Plants, pets, pandas, brews and boos: Halloween festivities for a cause in Des Moines

The stage is set for comedy band The Punching Pandas to perform at Halloween Zoo Brew at Blank Park Zoo — courtesy of event organizers

Back in the Iron Age, the holiday we now celebrate as Halloween was Samhain, a Celtic festival acknowledging the end of summer and marking the turning of the year. The themes of death and rebirth have persisted in our understanding, the notion of the thinning between worlds, the playing of tricks, the appearance of the dead and the offering of treats to appease them. The great appropriative force that was Roman Christianity tied the connections even tighter to modernity, merging All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) with the practice and giving it its contemporary name (All Saints’ Day is also known as All Hallows’ Day, making the day prior All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween).

More and more frequently, the cultural influences flow in yet another direction. In modern times, New Year celebrations of all sorts have increasingly become associated with generosity and giving, from year-end charitable donations to Facebook donation drives for birthdays. Halloween is no exception, and several Central Iowa events this year exemplify this push to mark the turning of a year with a commitment to making the next year better for others.

The earliest of these is coming up Friday, Oct. 14: Halloween Zoo Brew at Blank Park Zoo. Adults 21+ can get their best costumes on to support the zoo, which is the only accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium in the state of Iowa. Blank Park was established nearly 60 years ago as the Des Moines Children’s Zoo. Philanthropist A.H. Blank, who emigrated from Romania to Iowa as a child, donated $150,000 to fund a children’s zoo, which opened its gates in 1966. In the early 1980s, the Blank Park Zoo Foundation was formed, followed by a successful capital campaign and a couple of years of renovations. The renamed Blank Park Zoo, no longer just for children, opened in 1986.

The “merry-not-scary” decades-old Night Eyes tradition takes over the zoo the last two weekends in October, but as a testament to the idea that the space is not just for kids, Halloween Zoo Brew serves as an adults-only kick-off to the season of frights. From 5:30-8:30 p.m., costumed imbibers can enjoy the music of the high-energy cover band Punching Pandas. Admission is $10 or free for members, but a VIP ticket ($20 for members, $25 general), which must be pre-purchased, adds a drink ticket, a ticket for the haunted train ride and adult trick-or-treating for seasonal beer samples. And of course there are costume contests!

The following afternoon, Oct. 15, you can celebrate animals of a more domestic nature with Wag-O-Ween at Big Grove Brewery. All proceeds benefit the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, the state’s largest nonprofit animal shelter. Since its founding in 1926, the ARL has been serving the state with pet adoption services, spay/neuter programs, humane education, pet behavior training and more. It is funded entirely by individual and corporate donations.

Wag-O-Ween, which runs from 12-4 p.m., welcomes appropriately leashed and vaccinated dogs of all sizes and breeds. There is, of course, a pets and people costume contest. Other activities include painting pumpkins (though you must bring your own gourd to participate); vendors Stylin Paws, Pampered Pooch and Zoom Room Ankeny; and Nerd Art Face Painting.

On Saturday, Oct. 29, the Greater Des Moines “Boo-tanical” Garden opens for a day of Trick or Trees. Access to the full day of events is included with admission to the gardens ($10 adult, $9 seniors 65+ and military, $7 youth 4-17; members and children 3 and under are free). The 12-acre public garden first opened as the Des Moines Botanical Center in 1979, becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2013. In May of 2022, they opened the Founders Garden and Hiller Family Rain Garden to the public, spaces dedicated to highlighting local ecologies and centering sustainable gardening and water management practices.

Trick or Trees, which runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., will include an interactive storytime about bats for ages 5 and under, a costume parade and trick-or-treating. The garden promises “creeptastic educational activities about trees and spooky botanicals,” and Iowa magician Jonathan May will take the stage at 3 p.m. after papermaking and antique cider press demonstrations.

Late that night, a very different charitable event takes place at Black Sheep DSM. Disc Nixon will be spinning an all-vinyl Rocky Horror Party for Time Warp, a fundraiser for Iowa Safe Schools. A portion of all sales will go to support the Iowa Safe Schools mission: “to provide safe, supportive, and nurturing learning environments and communities for LGBTQ and allied youth through education, outreach, advocacy, and direct services.”

