A Halloween Spectacle: Preachy or Campy?

A lifelike dummy saying his last prayers before an audience of children high on sugar.

A lifelike dummy saying his last prayers before an audience of children high on sugar.

If you think Halloween has become a lousy holiday, censored by paranoids, then you grew up in the affluent suburbs.

Now you’re in Logan Square, Chicago. Naturally, some streets stink as much as any in Walden Woods or whatever neighborhood you and your physician parents bunkered up in to survive the onslaught of knifings and other pedestrian hazards of your childhood.

But on Bernard Street, where a traffic of remarkably unpoisoned children and their legitimate escorts fill the sidewalks in festival numbers, most houses are decorated with colors and spooky sounds. And they’re doling out candy by the handful.

One house in particular draws the crowd.

This is the house of Nelson Gonzales, an electrical engineer whose hobby is robotics. Sensitive parents should be warned that even a description of the decorations could traumatize their child: The theme is capital punishment.

A visual: The display is laid out in three scenes: a guillotine, a gallows, and an electric chair, all of which are life-size. Amid shifty lights and the sounding of a death knell (operated by a computer on the front porch), the blade of the heavy wooden guillotine drops with a snap. The crowd jumps then laughs in delight.

Meanwhile, Gonzales stands behind the computer on the front porch like the Wizard of Oz. Timid and normal—the man behind the curtain.

Anyway, back to the show…

The gallows scene is set with the squawking of crows, evil laughter, and the roar of thunder. Hanging from the scaffold is a deader-than-dead skeleton wearing the classic striped prisoner’s uniform.

But the real shocker is the electric chair which garners the most crowd reaction. As the “scene” (Gonzales’s word) begins, a warning light flashes atop a voltage box accompanied by the sound that such a thing might make. Then, the buzz of an electrical current. And suddenly, the Frankensteinian body of an inmate in orange scrubs jolts back and forth as if in real agony. His scream (piped in from a speaker behind him) is disturbingly real, and at the very end he falls back into the chair lifeless, smoke billowing from his eye sockets and ears.

“Wait, I want to see this again,” says one man to the woman he’s with. His young daughter, however, doesn’t seem too excited to stay for another dose. “Why are you crying, baby?” he scolds her as she hides her face in his coat. “You’ve already seen it twice.”

Each crowd that gathers has its cry-babies, but the general feeling is delight and awe. Nelson Gonzales, when he’s not making adjustment on his computer, stands off to the side, handing out candy and observing his creation every now and then.

“At first I was nervous,” he admits. “I thought I was going to get a lot of really adverse reactions like ‘Nelson, what the hell are you drinking?’ But mostly I’ve had positive reactions.”

And they all want to know how he does it. But his explanation is all more impressive than comprehensible: The computer program operates through a laptop that is hooked up to a home-made control box that synchronizes the sound, lights, pistons, motors, and even the smoke machine that pumps out faux-fried brain every ten minutes…. Most people are content to stand back and watch it like a horror flick.

The display, however, goes beyond sheer Halloween horror and unbelievable do-it-yourself robotics. It’s a vivid re-enactment of capital punishment, after all, in the heartland of the only western nation that still does such a thing.

Not anymore in Illinois, though, according to a tombstone among the decor that reads “March 9, 2011: Execution banned in Illinois.” There are four tombstones in total and the other three make references to Charlie Berger, the last man hung in Illinois in 1928; the electric chair, last used in 1962. And then “Troy Davis: Last IL execution.”

With a Halloween display that references the death of Troy Davis—never mind that he was actually executed in Georgia, and months after Illinois banned the death penalty, if that’s even relevant—you’d certainly be asking for controversy, right? Angry dads accusing you of corruption of youth, poor taste, political propaganda?

“No, no one’s really commented on the political message. People just like the theatrics,” says Gonzales. And in fact, he thinks of it more as a Halloween-themed concept than a piece of political street theater for the kids. When he started a few years back, he was doing Cubs baseball-themed displays, and now he’s moved on to something a little more horrifying.

“I was going to make it political,” he muses, “but I didn’t have the time.” He mentions something about a robot Mitt Romney with an axe that would be hacking away at the 47 percent.

But no, he decided instead just to give the juice to Troy Davis on a ten minute loop in his front yard so that Cinderella and Batman could relive the terror of state violence.

Good thing for Romney they’ll still be too young to vote next week.

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