Mini Stories: Volume 6

Main Hall of the Michigan Central Train Station, image by Albert Duce (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

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