Two cultural phenomena have recently taken place side-by-side in the United States: the midterm elections and Halloween. Poet and essayist Zoë Brigley Thompson, assistant professor at the Ohio State University, asks what place her adopted homeland is in, and what parallels can be drawn between the American political landscape and the country that brought us the Fright House.
Americans may have no identity but they do have wonderful teeth
It’s happening again. As the nights draw in, as trees redden their leaves, as the sweltering of summer’s end breaks like a fever: it’s election time again in Ohio. Two years after President Trump’s victory, now we have the US midterms. After the last one, I promised myself that next election season I would collect up the husband and kids, and take off, but that is a luxury we cannot afford. We cannot afford not to be here to help, because although we don’t yet have a vote, we can’t turn away from the political race, because people are getting hurt, and opting out is a privilege that most people don’t have.
It is a few weeks or so before Halloween, with elections due to fall on November 6th. I am scrolling through ideas for a Halloween party at my kids’ school, while also reading the news that left-leaning millionaire George Soros has found a pipebomb in his mailbox. I am trying to carve out time to campaign for our local Democratic candidate for state senate, Louise Valentine, texting as I drop the kids at school.
—Can you make Saturday?
—How about Sunday?
—Maybe Tuesday but definitely before Halloween.
Later I ask my husband why the elections are so close to the holiday. ‘They weren’t thinking about Halloween,’ he says, ‘more the changing seasons. It’s been around since colonial times I guess, based on agricultural calendars. Halloween is the end of the harvest season, and so people would be free to travel and vote.’ That’s the logical conclusion, but I know he is thinking the same as me: that there is something peculiar about American Halloween.
Halloween is a big deal in the U.S. In the local store, you can buy six-foot inflatable ghosts, tombstones for the garden, or vintage style clocks shrieking Edgar Allen Poe style prose. A European import, Halloween did not take off until the beginning of the twentieth century, and it is worth remembering that, according to an IAIA Chronicle Survey, First Nation peoples seldom celebrate it. One native respondent said for example that they do not celebrate the holiday because they are “a decolonizing-our-minds family.” Other people celebrate it in their own way. A friend from work decorates her garden, dressing up a dummy as “zombie Trump,” and etches her garden gravestones with names like “Women’s rights” or “Freedom of the Press.”
Kids going trick or treating can be cute, but the adults are more creepy, especially men in masks. One time, trick or treating in the neighborhood, a man terrifies the kids, when he answers a door in a rubber mask of melted face, flesh burned to molten wax. Another time I am in a Halloween store looking for costume ideas for the kids, when a man masked like the killer in the movie Halloween jumps out from behind a display: “Need any help?” I drop my cellphone and the screen shatters. A saleswoman intervenes: “Sorry, hon. He’s only worked here a week. I told him before. He’s not supposed to wear the merchandise.” He is still standing there in the mask, as if waiting for something, and I am not looking at him, because if I do, I’m afraid I will give myself away. Because I am terrified, but I am not going to show it. He takes off the mask at last, and underneath is a fifteen-year-old white boy.
I do my own kind of trick or treating. With an information pack on Democrat, Louise Valentine, I am knocking on doors. Her branding is a red, white, and blue V that might also be a heart, and her slogan is to put people first. She is running on a campaign to improve public schools against a Trump in training, Andrew Brenner, who described public education as “socialism,” and suggested privatizing schools.
On the doorstep rounds, there are the usual suspects: the Democrat huggers, the we-already-voted-by-mailers, the not-today-thankyous, but something is a little different. At one house, I ask to talk to the family’s nineteen-year-old daughter, and a white man, presumably her father, slams the door in my face. At another house – again a white family – a man yanks the door open while I am talking to his partner, and says to me: ‘It’s time for you to leave. I don’t have to listen to this.’ The woman turns to him, saying: ‘This is my conversation.’ She comes out onto the porch, closes the door on the man behind her. I say that I didn’t mean to disturb her on a Sunday, that I am fitting in volunteering around my work and kids. She tells me that she used to volunteer too, years ago when she was in college. When I leave, I am wondering what the consequences will be. What will happen when she goes back into the house to face the man she closed the door on?
At last, it’s the week of Halloween, and the news is horrifying. In Kentucky, a white man has a plan to attack a black church, but unable to enter, he shoots two people – Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones – in a nearby supermarket. In Pittsburgh, another white man attacks the Tree of Life synagogue with an assault rifle and handgun, killing eleven people, and shouting anti-Semitic slurs.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, the local news describes outrage at a local “swastika night” at the Haunted Hoochie, a fright house near Columbus, one of many theme parks/haunted houses out in the countryside. I noticed traces of one when driving out to do apple-picking with the kids. There on the side of the road is a dummy hanging from a noose, and for a dreadful moment my stomach turns, before I realize it’s not real. I find myself pointing at something on the other side of the road, hoping my sons will not turn their heads and see it.
Haunted Hoochie is a particularly controversial fright house, because every year, it provides the opportunity to witness simulations of the most appalling violence, acted out for attendees’ amusement. USA Today reported in 2015 that the fright house had a dummy head of President Obama mounted on the wall, projected scenes from 9/11, and that actors simulated suicide, violence against pregnant women, and other appalling violences. In the USA Today report, one actor at Haunted Hoochie talked about the display of an upside down American flag, not red, white, and blue, but black and white like the protest flags sometimes carried by the far right. “We’re seeing our rights taken away in this country and it’s not right,” the zombie-playing actor said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Now, after a blatant anti-Semitic attack, Haunted Hoochie offers up the chance to wear swastikas to the peanut-crunching crowd. And what does that mean? Do Ohioans really enjoy this violence? Is a secret desire to witness the violence of a far-right dystopia worming away inside them like an itch that needs to be scratched? Do they not realize that violence is not a game, but a lived reality for many?
Jean Baudrillard once wrote that Disneyland was the theme park that hid a vital truth. That America itself is a theme park, showground of capitalism, and the glitz of the “free” economy. But what if a better analogy for America is the fright house? Haunted Hoochie is a dissimulation: it obscures the fact that America is the real haunted house, the site where anti-Semitic, misogynist, racist, and far right violences are occurring with frightening regularity. The dummy hanging on the side of road obscures the fact that lynching is an integral and horrifying part of American history, and that very violence lives on today.
On the night of the elections, I cannot sleep. The children climb into our bed in the early hours all coming at the same time, as though signaled by an invisible beacon. I check the news: so many women, so many minority candidates have won, but Louise Valentine has lost. I commiserate with my neighbor, who organized volunteering from her dining room table. “I just don’t it”’ she says. “I don’t get why people vote for shitty human beings.”
But perhaps that’s the freedom of being in a fright house. The freedom to offend. The freedom to not accept and embrace those different to yourself. The freedom to separate parents at the border from their children. The freedom to strip the rights of trans people. The freedom to ignore abuses of women, and non-binary people. The freedom to ignore the unnecessary loss of black lives, or the mass imprisonment of people of color. The freedom to send women who have abortions to prison. The freedom to embrace your fear and anger that the world no longer belongs to white people. The freedom to believe that anger is justified, and to direct it at others.
The fright house tells us that violence is an illusion, an act, but the fright house lies. The fright house is America.
Photos by MaryKatherine Ramsey
Zoë Brigley Thompson is assistant professor at the Ohio State University. Her new poetry collection Hand & Skull, and her nonfiction essays, Notes from a Swing State, are out in 2019.