Is the creep factor of Forest Park Cemetery about active
spooks or overactive imaginations?
late summer 2002, an amateur photographer was driving down
Pinewoods Avenue in Brunswick when he saw a black iron gateway
anchored by granite columns. Assuming it was the entrance
to an old estate or cemetery, he pulled over and walked around
the spiked fence in search of statuary to take pictures of.
Making his way in was slow going: The deserted grounds were
choked by tree branches and dense bramble. At every step,
thorny vines wrapped around his legs with unnatural tenacity.
What appeared to be an ornate mausoleum lay just ahead, so
he pushed onward. The tomb was in ruins, however, with rusted
iron arches where the roof used to be. And the interior was
marred by the talismans of satanic teen rituals: an upside-down
cross painted on a wall, beer cans and candle stubs strewn
among broken slabs of marble. Despite the warm weather, the
air within was cold and still.
Behind the tomb he spotted a seraphim statue, but the angel’s
neck ended in a jagged stump—she had been decapitated. The
delicate carving of her flowing gown and feathered wings only
made the beheading more disturbing. He began to feel that
someone was watching him. And then he heard something move
in the underbrush, something big. Decidedly creeped
out, he made a hasty exit, with hands held in front of his
face to avoid being gouged by twigs. “The Blair Witch woods
have nothing on this place,” he remembers thinking.
Little did the unwary shutterbug know that he had just paid
a visit to notorious Forest Park Cemetery, considered to be
one of the most haunted sites in the state and, if local folklore
is to be believed, a gateway to hell.
It wasn’t always so. Forest Park, as the name implies, was
intended to be a parklike “garden of remembrance,” complete
with fountains, footpaths and a glass pavilion. Construction
began in 1897 and included the first above-ground receiving
tomb in the country. Large enough to hold 122 corpses over
the winter, the tomb had a domed skylight, a copper finial,
and a $50,000 price tag. A cemetery chapel was in the works,
but it was not to be: Exorbitant costs halted construction
in 1900. A proposed trolley from Troy to Brunswick fell through,
and plot sales faltered: In an era when visiting the dearly
departed was a weekly activity, area residents preferred more
convenient locales for their final resting places. By 1913,
Forest Park was bankrupt. A second incorporation in the 1930s,
by out-of-town investors, also went belly-up, and the site
was abandoned. For many years a solitary old man tended to
the barely hallowed grounds, but after he died, nature took
over with a vengeance.
What the photographer didn’t see, on account of wildly overgrown
five-leaf ivy, was an even more demonic desecration. Behind
the headless angel, another stone seraphim, this one demurely
seated with a laurel wreath, also had her head hacked off—along
with a forearm and other parts of her anatomy. The wreath
seems to hover eerily before her, held by a disembodied hand.
The story goes that the first angel was beheaded by a crazed
visitor who was convinced that she was watching his every
move, and that the vandalism of the second angel was meant
to outdo the depravity of the first.
With the advent of the automobile, the secluded cemetery became
a popular parking spot, and rumors began to spread of a headless
angel that bled at the neck. An influx of thrill seekers and
ghost hunters followed, and reports were circulated of other
paranormal events, such as a large, dark apparition hanging
about the tomb and leaping away with superhuman agility at
the approach of the living. A child’s screams were heard in
By the 1970s, the Troy Public Library was regularly getting
requests for a copy of a Life magazine article titled
“The 10 Scariest Places in America,” with Forest Park Cemetery
listed at No. 3. Generations of local college students graduated
with bravura tales of having spent the night in the presence
of the Bleeding Headless Angel. A popular radio host organized
a nighttime ghost tour for 65 listeners. And with the arrival
of the Internet, the infamy of Forest Park caught on like
Web-site wildfire. But is any of it true? Well, like most
urban legends, it is and it isn’t.
poor angel is just leaking away down there,” says Sharon Zankel
with cheerful sarcasm. Zankel, a board member of the Brunswick
Historical Society and the town historian, is well acquainted
with the cemetery’s reputation. In fact, she receives calls
about it all year long, and from as far away as California.
