BY LORI MCKINNEY, COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
In 2013, when the renaissance of our downtown was really revving up, a great community spirit emerged surrounding all the excitement. Community conversations evolved into weekly neighborhood meetings for a group of driven, creative volunteers at Dayfly Books & Collectibles, a unique and spirited independent bookstore. They gave themselves the name JumpStart.
Halloween was approaching and I remember walking to a JumpStart meeting from The RiffRaff Arts Collective. We had been talking about showing classic horror movies at the movie theater that is currently under renovation and I was excited to talk to the gang about it. As I approached the bookstore, I saw a sign that said “Trick or Treat on Mercer Street,” and I thought, how clever! A group of folks had been planning to celebrate Halloween by encouraging trick or treating downtown!
We would later learn that this was bringing back a mainstay tradition from Mercer Street’s heyday that the older generation holds fondly in their memories. The subject came up that day at JumpStart, and it turned out that everyone in that room absolutely loved Halloween.
We realized that we could join all the events being planned together and mash it all up into one big Halloween extravaganza.
There were some seriously clever and witty creative minds in that circle, and tag lines were in abundance. Sam Franz, a strong-spoken photographer, designer and radio DJ, always seemed to be the one who came up with good names; he also has an affinity for alliteration. I’m pretty sure it was Sam that coined the name Mercer Monster Mash, and we all said Hoorah!!! That’s it! And the ball starting tumbling forward. Brian, another extremely witty member of the group, is the tag line king. He said, “Mercer Monster Mash, bringing Mercer Street Back From the Grave!” Yes, Brian. Yes!
In case you are unfamiliar with our story, Mercer Street was all but abandoned and forgotten in the decade before the renaissance, and the standing notion was folks bringing their kids downtown to Trick-or-Treat in the years before was preposterous.
But this new community spirit had awakened the dormant streets and something was really shaking! And we could all feel it.
This event was being born in that bookstore because everyone was invigorated at the thought that something monumental and revolutionary was taking place.
Brian quipped another doozy with, “Mercer Street: It’s Aliiiiiive!” Brian also invented a character, Franklin Stein, and to this day he maintains that identity online to rev up excitement for the Monster Mash. Tiffany, a sculptor and poet from New Jersey who was drawn to Princeton to be a part of the arts movement, added, how about “Mercer Monster Mash, a 2 Day Halloween Extravaganza and in little print-We reeeeeallly like Halloween.” LOL. When the subject of what movie to show came up, a few ideas were passed around from Dracula to IT, but when Miss Stefani, a talented painter from Birmingham, said “Ya’ll, it’s got to be Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Everyone gasped and yelped and screamed, Please! Please! Can it please be Rocky Horror? It was crystal clear at this point that it must be done, but I barely had any recollection of the movie I had seen once years and years ago in college. I was in for a colorful treat!
The wheels turned and the buzz built, and ideas evolved like costumed crossing guards to make the streets safe Trick-or-Treating. It was a sweet moment in time to have such a great group of volunteers invested in a project together. Sam made an awesome poster and all the volunteers spread them far & wide. We did our due diligence with press releases, outreach and social media, and the word of mouth messaging was strong with such excitement from our group. However, since Mercer Street’s reputation had been so bleak for so many years, we only expected handfuls of Trick-or-Treaters to show up.
That Halloween night at 6 o’clock, the costumed crossing guards took their places. Janis, dressed as a disheveled housewife and John dressed as Kenny Rogers, staked their post on the yellow brick road crosswalk. To our surprise, the Trick or Treaters started coming out of the woodwork! Then more, and more, and within an hour, downtown was absolutely filled with goblins and gouhls, princesses and pumpkins. We were amazed.
The paranormal society led dozens of curious folks on a ghost hunt through the old movie theater, and we held our inaugural costume contest. Rocky Horror Picture Show was the coolest scene; there were hundreds of people so appreciative of being able to enjoy this tradition that they all love so much right here in downtown Princeton and inside of the iconic movie theater that is set to become a cultural hub in our neighborhood. The whole evening was so dynamic and special, and we all knew we were witnessing the birth of a long-standing tradition.
Mercer Monster Mash celebrates its 5th annual this year, and it’s clear that Mercer Street is the place to be for Halloween night. Other businesses and organizations have jumped on board at this point; Princeton Public Library presents Life-Sized Candyland as part of the evening and last year, the line was wrapped all the way around the block. ResCare, a local printing company that employs special needs citizens presents ReScare Nightmare, a super spooky haunted house. Star-95, a local radio station, hosts a costume contest in The Town Square after Trick-Or-Treat, with cash prizes for adults as well as kids, which makes the whole evening super fun for people of all ages.
Last year, hundreds of people went all out with their costumes; it was a sight to see! Another local business, Crit Hits Comic & Games, gives out hundreds of comic books to kids. The new Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Art Gallery has an exhibit hanging called “Tombtown” and here at The RiffRaff Arts Collective, we’ll host a social called “Enchanter’s Lair.” At midnight, we’ll bring back the tradition of Rocky Horror, and after a few years of being held in an alternate venue while the theater was uninhabitable, this year it will be in The Renaissance Theater, a super exciting setting for the event.
I love establishing and carrying on traditions for our community. More than just parties, these events give us all something to look forward to together, events that create colorful memories and magical moments. I am thankful to be surrounded by creative people who love to have fun, and are willing to give their time and talents to create these experiences.
Most of the founding members of JumpStart have moved away; some graduated from college and moved on, while others have found new direction in various locations around the country. But, the traditions that they helped establish live on, and I am honored to help carry that legacy forward.
Happy Halloween, everyone.
- What: 5th Annual Mercer Monster Mash, a Halloween Extravaganza
- When: Downtown Princeton, WV
- Where: Tuesday, Oct. 31, 6pm-10pm + a midnight movie showing
- Tickets: Free
- Details: princetonrenaissanceproject.org/events / 304-320-8833
Lori McKinney is a community organizer in Princeton, WV and a leader of the Princeton Renaissance project. Speak with Lori at firstname.lastname@example.org.