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—Evan A. Belknap

On September 5, in Santa Fe, a fifty-foot tall bogeyman marionette—symbolizing a whole year of anxiety and gloom—was harassed by a crowd of over thirty thousand people and then burned to the ground.

I had never gone to Zozobra before, or, for that matter, ever seen anything like it. As Old Man Gloom waved his arms and chomped at the air, and as his growls changed from sinister and threatening to fearful, I found myself speechless and confused. Thousands of people chanted, “Burn him!” as a dancer in a red leotard spun a torch around the fringes of his billowing smock. A friend of mine whispered, “Only in New Mexico,” and I agreed, wide-eyed, and, honestly, shocked that this was a thing that’s been happening for almost one hundred years.

We watched on, and I tried to shake the this-is-about-as-close-to-a-human-sacrifice-as-it-gets eeriness. I tried to talk myself into sharing the animosity that the rest of the crowd seemed to feel towards this green-haired monster. I tried to pin some of my sins on the creature—quick, before it burns!—but I was having a hard time with it. The mariachi music seemed to make light of what, to me, seemed kind of tragic.

As we were walking the streets of Santa Fe on our way to the festival, I was making up explanations, as I tend to do—something about how Zozobra is the monster in all of us… yadda yadda, when an excessively drunk New Mexican caught on to the nonsense of what I was saying and kindly corrected me: “Nah, see: you just put all the bad stuff you’ve done this year on it, and it burns away. That’s all. Good thing, no?”

Good thing, sure, but still, I wanted a greater explanation. I thought that there ought to be some greater purpose for such a powerful spectacle, and until I made something up, almost all of me wanted to shout, “Let him live! It just isn’t fair!”

I started to think: human sacrifice has been a thing that people have done to people in various ways for a while now. Sacrifice seems to be an essential component of civilization—used to win a God’s favor before going to war or planting a crop, to predict the future, to bring on rain in times of drought, to aid in magic spells, and to simply say thanks for good fortune. And, apart from all the practical reasons—from the heavily-attended, public beheadings in England to witch-burnings to gladiators to that scene in the Last of the Mohicans—the morbid fascination of mankind has been effectively satiated for millennia by publically watching something die.

On the Zozobra website, A.W. Denninger writes: “Zozobra is a hideous but harmless fifty-foot bogeyman marionette. He is a toothless, empty-headed facade. He has no guts and doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. He never wins. He moans and groans, rolls his eyes and twists his head. His mouth gapes and chomps. His arms flail about in frustration. Every year we do him in. We string him up and burn him down in ablaze of fireworks. At last, he is gone, taking with him all our troubles for another whole year.”

Back at Zozobra, we all wait in anticipation for another rough year to burn away. The moment is getting close; the lights have been cut, the fireworks get more and more spectacular, and Old Man Gloom’s cries grow wilder.

That whole “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” reference from Macbeth’s death soliloquy is fitting. It goes:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
—Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

I almost wish someone had read this out loud before Old Man Gloom’s head ignited. It strikes right to the heart of the melancholy confusion I had about the whole event, which also makes the festival so interesting and strange. People’s cheers seem surreal. By cheering about death and all the bad things that inevitably have happened over any particular year, people stop trying to control how the universe works. Macbeth’s soliloquy is a tragic realization, but it is also almost a celebration of an epiphany, through which Macbeth is released from the curse that was put upon him. All his woes and worries—his desperate striving for power and his fear of a self-fulfilling prophecy—can finally dissipate as he succumbs to the inevitable.

The idea of “you just put all the bad stuff you’ve done this year on it, and it burns away,” is kind of like that. It’s celebrating the inevitable bad and moving through it. And if it takes burning a giant puppet year after year to get people to subconsciously contemplate and celebrate all these little deaths, though counterintuitive and bittersweet, I guess I’m all for it.

Old Man Gloom lit quickly and within minutes was a fifty-foot tall fireball, ripping and roaring in the wind. We could feel the heat from the back row. Thousands of fireworks exploded into the smoke. The whole thing was spectacular, but there was a definite moment when everyone knew that Old Man Gloom was dead—right before he collapsed into a pile of embers and splintered wood. I’m still stuck thinking about that moment.

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