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Night Crawler 

Autumn of the Dead

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
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Autumn of the Dead
It is a given that, after birth, the only inevitability in life is death. This is not the moribund fretting of an overindulged existentialist, simply a statement of fact: Corporal beings come to pass. There are some cultures, like the Maori, who spend their whole lives - both waking and sleeping -- preparing for the moment when facial tattoos and a fierce countenance might be a warrior's only weapon against evil spirits. There are other cultures whose intimacy with death extends to holding the deceased in a vat that is used to make soup for loved ones once the body has been dismembered and spread on the cliff rocks for birds of prey; and still other cultures whose daily offerings to the world of shades erupt in a weeklong celebration of bright colors and music, where both children and specters are invited to dance through the streets in a loving embrace. In our Western society, death is usually held at arm's length, put behind closed doors, placed under dark veils, mentioned in whispered tones, or left in the hands of adolescent goth poets, pulp fiction directors, and coffeehouse philosophers. Folks can live an entire lifetime without knowing that the smell of a naturally decomposing body is that of overripe fruit mingling with moss.

Even Halloween -- our tepid exploration of ghosts, ghouls, and alter egos, seen through a Hallmark haze of plastic witch leers and candy benefaction - is threatening to some.

Last week, on the corner of 16th and Market streets, I was handed a bright orange flier adorned with festive black skeleton hands and Grim Reaper silhouettes. The flier-lady was female by birth, tastefully blond, mid- to late 30s, coolly dressed, smiling - not the sort of person I want hosting my All Hallow's Eve, if you know what I mean, and her leaflet read, "Trick or Treat, Indeed!" It went on to explain the dire implications of your standard Midwestern Halloween: Candles and jack-o'-lanterns can be used in witchcraft; black or red clothes are often worn by devil worshippers; pentagrams and ankhs are sure signs (see helpful diagram) of Satan; costumes can be used in shape-shifting spells; trick-or-treating is a ruse often used by witches to gather personal items from the neighborhood.

Obviously, if this woman is worried about trick-or-treating, she's never seen a 7-foot-tall drag queen get fist-fucked on top of a Castro Street bus shelter during our city's favorite holiday, and given the current frat-boy saturation of the city, she may never have to. Still, October is a strange time in San Francisco. While other cities in the country are witness to drastic color changes, the smell of wood fires, and a little nip in the air, we are usually enjoying our first days of fleeting summer. Autumn might go completely unnoticed in the town if it weren't for the moon, our love of lewd costumes, and our dead.

There are two Harvest Moons in autumn, one in September (sometimes called the Fruit Moon, Nut Moon, or Barley Moon) and one in October (sometimes called the Hunter's Moon, Big Wind Moon, or the Moon of Falling Leaves).

We gather on Mount Tam, a cheerful clutch of Girl Scouts and nature lovers carrying water bottles and flashlights. The sun has not yet set, but the crickets have already begun their ritual aria, and the smell of Douglas fir and tall grass is strong in the air. The hike is leisurely, winding up through trees, past giant craggy boulders and picturesque fence posts. The sun settles just as we reach the first flaxen hilltop, drenching the western sky in sherbet hues of orange and pink. Within moments it is very dark. Flashlights and the gentle laughter of people tripping over uneven ground keep thoughts of The Blair Witch Project at bay, even as a screech owl swoops through the branches with an unearthly howl. We cross a wide plateau, then plunge again into forest where, in the darkness between sunset and moonrise, the natural-stone seats of the open-air Mountain Theater take on a druidic aspect. The stars begin to emerge through the leafy canopy overhead, and a coyote screams in the distance. Our volunteer guide talks over the nervous giggles of the Girl Scouts: This theater was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s. It seats over 3,000 ... Gasps halt the history lesson as the moon rises - swollen and distended, dripping molten gold over the San Francisco skyline.

"Is that the sun?" asks a bewildered young girl as she grapples with the scientific improbability. But she is not alone. It is the largest, reddest moon I have ever seen, and it's fast, climbing into the night sky with the dizzying speed of time-lapse photography, then donning the more common, less demanding pallor of a lunar body.

As we wind our way down the Mountain Theater steps in a tight line of flickering lamps, a young film producer says, "Now that was a horror-movie moon if ever there was one."


The smell of fresh cut apples, mulled wine, and French onion soup fills the air of the Exit Theater. Candles flicker on every tabletop, adding to the amber cast of the stage, where oil paintings of Ruben-esque women hang over a fireplace. The audience is a sophisticated blend of arty ponytails and balding pates clucking over their brie and baguettes, but since the Thrillpeddlers are hosting tonight's fete, there is sure to be bloodshed before the evening's end.

