Hell on the High Altar: The Procession of the Ghouls at St. John the Divine

For one night, Ralph Lee’s ghouls, witches, and devils rule the Cathedral.


Sasha Arutyunova

A trio of particularly mischievous devils dance around the floor of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.

One of the world’s largest Episcopal cathedrals seems an unlikely place to dance with a devil (or three of them.)

Still, one night a year, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, New York City, is transformed into an otherworldly sanctum. Colorful lights illuminate the cathedral’s nave with an eerie glow, clouded by artificial smoke. Masked ghouls, ghosts, goblins, and witches take the place of clergy members, and the echoes of spooky organ music replace choir song. 

As the festivities commence, the audience is caught between awe and unease. A large, menacing goblin in a ratty coat slowly makes his way down the aisle, stopping to slam his staff on the ground and glare accusingly at the audience. When a devilish trio scampers and prances behind him, darting into the rows to allow for plenty of mischief, stealing a purse and waving it triumphantly, shouts of laughter break the silence. Apprehension morphs into excitement, as audience members eagerly await the next creature to emerge from the clouds of smoke.

Unsurprisingly, the event’s creator is every bit as unique as the event itself.

One uncharacteristically stormy October 2022 afternoon, I interviewed Ralph Lee, and Casey Compton, his wife and lifelong artistic collaborator, at their apartment and studio in the Westbeth Artist Housing complex. It was warm, filled with costumes from decades of productions. A kinetic dragon hung from the ceiling, and a massive rooster costume rested on a shelf, towering over the living room, while a massive, grotesque face looked down into the foyer. “That’s Greed,” Compton explained. In the living room, a sewing machine sat out on the table, along with models of costumes and bits of fabric. Here, the creative process never stops.

Ralph Lee has been making puppets and costumes since he was a child. “Halloween was my favorite holiday, oddly enough,” he said, chuckling.

This childhood passion grew into a lifelong devotion to costume-making and theater.  

“I had been working in theater professionally as an actor at first,” the 86-year-old Vermont-born artist, director, and puppeteer explained. “I found myself drawn to their costume making. There, I found a niche for myself as a maker of puppets and masks of all sorts.”

Here are Ralph Lee and Casey Compton in their Greenwich Village home and studio. (Nora Sissenich)

While teaching at Bennington College, Lee discovered his love for outdoor theater — and met Casey Compton. Together, along with a group of students from Bennington, they founded the Mettawee River Theater Company, named after a river in Western Vermont. “We wanted to create an opportunity for those in rural communities who don’t have much access to theater,” Compton said

Lee and Compton have created hundreds of puppets throughout their lives, ranging from beetles and rabbits to demons and death-lords.

As an artist-in-residence at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Lee clicked right into place. “I had been invited to do some work up at the cathedral,” he said. “It seemed to be a very conducive place both for me and for them. They weren’t interested in just doing conventional church services.”

For decades, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine has been a mecca for music and culture in Manhattan. Known to many New Yorkers as simply “The Cathedral,” it is best known for its musical performances and several less-traditional annual events, including The Blessing of the Animals, The Blessing of the Bikes, and their Halloween Procession of the Ghouls, founded by Lee in 1990.

Lee’s involvement in New York City Halloween festivities runs deep, as he is also the founder of the legendary Village Halloween Parade, which today draws over two million attendees to the West Village every year on October 31st. 

The Mettawee River Theater Company’s extensive past work provided a diverse set of characters to utilize when creating the Procession of the Ghouls. “A lot of Mettawee shows already incorporated creatures from the underworld. With that and the stuff from the village Halloween parade, there were already a lot of creatures to draw from,” Compton said. Mettawee productions draw on folklore from cultures across the world, from Greek mythology to Mayan legends. The diverse stories they tell are reflected in the characters in the Procession, which include Mayan death lords, Hades, and the Ghost of Henry Hudson. 

Each creature emerges from a set of monstrous jaws at the top of the chancel — the part of a cathedral usually reserved for clergy members. Known as a hellmouth, this design element is borrowed directly from medieval theater productions such as passion plays, in which the entrance of hell was often depicted as a monster’s mouth.

In addition to individually crafting each ghoul costume, Lee works behind the scenes as the director of the Procession. He explained that acting behind a mask poses unique challenges. “A lot of the time, they need to spend time in front of the mirror,” Lee said. “One kind of gesture that works without a mask may be impossible to read when they have a mask on. They might need to behave totally differently to make sure something reads.” 

But the eccentric assignment is what keeps many coming back year after year. “The performers have a lot of fun with it — those that love it, adore it,” Compton said. 

“Ralph gives the actors a big talk beforehand because it’s Halloween — they’ve got to emerge out of hell and party!” she added.

Lee’s Halloween extravaganza gives New Yorkers a chance to embrace a childlike playfulness and wonder. For one night, cathedral visitors enjoy a performance from otherworldly visitors. It’s an unforgettable experience.

Once the show is done, The Cathedral will be still and will echo with solitary footsteps once again. The skeleton Bishop’s staff will rest in storage, and Greed, with her 3-foot tall drooping face, will return to her resting place, sitting atop a bookshelf in Lee and Compton’s apartment, waiting for next year when the ghouls will be back once more for Halloween. 

The Cathedral’s Halloween Extravaganza will be held in-person at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Friday, October 28 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. The  procession is preceded by a silent classic horror film screening, accompanied by live organ. Past films have included The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and this year’s selection Nosferatu (1922).

Tickets and more information are available here:


As an artist-in-residence at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Lee clicked right into place. “I had been invited to do some work up at the cathedral,” he said. “It seemed to be a very conducive place both for me and for them. They weren’t interested in just doing conventional church services.”