Thunder is crashing and lightning flashing on the one night I am in Sighisoara, Transylvania, in central Romania. I am trying to stay cosy in an inn where vaulted ceilings and dim lights add to the creepy vibes.
With a crucifix around my neck, my thoughts lead me back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to meet the Count. Half-determined to follow in his tracks, I find myself in this beautifully haunting medieval city.
Perched on a hill in the heart of Transylvania, a vast region set under the watchful eyes of the Carpathian Mountains, Sighisoara is best known as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, aka ‘The Impaler’, the notorious 15th century warrior who skewered thousands of enemies while defending the region against Ottoman invasion.
This former 12th century Saxon citadel has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved medieval towers, the most iconic of which is the Clock Tower and its wooden figurines.
The next morning, I clamber up the tower’s steep winding steps leading to a museum dedicated to archaeological artefacts, alongside macabre displays of medical implements, weapons and a ‘torture room’.
Panoramic views of the city from here are breathtaking, but down below a more sinister atmosphere prevails. Beneath the Clock Tower, an archway leads to a sloping barbican bordered by thick stone walls that once housed a medieval prison.
Owing to its tumultuous history, not one corner of Transylvania has been spared from the breadth of Vlad the Impaler’s power and ambition. His legacy and association with the fictional Count Dracula carry on to this very day, which is why Sighisoara, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and Bucharest in Romania, and attractions such as Bran Castle, are so popular.
Most tours around Halloween are fully booked up to a year in advance. However, its compelling history, culture and traditions make Transylvania an authentic source of folklore and superstitions year-round.
That’s the spirit
Originated from the term ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, Halloween has for centuries been observed in many countries on October 31, the eve of ‘All Saints Day’, celebrated in Christian societies on November 1 to remember the dead and honour the saints.
In predominantly Catholic countries, such as Mexico, Halloween takes on a more traditional religious role honouring the dead or ‘Dia de los Muertos’.
“Day of the Dead has long been an important festival across South America, but especially so in Mexico, where it takes place on November 1 and 2 each year,” explains Jack Brooker, Latin America Product & Travel Specialist, Rainbow.
“As Halloween celebrations have increased in the UK over recent years, so has media coverage of the Day of the Dead festival, and this increase in awareness has driven higher demand for holidaymakers to travel and experience this colourful festival for themselves.”
Over the centuries, the concept of Halloween has evolved into countless tales, novels and films about vampires, witches, devils, zombies and aliens, attracting a steadily growing niche market of revellers across continents.
Events range from street parades to ghoulish theme park attractions, and creepy historical tours and festivities transform big cities and small towns into a spectacle of weird and colourful costumes, jaw-dropping parades and macabre entertainment.
In the U.S., Halloween is a big tourist magnet, and practically every state claims to have spooky vibes and haunts.
Salem, Massachusetts, is known for its 17th Century witchhunt, the horrors of which originated in England.
“With its infamous history related to The Witch Trials, Halloween is a particularly fascinating time to visit Salem,” says Oliver Kaderbhai, USA Country Specialist at Audley Travel. “Residents of the town adorn their houses with elaborate, ghoulish decorations and everyone gets into the spirit of the season.”
Some places evoke a mystical atmosphere regardless of what time of the year you visit, and New Orleans stands out for its distinct history, culture and traditions.
“New Orleans is one of the best cities in America to celebrate Halloween, thanks to our ghost/vampire tours, haunted hotels and restaurants, rich voodoo traditions, and beautiful cemeteries,” says Kelly Schulz, Senior Vice President of Communications for New Orleans & Company.
Those in search of man-made thrills will have plenty to encounter in Las Vegas.
“Las Vegas is a destination always up for a celebration, and Halloween is no exception. A variety of spooky encounters can be found in attractions, nightclubs, restaurants, and even wedding chapels throughout the city. Thrills always await in Las Vegas, and during Halloween, chills aren’t far behind,” assures Fernando Hurtado, Senior Director of Global Sales, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
The Halloween period is very popular, so it’s worth booking at least a year ahead.
Universal Horror Nights: In 2024 Universal Parks & Resorts will bring ‘Halloween Horror Nights’ to Las Vegas’ new venue, Area15. This new year-round entertainment will feature attractions from the studio’s collection of legendary horror films about Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and the Wolf Man. These encounters will be continuously updated with seasonal events.
Universal Orlando’s Haunted houses for its Halloween Horror Nights 2023 include Stranger Things 4, The Last of Us™ and The Exorcist: Believer. The separately ticketed event runs on select nights from September 1-November 4. visitorlando.com
Blood Light District: Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay will feature a new haunted house – D.H. Baggum’s Circus of Fear – two new scare zones, and new interactive entertainment. Howl-O-Scream 2023 dates run between September 8 and October 31. buschgardens.com
New flights: A new direct Wizz Air flight from London Luton now transports clients to Brasov in Romania. wizzair.com
Six tempting terrors
Honour the Dead: Oaxaca and Mexico City provide the best Day of the Dead experience for all ages. Rainbow’s 10-night Mexico package offers a rare opportunity to discover local culture and traditions. rainbowtours.co.uk
Find Dracula’s Haunts: Transylvania’s natural beauty and compelling history makes it an ideal year-round destination. Get the low-down with Regent’s seven-day package, The True Story of Vlad the Impaler. regent-holidays.co.uk
Get your thrills: LEGOLAND Florida’s Brick-or-Treat Halloween event is suitable for children of all ages. New for this year is a fireworks show, spooktacular limited time food offerings, and new exclusive LEGO® characters. legoland.com
Get Bewitched: Salem earned its reputation as ‘Witch City’ following the witch trials in the spring of 1692. This quiet village has never been the same since. Combine this with a self-drive package exploring New England’s autumnal colours. audleytravel.com/usa
Prepare to Scare: Krewe of Boo is a Mardi Gras-style Halloween parade founded in 2007 as a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina relief. After a five-year hiatus, the New Orleans parade was brought back to life in 2013 and is now an annual event. kreweofboo.com
Scream to go faster: Disney’s Happiest Haunts Guided Tour in California explores the history of Halloween through Disney Experiences. Guests will begin at Pirates of the Caribbean, get a photo with the Hitchhiking Ghost and catch the nighttime spectacle of Halloween Screams. There’s also Main Street Pumpkin Festival taking place from September 1 to October 31. visitcalifornia.com