Horrors lurk amid the oak groves of Alabama’s Tannehill State Park. A giant black-and-orange spider perches atop a camper, threatening to devour it. Across a gravel road, gravestones have sprouted around an RV. And over in Campground Two, screams from witches and skeletons echo through the night.
Halloween here is no walk in the park – although that’s exactly what an estimated 7,000 trick-or-treaters come to do every year.
Beginning around Labor Day, the state park, about 30 miles south of Birmingham, Alabama, begins to go goblin crazy. The grounds are packed for two months as campers transform their pull-throughs into chambers of horror. By mid-September most the 200 developed campsites are gone. After that, newcomers are steered to primitive camping areas.
Fifth-wheeler RVers say they come for the camaraderie and the chance to share Halloween with thousands of children. But it takes some sacrifice. Many campers live just a few miles from the park, yet commute to work each day from their trailer. Some stop at their residential homes to shower or pick up clothes, while others treat it as a long-term vacation.
A few days before the big day, about 50 gathered under a picnic shelter for a weekly potluck dinner. Some had been residents since late August and watched the leaves change color as summer gave way to fall. Over plastic plates piled with fried chicken, green beans, twice-baked potatoes, casseroles, pumpkin pie and sheet cake with black and orange icing, campers tried to explain why they make Tannehill their part-time haunt.
“Nobody has a neighborhood now where you get to sit around and talk to your neighbors, but you do around here,” says Kelly Marchant, who had spent two months in the campground, though she has a house five miles away. She says the park feels like home, with friends constantly dropping by to say hello. “We hardly ever eat by ourselves.”
In 2009, she decorated her site with a haunted house built from hay bales, and a motion-activated skeleton waiter. It won third prize in the campground contest. Her neighbor displayed a Christmas tree spray-painted black and hung with pumpkins, ghosts and spiders. Last year was the first official decorating contest. Prizes, which included several nights of free camping and retail gift cards, were provided by the park, a local restaurant and Wal-Mart.
The Halloween tradition began at Tannehill in 1991 when several RVers put up decorations and invited children to trick-or-treat in what was billed a safe, family-friendly atmosphere. After a few years, the practice caught the park management’s attention. Trick-or-treating now caps off a daylong park-sponsored Halloween celebration, which includes rides, entertainers and face-painting. By early afternoon, the recreational area, officially known as Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, is usually so full that visitors often must wait in line for a half-hour to pay the $3 park entrance fee. “At nighttime you can hardly walk. It’s elbow to elbow,” Marchant says.
Over in the primitive campground area, a group of four women use the holiday as an excuse for an annual mini high-school reunion. “We’ve been best friends since 1985, and our husbands all like each other,” says Wendy Holman of Talladega, Alabama. “It’s the perfect time to get our campers in a circle and do this.” Including spouses and children, their campsite population had grown to 20 by Halloween day. The classmates once called themselves the Dew Group because they all drank Mountain Dew before school started. But this Halloween night, they all planned to dress up like the rock band Kiss.
Visitors like Deetra and Rusty Graben say they bring their children to the park to enjoy such pageantry. “Where can you see this many decorations in such a small place?” Deetra asks.
For campers, it’s a chance for creativity. Jeff Knox of nearby McCalla fronted his campsite with empty LP-gas cylinders he had painted orange and turned into metallic pumpkins, using a torch to carve their faces.
Gene and Cindy Clements’ display of 60 elaborately decorated pumpkins won the campground contest for best fall display. Yet two days before trick-or-treating he wasn’t done. “I’m still carving more,” Gene says. In addition, their ghoulish site featured a picket-fenced graveyard. “We have a real casket on the side with a fake Dracula,” Gene adds. “The kids get such a big kick looking at it.” The couple lives in the country and rarely gets trick-or-treaters, so this gives them a chance to enjoy the holiday. “Some of the kids are so precious. You give them a piece of candy and they say ‘Thank you so much.'”
Other decorations are more freeform. Tammy Christensen decided to move into the campground on a whim. “I never really celebrated Halloween, but we’ve got brand-new grandbabies this year, so here we are,” she says, gesturing to a camp site strewn with disturbingly realistic limbs, intestines, eye balls, spiders and brains. “I made those out of spray foam,” she says. “It will be bigger next year.”
Indeed, the celebration isn’t for the faint of budget. With improved campsites running up to $23 a day, a two-month stay approaches $1,400, notes Patrick Vacarella, who spent September and October in a Jayco trailer with his son, wife and two parrots. In addition, he spends about $1,000 on candy. “I’ve got cases and cases.”
The trick-or-treaters are an attraction themselves. Along with pirates and wenches, a family of five dress up as the Scooby-Doo gang, with a baby as Scooby. Her grandfather, Tom Sherer, clearly had been roped into the outing. “I’m Fred,” he said, with as much good humor as he could muster, referring to the cartoon character.
The next morning, the decorations were already coming down. But several campers have discussed celebrating another holiday at the park.
“We’re all thinking,” Mrs. Marchant says, “of coming out for Christmas.”
Plan Your Visit
Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park is located south of Birmingham, Alabama. Take Exit 1 off Interstate 459 to County Road 18. The park’s about seven miles up on the left. The 1,500-acre park often hosts craft demonstrations and other special events, and preserves the site of early iron making in Alabama, which played an important role in the Civil War. It includes a comprehensive Iron and Steel Museum.
RV camping runs $20 a day for developed sites, plus $3 for sewer hookup; $16 for primitive sites. There’s a 15 percent discount for seniors older than 62. Several restored log cabins are available for rent from $80 per night.
The Halloween celebration at Tannehill usually takes place the last Saturday in October.
Tannehill State Park, (205) 477-5711, www.tannehill.org.