Burn Him: Zozobra as an Immersive Art Experience

This flaming puppet is a creative work that both defines Santa Fe and provides a model for artists.

Zozobra was a portal to an alternate reality long before the Meow Wolf's immersive art exhibit, The House of Eternal Return materialized. This flaming puppet is a creative work that both defines Santa Fe and provides a model for artists like Meow Wolf as we create immersive spaces that exist apart from the vanilla world.

Zozobra, the part-celebration-part-esoteric ritual created by artist Will Shuster and marionette-maker Gustave Baumann in 1924, will burn again on Friday, September 1st. The burning of Old Man Gloom is more than a pyrotechnics display; it represents community, personal catharsis and local mythology. The burn influences everyone who either lives here or did at one time. You’re not fully aware of Zozobra’s significance to Santa Fe until you try describing it to an outsider. How can you tell someone that the highlight of your summer is a public execution?

“He screams and everything! It’s uncomfortable as hell but that’s what makes it awesome. Bring your kids.”

But it’s this transgressive strangeness that keeps Zozobra feeling vital 93 years in. To watch Zozobra burn along with a mob of rowdy people doesn’t feel like standing in the middle of a baseball diamond in Fort Marcy Park, it feels like traveling to a different era in history or a different world.

During Zozobra tens of thousands of people embrace the theater curated by the Kiwanis club. And by treating the spectacle as real, they make it so. Many of the artists in Meow Wolf grew up participating in this community ritual, so it’s no wonder that many of them went on to create their own alternate dimensions. What we do as a collective owes a lot to Shuster and Baumann. I’ll explain a few of the connections here.

Zozobra in 2016
Zozobra in 2016.

Zozobra is local mythology. The evidence of this is all over Santa Fe. Zozobra decorates the walls of our bars and restaurants. School kids make tiny effigies of Zozobra in art class. A mural along Cerrillos road lays out all the iconography (the fire dancers, the gloomies and Zozobra himself) so clearly that you can imagine anthropologists publishing papers about it a thousand years in the future. Zozobra started at a private event in Shuster's back yard, but the monster quickly outgrew his humble beginnings as more and more people flocked to the event. Zozo's appeal isn't only because he's a flaming spectacle, but because he invites the audience to participate.

He's a container story, large enough to hold the individual experiences of everyone in Santa Fe. This is symbolized by the people who write their grief down on slips of paper to burn along with Zozobra himself. For the uninitiated: Zozobra is a 50-foot tall, bone-white ogre who haunts the mountains above our city. He’s responsible for every bad thing that happens to us. Zozobra, whose name is taken from the Spanish word for “anxiety,” psychically projects gloom and misery into our lives all year. But we can deal with him. For a few decades Shuster had the job of luring the beast out of the mountains. Today that duty belongs to the Kiwanis club. Each year they invite Zozobra to be the guest of honor at a party. The notoriously egotistical Zozobra falls for this trick every time. He shows up at Fort Marcy Park, where the trap is sprung. We put him on trial, declare him guilty of specific hardships that hurt us over the last year, and then we burn him. Call it community policing.

The rite is based on ancient scapegoating rituals, or practices in which a community projects all the evil afflicting them onto some hapless object that they destroy. This frees them from hardship for a time. The burning has a sense of great age because Shuster was inspired by Judas-burning traditions that took place throughout Mexico and South American countries during Holy Week. Possibly these traditions began earlier than the arrival of Christianity on this end of the world. The elegance of many ancient traditions is that they work through symbols. You don’t need to write them down to hand them to the next generation. Because symbols transcend language, or are a more primal form of it, each person can adapt the ritual into their own worldview. Ancient peoples may have burned some other evil mythological figure. After Christianity showed up, people projected the evil onto Judas. Santa Fe projects it onto a howling ogre. The figures may change, but the end results are similar.

I have to imagine that the relief felt by a rejected lover watching Judas burn 500 years ago is similar to the relief felt by a woman as she stuffs her wedding dress inside Zozobra in 2017. Languages and even dogma change over time. Symbols are forever. Through them you can speak directly to your audience and invite them to participate in the creation of an artistic space. This interaction with the crowd is what makes Zozobra rise from a puppet show to an alternate reality. Zozobra demands a buy-in from the audience. You get the most out of it if you play along. Throughout Zozobra’s history, Shuster and the Kiwanis presented the story of "Old Man Gloom" as nothing less than true. The monster is referred to as a living creature just as often as it is referred to as a puppet made of paper, canvas, and cables.

