Columbia Makes A Super-Natural Connection to Halloween

Thanks to several organizations that sponsor Halloween-related events and the fact that spookiness seems to be synonymous with Columbia, it only makes sense that this river-town is putting its trademark on the holiday. 

Mt. Bethel Cemetery, Photo by John Reitzel.

Cle Berntheizel, the owner of Garth, an art gallery, café and event space in Columbia, points out that Columbia has always been in search of a niche holiday or a moment in history around which special events could be held to bring visitors to the river-town. Think about it: Marietta basically owns Christmas, while Lititz is forever linked to the Fourth of July. Gettysburg, of course, lays claim to the Civil War.  

Halloween was a little gold mine waiting to be claimed. Over the past 25 or 30 years, the popularity of Halloween has simply exploded, propelling it to become the second most impactful – from an economic perspective – holiday on the calendar, with Christmas holding the top spot. 

If you walked into a store in the days following the Fourth of July, no doubt you found it was already packed with Halloween merchandise. The National Retail Federation reports that last year’s Halloween-related expenditures registered a record $10.14 billion! Why? Halloween simply provides an excuse to decorate, entertain and have fun without the pressure of buying perfect gifts, hosting family dinners and creating a Martha Stewart-like fantasy land in your front yard (although from the looks of things, people in Lancaster County are headed in that direction). 

Columbia native, John Reitzel, whose photos of Mt. Bethel Cemetery and Veterans Memorial Bridge are seen here, became enamored of photography when he purchased a camera for a trip to Yosemite three years ago. He so enjoyed capturing images of one of the country’s most picturesque national parks that upon his return home, he then began to train his lens on the Susquehanna River and sights in and around Columbia. An Air Force veteran, Reitzel went on to become a color analyst in the catalogue/magazine industry. He is also a talented woodworker and uses his skills to create frames for his art, which is sold at Murphy’s Mercantile.
His work has garnered an appreciative audience, as he took first place honors in the rivertown category of a past Susquehanna Greenway photo contest and was the subject of an exhibit held at Columbia Crossing in 2001. His work is often posted on Lancaster County Photography’s Facebook page. You can also see his work at susquehannaphotos.com.

Speaking of Martha, she apparently was already fielding queries in early August from social media followers asking when it’s appropriate to decorate for Halloween. Her answer? Martha is of the opinion that decorating for the months of September, October and early November is now a multi-faceted endeavor. Fall/harvest décor should replace summery elements right after Labor Day. It can then morph into Halloween on October 1. Pull the scary stuff out on November 1, and you’re back to harvest for the next few weeks. 

It seems that Columbia has always flirted with making Halloween its own. After all, the annual Mardi Gras Halloween Parade, which is held the Thursday before Halloween, has been a holiday staple for nearly a century. Then there’s that Bigfoot-like character, the Albatwitch, that supposedly stalks the woodland around Chickies Rock. Its legend now fuels a very popular event that’s held in early October. 

Columbia secured a place of honor on the Halloween Happenings map in 2001, when its street-theatre production – Haunted Lantern Tour – became the hottest ticket in town for the next nine years. More recently, the historic Mt. Bethel Cemetery has begun hosting Fête en Noir, a fundraising event held in September that sees black-clad guests arrive to socialize and dine amidst the gravestones. No disrespect is intended – a historic connection exists, as Victorians once flocked to cemeteries such as Mt. Bethel for an afternoon of communing with nature, picnicking and remembering the departed.  

Referencing times gone by, Columbia’s antiques and retail shops are stocked with a treasure trove of Halloween items at this time of the year. So, if you’re looking for something special, head for Columbia! 

Last but not least, is the eerie factor. Columbia is haunted! Some homeowners reportedly share their dwellings with former residents. “They seem to be concentrated on this end of town,” Halloween enthusiast, Gary Brubaker, says of the ghost-friendly streets that are closest to the river. “I don’t know … maybe it has something to do with the Underground Railroad?” 

