Exactly a decade ago on October 31, 2013, photographer Seymour Licht was standing on a New York City subway platform late at night. He had been out all-night taking pictures for his long-running series Halloween Underground – in which he documents the wildest, most detailed outfits he encounters on the rails on the spookiest night of the year – and was on his way home. As the next train pulled into the station, something instantly felt off.
“It was totally empty – almost like a ghost train,” he recalls. “[I thought] ‘what is this? Should I get on this train? So I ran down the platform and actually went on the train and I was faced with a gigantic frog prince. His girlfriend was dressed up as a princess in the corner, and of course I photographed him.”
Without saying a word, Licht pointed his camera to the amphibious royal – who in turn wrapped his grasp around the nearest pole in a candid pose – flicked the shutter and took a picture. Then seamlessly the train pulled into the next stop, the frog turned and exited the train. “There was no word exchange, nothing,” Licht says. “He knew what I was doing and then went his way, and that was kind of surreal.”
That picture is now published in his new photobook of the project Halloween Underground: New York Subway Portraits. Having been travelling around the city each year during the annual celebration for the past two decades, Licht has amassed a considerable archive of meticulous, intricately planned costumes as people travel to and from their night out destinations. From a head-to-toe latex Catwoman outfit to suited furry foxes – the book creates an absurdist, surreal universe for one night only within its pages and spreads.
Evolved from an ancient pagan Celtic holiday called Samhain, during which people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts, Halloween has become one of the most celebrated days in the global calendar, particularly in the USA. While children across the country knock on doors and ask for candy in the time-old tradition of ‘trick-or-treating’, Manhattan also hosts the West Village Halloween Parade, where thousands march the streets in haunting costume while cities across the country host similar events.
But while the popular imagination often captured by children politely requesting sweets, Licht’s pictures explore its importance for adults. In the City that Never Sleeps, Halloween night is one of the biggest knees up in the annual calendar as clubs, bars and homes open their doors to costumed revellers – ready to let loose for one night only. “In the 50s, Halloween used to be more for children,” he explains. “But now when the children have done their trick-or-treating, then it’s time for the adults to party.”
With the city’s subway system forming a consistent, unchanging backdrop over the past 20 years, the pictures feel timeless, with the only signifiers of the date they were taken coming from the costumes people wear. There are costumes referencing the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or even the world’s most discussed political story. “I have a picture [someone] in full Gaddafi regalia when he was killed in a big coup in Libya,” Licht says. “There was [also] a scene with a Michael Jackson [costume], with a doll in his hand, when he [held] a baby out of the window.”
It’s part of the magic of the evening of October 31 each year – part escaping reality, while also part reflecting it. “I think people have an innate desire to be given the licence to have fun without a second thought,” Licht says. “Do a prank, dress up in a crazy costume, and no one can say anything because it’s Halloween and ordinary rules don’t apply.
“We live in such a normative society where we have to behave a certain way, then on Halloween that falls by the wayside to be crazy for just one day” he continues. “You can shapeshift into a different identity – it’s adventurous, it’s transgressive.”