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Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival Brings Fall Thrills and Chills

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For David J. Anzaldúa Pierce, creator and executive director of Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival, the event is a homage to the eclectic and varied community of Denton itself.

Keeping with the all-embracing feel of the Denton community, Pierce launched Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival in 2011 as a way to celebrate all fall events in one place, including Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos.

Denton's Day of the Dead Festival
Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival – Credit: Ed Steele Photography LLC

“I came to North Texas to study … music education back in the 90s,” he recalls. “Obviously Denton was a smaller town back then, but it had that element that really set it apart from so many other cities … I’ve been to and visited. There was this very eclectic mix of lots of different musicians and bands and artists. It just kind of blew my mind how eclectic, how varied, everything was. I fell in love with that and Denton just played to its charm and it completely endeared itself to me.”

“I thought how neat would it be to do a festival that encompasses and celebrates many different aspects of autumnal events, many different aspects that happen right at that change of seasons, where it goes from kind of cool to getting ready for winter,” he explains.

Now in 2022, the festival is back after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic with a broad range of activities, including Coffin Races, a family-friendly pumpkin patch, and the Cirque du Horror musical production for the first time housed under a circus tent.  

Coffin Races

A definite crowd draw to Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival are the annual Coffin Races, which this year will take place on Saturday, October 29th starting at 12:00 noon.

Denton's Day of the Dead Festival
Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival – Credit: Ed Steele Photography LLC

Pierce says these began a year or two after the inaugural festival in 2011. He recalls some downtown business owners had always thought it would be a great idea to have a soapbox derby-type of event to go down the natural hill on Hickory Street.

“Then it was well, why not instead of a soapbox, why don’t we make a coffin race?” Pierce continues. “Then we started it up and you talk about organically growing. That first year there were people running down the hill with no steering mechanism, there were no brakes. There was a chiropractor who just got on a gurney on his stomach — it was just hilarious.”

Now years later he says the Coffin Races are a “finely-tuned machine” with technology assistance and a photo finish.

As an offshoot to the Coffin Races, 2022 is the first year of the Pinewood Derby, which will take place on Friday, October 28th starting at 6:00 pm.

“Think miniature version of (the) Coffin Races,” Pierce explains. “People are creating their own cars and personalizing them.” 

Field of Screams

The Pinebox Derby and the family-friendly pumpkin patch both take place at the Field of Screams, located at 126 East Oak Street.

Denton's Day of the Dead Festival
Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival – Credit: Ed Steele Photography LLC

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The pumpkin patch opens at 11:00 am on Saturday, October 29th. Pierce says there will be lots of entertainment for children, including rides, bounce houses, face painting, carnival games, and crafts. There will also be vendors selling typical carnival foods like kettle corn and cotton candy.

Pierce says there will also be live music all day on Saturday. “We’re showcasing a lot of the younger kiddos on that stage,” Pierce says. “For example, mariachi groups that are in all of our Denton ISD elementary and middle schools will be performing on that stage throughout the day.”

Also throughout the day, Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival will host a costume contest with four categories. Pierce says participants can register ahead of time online or at the Festival.

Twilight Lantern Parade

Starting at 7:00 pm on Saturday, October 29th, anyone in the community can participate in the Festival’s Twilight Lantern Parade.

Pierce says this parade is inspired by Halloween parades like the Parade of Lanterns in the United Kingdom, as well as traditional festivals and parades in Mexico City or San Miguel to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos.

Denton's Day of the Dead Festival
Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival – Credit: Ed Steele Photography LLC

Parade elements range from oversized masks to large puppets to riders on horses painted to look like skeletons. Pierce says they also create a community altar pulled on a trailer that anyone in the community can place something on.

“Anybody can put a picture, can put a card, put anything there so they can remember somebody that they loved on this,” he adds.

Although Pierce asks any groups or those with floats to register in advance to participate in the parade, anyone who wishes to individually become part of the parade is invited to do so and line-up with the parade at 6:00 pm that evening.

“We’ve got people that just want to hop on and walk around and be a part of it, so that’s the vibe,” Pierce says. “It’s not Macy’s where you’ve got these elaborate floats and people have to go to watch and be spectators. Everybody can participate and attend if they’d like.”

Cirque du Horror

And if all of this is not enough, Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival also features Cirque du Horror — a musical production with what Pierce calls a “vaudeville traveling haunted circus” vibe.

“If I had to just describe it very generally, it’s kind of Tim Burton meets Disney,” he continues. “The imagery that’s maybe a little bit darker that Tim Burton would provide. And there’s also the tongue-in-cheek stuff that Disney does where it’s obviously geared towards kids, but there are those off-color jokes that the parents get, but the kids have no idea what’s going on.”

Denton's Day of the Dead Festival
Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival – Credit: Ed Steele Photography LLC

Pierce says Cirque du Horror is composed of little vignettes, including singing, dancing, and comedic sketches. “It’s this collection of things that are threaded together with the common element of being Halloween in (a) somewhat spooky, creepy kind of vibe,” he adds. “We’ve got really funny things for people to laugh at (and) for kids to enjoy. And then we’ve got some elements that are slightly more on the creepy side. There’s no blood and guts, there’s no gore — there’s nothing like that.”

And Pierce says the old time feel of Cirque du Horror gives kids and adults an alternative to the computer generated productions we’ve all become used to. “When we do set changes, we’ve got stage crew that are dressed up as henchmen or ogres,” he details. “And we’ve got an 11-piece live music orchestra — no canned music. Everybody dresses up in the orchestra as skeletons — the Orchestra of the Undead is what it’s called.”

The production runs about 90 minutes with showings Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday, October 30th. For the first time, this year’s Cirque du Horror will take place under a giant circus tent with room for up to 300 attendees per show.

Tickets for Cirque du Horror can be purchased online or day-of. However, Pierce says day-of tickets will have a slightly increased price.

100% Truly Unique

With so much to see and do, Pierce encourages Dentonites to come out to Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival.

“You’re not going to witness an event like this anywhere nearby,” he says. “We are 100% truly unique in the fact that we celebrate as many different fall festivals wrapped up into one as we do. It’s a completely unique thing that happens in our Denton community.”

“It’s just one of these things that if you don’t go and experience it for yourself, you’ll just truly never know how wonderful it is and how awesome it is,” Pierce adds. “And that’s really just because of the fact that it was completely inspired and continues to be inspired by the Denton community.”

The 2022 Denton’s Day of the Dead will take place Friday, October 28th, and Saturday, October 29th on and around East Hickory and Industrial Streets in downtown Denton. For a full event schedule and to purchase tickets for Cirque du Horror, visit dentondayofthedeadfestival.com. And follow the event’s Facebook and Instagram feeds for updates.

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