As the sun set in Atlanta, scores of people lined up by the old, brick gates of the historic Oakland Cemetery last weekend. All were waiting to enter the 167-year-old memorial park for the 11th annual “Capturing the Spirit of Oakland” Halloween tours.
Tickets sold out in less than two months, so another night was added to the event to accommodate more guests. Those tickets are gone too. Around 7,000 visitors are expected to visit Oakland this month to watch costumed actors tell stories of the famous graveyard residents who have had an impact on the Atlanta community.
Volunteers lead guests on multiple hour-long tours through the cemetery, stopping by various gravesites. The tours began Friday, Oct. 20 and will continue every night until Sunday, Oct. 29.
If you have purchased tickets for this event, please know that this article contains spoilers.
“The tours were designed to enlighten and not frighten,” said David Moore, Executive Director of the Historic Oakland Foundation. “It’s like little vignettes or mini plays. The attendees get a real immersion into our history.”
“Capturing the Spirit of Oakland” is more of a theatrical production than a haunted graveyard adventure. Moore said historians and researchers have looked into some of the residents buried at Oakland, and a director and a script writer have turned their stories into performances for attendees to enjoy.
Tours began at Oakland’s bell tower. Guests arrived at their allotted ticket time, so each tour was made up of about 20 to 25 people at time. Once inside the gates, guests were greeted by a costumed man and followed a path lighted by tiny bulbs to the bell tower, which is also the visitor’s center.
During the tour, attendees hear stories from actors portraying Oakland residents, who came from different eras of Atlanta’s history and varied walks of life — including a woman who served as a Second Corporal in the “Nancy Harts Militia” during the Civil War, a freed slave who ran a successful cake bakery shop in Atlanta and a Georgia Tech student who died building the Panama Canal.
“It’s very interesting because it tells you about the history of Atlanta,” said Barbara May, who went on the tour on Oct. 20. She has gone on the tour for at least three years. “You learn about something new every time.”
“This is the only opportunity people have to walk around the cemetery at dark,” said Pat Powers, who has volunteered at Oakland’s tours for the past seven years.
Some of the stories portrayed are unknown until Oakland researches the people buried there, Moore said, and that’s exactly what happened with the resident he portrays, Andre Steiner.
According to Oakland’s research, Steiner was a Jewish architect who used his government connections to protect thousands of Jews from being placed into concentration camps. He immigrated to Atlanta in 1950 and created master plans for Jekyll Island, Stone Mountain Park and Callaway Gardens.
“You never know until you start doing a little digging,” Moore said, “and then you realize what a huge impact (Steiner) had not only on our community, but the world.”
A more well-known Atlantan was also portrayed on the tour, Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone With The Wind.” Mitchell was portrayed at her gravesite with her second husband, John Marsh.
After the tour, there is music, drinks and even a fortune-teller set up near the bell tower. The event is open to both adults and children.
“I mean, I say we get rave reviews, it wouldn’t sell out in less than 60 days if it wasn’t a real appealing production for people to enjoy,” Moore said. “It’s theatrical, it’s educational, it’s at night (and) it’s a cemetery.”