Frightening as it may be today, the burning of Zozobra began as a sort of artistic prank. In 1924, local artist Will Shuster burned the first Zozobra in a friend’s backyard for the entertainment of a few fellow artists. It was his way of poking fun at La Fiesta de Santa Fe, a somber, 300-year-old celebration commemorating the reconquering of the area by the Spanish on September 14, 1692, after their ousting by local Pueblo Indians 12 years earlier.
Fiesta “had become a bit stilted and perhaps too commercial,” Shuster wrote in the Santa Fe Scene in 1958. “The artists and writers of Santa Fe hatched out an hilarious post-Fiesta fiesta, called El Pasatiempo. And Zozobra was born.” (Pasatiempo is the Spanish word for pastime or amusement.)
While the modern-day Zozobra resembles a scary clown in a tuxedo, his earliest ancestors looked more like caricatures of Spanish explorers. “In the beginning they were making little conquistadors, with goatees,” Valdez says. “They were making fun of Fiesta.”
But the Fiesta councilors proved to have a sense of humor, and in 1926 they asked Shuster to bring Zozobra to the public. Over the years, the annual event attracted increasingly bigger crowds, and eventually moved to the park. Today, attendance fees help fund college scholarships and youth programs.
The event, which is now held just before the start of Fiesta, has also come to mark the beginning of the very celebration Shuster had satirized by creating Zozobra. As the crowd heads out into the streets after the burning of Old Man Gloom, shouts of “Viva la fiesta!” echo through the city’s historic streets.
Besides losing the goatee and taking on a more monstrous demeanor, Zozobra has grown taller (in the 1930s, after an embarrassing mishap with an ill-fitted loincloth, he acquired his trademark long white skirt.) His frame and facial features essentially have remained the same since 1938, although his hair and tuxedo accouterments change color from year to year, and some strategically placed pyrotechnics now add extra spark to his spectacular demise.
Despite his Twiggy-like figure, Zozobra weighs 1,800 pounds. His frame is made of furniture-grade wood (“it burns better,” Valdez says), and the rest consists of chicken wire, hundreds of yards of unbleached muslin, enough nails and screws to build a small house, pulleys, two pizza pans (for the eyes), duct tape, shredded paper and hundreds of gloom-laden items submitted by the public. It takes a group of volunteers, overseen by Valdez, two months to put Old Man Gloom together.
Santa Fe is not the only community to send its collective woe into the heavens. Shuster found inspiration in similar rituals from other cultures, including the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico, who burn an effigy of Judas after parading him around the village on a donkey, and a tradition in Caribbean fishing villages that involves lighting paper boats on fire and pushing them out to sea in hopes of ensuring safe passage for fishermen. Zozobra is also reminiscent of Wickerman, a scarecrow-like effigy burned by the Gauls at the end of the harvest season.
Zozobra himself has inspired other, similar effigy burnings, including Burning Man, held each summer in Nevada, and Albuquerque’s El Kookookee – the Bogeyman. But Zozobra, in all his hideous, gangly glory, remains one of a kind.
For some, the mass purging of gloom even approaches a spiritual experience.