For the past couple weeks, tiny downtown Collinsville, Connecticut has glowed orange at night. The color comes not from neighborhood sugar maples in fall regalia or the pumpkins perched on stoops awaiting rebirth as jack-o-lanterns. This eerie shine emanates from colored light bulbs inside and outside, in homes and commercial buildings, burning with Halloween spirit in anticipation of the big parade that will briefly transform an ordinary place into a phenomenon.
For the better part of two decades, this old mill village has hosted a Halloween parade on the Saturday just before trick-or-treating. Starting as an impromptu gathering inspired by a casual conversation among local artists, it has drawn thousands from the start. Now a signature, quirky tradition that few locals would willingly miss, it marks a creative, playful, and eccentric community regardless of whatever else we are in more common hours.
Pumpkins, faux skeletons, web entangled plastic spiders, and all manner of goblins and monsters have sprouted up on porches, lawns and in storefronts. On parade day, maniacal laughter, fantastical sounds, wolf howls and scary music will boom through the village in late afternoon. Main Street becomes a carnival midway with ghosts strung between buildings and dummies hanging from trees and structures in ersatz mayhem. Fog machines fill the streets with mist, bizarre paper-mache heads hang from lampposts and theater lights pulsate with shifting color. Impromptu graveyards and ghouls erupt in leaf strewn yards.
People begin gathering around dusk, and while some are in street clothes, many are costumed, often in surreal, bloody, bizarre and frightening garb. Typically among them are Frankenstein monsters with bulging electrodes; witches with long noses, lavender faces, and flowing black capes; baseball players with elephantine gloves; doctors bearing menacing grins teamed with patients holding IV bags; giant rabbits and lizard-like creatures; bloody-mouthed vampires; walking leaf piles; sword-carrying knights; and gorillas. There are kings, soldiers, and hoboes. In the shadow of what was once the world’s largest axe factory, it’s not surprising to find “The Shining” and Lizzie Borden wannabes.
From the balcony of our historical museum, wild haired and white faced Monster-of-Ceremonies, Boosolini, stokes the crowd with responsive booing, macabre humor and the threat of a good time. Led by an organist playing funereal dirges from a flatbed truck, at about 7 p.m. the parade shuffles around the block and passes my house as cone-hatted Goons watch over the throng and maintain minimal order, but mostly toss candy. Spooky creations encountered on the parade route may include the Gates of Terror, Voodoo Island and drummers, an electric chair, the Zombie Cage, the Hideous Heads giant mural, stilt walkers and fire dancers, and a trembling Wall of Fear.
There’s no difference between participant and observer at Collinsville’s Halloween parade: it’s performance art where the actors are audience and the audience actors. In these few hours of temporarily suspended reality, distinctions among people are topsy-turvy. You often can’t recognize faces, and the clues from normal workaday garb are missing. Likewise, differences between adults and kids are delightfully obscured. A walk around the block becomes a voyage into deep imagination and childlike delight.
As the parade winds back to its origin, I’ll be among the robed judges wearing English style white wigs and selecting candidates for the funniest, scariest, most original, and “coveted” best in show costumes. Winners are then chosen by the crowd in a “boo-off” led by Boosolini. Prizes are suitably magical, exotic, and often nonsensical.
For a few hours each year, the ordinary world at my doorstep is radically transformed. When I awaken out of this dreamlike vacation from the norm, my spirits are refreshed and I see my everyday surroundings with renewed clarity and curiosity. Mischievous spirits are said to abound on Halloween, but the true spirit of the season has less to do with ghosts and goblins than with unforeseen joy and fun. A visit to Collinsville’s autumnal Mardi Gras is a real treat . . . and that’s no trick.