This tradition started with Shuster. He often gave interviews with local newspapers in the weeks leading up to the burn, telling tall tales about how he was hiking in the mountains and saw Zozobra lurking behind the aspen trees. The newspapers didn’t run disclaimers before these articles to let people know they were gags; reporters assumed the reader’s familiarity with Zozobra. This is sloppy journalism, but these articles paint an incredible picture of Santa Fe as a tiny Southwestern town afflicted by a terrible monster that lives just where the tree line beings. These news articles show that Shuster’s fictional creation travels beyond the fences of Fort Marcy Park and invades ordinary life. Zozobra is a story that is as large as Santa Fe itself. The Kiwanis, who I picture as a monster-fighting holy order, took over for Shuster when the artist retired. They carried on his tradition of insisting that the illusion is real. Their description of Zozobra is as intricate as any mythology. How does Zozobra come back every year after we burn him? The Kiwanis’ answer is that he comes back to life due to the “nefarious and woeful” deeds of individual Santa Feans. Our collective sin is the reason we can’t get rid of this guy. Even if you never see a single burn, Zozobra is a part of your life.

Kids aren’t exempt, either. Like Santa Claus, Zozobra is particularly interested in the moral lives of children. There’s a theology for the Gloomies, the ghostly kids who dance around Zozobra. From the Kiwanis:

Zozobra casts a spell over the children of Santa Fe to come to him, driving hope and happiness from their minds and replacing it with gloom and despair — they become his minions, Gloomies. He asks his now-faithful army of the down-trodden Gloomies to wreak havoc on the city.

That’s a scary story to tell a kid, but I think of it as part of the buy-in. Children should have skin in the game or else it’s just a puppet show.

Zozobras from 1926, 1928 and 1936.
Zozobras from 1926, 1928 and 1936. Images courtesy of Kiwanis Club.

A container story like Zozobra succeeds when it can hold any number of smaller ideas without breaking character. For example, the Kiwanis are in the middle of their “Decades Project.” They’re moving forward in time leading up to the 100thburn in 2024 by theming each Zozobra after a decade. This year is the 1950s. The themes are partially cosmetic, but they often lean hard on the myth of Zozobra. Sometimes you have to banish a bad year over again just to be safe. Notice how something as incidental as a raincloud is loaded with significance when Zozo’s involved.

"Year Two, 2015, saw Old Man Gloom deeply invested in the Depression Era. Designed in grayscale to mirror the struggles of the era, he was bald and fat around the middle, thanks to the extreme gloom he spread throughout the 1930s. He never quit plying his evil machinations, even trying - unsuccessfully - to rain out the event."

The audience has all of this in mind before they ever show up to Fort Marcy Park. Zozobra’s mythology is a prologue that makes it easier for the crowd to participate in his kangaroo court trial and execution. The story favors anarchy over control, so when you join the procession of people to Fort Marcy Park it feels like being part of a literal mob. Shouts of “Burn him!” start at the Plaza and continue up until the point Zozobra collapses into a smoldering pile of ash. Your friends, no matter how respectable they are, will hurl insults at Zozobra during the burn. The atmosphere is heightened when this monstrous entity starts growling at the audience. One of the most important jobs a Kiwanis member can have is taking up a microphone to be Zozobra's "voice." The monster moans and yells for minutes, forcing you to meditate on a reality that is utterly alien to your normal life. A fireworks show can be called a spectacle; Zozobra is like visiting another planet.

Zozobra is enormously important to Meow Wolf because we're in the business of making alternate realities. We want to immerse people in an environment that is not of this world, a place that has its own aesthetic, rules, customs and metaphysical truths. We believe that we are most effective when people accept the fake reality and participate in it. By treating this other world as real, we make it real. Shuster and Baumann pioneered this kind of art in Santa Fe and we owe them a debt. Together they created a new dimension that exists parallel to our own. This place is ephemeral, but even though we can only visit for a short time, its influence is felt throughout Santa Fe for the rest of the year. Zozobra is always with us. Burn him.

Zozobra 2017