Fluorescent lighting, dark tunnels, scurrying rats and questionable dripping: New York City’s subway stations could serve as a spooky backdrop on nearly any day, but around Halloween, the sprawling subterranean system comes alive with bustling costumed figures — all of whom have somewhere to be, thanks.
For nearly two decades, one New York photographer, who goes by the artist name Seymour Licht, has documented spectral, peculiar and outlandish parade- and partygoers in transit across the city. In one photo, an imitator of surrealist artist Rene Magritte sits in a train car, holding a picture frame with an apple suspended above his face; in another, the dark-haired ghoulish Samara from the cult horror film “The Ring” waits underground for the next train to arrive.
Now, Licht, has put together a book called “Halloween Underground,” timed to the 50th anniversary of the Village Halloween Parade.
“I started with documentary (photography), just recording what I saw,” Licht said in a phone call. “And then I was so transfixed, that I wanted to elevate it and (make it) more magical and surreal.”
Though Licht has photographed above-ground revelers, too, he found he was more drawn to the transitory themes unfolding as crowds moved through downtown hubs including Union Square and West 4th Street in Manhattan, and busy stations like Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.
“The subway is a liminal space, and Halloween is a liminal time,” he said, referring to its origins in Samhain, the ancient Gaelic festival that signaled the end of harvest season. “It’s the time when the dead come over to visit and mingle among the living.”
Through his photos, one can chart changes to photography — Licht began with Fuji transparency film and shoots digitally now — updates to the subway and shifts in pop culture, too. There’s appearances by classic horror villains Pennywise and Michael Myers, glittering angels, a 6-foot-tall frog prince, and the married foxes from the 2009 Wes Anderson adaptation of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” among others.
One unfortunate trend Licht has noticed, however? A drop in the complexity and originality of many ensembles.
“I think the more elaborate costumes, where you see people put a lot of thought and time in it, are a little bit more uncommon,” he said of recent years.
Twenty years on, Licht ultimately views the work as a “fantastical ride” through the underbelly of the city.
“The wonderful thing about Halloween is that people generally are game for everything for anything,” he said. “They’re out there to have a good time. There is an air are being like a little bit mischievous and playful.”
“Halloween Underground” is available now. Scroll for a selection of photographs from the book.