The annual Halloween scene on the front lawn of West Hartford resident Matt Warshauer’s North Main Street home makes another overtly political statement this year.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford resident Matt Warshauer said that the Halloween display he has created in front of his North Main Street home this year is best viewed in depth by passersby, because much of the message is contained in quotes printed on large wooden panels.
“I decided this that my theme is the ‘death of democracy,'” Warshauer said in an interview last week as he was preparing to set up the display on Saturday. “Last year needed to be big; this year needed to be smart.”
This year’s display has a bit less ghoulishness than in past year’s, but it’s no less scary.
Warshauer, a professor at Central Connecticut State University and a political historian who has become known for creating elaborate and message-laden Halloween displays for well over a decade built a “pirate ship of state” last year, a massive structure that followed his 2016 display – an elaborate and overtly-political “Trump wall” that garnered national and even international attention in the midst of a vitriolic election season. Past displays have included a Vietnam scene complete with a downed helicopter and the the Roman Colosseum.
One section of this year’s display – which includes a total of eight 4-foot-by-eight-foot panels – contains the words of four former presidents. “There is lots to read, lots to check,” Warshauer said.
Included are the farewell addresses of President George Washington and President Barack Obama, and a series of quotes from President Teddy Roosevelt and President John F. Kennedy. Because this is a Halloween display, the likeness each former president is represented by a bust topped with a skeleton head.
As the display heads north across Warshauer’s lawn, one passes by the “Gates to Trumpian Perdition” topped by a “Democracy Can Die” sign. “Perdition” has several definitions, but the one Warshauer is referencing comes from Christian theology.
Three of the panels are specifically about President Trump, Warshauer said, including one with a selection of quotes (from a diversity of people including H.L. Mencken, George Orwell, and Adolf Hitler) about fascism.
The “big angry Trump” character that Warshauer first created two years ago just before the election is back. It still has its “tiny hands” and blows smoke as it sits atop a panel with that challenges viewers to consider what to think when certain words like “obstruction, collusion, corruption, prevarication, treason” consistently appear in articles about the president, Warshauer said.
“When respected journalists determine that Donald J. Trump is a threat to democracy, what should ‘We the People’ do?” reads another panel that rises above gravestones.
“Is America only about the economic bottom line?” Warshauer challenges. “What is your America?”
The final panel exclaims: “Get Woke!!” Warshauer said he has been telling his students that the 2018 and 2020 elections are the most important his life. “When I first said that to them I got raised eyebrows,” said Warshauer, but he said he believes the United States is on a precipice, and asked his students to consider whether those who are in power are the best who can be in those positions.
“I told my students, ‘You all have your beliefs, consider what your values are, what you believe in … If you don’t believe in democracy, what do you believe in?'”
Since 9/11, Warshaur said, our democracy has been dysfunctional at its highest levels, and he is not just taking digs at the current administration. “It’s all partisan rancor, all they do is bicker,” he said. “They don’t believe in the salience of democracy.”
This year’s display is about the death of democracy, but it challenges the public to make a difference, to start a new political party if the existing ones don’t line up with their beliefs.
“We often forget that the United States is an experiment in representative government and human rights,” Warshauer wrote in his artist statement for the display. “That ‘we the people’ are responsible for the success of that experiment, and that when we fail to educate ourselves and fail to take responsibility for the direction of our government, we are ultimately the source of the great experiment’s demise.”
When leaders become ignorant and corrupt, democracy will break down, said Warshauer.
Warshauer had another panel planned, with some even more overt statements, but his wife convinced him to leave those out. “My wife said that the good thing about your displays is that they provoke people to think,” he said. She urged him to avoid being just part of the chorus.
In the final element of this year’s display, which is on the lawn of Warshauer’s neighbor to the north, viewers are asked to share their own hopes and fears in writing on the panel.
The public is also being asked to take video of their reactions to the display, and then email the videos to documentary filmmaker Gwen O’Donnell of O’Donnell Dunn Productions (email@example.com) or share them on Twitter with the hashtag #HalloweenHouse.
“I’ve been a fan for years,” O’Donnell, a West Hartford resident, said of Warshauer’s displays. She decided the display would make a great subject for a documentary, and could be another way to increase conversation.
“This is patriotism,” O’Donnell said Saturday, as she filmed Warshauer setting up the display with his friends and family members. “He’s taking his ideas, creating something, using his voice. That’s what makes the country great.”
Warshauer isn’t shy about sharing his own thoughts about how to fix the nation’s democracy. “Personally I think that we need to create a system, a new constitutional convention, that forces a third party,” he said. A system that would require compromise because no one party would have a majority would eliminate factionalism.
Will that ever happen? Warshauer certainly doesn’t have that answer. “Generally speaking we don’t make major changes without some major shift,” he said.
“Be sure, my goal is to push people to think harder,” Warshauer said. “I try not to be a hater and am not trying to foment hate. These are all just words, people. Remember, we are promised the right of free speech.”
Warshauer’s house is located at 115 North Main St. in West Hartford, just north of Fern Street. There is no parking on North Main Street, but parking is available on some other side streets, including Hilltop Drive.
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