Photos: Green-Wood Cemetery After Dark Is Like An Eerie Amusement Park
On a recent pre-Halloween night, crickets were chirping across Green-Wood Cemetery, and another, more unearthly noise, was starting to echo across its granite-studded hills. It sounded like the vocalizations of something both damned and ethereal. On any other night of the year, it might have sent anyone inside the cemetery fleeing back through the gates, but instead, crowds of people arriving for Green-Wood’s Nightfall celebration advanced into the night.
The eerie music, as it turned out, was emanating from the roof of a mausoleum, where an enormously skilled theremin player named Cornelius Loy (the “theremin alien,” as his social media dubs him) was doing something astonishing with the instrument: he was playing actual recognizable songs. Popular hits were interspersed with familiar soundtrack compositions drifting from his perch overlooking a stage and tightrope.
Loy was there as part of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, who were, in turn, just one of a few acts tucked away throughout Green-Wood. The Moth was also in the house, the famous storytelling series, as well as Morbid Anatomy, local curators of the regally weird, who were hosting talks in a cozy tent on Nightfall’s theme this year: lovesickness, celebrating, as the organizers put it, “the pleasures and pains of romance, and the impermanence of all the things that we hold dear.” As we passed by, Dr. Alexander Cummins, a magician, diviner and historian, was just beginning a talk on love spells, and, as he put it, “painful delights and delightful pains.” To demonstrate, he showed a photograph of a bit of unsettling love magic: a sheep’s heart, stuck with pins.
A cemetery is, perhaps, a slightly too intense place to consider impermanence and impaled sheep’s hearts for too long, so it was lucky that Nightfall’s performers were a mixture of heavier and lighter touches. Near Loy, the theremin player, a psychic medium going by Madame Phul La Kraap (say it out loud) had taken up residence for the evening with the William-Babcock family, who’d generously, from the great beyond, opened their family mausoleum for the evening.
Winding down a path, things got a little stranger: a mournful man in Victorian garb swooned near a gramophone, clutching flowers, wilting in sadness; viewers who watched him for long enough (and read a nearby sign) learned that he was a mourning husband, playing songs his departed wife had cherished. Soon enough, she appeared on a hillside nearby, a startling white apparition, in a bone-colored gown and wig to match, who advanced down the hill to silently embrace him
To lighten the mood, just down the hill, there were drinks, next to The Wizard — an enormous musical instrument that looked like what would happen if a player piano crashed into an entire orchestra. The machine, commonly known as a “carousel organ” or a “fairground organ,” was built by upstate woodcarver Bob Yorburg and was decorated with carousel-esque faces, as it wheezed out merry tunes for a chipper crowd of revelers. Deeper in the cemetery was a live band, the Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, who sang standards like “Autumn in New York” while audience members danced.
Down a nearby path, lit with candles (discreetly plastic ones), a string quartet played inside another open family tomb. Further along the road, projection screens with mysterious films glowed from above. A solemn violinist played quietly in another open mausoleum, lit with eerie blue lighting. Pioneer Works, Red Hook’s cultural center, had rigged up a subtly enchanting installation in the trees: a sequence of synced bright blinking lights and chimes nestled densely in a green arched canopy.
Nightfall is Green-Wood’s in-house version of what was, for the past few years, an event put on by Atlas Obscura. The crowd was slightly different — less spooky, far fewer costumes — but the overall effect still lovely and eerie. (The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus did bring the pulse up a bit, with acrobats and jugglers.)
Even some of the refreshments were appropriately seasonal; a local small cider-maker named Proper Cider — Jeremy Hammond and Joy Doumis — were there moonlighting under the name Malus Immortalis, a partnership they have with Green-Wood where the cider is made from trees found on the cemetery grounds. One of them, they explained, is at least 100 years old; it sits atop an enormous hill, and it produces, Doumis told Gothamist, a unique variety of apple, unlike anything they’ve seen outside of Green-Wood, that makes an extraordinarily weird cider.
“It’s almost herbal,” she said. “Very bitter and tannic.” The couple blended it with ginseng and eucalyptus and aged it for four years, they said, until it mellowed enough to drink. (That night, they’d elected to serve a cider made from a Baldwin tree, which was far more delicate and floral-tasting, and truly delicious.)
Finally, in yet another open family mausoleum, the French Tarot reader Laetitia Barbier, who’s closely affiliated with Morbid Anatomy, took a quiet moment at the start of the night before receiving a steady stream of visitors.
“It does feel different here,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t get in touch with spirits. But there’s a spiritual backbone here. I’m celebrating the spirits of the past, at the same time that people are coming here to get some answers to build a future. This is such a poetic place to be. I feel very humbled.”
She paused and smiled a little, looking at the walls of the tomb around her, softly lit. “I feel contained,” she added, dreamily, “in a very beautiful way.”
Additional reporting by Anna Merlan.