There isn’t a spooky rumor she hasn’t heard, and she has debriefed
many a caller who was 100-percent certain of the frightening
thing they’d witnessed in the cemetery. “People see what they
want to see,” she explains. But isn’t it possible that where
there’s smoke, there’s fire? A longtime resident of a nearby
neighborhood, Zankel has conducted her own investigations,
and deftly deflects all inquiries. For starters, that Life
magazine article, to her knowledge, does not exist.
And according to a biologist Zankel met on the grounds, the
“blood” on the angels is produced by a kind of moss that in
humid weather will turn red if it’s rubbed—a fact that was
authenticated by a botanist. From a patch of lichen, it seems,
a fright tale was born. But what about the leaping apparition,
another persistent phenomenon? “I’ve seen deer in there,”
Zankel offers helpfully. Fair enough. But what about the screaming
child? “Have you ever heard a wild turkey?” she asks in reply,
and relates how on her very first foray into the cemetery,
she and a cleanup crew of three friends were stopped in their
tracks by a bloodcurdling shriek, followed by what sounded
like a galloping horse heading straight for them. The specter,
they realized with some embarrassment, was a startled turkey
Alrighty then. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all. .
. . “It’s gloomy, but not scary,” Zankel insists, and indeed,
a recent visit confirmed that Forest Park is no longer the
forbidding landscape it was a year ago. Dead trees that once
loomed ominously are now reduced to neat piles of firewood,
the thorny underbrush is cleared out, and the evil graffiti
has been scrubbed almost to invisibility. Toppled tombstones
and dying poplars are the only remainders of its malevolent
atmosphere. And that otherworldly chill in the roofless tomb?
It’s just your imagination.
Or is it? When informed that the watcher in the woods was
undoubtedly a curious deer, the photographer vehemently disagrees.
“That’s a creepy place,” he shoots back. “I wouldn’t go in
there after dark for anything.”
Now a fashionable entertainment icon, todays vampire
evolved from a less-sexy ancestor who existed to explain the
By Jeff Brower
you describe a vampire? Of course you can. Pale, slender,
aristocratic, stylish, a glimpse of fangs behind a seductive
smile—all of us know what vampires look like.
So did our ancestors, but they would likely be baffled by
the description above. Prior to the 19th Century, the common
notion of a vampire was almost the exact opposite of our modern
The vampire of folklore is typically livid in complexion,
not pale; bloated, not slender; more likely to be a vagabond
than a count; dressed in a tattered shroud, not black satin;
and as far from sexy as one can imagine.
Most important, to our ancestors the vampire was not an entertainment,
but a very real threat—so real, in fact, that history is replete
with accounts of vampire hunts, corroborated by public officials,
in which villagers would search out the vampires in their
churchyards, exhume them, and mutilate their bodies in a variety
of gruesome ways, all in an attempt to save their loved ones
from death at the hands of the dead.
Nearly every culture on Earth has had some version of the
vampire myth. In ancient China, the vampire was a much-dreaded
demon who inhabited a corpse, which would then develop long
claws, become covered with greenish or white hair, and learn
to fly. The Yugoslavian vampire was known to wear down his
widow with his amorous attentions until she wasted away. The
Malaysian Penanggalan was particularly horrific, a flying
head with its stomach and entrails dangling beneath it like
the tail of a kite. The world’s undead run the gamut from
pranksters who are scarcely more fearsome than leprechauns
to demigods such as the Indian Rakshasa, an insatiable predator
who can take on virtually any repulsive form it pleases.
the common traits we see in all vampire legends can best be
examined by looking at the vampires of Eastern Europe, those
closest to our modern conception, springing from the lands
From the Middle Ages until the 20th Century, Eastern Europe
was the land of the vampire. There are a number of well-documented
cases of “real” European vampires, and chroniclers have also
collected countless anecdotal tales that match the documented
cases in most important details.