Audiences gather for a live annual screening of LGBTQ+ cult classic ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ at the Englert Theatre on Oct. 31, 2021, in Iowa City. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Celebrating 20 years in 2022, Iowa Safe Schools works throughout the state to support LGBTQ and allied students. In 2016, they launched a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) network, to connect and grow GSA organizations in schools across Iowa. Iowa Safe Schools fights for legislative support of their goals, as well. Black Sheep DSM, the underground tequila bar in the East Village, invites patrons to celebrate Halloween by doing the Time Warp again to raise funds for those who support these vulnerable kids, starting at 10 p.m. on Oct. 29.

On Halloween night itself, make your way to Historic Sherman Hill from 6:30-8:30 p.m. for Halloween on the Hill. Residents will have their homes decked out with eerie delights for your viewing pleasure. Admission to the neighborhood is free, but all visitors are asked to bring a non-perishable food item or monetary donation to support the DMARC Food Pantry. The Des Moines Area Religious Council manages a network of 15 food pantries across the region, and also operates mobile food pantry sites and offers next-day delivery service.

DMARC celebrates 70 years of interfaith community advocacy and service this year. Their website,, maintains a list of most-needed food items to inspire those attending Halloween on the Hill. Start your night at Hoyt Sherman Place to drop off your donation and get a map of the largest displays in the neighborhood.

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Dedicate your Halloween celebrations this month to making the world a better place for all around you!

Scary Charities

Halloween Zoo Brew, Blank Park Zoo, Friday, Oct. 14, 5:30-8:30 p.m., $0-25

Wag-O-Ween with Animal Rescue League of Iowa, Big Grove Brewery, Saturday, Oct. 15, 12-4 p.m.

Big Grove’s third location in Des Moines opened to the public on July 27, 2022. — Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

Trick or Trees, Des Moines Botanical Garden, Saturday, Oct. 29, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., free-$10

The Time Warp + Iowa Safe Schools Fundraiser, Black Sheep DSM, Saturday, Oct. 29, 10 p.m.

Halloween on the Hill + DMARC Food Pantry, Historic Sherman Hill, Monday, Oct. 31, 6:30–8:30 p.m.

Halloween on the Hill — courtesy of the Sherman Hill Association

Haunted Houses

Ready to turn the scare-meter up a few notches? Explore Central and Eastern Iowa’s haunted attractions in the run-up to Halloween.

Circle of Ash, Central City, Friday, Sept. 30–Saturday, Oct. 29, $25-60

Marengo Haunted Barn, Ladora, Friday, Sept. 30–Saturday, Oct. 29, $12.

Scare Haunted House, Des Moines, Friday, Sept. 30–Sunday, Oct. 30, $25-45

The Slaughterhouse, Des Moines, Friday, Sept. 30–Monday, Oct. 31, $25-30

Linn’s Haunted House, Des Moines, Friday, Sept. 30–Monday, Oct. 31, $20

The Sleepy Hollow Haunted Scream Park, Des Moines, Friday, Sept. 30–Sunday, Oct. 30, $28-48

Phantom Fall Fest, Altoona, Friday, Sept. 30–Sunday, Oct. 30, $34.99-49.99

The Heart of Darkness, Waterloo, Friday, Sept. 30–Monday, Oct. 31, $20-50

Eclypse Haunt, Iowa City, Friday, Sept. 30–Monday, Oct. 31, $25-40

Harris Haven Funeral Home, Evansdale, Friday, Sept. 30–Monday, Oct. 31, $5

Tormented Souls Haunt and Scream Park, Madrid, Saturday, Oct. 1–Saturday, Oct. 29, $22-46

Scream Acres Park, Atkins, Saturday, Oct. 1–Saturday, Oct. 29, $36.95-43.95

Thrashers House of Terror, Mt. Pleasant, Thursday, Oct. 6–Saturday, Oct. 29, $10-20

Haunted Forest, Ames, Friday, Oct. 7–Saturday, Oct. 29, $25

Genevieve Trainor hates being scared, but loves being kind. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 007.