Cowboys and Pumpkins: Halloween in Tombstone, Arizona

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Holding within its boundaries a rich history of mining, gunfights, and overall spookiness—Tombstone, Arizona sits just east of the San Pedro River. The quintessential ghost town boasts all the saloons, wooden plank walkways and archaic shops that have populated Hollywood Westerns for eons, offering a vibe that tourists crave. Here's what to expect during Halloween in Tombstone.

About Tombstone, Arizona

Nearly half a million visitors explore Tombstone every year, keeping the abandoned town’s economy thriving. However touristy, the town exudes an authenticity no soundstage could fake. Pivotal historical events—including the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—happened on Tombstone’s hallowed grounds, lending an inimitable profundity to the spot. Quite simply, the place feels haunted. This “haunted” feeling is utilized to maximum effect from October 19-21, when the Helldorado Days festival takes over the town.

Tombstone, Arizona ghost town ~ Halloween in Tombstone

Tombstone, Arizona—the quintessential ghost town

Halloween in Tombstone

Thematically and stylistically perfect for Halloween, Helldorado Days re-creates Tombstone’s late 19th century character, when it thrived as a lively mining town. The festival’s name comes from a term used by disgruntled miners in the 1880s, many of them seeking riches—like the treasures of mythical El Dorado—but finding only menial labor. By adding a couple letters to the name of a symbolic kingdom of riches, the miners supplemented their misery with some linguistic humor.

Helldorado Days with kids

During Helldorado Days, activities for families and children abound: a Halloween-centric carnival with carousels, glittering lights, rides for kids, and glorious greasy food; street entertainment and parades, along with friendly competitions; dynamic moods conjured by a steady flow of live music; re-enactments of famous events in Tombstone’s history performed faithfully by devoted actors.

Children between the ages of 5 and 10 are likely to be most receptive to Helldorado's charms—young enough to engage without self-consciousness, but not so young that the festival's historical weight is lost on them. It's up to the parents to conclude how young is too young for the Wild West's gun totin', tobacco spittin', hard drinkin' hedonism. Violence, no matter its pivotal role in history, can be suggestive to an extreme some moms and dads may find this part of Tombstone unpalatable. Luckily, the tapestry of invigorating carnival frivolity, fashion, and sugar-based consumables can serve as peaceful alternatives to the re-enactments.

Helldorado Tombstone, Arizona ghost town ~ Halloween in Tombstone

Helldorado Gunfight Theatre and Restaurant

Wild West

Re-enactments of historical events can be a tricky business. While a powerful re-enactment can bring history to life, a poorly executed one can create a viscous brand of nausea, bordering on anger. All it takes is one glimpse of a digital watch on “Abraham Lincoln,” and we become self-conscious about the whole endeavor. And while we can forgive slanted mustaches and Nike shoes in elementary school performances, we hold a grudge against adults who butcher history’s critical moments.

The primal excitement of the Wild West makes the temptation to re-create its history almost irrepressible. Often the quality of props—the cowboy hat, holster, pistol, and dubiously necessary handkerchief for the neck—is used as the sole factor for determining a performance’s quality. Further, poor re-enactments may include a garish blend of characters, with Tonto and Wyatt Earp engaging in lengthy dialogues.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

The first re-enactment I saw at Tombstone was of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral years ago. It began not with cowboys wandering out context-free, but actually an introduction and explanation given by one of the performers. It was a theatrically questionable choice, revealing his true identity before beginning the drama. But as the explanation continued, I found myself inadvertently learning.

The show’s stage was an entire strip of dusty road, right in the center of town. The characters were pure meanness, with Wyatt Earp looking particularly imposing, unpleasantly plump and dressed in black. The dialogue was a vibrant banter of one-upmanship and threats, with characters stepping softly around each other, kind of maintaining a spiderlike posture of cautious aggression. The tension built to beyond a fever pitch, almost to the are-they-ever-going-to-shoot-each-other point. Doc Holliday’s shotgun put all doubts to rest, and within a few minutes there were casualties aplenty, putting all minds at ease.

Gunfight gravestones Tombstone, Arizona ghost town ~ Halloween in Tombstone

Grave markers in Tombstone

Getting it right

In the years that followed, I would learn a stunning fact about that day’s re-enactment: it was accurate. Truly, down to the smallest detail of how the event unfolded, the Tombstone playwrights had nailed it. And while getting every detail in a re-enactment should be a given, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Although authentic, the show is performed with a touch of whimsy, so the violent deaths come off as a fun re-telling of history.

Helldorado Days offers a compact, heightened experience of Tombstone, Arizona. It is a place that positively oozes the ineffable creepiness upon which Halloween is based. Ending 10 days before All Hallows’ Eve, Helldorado Days is a preparatory event, setting a mood that lingers up to and beyond the act of trick-or-treating. And at the risk of undermining the holiday’s thrills, it’s also educational and culturally enriching.  It’s also fun enough that kids will learn without even realizing it, which is often when they learn the most.

Would you like to celebrate Halloween in Tombstone, Arizona? Let us know in the comments below!

All photos by Fritz Liess, Creative Commons 2.0

About Gabe Miller, The Philosophical Travel Daddy

Long before Gabe Miller was a Travel Daddy, he was a Travel Son. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the early 1980s, he was exposed to the town’s intellectual, hippie aesthetic before becoming functionally bipedal. He had barely shed his lanugo by the time he began to travel, going on modest trips that were nonetheless profound. His wife is equally passionate about traveling, and together they’re sharing new adventures with their baby boy. From the day of their son’s birth, they’ve rejected the idea that having a child means staying indoors with the blinds drawn. They take him everywhere they go, and his smiles are proof that he’s perpetually prepared for adventure! Gabe and his family currently reside happily in the small rural town of Dundee, Michigan. Gabe has a B.A. in English and works as a middle school English teacher. Connect with Gabe on Twitter as @thetraveldaddy.

Comments

  1. Been there, done that (many years ago). Fun excursion with kids.

  2. Gabe Miller, The Philosophical Travel Daddy says:

    Indeed it is, Ellen. Halloween is a mysterious and curious holiday, and it’s a shame when kids see only the candy and Jack-o-lantern aspects. Tombstone is a portal to an interesting history.

  3. awesome post.

  4. Amanda Keeley-Thurman says:

    We loved visiting Tombstone with the kids. We visited in April, but I bet Halloween is extra fun and spooky.

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