Locals In West Hartford, Conn. know Matt Warshauer’s home as the “Halloween House” thanks to the display that he’s dutifully set up every year since moving in with his family in 1998. But while pumpkins, cobwebs, skulls and other ghoulish holiday symbols figure prominently, Warshauer’s seasonal set-up focuses on the real-life horrors he finds more haunting than any ghost story. This year, that means references to the coronavirus pandemic and the Black lives lost to police violence.
Though his annual decorations were initially the standard Halloween fare — witches, pumpkins — things took a topical turn in 2003. Warshauer, a college history professor, says the Iraq War “really pushed me into the political realm — and I’ve never gone back.” Since then, his displays have addressed the pressing issues of the day — from President Donald Trump, to “the Death of Democracy,” to last year’s Supreme Court theme — growing more elaborate over time.
This year’s focus on COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter has a particular intensity. Memorial walls on either side of his front path are flanked by skull decorations and adorned with framed photos. One wall showcases COVID-19 victims — including his sister-in-law’s father — whose deaths he attributes to “negligent homicide”; nearby, pumpkins punctured with Corona beer bottles mimic the virus’s appearance.
Alongside a display tracking historical calls for social justice, from abolition to the civil rights movement, the opposite wall pays tribute to Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose killings have fueled this year’s wave of BLM protests.
Warshauer tells Yahoo Life that these deaths are “a real manifestation of the larger challenges to our democracy.” In his artist’s statement posted online, the married father of three further explains that “Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus have challenged and awakened many Americans to the racism, corruption and malfeasance endemic to our ‘democracy.’
“The Trump administration, with the support of a pandering, unethical Republican Party, is literally destroying our nation,” the statement continues. “Whether it’s their refusal to recognize that systematic racism is real and a legacy of slavery, or the utter incompetence of the COVID ‘response,’ the GOP and its maniacal ‘horror-in-chief’ have proven that they possess no ethical mooring. They covet power, little more.”
The statement also clarifies that the display is not intended to be “anti-police” but rather call out the “small minority ... who sully the term ‘officer of the law’” and “endanger all Americans and their fellow brother and sister officers.”
These bold statements tend to elicit strong reactions. While Warshauer says he’s never experienced any significant vandalism, his displays over the years have prompted “some pretty vicious reactions” accusing him of making light of serious subjects.
It’s a claim he’s quick to dismiss.
“I engage in savage sarcasm,” he says, adding that he’s “trying to use irony, sarcasm, humor to address serious issues” and spark conversations.
Pointing to the country’s long tradition of using effigies to address hot-button issues and figures, Warshauer notes that Halloween is a prime time to make a statement and “engage these issues” and “really try to draw [people] in and tell a story.”
He adds, “There’s so much out there, and there’s so much white noise, and there’s so much anger and frustration. [The display allows him to] change up the frequency of the noise. It’s a different way of getting at serious subjects.”
Overall, his neighbors are “awesome” about supporting his project, which typically goes up, often with the help of his three daughters, the last weekend of September and comes down by the first weekend of November. In a last-minute addition, this year’s display also includes a tribute to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died this month.
And though Warshauer — who calls Halloween his “favorite night of the year,” one he usually spends hosting a large party and scaring trick-or-treaters — spent his last Election Year holiday, in 2016, in a Trump costume, there will be no election theme or overt reference to 45 for 2020.
“This year, because of the obvious tension and the very great potential for violence, I thought, I’m not even going to include Trump’s image or his name or anything about the election,” he says. “I decided, because of this tension in our society, I’m not going anywhere near the election, I would just rather stick to these two themes.”
As for what the future holds — and what 2021’s theme could possibly entail, the self-professed “Mindful Professor” says he has “no idea.”
“But my government and the American people never leave me wanting,” he laughs, adding, “I am hoping that it won’t have anything to do with Donald Trump.”
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