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The ancient Celts believed Halloween night to be a time when the dead walked and all manner of sprites and demons were freed to roam the earth.
Today, it's become an unofficial holiday dedicated to children's parties and concerts by certain sorts of rock bands. But if the Celts were on to anything at all, trick or treaters along the Niagara Frontier would do well to make sure the footsteps they hear behind them are actually those of another Halloween reveler or, indeed, another human being at all.
Few regions in the country are known for the number and severity of hauntings as the eastern bank of the Niagara River from the Falls to Lake Ontario, the scene of countless suicides, murders and other unpleasantness down through the centuries.
Many of the legends are rooted in the lore of the Seneca Indians, who inhabited the area when European explorers first arrived on the scene. The Falls themselves were believed by the Senecas to be the home of deities known as the Great Spirit of Thunder Waters, He-No the Thunderer, and Lewlawala, the Maid of the Mist.
The area around the Three Sisters Islands was reportedly the location of Native American sacrifices to the Great Spirit, and sensitive visitors to the islands have reported hearing strange whispers and disembodied voices. Similarly, others have described the screams and wailing of the thousands of suicides when listening intently to the roar of the waters.
Approximately four miles downriver is the 20-foot-deep cave known as Devil's Hole. The Senecas believed it was the home of a horrifically malevolent being that took the form of a giant snake, which they called the "Evil One."
The French explorer Robert de la Salle ignored their warnings to avoid the area. Shortly afterwards, in 1687, he was murdered by members of his own expedition.
Nearly a century later, it was the site of the Devil's Hole Massacre, one of the most brutal episodes in the conflict known to history as the Conspiracy of Pontiac.
On Sept. 14, 1763, a convoy of British troops carrying supplies from Fort Niagara along the Gorge was ambushed there and massacred by Senecas. In all, 80 scalped and otherwise mutilated bodies were recovered by a force sent in vain to rescue them. Horses, wagons and still-screaming victims were thrown into the Gorge and the nearby stream, still known as Bloody Run.
The Great Gorge Trolley passed by Devil's Hole each day. In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo hours after sighting the Devil's Hole from the trolley and, in 1917, one of the cars actually flew from the tracks, killing at least 50 terrified passengers.
Additional violent deaths at this most baleful location have been attributed to suicide, murder and the occasional slip-and-fall "accident." Police agencies have reported evidence of modern Satan-worshipping activity at the site, but some say the number of tortured souls who have met violent ends there may be more cause for concern. A bit further north, Lewiston boasts what may be the only haunted McDonald's in America. The 1824 Frontier House is one of the region's oldest buildings, originally the westernmost stop of the Barton Stage Line and later a Masonic Temple.
An Oct. 29, 1978, article in the Niagara Gazette details the haunting of the landmark. The manager of the building told of seeing apparitions, hearing the opening and closing of doors in the empty building and other weirdness. A cleaning woman described her encounters with a ghostly old man she would find in a closet or pantry, and a maintenance man quit shortly after being hired because of the disturbances. Today, children enjoy their Happy Meals oblivious to the supernatural history of their surroundings.
Heading further north to the spot where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, Fort Niagara and the French Castle within it represent world-class haunted attractions. No fewer than six apparitions have been sighted around the fort, including the famous Headless Ghost of the Well.
As early as 1839, Samuel De Veaux wrote of the legend in his classic guidebook to the region. The story involves two French officers, fighting a duel in the old castle for the affections of a Native American maiden. Her favorite was killed and his opponent beheaded his victim as he lay on the stone floor. The head was thrown from the cliff overlooking the lake while the corpse was dropped down the castle's 25-foot-deep well.
When the moon is full, the story goes, the French officer wanders the castle looking for the head he will never find.
Mon Dieu. And happy Halloween!