Does South Jersey cemetery’s Halloween event cross the line?
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — When he left Hollywood on sabbatical after a career in the entertainment industry, Will Keenan thought he'd found a great way to honor his late mother's memory while also giving the community something fun to do for Halloween.
Keenan came across the old Goshen Methodist Church when he came home to care for his dying mother, Barbara, and ended up buying the property and making it his home since January. When he announced plans on Facebook for a Halloween event that included what he called a "buried alive" experience on the grounds.
The event is expected to include a haunted cemetery tour, a funeral procession, and a "Zombie Prom" on Halloween night. He will also be performing readings of some of his favorite works by Edger Allan Poe and holding a Trunk or Treat.
The response he has received, however, was more wicked than good, and not what he was expecting.
"Why should I have to sit in front of space ships, horse [carcass] and other nonsense to spend a few minutes with my father???" Melissa Klecz said in one of the many critical comments on the Facebook post.
As one of the stars of the film "Tromeo and Juliet," Keenan named the Halloween festivities "Tromeo's Halloween Cemetery Scare." He described it as "family-friendly and inspired by the many famed personages housed in the historic church's cemetery as well as the surrounding area's haunted ghost lore."
Of all the planned events, it is the "buried alive" activity that Keenan said has drawn the most ire from those unhappy with the event. While people have expressed their displeasure with having such an activity so close to an actual cemetery, Keenan said that is not what that part of the program is actually going to be. He said that portion of the activities will not be held on the grounds of the actual cemetery.
He said instead of people actually experiencing what it would be like to be buried alive they will actually have the chance to see what a classic funeral may have looked like in the early days of the church and the cemetery.
"What the buried alive experience is is really just an old-timey Victorian era Cape May County funeral procession, and the message is really to appreciate the sanctity of life and ultimately think twice about how you live your life because we all kind of end up here in the dirt."
Despite assurances from Keenan there have still been doubters.
Not all of the feedback on the post was negative for Keenan, though even those that defended his actions had some concerns or had people question their support.
In addition to the church, Keenan said he also had to buy the cemetery land near the church, which has been the final resting place for people in the Cape May County area since the 18th century. He said he thought the entire property, including the church, would be a great staging ground for a family friendly Halloween event.
"Everyone kept reminding me that all of Cape May County is known to be haunted," he said. "I thought it would be a good thing to do that would raise money to help beautify the cemetery, and help restore the church, and at the same time give the community around here and the neighboring parts a good, family friendly, 'PG,' classy event."
He said that while the reaction to the plans for the event has been largely positive there have been some concerns raised, especially by people who have loved ones buried in the cemetery. He said through one-on-one conversations, a town hall he held, and meetings with local officials he has tried to reassure people that nothing bad will happen on what he considers sacred ground.
"I put my mother's name on this place so nothing bad will ever happen here," he said of changing the building's name to the St. Babs Foundation, named in honor of his mother.
In addition to being an actor and producer Keenan has most recently worked in California as a digital executive specializing in social media and YouTube. Because of that he said he understands the power of social media and also the inherent risks that come with it.
"I think everyone that posts something on social media, they hope that they get some type of engagement," he said. "I'm glad it started the dialogue. To me it brings it out in the open, and starts a dialogue in the community. In a way I think the sensation is a blessing in disguise."
Keenan said after 25 years in the entertainment industry he knew he needed a break, and when he heard his mother was sick he knew he wanted to be there to help take care of her. Thinking he would have at least six months with his mother before she died he said he was not prepared for her to pass just six days after he returned home.
"Once I got back, my sisters said she waited for me to come back," he said.
It is in her honor that he said he decided to buy the church and property and turn it into a place that the community could enjoy and use. Since January, Keenan said the space has been used for everything from concerts to meetings for recovering addicts, which he said is what his mother, a former registered nurse at Cooper Hospital in Camden, would have wanted.
"She helped a lot of people in her life. She could have become a doctor pretty quickly, and I believe the reason she did not was because she had to put me through NYU," he said. "In a way, this is me trying to continue her work. And some people may look at it that I've cut my own career short to do this, but let's just say it feels right."
He said because of the connection to his mother and his desire to help people he hopes the event can go on and show people that he meant it to be a positive for the community, not something meant to divide it.
"I consider this holy ground. I named it after my mother 'Saint Babs' and it's being treated as holy no matter what Hollywood social media marketing copy I use," he said. "It is a Christian cemetery and I don't mind taking the arrows because I know our intentions are in the right place and it will all work out in the end."
Tromeo's Halloween Cemetery Scare is set to kick off Sept. 29 and run through Halloween. St. Babs is located at 321 North Delsea Drive in the Cape May Courthouse section of Middle township.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com