Reaffirming that observation, Kay Leader tells of being at Garth on one occasion and having visitors who had climbed the stairs to the second-floor café remark to her how interesting it was to have passed re-enactors dressed in Victorian garb on the staircase. “Cle didn’t know what they were talking about,” she says, noting that the building has served many purposes over the centuries and perhaps the “ghosts” were connected to one of those. Cle embraces the spookiness of Columbia to a degree and occasionally hosts events that feature psychic mediums. 

Painted signage that heralded the names of businesses or served as advertisements are part of a fascinating hobby in which devotees travel far and wide to document “ghost signs” that are revealed when buildings are in the process of being razed or renovated. Many businesses – such as Bootleg Antiques in Columbia – have brought the signage back to life.

Last Halloween, as part of Create Columbia’s new home-tour event, Garth hosted a lecture presented by Columbia native, MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson, who acquainted guests with her hobby of tracking down “ghost signs” – painted graphics and advertisements that once decorated the exteriors of buildings and are now being revealed and brought back to life during restoration projects. Ghost signs have given way to a new hobby for “detectives” like MaryAlice, who travels far and wide to document them. MaryAlice reported that Columbia (as well as Lancaster City) is a great place to see ghost signs.    

Columbia Halloween House Tour: October 30  

Create Columbia is a nonprofit organization that promotes Columbia from an artistic and creative perspective by encouraging artists to live and work there and by providing opportunities for art lovers to patronize the galleries, shops and other creative outlets that exist. For example, the garden tour that was revived by Create Columbia several years ago has enjoyed success due to the fact that it has an added artistic element – each property features a working artist, including some as well-known as Freiman Stoltzfus. 

“The nice thing about Columbia is that people like to share what they have with others,” Kay notes, adding that in addition to artists, garden-tour visitors are often afforded the opportunity to interact with the homeowners and learn about the town’s historic architecture or the old-fashioned plants that define their gardens. 

That sentiment of sharing gave several of the organization’s supporters an idea. People love to decorate for Halloween in Columbia, so why not share that fact with visitors. “Right off the bat, we came up with a list of friends and family members who are into Halloween,” says Denise Brubaker. “Everyone we approached was really into doing it.” She and Gary even recruited one of their sons and a grandson to greet tour-goers in the dungeon of the market house. “I even found them jailhouse costumes,” she adds.  

Riley and Reece Schaeffer in front of their home on Chestnut Street in Columbia. Photo by Kirk Zutell.

If you recall, Halloween weekend 2021 was a near-disaster. Trick-or-Treat was scheduled for Friday – rain or shine – in the county’s jurisdictions. Torrential rain was indeed in the forecast. Members of Facebook, Nextdoor and other social media sites committed near insurrection by announcing their neighborhoods would be postponing trick-or-treating to Sunday (October 31) night. Holy crashing websites! Create Columbia realized their inaugural house tour, whose hours were 3-8 p.m. on Sunday, October 31, might suffer, as adults would need to take their children on their rounds. 

No matter, the show had to go on and what a show it was! Those people in Columbia are beyond creative where Halloween is concerned. Styling ranged from tasteful seasonal motifs to theatrical “productions” such as séances. The Brubakers’ Halloween “museum” is amazing! Nearly everyone was in costume and makeup. Everywhere you went, the lighting expertise – and even the theatrics – was phenomenal. Did I say I had a good time? 

The success of the weekend-long event encouraged the Create Columbia committee to begin expanding its Halloween horizons. This year’s tour will feature nine stops, including five private homes and locales such as Art Printing, which makes its home in the Samuel Miller Mansion (a favorite destination for paranormal investigators), the dungeon in the market house and Mt. Bethel Cemetery, where Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) will be observed with mini-tours of the grounds. “Whether it’s the garden tour or now Halloween, we have to work ahead,” says Kay. “We’re already lining up houses for 2023 and 2024. Next year, Cle has volunteered to chair a masquerade ball.”     

Create Columbia’s Halloween House Tour is being held Sunday, October 30. Hours are 3-8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at Columbia Market House on Saturday (7 a.m.-3 p.m.) and Sunday (tour hours), as well as at Mt. Bethel Cemetery (Sunday only). Tickets are $15; proceeds benefit an art-related scholarship fund. For details, visit createcolumbia.org and Facebook.   

In addition to the house tour, Columbia will be the scene of other Halloween-related events, including: 

Albatwitch Day: October 8  

Mark your calendars for October 8 and get caught up in things that go bump in the night! Columbia Crossing will host a day dedicated to Columbia’s Albatwitch, a legendary creature that’s small in stature (4 feet) and moves like a human but resembles Bigfoot in appearance. Albatwitches supposedly like to hang out around Chickies Rock. 

The day-long event will feature lectures, live music, food, vendors and trolley tours, one of which will be narrated by ghost-hunter Rick Fisher and historian Chris Vera. Lecturers will include Mary Fabian, the founder of PA Bigfoot Project; Eric Altman, an authority on southwest Pennsylvania’s Chestnut Ridge, where things out of the ordinary occur; Tim Renner, host of the podcast, Strange Familiars; Lou Bernard, a writer who investigates old legends and stories; and Robert Phoenix, who practices Pennsylvania-German powwow (a blend of folk magic, healing remedies and Christian prayers). 

Columbia Crossing is located at 41 Walnut St. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. For details, visit albatwitchday.com.  

Pumpkin Painting: October 15 

Unleash your creativity at Columbia Crossing, where a day-long, pumpkin-painting party will be held. All supplies will be provided; a $4 donation is suggested. 

41 Walnut St. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For details, visit susquehannaheritage.org. 

Columbia Haunted Lantern Tour: Industry Ascending: October 22-30

The lantern tours were launched in 2001 as a result of Columbians Janet Wood, Tom Vecchiolli, Cle Berntheizel and a few other residents reflecting on the success of the community’s ghost-oriented Christmas House Tour (2000). The tour ultimately inspired Ghosts of Columbia: A Haunted Lantern Tour, which took place in October. The vision of the new tour was to provide guests with a historically immersive experience, with historic interiors as the focal point. The Columbia Downtown Development Corporation (CDDC) financed the tours through 2010. Janet Wood, a local costumer and the director of Columbia High School’s theatre department, played a pivotal role, as she devised concepts and logistics, did research and created costumes. Others contributed by conceptualizing characters, plot lines, scenes, etc.

By 2005, 120 volunteers were involved (including actors). In 2010, Wood announced her retirement and the event carried on with the support of the CDDC. Because attendance declined in 2010, it was ultimately canceled in 2011. In 2014 and 2015, it was partially resurrected by Wood, with Mount Bethel Cemetery taking over as the sponsor. Attendance continued to wane and the event ultimately became history.

In 2017, Sara Mimnall, who had been a long-time participant in the event as an actor – and who has a love and appreciation for the performing arts, as well as all-things spooky – had the idea to revive the tours. Now known as Columbia Haunted Lantern Tour, the theme of its inaugural outing, Spirits Rising, was inspired by previous tours and featured a séance through which beloved characters were recalled.

Today, Sara creates the scripts that feature original characters, newly introduced historical figures and fresh storylines. Approximately 50 volunteers take part in the tours. Sara credits the “ever-changing themes” that have touched on disease and famine, 1920’s nightlife, superstitions and folklore, etc. for the renewed interest in the event that this year will focus on how business and industry transformed the town. The 2022 tour will include a trip through Columbia – via the Rivertowne Trolley – and stops at such sites as the Miller Mansion and Mount Bethel Cemetery among others.

In 2019, Sara took the lantern tour concept a step further and created an umbrella organization, Rivertown Theatre Productions, LLC. According to Sara, the intent of the all-inclusive nonprofit community theatre is to “unite those with a passion for history and the performing arts.” Sara is assisted by Tracey Mimnall, Rachel Mimnall, Holly Graybill, and Chris Raudabaugh, whom she calls “the backbone of the company.”

The theme of this year’s lantern tours is “Industry Ascending.” Tours will be held the evenings of October 22, 23, 28, 29 and 30. Reservations are required. Call 717-587-5368. For details, visit columbiahlt.com.

Messages From Heaven: October 22 

Garth will be hosting psychic medium and podcaster Hope Taylor, who views her group events as healing experiences for those in attendance, as her readings validate a connection to those who have passed through evidence, personality, memories and messages of love. Hope promises to provide as many connections and messages as possible. 

22 S. Second St. 1 p.m. Purchase tickets through eventbrite.com.  

Haunted Dinner: October 22 

Columbia Market House will host a haunted dinner and dungeon tour. Tickets are $25 and are limited to 50 guests. 

15 S. Third St. 6-10 p.m. Call 717-572-7149 for tickets. 

Mardi Gras Halloween Parade: October 27  

The parade grew out of an event that was first held in 1916 and celebrated the installation of 135 lighting standards in the borough. Sponsored by the More Light Association, the original event was modeled on Mardi Gras celebrations held in New Orleans. The event, which eventually took the shape of a parade, continued through the 1920s, after which the Columbia Area Jaycees took over as the sponsoring organization. In 2002, the Columbia Lions Club and Sunsnappers, a men’s service club, became the parade’s sponsors. The parade features local high school marching bands, first responders, Columbia High School’s homecoming court and divisions such as walkers, baton, floats (many sponsored by local businesses and organizations) and individuals. This year’s theme is “Back to the ’90s.” 

The parade steps off at 7 p.m. at the Columbia Borough Fire Department, located at 726 Manor St. From there, it winds its way around town. For more information, visit Facebook.com/ColumbiaMardiGrasParade.     

Halloween Party in the Park: October 29 

Sponsored by the Movers and Shakers Society, the event will feature a DJ, vendors, local businesses, trick-or-treating and  costume contests for adults and children. 

Locust Street Park, Locust St. and Lancaster Ave. 4-8 p.m. For details, visit Facebook.com/cmss17512. 

Susquehanna Supernatural Symposium: October 29 

Psychic medium, Lucky Belcamino, the co-founder of the New England Paranormal Society, is hosting an event at Keystone Artisan Werks that will include speakers such as Rick Fisher and Chris Vera, vendors, a Houdini séance and more. 

199 Bridge St. 6 p.m. This is a ticketed event: PayPal.me/ghostchick. 

Field of Screams/Corn Cob Acres 

If you still haven’t had your fill of Halloween activities, don’t forget Field of Screams is just minutes away in Mountville. Celebrating its 30th season, America’s Number One haunted attraction (per USA Today), has evolved from high school students popping out of cornfields to a highly technical/technological attraction that continues to be operated by its original owners, Jim and Gene Schopf (and their families), and stars a ghoulish cast of hundreds of extras. 

The Schopfs dare you to go on the Haunted Hayride and negotiate the Den of Darkness, Frightmare Asylum and the Nocturnal Wasteland. There’s also a midway that features food and live musical entertainment. The season closes on November 12, with the annual 5K Zombie Fun Run (costumes are all but required), proceeds from which benefit the PA Breast Cancer Coalition. 

If you’re looking for something a little tamer, Corn Cob Acres is perfect for an afternoon outing with the kids. There’s nothing scary here. The 50 activities are geared to fun on the farm. 

191 College Ave., Mountville. Field of Screams is open weekends (Fri.-Sun.) through October 30, as well as Thursday, Oct. 13, 20 and 27, Monday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 4, 5 and 11. Corn Cob Acres is open weekends (Fri.-Sun.) through October 30. Fieldofscreams.com and corncobacres.com.

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