Mini Stories: Volume 6

The Voice of Old Man Gloom by Delaney Hall

About a year ago, 99pi Senior Producer Delaney Hall moved back to New Mexico where she originally grew up. One of the exciting things about moving back is that she gets to attend an annual event called The Burning of Zozobra. Every fall, the city of Santa Fe comes together to burn a giant marionette effigy.

In Spanish, “zozobra” means “anxiety,” and this effigy has come to represent all the city’s collective sorrows. Once a year, those sorrows — in the form of Old Man Gloom — are sent up in smoke. It’s an amazing spectacle. Zozobra stands about 50 feet tall, and as a crowd of 50,000 people chants “BURN HIM! BURN HIM,” the figure is slowly engulfed in flames, writhing and groaning in agony.

Zozobra (1938) via The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe

Zozobra’s framework is made of wood covered with rolls of chicken wire and muslin cloth before being stuffed with bushels of shredded paper. It’s supposed to be a kind of cathartic ritual — because Zozobra represents gloom, it’s this way that the city purges its sadness. Anyone with an excess of gloom is encouraged to write down the nature of their sadness on a slip of paper, and leave it in the “gloom box” found in the offices of the Santa Fe Reporter in the weeks leading up to the burn. Participants can also add documents on the day of the burning by visiting a “gloom tent,” where they can contribute paper for the marionette’s stuffing. People contribute police reports, mortgage documents, divorce papers — anything they might want to destroy in a fiery blaze.

The Zozobra tradition dates back to 1924 and was started by a Santa Fe artist named Will Shuster. It has similarities to Burning Man, since they both began as smaller festivals and were founded by artists, but Zozobra predates Burning Man by over 60 years. What’s unique about Zozobra is that he’s a puppet and capable of rudimentary movement. His arms swing around and his jaw is hinged — so his mouth opens and closes and can make sound.

The voice of Zozobra is performed live, and for the last 20 years has been voiced by a man named Michael Ellis. Ellis was born and raised in Santa Fe and has memories of going to see Zozobra as a kid. He says that back then, which would’ve been about fifty years ago, they’d let you park your car on the baseball field where the event happens — like you were at a drive-in movie. “My dad tells me stories of how I was very terrified of it. He says that on one particular occasion […] I spent the event on the floor of the backseat of the car with a blanket over my head.” Now Ellis keeps the tradition alive of terrifying younger generations — one writhing, groaning, flame-engulfed puppet at a time.

  1. Kevin

    Loved the segment on alleys in NY. Reminded me of this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:

    “Chicago is a better city than New York because Chicago has alleys. The garbage doesn’t pile up on the sidewalks. Delivery vehicles don’t block main thoroughfares.”

  2. I remember walking narrow streets from my way to Tribeca to Chinatown.. Thought and still it is an alley.

    Now a friend of a friend film in NY and the alley parts were filmed in Lubbock TX alleys. I guess this makes sense now.

  3. Alison

    My grandparents lived about 4 or 5km from Point Roberts and one of my earliest memories is going across the border to get gas and groceries with them, without a passport or letter from my parents, and having no problem at all getting across. Just a verbal confirmation and a have a nice day.

  4. Daniel Grossberg

    re “Beautiful Downtown (your city here)”

    Made popular by the ground-breaking variety show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” from “Beautiful Downtown Burbank”.

  5. Budislav Basovic

    In Kotor, Montenegro, there is a tradition very similar to Zozobra – traditional annual Carnival ends with the “Burning of the Carneval”, where a large effigy of a villain figure, representing (and blamed for) all the bad things that happened in the previous year, is burned on the waterfront. Earliest records of the Carneval date back to 1508.

  6. Adam

    Great story about Point Roberts, Sharif! I lived in Tsawwassen when I was a kid in the 90s, and you’re absolutely right about the primary uses being package pickup and cheap gas. But other frequent usage included picking up cheap beer (or so my Dad tells me now), going out on friends’ boats (less expensive to dock in the states), and for the NHL Vancouver Canucks’ non-Canadian hockey players: maintaining a residence to avoid Canadian income tax. But it would be remiss of me to not point out that Tsawwassen is pronounced “Ta-wass-in”!

  7. Judd

    I immediately thought of the alley where Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed. I had assumed it was filmed in NYC—maybe Allen Ginsburg dressed as a Hasidic Jew gave me that impression—but no! It was apparently filmed in London.

  8. Lane

    I’m on vacation in NYC, and I remembered this story, so I had to go see Cortlandt Alley myself. It’s not even a real alley! It has sidewalks, curbs, street signs at either end, and painted traffic directions.

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