One of the best-documented cases is that of Peter Plogojowitz,
a Serbian peasant who died in 1725 in the village of Kisilova.
Ten weeks after his death, nine more people in his village
died of mysterious daylong illnesses, complaining on their
deathbeds that Plogojowitz was tormenting them. The alarmed
villagers concluded that Plogojowitz was a vampire and insisted
to the imperial provisor and the local pastor that Peter be
exhumed. With these two officials in attendance, the villagers
dug up the suspected vampire and found that his body was fresh.
His hair had grown; his pallid skin had peeled away to reveal
a new, fresh skin; his body had no stench; his nails had fallen
off to reveal fresh ones; and, most startling to the provisor,
he had blood upon his lips. Seeing their suspicions confirmed,
the villagers drove a stake through his chest, causing blood
to flow from his mouth and ears. They then burned the corpse
to ashes and left the hapless provisor to beg to his superiors
that this desecration not be blamed on him, according to the
provisor (as documented in M. Michael Ranft’s 1728 De masticatione
mortuorum), but rather on “the rabble, who were beside
themselves with fear.”
An even more spectacular case from 1732 is that of Arnod Paole,
a Hungarian soldier who returned from foreign lands claiming
he had survived a vampire attack. Arnod eventually died a
mundane death by falling off a hay cart. A month later, people
began to complain that he had returned from the dead, and
soon four more people had died. The villagers concluded Paole
was a vampire and exhumed him. They found him as they expected
to: engorged, fresh blood upon his gaping blue lips, his skin
peeling away to reveal new, ruddy growth. They drove a stake
through him, according to a 1732 investigative report, Visum
et Repertum (Seen and Discovered), by Johannes Fluchinger,
“whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.”
The villagers then proceeded to drive stakes through Arnod’s
four “victims” as well.
This was not the end of Arnod’s story. Six years later came
another string of unexplained deaths, and the villagers surmised
that Arnod and his vampire brood must have fed on cattle,
and that the people who ate this tainted livestock had perpetuated
Arnod’s curse. Again the villagers plundered their graveyard,
and they found and destroyed no fewer than eleven vampires,
all preserved as Arnod and Peter had been: well-fed; hair,
skin and nails growing in the grave; and filled with fresh,
What should we make of these stories? Our ancestors were no
more immune to overactive imagination than we are. But if
we simply dismiss these accounts, we miss the most important
lesson there is to learn from the mythology of vampires.
The common thread to the world’s vampire legends is how they
end: with the discovery of a corpse that has not decayed as
expected. The folklore tells us that it is remarkable—in fact,
supernatural—that bodies are discovered that are limber, plump,
and ruddy in complexion. The growth of new hair and skin,
the lengthening of the teeth, the presence of uncongealed
blood on the lips and in the coffin, the groans of the dead
as they are moved or impaled—all of this is seen as proof
of life within the grave.
But modern forensic pathologists can now tell us that all
these traits are in fact variants on how bodies naturally
decay. These details are hard on the squeamish, but illuminating.
The plumpness of the vampire comes from the trapped gases
of decay. These same gases can force blood to the lips of
the corpse. The blood of people who die suddenly often reliquefies.
Rigor mortis is a temporary condition. The growth of hair
and teeth is an illusion that comes from the shrinking of
the skin. The “fresh” skin that grows beneath the dead skin,
and the “new” nails, are not fresh and new at all; they are
simply deeper layers of the dermis that are exposed as outer
layers slough off. Even the groans of the dead can be explained
by the forcing of gases through the larynx of the corpse as
it is handled by the vampire hunters.
