Freaks and Geeks

Rhonda Lieberman on New York's Halloween Parade

New York

Left: Nosferatu grasps for air. Right: The “Gates” make an entrance. (All photos: Ruth Root)

As New York City's soul is sucked away by the tripartite hellmouth of gentrification, chain stores, and Starbucks, the West Village Halloween parade is an increasingly precious outlet for the freakiness of yore. Unlike the annual Gay Pride march, which has jumped the shark into corporate-sponsored vanilla-ness, the best part of the Halloween parade is that amateur creatures of the night far outnumber the pros. And, with the exception of the sublimely expressive skeleton puppets that kicked off Monday night’s spookfest, the regular devils and “cereal killers” (“backstabbed” with single-portion Cheerios boxes) are by far the most interesting. It was an evening of grassroots performance art at its best.

In a nod to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the skeleton puppets, hoisted far overhead, and a New Orleans jazz band lent a raucous, ramshackle Jazz Funeral ambiance to the Day of the Dead festivities. Squeezed by the good-humored crowd on Sixth Avenue in Soho, I was challenged, as always, by my petiteness. But it was a relief to just be myself, in my witch hat. At the first glimpse of the looming skeletons, a wave of hands wielding digital cameras shot up like some sort of undead salute: “Heil Skeletons!” In their devil horns and zombie masks, the audience was a hilarious microcosm of New York: freaks watching freaks, and snapping away.

One assumes one's fellow New Yorkers harbor rich fantasy lives beneath their boring exteriors and the parade offers a hotline into the psyches of all those people with whom you try not to make eye contact in the subway. This year was strikingly light on the celeb alter egos: I spotted a few Elvises, three Marilyns and Ali Gs, one Richard Simmons, and one dogged Austin Powers. There were also far fewer “Vacationer-in-Chiefs” than expected: one Devil/Bush affably waved to the crowd, and political couple Dubya and Arnold backslapped their way up Sixth surrounded by Fred Flintstones, Batmen, “Supremes for Hire” (the Diana Ross variety), adult “babies,” and a naked burly guy cavorting in a giant hollowed-out pumpkin “mini.” A Grim Reaper, endorsing “Ross Perot: Now There’s a Choice,” was strikingly haunting. Christianity was represented by: a friar cradling a live duck (for blocks!?), two amorous priests, and nuns galore (some with giant hooters, some plain). There was an observant “Jew” with payos (sidelocks) and yarmulke and a staff shirt from B&H photo (the super camera store run by super-Jews).

Left: A skeleton hovers above the crowd. Right: Crimped gray hair and glasses . . . Einstein?

This backseat psychologist was intrigued to see the nonhumans that people identified with; one gentleman in particular caught my eye with an Oldenburgesque soft toilet that protruded from his front, accessorized by a roll of toilet paper. I kept imagining him telling his shrink: “I’m gonna be a toilet this year!” A male member waddled along in a cleverly made inflatable penis getup. “He’s touching himself!” shrieked an appreciative onlooker. I didn’t spot any walking vaginas, but two middle-age gals were “Just 2 Old Bags” bedecked in their personal shopping bag collections. And there’s always the wild and crazy guy with the cardboard box around his head labeled: “Mammograms: Place Boobs Here.”

The Artforum reader will be pleased to know that some parade-goers were inspired by art: five groups dressed up as Christo's “Gates,” plus one loner who was a single “gate.” Several people “framed” their heads as masterpieces: a Mona Lisa, who kept pausing to strike her enigmatic pose for the people at the curb; Vincent Van Gogh, gesturing at his bloody ear; a woman with her real head inserted into a “family” portrait; Frida Kahlo and her unibrow. A conceptual type in black sported a sign that read, simply, “Costume.” A Joseph Kosuth fan? Some getups were just inscrutable, like the giant dude in chaps with his head veiled in thick orange tulle: “What’s that?” some ghoul next to me wondered. “I don’t know, but his butt’s out.”