The spirits will still be flying in Cheshire this autumn, but you’ll have to look to the virtual realm to find them.
The popular Spirits Alive! Tour, held annually each October at Hillside Cemetery, is, like so many other things in 2020, moving online this year. There will be no in-person tours offered as a result of the continuing pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the spooky tales of Cheshire’s past will remain quiet.
“We wanted to give people a chance to scratch that itch, until we are back (for normal tours) next year,” said Stephen Mulholland, one of the organizers of the event who also serves as an actor.
Spirits Alive! is a walking tour of Cheshire’s oldest cemetery, where actors, dressed in period-specific costumes, regale attendees with tales of former Cheshire residents, their lives, and often their untimely or unfortunate deaths. The actors portray the different historical figures for two nights each October, with candlelight tours taking brave Cheshire residents from one tombstone to the next to hear the “spirits” speak.
As Mulholland explained, while the event is held over only two nights, the planning usually takes a year. Organizers are committed to finding new stories to tell each season, requiring weeks of research. Then, volunteer actors are recruited, scripts written, rehearsals held, all before “opening night.”
So, as the pandemic began to linger through the early part of the spring, Spirits Alive! organizers had to make a choice: Hope that conditions improved in October to the point where a normal event could be held, or cancel.
“It was tough,” recalled Mulholland, regarding the decision to cancel. “All of our volunteers were really disappointed, but we didn’t want to put all that time and effort in not knowing whether we’d be allowed to hold (the tour) or whether it would even be safe to do so.”
Normally, the Spirits Alive! tours sell out almost immediately after tickets go on sale. Approximately 14 tours are held per night, with 28 to 30 people attending each tour. Such numbers would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold the tours in the normal fashion, Mulholland explained, even if organizers put limitations on the number of attendees per session.
Yet, despite the cancellation, those who run Spirits Alive!, heading into its eighth season, didn’t want to give up on the event altogether. Organizers immediately began thinking of ways that would allow people to “scratch their itch” for the popular event.
Over the years, the group has routinely recorded the tours as they are happening live, posting the videos to the Spirits Facebook page. So, organizers decided to simply take things “up a notch.”
“We wanted to keep Spirits Alive! alive,” quipped co-director Stephen Holt who has been directing the tour since 2018. “We knew we couldn’t recreate the entire experience, but we wanted to do something, regardless.”
Since not enough time existed to research new stories and write new scripts, and since everyone was already “dealing with so much” because of the pandemic, Mulholland explained that it was determined the group would focus on previously used scripts to record. Holt and others began looking through old stories, deciding which were most popular and which needed to be “brought back and revitalized” after a few years. A few were settled upon immediately, and then, for others, actors were given a choice of three different scripts.
As Mulholland explains, the virtual “tour” will be different than what attendees normally experience. The traditional event is held in the evening, beginning near dusk, with candles providing a perfectly eerie environment for attendees. However, filming videos at night was not conducive for good lighting, so most of the recordings were held during the morning or afternoon hours. Also, actors were mic’d, so as to amplify their voices.
To avoid a lot of “static shots,” Holt explained that three different cameras were set up for each shoot, to capture different angles and different ways to highlight the actors as they tell stories. There will be six videos shared throughout the month of October, the last of which still had yet to be filmed early in the month. There is no specific date as to when the first video will be released, and Mulholland would only state that the plan is to post a few per week beginning “in the middle of the month.”
For Mulholland, he hopes the videos bring a little levity to people’s lives, but also serve as a reminder. “Everything is unprecedented,” said Mulholland, “because nothing happens twice. I think a lot of people are stuck in the present or are worried about the future right now, but it’s always helpful to look towards things that have already happened.”
Holt agreed, and promised that, while the format might be different, the “tour” remains, in the most important ways, the same.
“I want people to watch and get the sense of looking at a photo of a place you know and love,” said Holt. “The significance of the stories will be the same. The performances of the actors are no less authentic. I hope we can preserve the feel of Spirits Alive! for everyone until we are hopefully back doing (live) performances next year.”
For more information, visit the Spirits Alive! Cemetery Tour Facebook page and follow the group on Instagram.