Halloween season in America: time for suburban lawns transformed into papier-mâché graveyards, “family-size” bags of “fun-size” chocolates, jack-o-lantern carving injuries, and costumes ranging from the perfunctory (fake blood on a T-shirt) to the absurd (sexy dentist) to the Donald (fake tan and toupée: a particular favourite this year).
But Halloween season also means Hell Houses, where disused buildings are transformed by evangelical Christian groups into elaborate scenes of immoral horror. Rather than the hobgoblins and hatchet-murderers of traditional haunted houses, the typical Hell House features depraved fornications, debauched parties, bloody abortions and flamboyant same-sex marriage ceremonies – all meant to scare the hell out of visitors.
This year, a riposte to the Hell House phenomenon appeared in Plummer Park in Los Angeles, a green patch of West Hollywood featuring tennis courts, climbing frames and a community recreation centre. Two Canadian artists, Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, with the help of local artists, academics and LGBT activists, constructed a temporary, multi-sensory palace of polymorphous perversity. Entitled “KillJoy’s Kastle” – a tongue-in-cheek nod to caricatures of feminists as joyless crusaders – this Halloween extravaganza billed itself as a “sex-positive, trans-inclusive, queer-lesbian-feminist-fear-fighting celebration”. Such celebrations are the stock-in-trade of Mitchell and Logue, who in 2010 co-founded Toronto’s Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). “KillJoy’s Kastle” – partially inspired by the film “Hell House”, a 2001 documentary by George Ratliff – made its debut in Canada in 2013, and was brought to America this year with the help of the University of Southern California’s ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Its gleefully pitch-perfect send-up of Hell House paranoia attracted crowds of local visitors on each night of its two-week run.
I arrived at the Kastle one evening last week in the warm LA dusk, ushered through the park by a few androgynous volunteers in lumberjack shirts and ghoulish face paint. Visitors were lined up in front of a gate resembling a giant vagina dentata, divided into groups of ten, and asked to come up with a collective name (our group, made up of nine women and one man, briefly considered “The Princesses and the Peen” before settling on the appropriately openminded “That Works for Me”). Groups were then led through the vaginal gate into a central courtyard for some light lesbian entertainment. Our group was serenaded by Phranc, doyenne of the 1990s queer folk scene (imagine a significantly more butch KD Lang), who closed her set with a crowd-pleasing singalong of “Bulldagger Swagger” (“To every young man who can pass/To every lipstick lezzie lass...”).
Just beyond the public toilets labelled “Oppressor” and “Oppressed”, guests were greeted by one of a cadre of “demented undead women’s studies professors” enlisted to lead the Kastle tours. Our guide, an actual professor on sabbatical from Yale, somberly explained that she would be acting as our “Virgil on this frightening gender journey”, and that we should steel ourselves for “some real consciousness-raising”. She then ushered us into an ante-chamber emblazoned with Dantesque admonitions – not “abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, but rather “Super Natural Pussy”, “Paradigm Shift Ahead” and the only semi-reassuring “Don’t trip out, there’s no severed penises.”
From that point on, the Kastle’s many rooms offered tableaux combining high-minded gender theory and high-spirited gender trouble. In the first room, we saw a quartet of naked women on their backs, hand mirrors aimed at their vaginas, shrieking things like “Ooh, I can see my ovaries!” in a loving parody of 1970s “body-positive” feminism. Other scenes included a coven of orgiastic grannies (life-sized and very anatomically correct dolls ingeniously fashioned from tights); “The Ball-Buster” room, in which a moustachioed woman at a workbench hammered away at plaster casts of testicles; and the “Straw Feminist Hall of Shame”, where we sat on bales of hay and contemplated portraits of alleged betrayers of the sisterhood, from Condoleezza Rice to Carrie Bradshaw. Elaborate transitions between rooms kept the theme going. A brief walk between buildings involved a trio of “protectors” who surrounded us with linked arms – an homage to the volunteers who shield patrons of women’s health clinics from pro-life protestors.
Our Virgil left us in a luminous final room, where beatific, white-clad volunteers seated us in small groups on blood-stained stools. In an evangelical Hell House, this would be the place where we’d renounce sin and embrace Jesus, relieved to be safe from all we’d seen along the way. Instead we were invited to introduce ourselves (“name and preferred pronoun”) and to “process” our feelings about the experience in a “non-judgmental space”. Our session started awkwardly (“Oh, I feel like my gender paradigm totally shifted”), but over the next ten minutes this stylised “encounter group” elicited some genuine reflections on the history of feminism, the political power of humour, and the persistent association of female and queer bodies with horror.
Some light-hearted enlightenment achieved, we exited through Ye Olde Lesbian Feminist Gift Shoppe (selling T-shirts featuring slogans like “Creep Lez”, “Women/Wimmin/Womyn” and “Matriarchy Now”). Leaving the park, I passed a group of young kids dressed up for a pre-Halloween celebration. One, a girl aged about ten, was wearing a “sexy witch” costume. I thought about asking her parents if they had a few minutes to spare for some real consciousness-raising, but I had to get to my car before the meter expired. I hope they at least glimpsed the Kastle gates.