Five Lanterns, Rhode Island

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The Halloween Fest takes place in Five Lanterns, Rhode Island–a fairly typical coastal New England small town. Located in Charlestown County, near the southwestern edge of the state, Five Lanterns is south of Route 1A down a series of short county roads. Its residents are much more likely to travel by boat for local trips, opting for cars only when going a significant distance.

Although it once contended to be a major port and manufacturing center, Five Lanterns is past its prime in that regard. There are few active companies left in town, and the town square is filled with closed factories and shuttered storefronts. Five Lanterns began in the mid-1700s as a small community of pirates who attacked ships outbound from Boston and New York while they were still in relatively shallow waters. The secluded cove around which the current town is built was large enough to anchor their vessel, and they built a small town inside a nearby sea cave. When the U.S. Navy began growing large and strong enough to make near shore piracy too risky, the community decided that the area was so nice that they wanted to remain.

Abandoning their underground town, which by that time had grown remarkably large and well appointed, they rebuilt on the hills above and the modern town of Five Lanterns was born. When it was incorporated in 1842, the town boasted a textile mill and lye-bleaching factory with a few stores to support it, but not much more. Over the next half century, Five Lanterns expanded into a full, independent community with thriving fishing, hunting, and rapidly growing industrial ventures.

The reduction of lye as a bleaching agent in the early 1900s stifled the growth of Five Lanterns, and with the coming of the Great Depression, the town never recovered. A few rich families moved on and moved out, but some of the oldest clans remained, simply accepting their reduced fortunes as the price paid for staying with their hometown. The town’s history was duly recorded and archived by the Five Lanterns Antiquities Center, and residents quietly accepted that their community’s glory days were behind them.

The three most prominent lineages in town, tracing their ancestors back to the township’s founding, are the Hain, Pentacroft, and Gemmling families.

While their fortunes have risen and fallen with the fortunes of Five Lanterns, those lines have produced more town leaders and local wealth than any others. While all three families are generally well liked by the townsfolk, they actually don’t get along well among themselves. Some of this is simply the natural struggle for supremacy in a shrinking social pool, but there are also specific events going back generations that fuel long-held grudges and ongoing feuds.

Costumed Celebrations

Five Lanterns would likely still be a small town of no particular interest, if not for the Costume Extravaganza. Proposed by Thomas Hain in 1974 as a way to bring more tourists in despite the recession and oil crises, the Extravaganza was billed as the “largest costume parade in the northeast”—though that title was always more hyperbole than fact. Hain also drew questionable links between his Extravaganza and a few, high-profile masked fetes held in Five Lanterns during the mid 1800s, claiming the Extravaganza was a “part of the town’s founding traditions.”

Even in its initial year, he promised a large crowd and succeeded in delivering one. Mr. Hain correctly guessed that many local people would come to Five Lanterns than drive to fall festivals farther away, especially given the high price of fuel and gas shortages. He used this promise of high attendance to get prominent costumers from New York, Boston, and Los Angeles to come, and once they were committed news spread quickly. Now every year people from all over the U.S. and the world come to show off their costuming skills and, on Halloween evening, partake in a “Costume Fete” at which cash prizes are given out for the best costumes in various categories.

Despite the quick success, the town sheriff at the time— Winston Pentacroft (father of the current sheriff, Daniel Pentacroft)—opposed the Extravaganza on the grounds that it was likely to attract strange teens that would come to town and do drugs, raise a ruckus, scrawl graffiti on the historic buildings, and maybe even perform pagan rites.

While these possibilities bothered the locals, the economic windfall caused the town to side with Hain, much to Pentacroft’s annoyance, the Extravaganza became a major success. Both the Pentacroft and Gemmling families further resented the fact that Thomas Hain opened a costume shop and catalog business the next year, using on the Extravaganza to boost his sales and make it one of the most profitable enterprises in town. But by then the festival was too clearly of economic value to put a stop to it.

Resentment simmered for a few years between the families until, in 1984, when Abigail Gemmling found a way to turn the whole event to benefit her favorite charity. She created the Haunted Trail—a series of spooky scenes and cheesy “haunted house” rooms in local businesses and homes that ran for several evening in the week leading up to the Extravaganza and Costume Fete. To participate, businesses and families had to make donations to the town’s Assistance Society, which printed up and handed out maps showing the official stops on the Haunted Trail. It quickly became clear that stops on the Haunted Trail saw a marked increase in their business, and the Assistance Society soon tripled their operating budget based solely on the money raised during the Halloween season.

With an influx of tourists and new money, new business opportunities sprang up as well. Mortimer Scott, a local ne’er-do-well, obtained the rights to the sea cave containing the old underground city. During the summer and fall months, he began running tours of the dilapidated buildings. He called the site the Moonshine Tunnels based on the fact that during Prohibition they were famously used by rum runners. Only a small fraction of the cave is open to the public, but the unusual tour helps draw in even more tourist business.

Real world location: Somewhere near Charlestown, RI in‎ Washington (County), Rhode Island, United States

Five Lanterns, Rhode Island

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