Bordentown’s Halloween parade has been one of the city’s most enduring seasonal traditions—it’s been a constant for over 70 years—but more recent additions have garnered even more local fans. Parade organizers also host house decorating and scarecrow contests for homes and businesses in town, and the competitions have become just as well-loved as the parade. The house decorating contest is about 15 years old, while the scarecrow contest started around 2014.
“People plan for a whole year,” committee chairperson Katy McGowan said. “A family on Brooks Avenue has a list for the next 10 years. Our participants will do a little bit throughout the year—picking things up, doing a trash dive on a Sunday night or grabbing something in a store. They shop around and build so by the first week of October, they’re ready to be decorating.”
That Brooks Avenue family is the Laswells—Neil, Jen and their son. They started decorating “very cautiously” in 2011, shortly after they moved to the city.
“We weren’t sure if Bordentown was a ‘Halloween town,’” Neil said. “But then we saw Thompson Street, so we decided to go gung ho in 2012.”
Laswell said he loves Bordentown City year-round, but the town’s dedication to Halloween is one of his favorite things about city life.
“To be a part of it is tremendous,” he said. “To contribute in another way that other people can enjoy, that’s the best part.”
The Laswells won their first contest in 2014 with a Nightmare Before Christmas theme. Laswell said he and Jen will keep track of any ideas throughout the year. They try to keep everything as family-friendly as possible but plan on going scarier as local kids get older.
“There are certain things, like 80s horror, that we’re interested in, but we don’t want to make it too gory or scary for now,” he said.
Laswell said only three trick-or-treaters came to their house on their first Halloween—that was even more inspiration to go big.
“We though, ‘We’ve gotta do better,’” he said.
Now, they get dozens of families. Jen likes to prepare special spooky treats for kids, like “hands” made out of non-latex gloves filled with candy. Laswell said she makes about 100 of those, on top of purchasing full-sized candy bars, and they often run out by the night’s end.
Past themes at the Laswell house include Ghostbusters in 2016 (complete with a giant papier-mache Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on the roof) and aliens in 2015.
The alien theme, Laswell said, stemmed from his neighbor, who constructed a spacecraft in 2014. He was able to walk around in the structure, which moved on wheels and included lights and sounds.
“I said to him, ‘Don’t get rid of that. Let’s build on it,’” Laswell said.
They collaborated in 2015, creating an alien crash-landing on the front lawn and a dissection lab at the end of the street.
Each year, everything is built from scratch.
“We can’t compete with Thompson Street, but we love to share ideas, tips and tricks with those guys,” Laswell said. “It’s always good to pick their brains. They know how to go big and do it right.”
Laswell said the family has something big in the works this year, though he won’t be entering in the contest—instead, he’ll participate as a judge.
“We did our thing,” he said. “We made our mark. Now, I want to play a part.”
The parade committee’s scarecrow contest has made a similar mark.
For the last five years, businesses along Farnsworth Avenue have created unique scarecrows to display inside and outside of their spaces.
McGowan said local businesses used to ask high school students to paint Halloween designs on their window. The parade committee tried recently to resurrect that tradition, but it wasn’t successful. A resident suggested scarecrows, though, and it stuck.
“It’s a way to really get the town in the spirit of fall and Halloween,” McGowan said. “It’s an easier start to get into that Halloween vibe. The scarecrows are the baby step to the Halloween bandwagon. Then, it’s on to house decorating and participating in the parade.”
Sonya Salon and Spa at 372 Farnsworth Avenue has participated in the contest since its inception. Chrysa Shaw works at the salon, and she’s a huge Halloween proponent.
Shaw said each year, they discuss a theme as a group and, of course, they try to keep it hair related. She will usually draw her design to give everyone something to work with, then they set off to buy supplies. And it takes the whole salon to bring the scarecrow together, Shaw said, from painting the pumpkin “face” to purchasing materials.
“It’s fun,” she said. “It kicks off the holiday for us, and we have a lot of fun doing it.”
Shaw said the scarecrows kick off the holiday in more ways than one. The scarecrow is often propped up somewhere in the salon—”lurking,” Shaw said—leading to some unintentional seasonal scares.
“No matter how many times you see it, it always catches you by surprise,” Shaw said.
Her favorite design was last year’s—Tracy Turnblad from the John Waters film Hairspray, complete with her iconic pink cockroach dress and can of Ultra Clutch.
Like Laswell, Shaw said she and her colleagues love to play a part in the festivities.
“It feels great because everyone comes here from near and far to enjoy Halloween,” she said. “A lot of us that work at the salon don’t live in Bordentown City, so it allows us to participate without being residents. It’s fun, because we know the community appreciates it.”