If you ever watched the 1998 Disney Channel original movie Halloweentown as a kid (or adult, no judgement) and wondered if this alternate-universe Halloween-themed town populated by friendly witches, goblins, and monsters exists in real life, you will be relieved to know that indeed, it does. Located 30 miles northwest of Portland, St. Helens—the small city where they shot the bulk of the film—comes alive every October.
These days, the town has become a destination for Halloween lovers of all ages. From the end of September through October 31, St. Helens transforms into Spirit of Halloweentown, a city-wide event celebrating the Disney flick—and an excuse for locals and visitors alike to tap into their spooky side. Volunteers set up props from the movie in Courthouse Plaza, including the actual taxi cab with Benny the Skeleton in the driver’s seat as well as a replica of the film’s huge trademark Jack O’ Lantern. Daily events range from self-guided walking tours and live music to a family-friendly haunted house, psychic readings, a “Witches Fire & Dance show,” and appearances by the King and Queen of Halloweentown. (Check out the schedule, and note that some activities are ticketed.)
The town also holds a special place for Twilight fans. Many scenes from the first sparkly vamp movie were filmed in St. Helens locales as well, including the parking lot where Edward saved Bella from getting attacked and the Petite Jolie dress shop. Fans can stay at Bella Swan’s house for $330 a night via Airbnb. The town even held an official Twilight Day with Peter Facinelli—aka Dr. Carlisle Cullen—earlier this month. (What's the draw of St. Helens as a prime location for filming? It’s pretty cheap to shoot there, says Spirit of Halloweentown event coordinator Tina Curry, and the small-town Mayberry feel of it all often "fits with the storyline.")
It wasn’t always certain that the town's alter-ego as spook central would survive. After filming wrapped on the first Halloweentown movie in 1997, St. Helens locals created the month-long festival, but by 2007 the event had nearly disappeared, due to disappointingly attendance levels and lack of volunteers.
Luckily, much like in the movie, real life Halloweentown was saved by a pumpkin.
In 2010, the city’s tourism director asked Byron Ohler, a mechanical artist at nearby Scappoose’s Michael Curry Design, to rebuild the film’s giant Jack O’Lantern in Courthouse Plaza. (Mice had eaten through a replica Jack O’Lantern and it was not salvageable.) The Curry Design shop is best known for its massive puppet work on Broadway’s Lion King. Ohler, who had just finished working on Mike from Monsters Inc. for Disneyland’s “World of Color” show, used the leftover foam from that project for the huge pumpkin, version 2.0.
“Byron spent 72 hours over nine days to work on the pumpkin,” says his wife, Colleen Ohler. “The poor man didn’t sleep, but he got the pumpkin done.”
As part of the 2010 Halloweentown celebration, the couple staged a Halloween Carnival in Courthouse Plaza, complete with a mock mayoral competition. (No spoilers, but Halloweentown’s mayor is a major player in the film.) Ohler ended up winning and the real mayor of St. Helens gave him the key to the city.
With interest revived through the Ohler family's efforts, by 2012 St. Helens decided to double down on Halloweentown, approving a $5,000 tourism budget to buy props from the movie, including the infamous taxicab.
Since then, thousands of people have made the trek to visit Spirit of Halloweentown. Nearly the whole cast came to town in 2017 in memory of actress Debbie Reynolds, who played Grandma Aggie. “We made a bronze plaque celebrating her life and the cast told stories of their memories of working with her,” says Tina Curry. This Saturday, the town hosts a meet and greet with “The Boys of Halloweentown” featuring cast members J. Paul Zimmerman (Dylan) and Phillip Van Dyke (Luke).
This year, the town also decided to officially dub Byron and Colleen Ohler the “King and Queen of Halloweentown” in recognition of their longtime dedication to the event. The couple can be seen parading around Spirt of Halloweentown in costume, acting as town ambassadors. Colleen Ohler has even got her grandchildren involved in the fun, but on one condition: they had to watch Halloweentown first.
“My husband and I drive to the plaza every night to say goodnight to Jack the Pumpkin and Byron posts on Jack’s website [which he created for the pumpkin],” says Colleen Ohler. “The people we meet—they’re just so wonderful. They are here to enjoy it as much as us.”