The New York City Village Halloween Parade has become one of the city’s numerous staples along with Times Square’s Ball drop and the New York City Marathon. Each Halloween, thousands of people congregate in the West Village in extravagant costumes and immerse themselves into the ghoulish and strange. The parade’s unusual structure allows anyone in costume to march along with more traditional floats.
But the parade wasn’t always a premier event, according to respected street photographer Harvey Stein, who has photographed New York for most of his life and the parade since the mid-1970s — all on film. Its creator, puppeteer Ralph Lee, was partially inspired by his craft and Greenwich Village’s thriving artist community to form it in 1974. In its early years, the parade was contained to the area and focused on children as many of the artists would visit schools in the area to create puppets specifically for the parade.
The oddity and eccentricity of the holiday are themes Stein has explored in his photography. Those themes can be found in the Coney Island photographs he’s taken over the past 40 years and his other long-term projects shot in New York. When it came to the Halloween parade, Stein showed the same dedication, photographing the event since 1975.
“It was a fun-loving, alternate kind of parade,” Stein tells TIME. “A little quirky, flaky, artist-driven certainly. Costumes were probably handmade. There were no floats, no bands.”
As the parade has gained prominence, it’s now more adult-friendly, with the costumes becoming more playful but provocative. Stein’s black-and-white photographs range from children wrapped in toilet paper resembling mummies to adults opening their coats revealing genital-shaped balloons. “That kind of playfulness is still alive and it certainly was then,” the photographer says.
Stein also notes that due to people getting a sense of elation dressing up, it makes it easier for him to capture the action compared with a normal day where people are much more resistant to getting their image taken. “Half the people in Manhattan will say no,” he says. “Here, they’re showing off. They want to be photographed. And it’s easy being photographed if you’re wearing a mask because it’s not really you. You’re not really revealing yourself.”
Harvey Stein is a street photographer, author and teacher residing in New York City. He is represented by the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, Throckmorton Fine Art and June Bateman Fine Art.
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s deputy director of photography and visual enterprise.
Bianca Silva is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter.