween, just read on, and if any of these hidden graveyards are near you, take a second to stop by today and feel the spookitude. It's healthy, I swear!
Washington Square Park, New York
Though Washington Square Park is best known today as a hot spot for playing speed chess and watching college freshmen from nearby NYU awkwardly try to figure out if they're on a date date, it was once a burial ground, and a number of bodies remain buried under the park's paving stones. In the late 18th century, the park was used by the city not just as a potter's field (a cemetery for those too poor to afford proper burial), but as a spot for public executions. Actually, a number of NYC's public parks were once graveyards, though in many other cases, the bodies were removed before the space was repurposed as a place to learn how to play hacky sack. But not at WSP! Those doing construction in the park have come across burial chambers twice in recent history — once in 1965, when builders found a vault containing 25 skeletons, and again in 2015, when a group digging for a construction project in the park found the remains of at least 12 bodies from the 19th century.
Ready to hear something even scarier? You're definitely not on an actual date with that person from your science lab, and got all dressed up for nothing! Mwahaha!
The Catacombs, Paris
In case that last item didn't make it clear: if you're in a city, you're basically walking around over corpses in some capacity, all day long. This goes extra for the streets of Paris, where, between 1786 and 1860, six to seven million bodies were moved from the city's above-ground cemeteries to the city's below-ground catacombs — a network of tunnels, created in the 13th century by mining activity, that run for 200 miles below the city.
Why take skeletons out of their nice, comfy graves and stack them up like human Jenga pieces in weird, cold tunnels? The city experienced an epidemic of overcrowded cemeteries in the late 18th century; residents complained about the stench coming off of packed-to-the-gills graveyards, and when heavy rains caused the retaining wall of one of the city's oldest cemeteries to collapse, a bunch of bodies popped up with it, toppling (again, like Jenga pieces) into a neighboring property. Putting a bunch of dead people in a tunnel is starting to sound a lot more appealing, right?
Of course, not all 200 miles are full of stacks of bones and skulls — only a small section of the catacombs became an ossuary. But about one mile of the catacombs, which I can attest is positively BURSTING with tidy piles of ancient human remains, is open to tourists.
Lincoln Park, Chicago
Lincoln Park is a gorgeous public green space in the heart of Chicago that is home to a zoo and also 12,000 corpses. See, Lincoln Park was once the Chicago City Cemetery; opened in 1843, the cemetery was open for business until 1865, holding four separate cemeteries within its limits. As it became clear that the area's natural environment made it a less-than-ideal final resting place, the city asked many cemetery lot owners to move the bodies, though not many complied. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed many grave markers, and in the aftermath, many of the remaining tombstones were moved. Lincoln Park, which began as 60 acres north of the cemetery in 1860, expanded; bodies from the cemeteries were still being disinterred in 1887, despite talk that all had already been moved.
And many believe that some bodies were never moved at all — artist Pamela Bannos, for example, believes that 12,000 of the original 35,000 bodies buried in the park are still there. Bannos has become a historian of the cemetery-that-was in the park; her art project, Hidden Truths, examines the history of the cemeteries that once existed within Lincoln Park, as well as the moments when Lincoln Park's past has accidentally interrupted the park's present (like in 1962, when construction at the zoo accidentally unearthed a skeleton and casket that were then reburied, and encased under a cement foundation). If you visit Lincoln Park today, one obvious visual reminder of the spot's previous life remains — the Couch tomb, a mausoleum built in 1858 for Ira Couch, a real estate tycoon.
New Haven Green, New Haven, Connecticut
I grew up near New Haven, and spent much of my adolescent free time on the New Haven Green, smoking cigarettes and thinking about Nine Inch Nails, and imaging the day I'd be grown up, and have more glamorous places to smoke cigarettes and think about Nine Inch Nails. Little did I know that I was doing my teen sulking over a bunch of skeletons! (It probably would have put me in a better mood, tbh).
The Green was the town's original burial spot; when nearby Grove Cemetery was opened in 1797, it became the area's primary burial ground, and by 1821, most of the tombstones from the old burying ground were moved there — but, alas, the bodies were not. Historians estimate that over 1,000 bodies still remain under the Green — two of which were suddenly unearthed in 2012, when a tree uprooted by Superstorn Sandy brought up a Colonial ribcage with it (these figures don't necessarily take into account the nifty crypt beneath Center Church, located in the middle of the Green and pictured above).
Also, in case you're wondering, I have not smoked any cigarettes in a very long time, but still think about Nine Inch Nails pretty much every day. Moral of the story: Dreams can come true if you are patient and also aim really, really low!
Christchurch Gardens, Westminster, London
Between 1665 and 1666, 100,000 London residents died of the Black Plague — more than 15 percent of the city's population at the time. When 15 percent of local residents die in a year, giving them a traditional burial kind of becomes a secondary concern to not having a pile of corpses next to your home/ not dying yourself, so the plague dead of London were dropped into holes known as "plague pits" throughout the city and in country areas outside the city limits.
You can guess where this is going, and if you live in or around London, you probably already know —2015 construction on London's subway tunnels revealed a plague pit below the modern-day site of the Liverpool Street Station. But historians believe the bodies buried below the tubes (which have since been removed) were just one of many unknown sites where the plague dead remain. Historic UK issued a guide to where they believe undiscovered plague pits remain, based on their research into historical documents — and found that one likely lies below this lovely public park.
And now that I have guided you through these spooky public spots, my soul can finally rest and I can return to the peace of the grave whence I came!* Happy Halloween!
*Go outside and get a Danish