The annual Halloween scene on the front lawn of West Hartford resident Matt Warshauer’s North Main Street home this season focuses on what he considers among the most alarming issues of the day.
By Ronni Newton
The skeletons, ghouls, and gravestones make their usual appearance in Matt Warshauer’s Halloween display, but this year’s themes are scary enough on their own without being embellished.
It’s the presidential election year, and many would have anticipated a political display to rival the one Warshauer put together in advance of the 2016 election – an elaborate and overtly-political “Trump wall” that garnered national and even international attention in the midst of a vitriolic election season. This year’s message, however, is less overtly political.
“What are the two key issues of the year?” Warshauer asked. “Black Lives Matter and COVID-19.”
Warshauer, a professor at Central Connecticut State University and a political historian, has become known for creating elaborate and message-laden Halloween displays for well over a decade.
As he sat down to write his artist statement for this year’s display, Warshauer realized that four of his past displays have really been a prologue to what’s going on this year, to the message behind the panels.
“All four are particularly apt for what’s occurring in our country right now,” he said.
Last year’s display had a SCOTUS theme, with images of all nine skeleton-headed justices peering down from behind a wall, with panels describing seven Supreme Court decisions that Warshauer considered to have had the most profound influence on our lives and the democracy.
On the very day that Warshauer was erecting the 2020 display, the day after the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg became the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, President Trump was announcing his pick for her replacement.
In 2018, the theme was the “death of democracy,” and for the first time Warshauer gave passersby a chance to comment – an element that remained last year and returns this year. A “What is Your Truth?” panel comes complete with paint pens and an industrial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer.
In 2017 there was a sinking pirate ship of state – the threat of tyrants, Warshauer called it, and another previous display (from 2014), which Warshauer said is particularly relevant, was the fall of Rome (which included a replica of the Roman Colosseum).
Sometimes Warshauer plans his displays for nearly a year, but the inspiration for this one came in the spring, and he didn’t really finalize his plans until mid summer. He started building in his garage and driveway about two or three weeks ago.
Warshauer said when COVID-19 hit the region in March, and everyone was staying in their homes and he had to start teaching online, some of his students asked during a class what he thought was going to happen to the country.
“I said, ‘I think what is going to happen is that when the weather gets warmer, people are going to feel cooped up and just have to get out.’” He said he envisioned a scene with people out playing basketball, and the police making a “terrible mistake,” and killing somebody.
“The country is going to explode,” Warshauer predicted.
What did happen with George Floyd, he said, which sparked the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this spring and summer amid the pandemic, is “a symptom of a much larger frustration.”
It’s the pandemic, he said, but also “the government’s inability to function with any effectiveness at all.”
His students – members of the “9/11 generation” (and a subject of his newly-published book) – have seen nothing but chaos in government. “When you see this many people in the street, arguing about Black lives … it’s also about government partisanship and need for a correction.”
Warshauer’s point is not intended to be an attack on police, and he made it clear that he considers many members of the West Hartford Police Department to be his friends, and said that the department is “really, really good, very professional.”
Several of the panels in this year’s display are “in memoriam.”
One contains names and birth and death dates of Black people who lost their lives at the hands of police. His youngest daughter, Jess, a junior at Hall High School, helped collect the information. The printed and laminated testaments were framed, thanks to a donation from a neighbor who is an antiques dealer.
“It’s a montage, a tribute of mourning,” Warshauer said.
There’s another panel of frames, with images, names, and birth and death dates – a memorial to those who died of COVID-19.
Not only is the tribute striking, but part of the horror is the way the deaths occurred, and how the country has had to deal with the tragedies.
“This is the first time in a long time that we, as a society, have not been able to engage in the rituals of mourning,” he said.
The display is a memoriam to the people “but it also represents what I believe is negligent homicide because of the Trump administration’s failure in dealing with the pandemic.”
With the U.S. having about 4% of the world’s population but currently about 20% of the deaths from COVID-19, “How does anyone look at that and say we’re doing a ‘super’ job?”
There were 675,000 American deaths from the 1918 flu, over the course of 18 months. In just eight months, we have topped 200,000, and winter hasn’t even hit yet and medical care is so much better than it was more than 100 years ago, he said. That’s scary even when not related to a Halloween display.
In all, three of the panels are dedicated to COVID.
Warshauer said his daughter, Jess, and one of her friends helped create 10-inch round COVID molecules out of styrofoam. Then they inserted orange Halloween lights into Corona bottles and shoved them through the molecules, creating an eery glow. They are attached to elaborately-painted panels.
“It really looks funky, like a science project,” he said.
Warshauer never uses the words “Black Lives Matter” in his display, and said his goal was not just to make a statement about a particular movement, but it’s an ongoing story, and four of the panels are dedicated to the death of Black people.
“Black Lives Matter is only the most recent organization or movement fighting for the rights of Black people,” Warshauer said. Putting on his historian hat, he highlighted the British abolition movement, and the symbol that was originally created for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, that was used by Josiah Wedgewood (of the pottery family) on pottery, medallions, and other objects.
That same symbol was picked up by the American abolition movement, and a 5-foot-by-6-foot image, painted by Warshauer’s daughter, Sam, now a junior at Eastern Connecticut State University, is a key part of this year’s display.
There are reproductions of ads for runaway slaves, ads from local newspapers of the time like the Connecticut Courant, that Warshauer and his daughter, Jess, chose to display. “Far too many people don’t understand that slavery was very much part of our history,” he said.
There’s a panel with quotes from Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King.
“I got a text from a friend who said I had to do a tribute to RBG,” Warshauer said. He agreed, and included some quotes and a tombstone.
“How prescient was it to do the Supreme Court last year,” Warshauer noted. What’s happening with the nomination of a replacement justice just weeks before the election is “so unbelievably hypocritical and disgusting,” he said.
As was the case last year, Warshauer purposely decided not to include the “Trump head” he crafted a few years ago in the display. He said he really doesn’t want to look at it.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s in your face political” in this year’s display, Warshauer said. The message that people need to vote should be obvious.
“I want people to think critically,” he said.
Despite the pandemic, Warshauer never considered taking this year off from creating a display, something he has done since he moved to his West Hartford home in 1998. The political bent began in 2003, and the past 10-12 years have been more elaborate than some of the original displays.
“In some ways I feel beholden to it now. It’s a tradition,” Warshauer said.
“There is an important element of commiseration that comes from people looking at the display,” he said. People are frustrated, upset, they’ve been feeling alone and isolated.
He does ask that all who stop to view the display wear masks, maintain distancing from others, and keep their hands clean.
“I have a nice bottle of hand sanitizer. Be smart, that’s all,” Warshauer said. All those things, being outside, keeping distant, work to stem the spread of COVID-19. He can’t understand how some people refuse to acknowledge science. “Talk about the end of the age of reason,” he added.
This year’s display a bit sturdier, Warshauer said. The past two years there has been harsh rain and wind that has blown out a few panels, so he cut 2-inch strips of plywood to serve as borders and reinforce them this year. The way things have been going for 2020, Warshauer said, he certainly expects some stormy weather.
Of all his displays, Warshauer said the most complicated to construct was the pirate ship in 2017. His favorite? The Vietnam scene complete with a downed helicopter in 2015, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
Warshauer’s house is located at 115 North Main St. in West Hartford, just north of Fern Street. There is no parking on North Main Street, but parking is available on some other side streets, including Hilltop Drive.
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