‘Sleepy Hollow’ fans head to schoolhouse for scares

Raconteur Radio is issuing a “heads up” — or more aptly, “heads off” — for its upcoming staged radio play, interactive haunt and themed party.

Washington Irving’s classic ghost story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” regularly rears its head during the Halloween season.

For two nights, Metuchen’s Old Franklin School, a landmark 1807 schoolhouse, will become the classroom of Ichabod Crane and the homestead of Baltus Van Tassell.

In the story, village rowdy “Brom” Bones — angered that hometown heiress Katrina Van Tassell has grown fond of recently hired schoolmaster Ichabod Crane — tries to scare off the timorous teacher with local legends of the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier decapitated by a stray cannonball during the Revolutionary War.

“The Headless Horseman was the first monster I really remember being frightened by,” said Alex Dawson, founder and director of Raconteur Radio.

Although Dawson grew up in Alabama, a far cry from the hills and hollows of upstate New York where the story is set, his family owned a heavily wooded, 700-acre ranch that was home to “a lot of snorting horses and a stormstruck tree.”

As kids, Dawson and his older brother liked to go riding in the early evening.

“We were allowed to go alone as long as we stayed on our property and got home before dark. But we mostly lost track of time, and it was usually pretty black when we started back,” he said.

“There was this horrible looking tupelo — long dead, its trunk split wide by lightning — that stood at the head of the path we took home. And every time we clopped under it, we nervously thought of that tree in Sleepy Hollow.”

Dawson’s interest in the story, paired with its renewed popularity thanks to the hit Fox series “Sleepy Hollow” — and with the Old Franklin School being an American schoolhouse from the exact time of Irving’s story, the early 1800s — made it an obvious choice to stage.

The production stars Raconteur Radio regulars Danielle Illario of Edison,

Laurence Mintz of Colonia, Michael Jarmus of Brick and Jeff Maschi of Milltown.

Raconteur Radio is a regular presence at the schoolhouse, having produced 30 productions there over two years.

For its “immersive parties,” which feature staged radio plays, themed food and drink, additional performances and elaborate décor, Dawson teams up with Tyreen Reuter, president of the Borough Improvement League, which owns the building.

“They’re always pretty extravagant,” Reuter said of the parties. “But I think we might outdo ourselves this time around.”

For “Sleepy Hollow,” they’re not only turning the schoolhouse into the setting of the Van Tassells’ annual Harvest Party — which means platters of Dutch doughnuts and punch bowls of hot cider — they’re also bringing in Jason DioRio of Roselle Park, whose task is to “Castle-fy” the whole operation, according to Dawson.

William Castle was a B-movie horror producer from the 1950s known for his promotional gimmicks.

Aside from an animatronic skull that will welcome attendees in German and a bunch of pumpkin-headed scarecrows along the schoolhouse’s picket fence, Dawson is keeping mum on exactly what the audience should expect.

Beyond the scares in store from the show, rumored ghosts at the schoolhouse may provide a spooky ambience all their own.

“In recent years some have said they’ve heard and felt strange things, and our archives — which cover more than 200 years of the schoolhouse‘s history — contain numerous accounts of visitors seeing former and deceased schoolmasters roaming the grounds,” said Reuter, also an architectural historian.

The show is set for 6 and 8 p.m. Oct. 26, and 7 and 9 p.m. Oct. 30.

The Old Franklin Schoolhouse is at 491 Middlesex Ave., Metuchen. Tickets are $15 in advance; $25 at the door, if available.

To purchase tickets by credit card, call 862-368-2202, or pay by cash at Marafiki Fair Trade, 20 New St., Metuchen.

For more information, visit www.raconteurradio.com.