In late 1800s, just after the abolishment of public executions and before the development of low-budget slasher films, there was Grand Guignol - French plays known for their violent content and graphic, often gruesome stage production (buckets of blood, animal innards, tools of torture). They enjoyed great popularity (despite frequent episodes of fainting in the audience) and illustrious patrons (Ho Chi Minh, the kings of Greece and Romania) until World War II, when real-life horrors seemed to overshadow make-believe ones. While the going was good, Le Theatre du Grand Guignol was the ideal Halloween destination, not entirely unlike the Exit Theater, a small playhouse in a dead-end passage of a derelict district in Paris, not entirely unlike the Tenderloin.

The Thrillpeddlers know a good thing when they see it.

After a restaging of the British-banned 1945 one-act The Celibate -- the stirring battle between a parish curate's overwhelming lust and his God-fearing crippled wife, which ends in a bloody gunshot to the head -- and the titillating 1888 masterpiece A Visit to Mrs. Birch and the Young Ladies of the Academy -- "stiff" admonishments from Joan Elman, and pert, bare bottoms from a cast of young, willing ladies in pinafores -- we get down to 1925's A Crime in the Madhouse, a Grand Guignol classic written by Andre de Lorde and Alfred Binet. We're talking sweet young girl locked away in an insane asylum with hunchbacks and child-killers. Screaming doesn't help. Nuns don't help. They want the young girl's eyes, blood, gore, and all.

"Lubrication for the holiday," says a man guffawing through his beard.


Outside SOMAR, a large pile of skulls strewn with flowers glows in the cooling night. Gravestones grow out of the bushes, and all around lie signs of remembrance. I enter the pitch black gateway of Casa de Espantos ("House of Ghosts"), through caution tape and curtains of silvery threads, into the chill of reflective black light and large, leering heads. My footsteps wake sleeping bears and skeletal fiends who lurch at me with scythes and scepters through clouds of smoke. This is the "Fun House of the Dead," I am told. There is laughter in the darkness up ahead, then the Reaper demands that I crawl through a darkened tunnel. The floor under my knees is transparent; shadows move below, skittering; an icy hand slides over my ankle. Curator Rene Yanez waits for me on the other side with a warm smile. To my right is an altar of fading photographs, dried flowers, and chipped crockery. Below the altar, embedded in the floor, is a glass coffin housing two skeletons cushioned by household memories and sanguine candlelight. They are Susan Matthews' grandparents who, the tale says, were so afraid to die they lived to be 107, when the weight of their memories crushed them. Yanez beckons me to a bridge, the passageway created by Kay Weber. Wild, surreal faces hang in the darkness on either side, culling ritual shapes and symbols from every imaginable culture, reflected in the dark mirrors of the River Styx below. Despite reason, I hold the railing and enter the "Dwellings of the Dead," where I am asked a seemingly simple question by Michael Jones and Alicia Houtrow: heaven or hell?

I have always picked heaven for climate and hell for conversation, but signing my name on the dotted line is not easily done. Creeping farther along the labyrinthine passages, I find no fewer than 75 other habitats for death: the hotel room in Arizona where Nick Gomez's uncle was shot dead, complete with a view from the hotel window, an old black-and-white TV, and the uncle's suit; a visual testimonial for frogs sacrificed for science class, created by Jenny Hacker; a drum tree made from Annamarta Dostourian's grandmother's pots and pans; an empty red-lined coffin as an invitation to the living who might want to lie inside and gaze into the mirror hanging above, by Juliet and Dean MacCannell; a stunning stainless steel alcove created in the Jewish tradition of shivas by Margaret J. Feldman (with mirrors covered in scarves and the words "To Remember to Mourn What Is No Longer Present"); a cozy receiving room for all those who didn't die crossing the U.S. border, with a sign-in book and a reminder of those who did, created by Kathy Pinto, Niki Ballard, and Katie Keech; and an Aztec-sci-fi world created in plasma and black light neon by Chico Ganza.

Spinning from my travels, I enter the cool quiet of the "Temple of the Dead," a huge wall-sized altar for fallen idols and loved ones. At the far end of the Temple stand altars for Bernice Bing, a beat-era artist who worked at SOMAR until her death from cancer earlier this year, and Hayden Carlos Davis, the well-known son of SOMAR proprietor Jack Davis, who took his life on New Year's Day. Bing's altar is strung with her etchings, fans, china, and fragrant wreaths; Davis' is filled with hundreds of photographs, newspaper clippings, candles, and Nutrageous bars. A woman steps out of the candlelight and moves across the floor.

"That's my son," she says quietly to the room.

In the breathtaking traditional Day of the Dead altar created by Raquel Garcia nearby, a small gray house mouse ventures out into the open to nibble on offering bread and sugar skulls.

And so it goes. Autumn.


Last week's Night Crawler misidentified three people shown accepting a Wammies award. Members of Most Chill Slack Mob with Krista Jones accepted the award on behalf of the winner in the hard rock category, Spike 1000. My apologies to all.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

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Silke Tudor

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