Vampire legends, like most ancient religious beliefs, are
early attempts at science. Faced with plagues and illnesses
they could not explain, our ancestors concluded that invisible
forces were at work. They were right, of course, but they
had no way to know that viruses and bacteria were their enemies,
Still, the mind-boggling assortment of techniques our ancestors
used to kill and repel vampires is evidence of a great deal
of experimentation. The goals of old superstitions and the
goal of modern science are the same: to cause practical improvements
in the world by understanding the unseen mysteries around
Obviously, the hunt for vampires did nothing to cure plagues.
Diseases run their course, and the disinterring of corpses
continued until, by coincidence, the mysterious deaths ceased.
But we can look at similar attempts at science through folklore
and faith and find greater success. Many herbal treatments
originated by witches are still in use now. Ancient Hebrew
kosher laws, written in a time with no knowledge of contaminants
like botulism, set a standard for food sanitation that is
still admired today. Such successes can be understood only
as early examples of the rigorous observations and searches
for cause and effect that are the core of modern medical science.
Eventually, science advanced to the point where vampires were
no longer needed to explain plagues. By 1812, when Lord Byron
conceived the first English vampire story, few Europeans still
blamed death on the undead. Stripped of his reality in the
common man’s mind, the vampire became the tool of allegory.
Aptly enough, the vampire of fiction soon became locked in
a formula that still revolved around the relationship between
science and faith. The standard vampire plot, as exemplified
in Stoker’s Dracula, involved rational people beset with unexplainable
deaths. Soon an expert such as the famous Van Helsing reveals
that the source of these deaths is a supernatural agent—the
vampire. Much of the plot of these stories revolves around
getting the protagonists to realize that they must abandon
science and rely on ancient superstitions to destroy the evil
in their midst.
Now such plots no longer thrill us. Today’s fiction treats
vampirism as little more than a fashion statement. But we
can still look back to the time when vampires were quite real
to the average man, and ask ourselves whether our current
religious beliefs will someday become as quaint and trivial
as vampires now seem to us today.
is Halloween, the time when we feel closest to the dreads
that motivated our forefathers, and the time to enjoy the
strangest of pleasures—the thrill of a good scare. So as you
settle down to sleep tonight, take a moment to contemplate
what your distant ancestors must have felt as they wound their
way by torchlight into their graveyard, in search of the vampire
that was killing friends and lovers. Picture the scene as
they expose the corpse to the light of the moon, and see the
fresh blood on its lips. And ask yourself whether you could
steel yourself to do as they did, and hear the vampire groan
as you impale it in its grave.
Brower is a professional sculptor with a lifelong interest
in mythology and weird science.
the Slutty Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
From sexy to symbolic, Halloween indulges our desire to seduce
with brilliant disguises
By Ashley Hahn
year, instead of dusting off the same dreary costume, use Halloween
as an opportunity to embody something you are decidedly not
every other day of the year, put your creative mettle to the
test and rise to the occasion by being spectacular.
aside the obvious and traditional costumes, the options are
endless: You could be “Captain Hooker,” the saucy pirate strumpet,
armed with a hook, eye patch, and padded bra, or “Ribbed for
Her Pleasure,” by encasing yourself in egg crate foam and
sporting a skull cap. The sky may be the limit, but clever
costumes frequently aim high to personify the abstract and
kind of an alter-ego thing,” says Lois Myers, owner of Halloween
Hall, a costume shop in Ballston Spa. She thinks women in
particular can feel liberated by Halloween, because they know
“nobody’s going to think I’m weird if I’m dressed in something
revealing and sexy, because it’s Halloween. . . . I can be
a wench or a French maid or a sexy firefighter.”
one friend who always tries to go home from Halloween parties
with the slutty devil. There will always be one at the party,
and it doesn’t matter who she is; he’s just hell-bent on winning
over that Halloween archetype. Last year, I believe all he
got was a hard time washing out the baby powder that tried
to gray his hair, and a stiff neck from the couch.
is the overwhelming urge for women to dress up revealingly?
