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It’s not easy to get into Theatre Bizarre. I mean literally. After wandering through blood-soaked, human-sized bags that carom off your body, you have to pass through a blood-spattered kitchen, before pawing your way through a maze that’s on the receiving end of a smoke machine, and a twisting hall that’s alternatively pitch black and full of translucent, milky fog. Once you’ve made it past a blinding strobe light, the outdoor fair that is the Theatre Bizarre comes into view.
And it’s beautiful.
The space behind a row of Detroit homes near the State Fairgrounds has been transformed into a dilapidated amusement park, to celebrate Halloween for one night only in very adult fashion. Carpeted with wood chips and wet leaves, an unusual but nonetheless convincing dramatic space is created. The artists and designers behind the big show have done an excellent job of taking the carnival to the limits of technical facility while staying true to the do-it-yourself spirit.
With the pressing crowds, the endless supply of beer, the flamethrowers mounted on the stage and the slightly perfumed smell of machine-made smoke, Theatre Bizarre is a disorienting experience. On stage, goth and punk antics heighten the insurrectionary feeling of Halloween night. In a moment of amusing stage theatrics, the lead singer of local punk act Thrall rips off his George Bush mask to reveal a devil mask. In the crowd, a policeman with a pig nose strapped to his face cheers wildly. Hundreds stand cheering barbarically in the light rain, and there’s nary a corporate logo to be found. The main bar hemorrhages 10 kegs of beer an hour.
But is this really rebellion? Certainly, nationwide the draw of a night to “let your freak flag fly” has translated into an orgy of consumption. Halloween spending has almost tripled in less than 10 years, at $6.9 billion last year, making it the top-grossing holiday after Christmas. Halloween is also second to Christmas in home decoration spending, and is rumored to rival St. Patrick’s Day in beer consumption. Industry research suggests that the business of Halloween is driven by harried young professionals who go all-out when given the opportunity to loosen their white collars for a night. The Dead Kennedys perhaps expressed it best two decades ago in their song “Halloween.”
“You go to work today/You’ll go to work tomorrow/Shit-faced tonight/You’ll brag about it for months/Remember what I did/Remember what I was/Back on Halloween?/But what’s in between?/Where are your ideas?”
Those are good questions, all the more relevant considering Halloween’s passage from greasy kids’ stuff into a night of “monster profits.” What does it mean to be a nonconformist — like everybody else — for one night only? Does the spectacle somehow validate the outside world by making it seem normal in comparison? Not only is it good grist for a punk-rock song, it’s enough to give a French theorist a hard-on.
But, walking through Theatre Bizarre, it’s fascinating to think of the level of participation Halloween engenders. It may be a moneymaker, but it’s not as alienated and materialistic as other celebrations. People who submit all year to The Man bend their talents and enthusiasms to their own fanciful purposes.
Take Anna Lemanowicz, 35, of Detroit, a dental assistant by day who was able to cast herself a lovely pair of fangs for the evening. Or two young fans of the alienating world of professional sports, who donned hockey outfits and spent the whole night staging mock combat, with a confederate referee always in the offing.
As the party rages on, I hear again and again that this is the fourth and final Theatre Bizarre. I grill John Dunivant, 32, one of the main organizers. He clarifies, “We’re not giving up. We’re taking a break.”
Despite the growing Halloween gravy train, the Theatre Bizarre has apparently never turned a profit. They’re obviously not in it for the money, and opposition from the City of Detroit is forcing them to look for new ways to keep the show going.
Backstage, I approach Thrall front man Mike Hard, who joked during his performance, “I want to see everybody back at work on Monday morning!” I tell him about my ambivalence.
“You know what it is?” says Hard. “It started out just like when you and I were little kids and we ran door to door and we put our costumes on and we had such a gas. … And we lost that because then we became adults and had to work and everything, so it’s a chance to regress a little bit and be something that you’re not.”
But his answer troubles me further. If rebellion is about being yourself, then it’s about taking your costume off, not putting one on. Or, as another punk song goes, “Why be something that you’re not?”
I’m beginning to believe that Hard is tiring of my cynicism, because he closes by advising, “To some people it’s a bigger night than it is to you and me. You can’t deny that to them.”
Amid the costumed people who will return on Monday to the ad agencies and parts suppliers and IT departments of metro Detroit, I keep hunting for the true spirit of the season. Is it a countercultural holiday? Or is it just an excuse to drown the office cubicle blues in a deluge of all-you-can-drink beer?
I get an unequivocal answer from Tex of Country Bob and the Bloodfarmers, who at the mere mention of the subject cries, “Oh, it’s not a rebellion against anything! It’s just one night to escape the system!”
I ask Ethan McAdam, 31, a Detroit carpenter who is not in costume but loves Halloween because, “it just doesn’t buy into that Christian bullshit.”
Then I am besieged by the “Sock Fairies,” whom I take to be automotive designers by day. Sparkleen (Karysa Naeve, 25, of Warren), Gina (Jennifer Atanasovski, 25, Royal Oak) and Professor Von Flusswagen (Therese Tant, 31, Royal Oak) have spent the night testing people’s socks for cooties. I ask if this is just a one-night-stand with role-playing, and am astounded at the answer.
“We firmly believe in getting into costume as often as possible.”
I’m impressed with the sincerity of the Sock Faries, who in my mind’s eye I imagine at home, eagerly opening their cootie-eradication box. As I break into a smile, I suspect I finally found the spirit of the season.
For more information, visit www.theatrebizzare.com.
Michael Jackman is a freelance writer from Detroit. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.