SKAGWAY - It's late Friday afternoon, and a walk up Broadway reveals tourist shops emptied, closed and boarded up until next summer.
A cold wind blows, the sky is darkening and light shines out from the windows of the handful of still-open businesses, housed in historic false-front buildings. Boots thump along the planks of the wooden sidewalks. The sound of a barking dog carries along a side street.
In a largely deserted town with a past rich in triumph and tragedy, on the weekend before Halloween, the scene is set for the second annual Abduct and Release Paranormal Symposium, a long weekend exploring the far - and often fun - corners of human beliefs.
As the moon rises over the mountains Friday evening, it's time for Fright Nite at the Haven Cafe. Several dozen Skagway residents and guests gather in the warm, dimly lit confines of the cafe to be treated to a show featuring the darker side of Halloween.
A buffet table features fingers, brains and eyeballs - on any other day known by names such as Jell-O and marshmallows. There's even a real human head on a platter - made possible by a conveniently placed hole in the table.
The show begins just after 8 p.m., mixing planned stories and vignettes by ghoulishly garbed hosts with stories told by the audience. Humorous tales, Gold Rush lore and a Tlingit tale are featured in turn before the crowd breaks up to head home.
It's the first year of the Fright Nite event, cafe owner Susan Jabal says, but it won't be the last.
"Our wheels are spinning already for (something) bigger and better," she says.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the symposium is under way with featured guest Rosemary Kooiman, a Wiccan high priestess from Maryland, giving a presentation on the history and practices of witchcraft.
With an assortment of candles, oils, incense and ceremonial knives spread out in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, Kooiman outlines some of the basic tenets of Wicca, including reincarnation, the "circle" gathering and the need for balance.
"Our religion requires balance," she says. "If there is heat, there must be cold. If there is light, there must be dark."
"Harm none" is the core belief of Wicca, Kooiman tells the audience - and any action, good or bad, will be returned threefold.
Oct. 31 is called Samhain in the Wicca religion. Kooiman says it and Halloween are associated with the afterlife because they came at a time of changing seasons, when the Earth seemed to be dying.
"This was the time of the year when the veil between the dead and the living became very thin," she says. "Samhain is a time to honor the dead, be glad you're alive - and let the kids have a heck of a good time."
The significance of this year's holiday is magnified, she says, because Halloween features not only a full moon, but a "blue" moon - the second full moon this month.
At midday, Skagway's past comes to life on a tour of city buildings with ghostly reputations.
There are dozens of buildings in town that have, at one time or another, spawned supernatural stories, says guide Billi Clem, who runs The Brass Pic and Klondike Tours with her husband.
Clem says that the sudden, massive rush of people into Skagway during the Gold Rush - and the tragedies that often accompanied them - may have left a higher-than-average number of restless souls to dwell in the historic buildings.
"They came here full of hopes and dreams, and they were squashed in Skagway," she said.
Clem relates some of the stories she has picked up from locals during her six years in Skagway.
There's "Mary," wife of a miner, abandoned so long ago in Room 24 of the Golden North Hotel. Some say she's never left - and does her best to separate any couple who enters "her" room.
"She's very active," Clem says. "She is a very jealous woman and doesn't like men and women in the same room."
Just off Broadway on Sixth Avenue, adjacent to the former site of the Pullen House hotel, stands a derelict home, its windows covered with plywood.
Clem relates the story of a family, supposedly former occupants of the house, driven mad after the death of a baby. The child's mother and grandparents all claimed to hear the infant wail at night after it had passed away.
Some local residents claim the baby's cries still can be heard late at night, usually around Halloween.
After an afternoon session with Kooiman, who moves on to provide one-on-one readings to interested individuals, attention in Skagway shifts to that night's Halloween Costume Ball at the Eagles Hall.
By 10 p.m., the party is in full swing; the bar, dance floor and adjoining rooms are filled with costume "overachievers," as one observer labeled attendees. From the topical to the whimsical, partygoers cover all avenues of costume themes.
"For a little town that has nothing to buy, people sure come up with great costumes," says Donna Snyder, who said her Twister board disguise - complete with spinning arrow atop her nose - was already in the works last Halloween.
Winners in the costume contest range from a penguin to a pair of Smurfs to a stereotypical tourist. The grand prize goes to four Flintstones impersonators, who arrived in a home-built Stone Age car.
By 1 a.m. Sunday, aside from music emanating from the still-rocking Costume Ball, there is little sound or movement on the streets of Skagway. It's a cold, clear night. The northern lights were visible earlier.
A walk to ghostly "hot spots" - the Red Onion, the Golden North Hotel, the home of the "crying baby" - at this dark hour reveals no sign of otherworldly beings, but given the setting it's not hard to let one's imagination wander.
After a few more days of haunted houses and pumpkin-carving contests, Skagway - living Skagway - will put Halloween and the symposium to rest for another year. But in the windows of the town's deserted buildings, lurking at night in the back alleys, a paranormal presence never seems far away.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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