Perhaps it’s because being just a regular nurse or housekeeper
isn’t exciting enough—after all, regular people do that for
a living. What’s fun about that? But being the object of someone’s
fantasies through a vocation or symbolic representation makes
a costume way more appealing.
the answer is simple: Women want to feel pretty. “Very few
women come in every year and make themselves ugly,”she says.
“I can tell you from the thousands of people I see during
the course of the year, I have only three or four women who
want to be hideous.”
other end of the costume spectrum is dressing conceptually.
I’ve seen people dressed as the wind, an idea, and love. This
year some of my friends are dressing as their favorite fonts.
To them, Times New Roman wears tweed and has no sense of humor;
Chicago is a leftover of a bygone era, wearing black jeans
and lacking self-esteem; and GenX Crumble is sooooo grunge.
Is their costume nerdy? You bet. Is it original? Absolutely.
And that’s where concept costumes win points.
costume ideas are an opportunity—as is the ridiculously skanky
costume—to be an ideal version of something. It’s suddenly
as though there are a bunch of Platonic forms gathered around
the ol’ punchbowl instead of just your goofy chums.
a glittery pimp is decidedly boring (and most people don’t
have the ride to pull it off anyway), and wearing oversized
foam cowboy hats or chaps will never be cool. Part of the
fun of dressing up is being silly, but it’s also your ability
to feel comfortable in your newfound skin. That of course
says nothing of the necessity to ensure you can pee, sit,
consume and fit through doorways with ease. And always be
wary of shaving body hair—and guys thinking of cross-dressing,
I’m talking to you here—because you will wake up on Nov. 1
to last night’s horror hangover: the despair that comes with
impulsively shaved legs or head and the ensuing itch, in addition
to regular morning-after symptoms.
any outrageous outfit, how you carry yourself matters. No
one wants to talk to the gray girl dressed as wind slumped
against the wall, awkward because her clothes are all slanted
in one direction and held out by wires, but everyone will
want to talk to the tempestuous babe with blushing windswept
cheeks who embodies the spirit of autumn gusts. Halloween
is not a day to be half-assed.
a friend who insisted that owning a gorilla suit would dramatically
improve his life. So, the fall after he graduated, he showed
up at a Halloween party in our college town in a full gorilla
suit to surprise his friends. Upon arrival he refused to speak
to anyone except in grunts, which went on for so long that
our friends started to doubt that it was actually him. Finally
(after overheating), he ripped off his mask to reveal his
identity to much groaning. (The night incidentally included
an impromptu wrestling match, in character: the gorilla against
“Walter” from The Big Lebowski.) The point: He chose
a mediocre costume and took it to its extreme. (He went on
to wear the gorilla suit—without the mask—during chilly winters
in his drafty apartment.)
years ago, a friend of mine dressed up as the personal assistant
to her best friend, as if the friend were actually a celebrity.
The personal-assistant character she adopted tried to look
chic but always stayed somewhat trashy, had a laminate badge
with her picture and fake name (Rhonda Stacks), and dragged
around a briefcase of supplies she thought our celebrity friend
would need that night: lipstick, a flask, cigarettes, lighters,
sunglasses. . . the supplies were endless. At the same party,
another friend was a subcharacter from a subplot from Days
of Our Lives, complete with memorized plot lines, who
remained in character all night. Again, two unremarkable ideas
(personal assistant and TV soap character) that were exceptional
costumes because of the extent people were willing to go to
carry them to fruition.
of all of this, I’ve been invited to a Halloween party and
have no costume. All of my ideas fall flat: I can’t be Debbie
Harry because she’s way too hot and I can’t pout all night.
Joan Jett wears too many bandannas and has too high of a spandex
potential. If I were Annie Oakley, no one would know that
I wasn’t just a cowgirl. And though I like powdered wigs,
they require either a bustier or a tricornered hat to complete
the look. For now, I’m leaning toward the hanging gardens
of Babylon or Clio, the muse of history.
the parties will be rife with people dressed as everything
from rock stars and biblical prophets to sedimentary rocks
and corporate profits—and of course, the obligatory slutty