Photos and text by Bucky Miller. He is a Houston-based artist.
I think about skeleton factories a lot. Year-round. In October, these thoughts tend to be congratulatory. Early September, I consider how busy the workers must be as they shift into packaging and distribution mode. In January I mostly wonder what they are up to. R&D? Supplying science classrooms? That particular demand seems low, and the educational skeleton need never be adorned in a tattered wedding dress or hootenanny clothes. I give no space to the near-certainty that the skeleton-making places also produce snowmen or Easter Bunnies. Even if the decoration mills do double-dip, skeletons probably require their own molds or machinery. That is good, that’s enough. Not that I necessarily want to see the process. A “How It’s Made” piece on the industry could be a total spoiler. There is zero chance that the assembly floors are populated by singing, self-replicating skeletons. I know this. Yet I do not wish to see for certain that it is not the case. The mystery is kind of the point.
This piece is running now because I resisted an urge to ask the editors if we could hold off and publish it in February. I felt like the request might be pushing my luck — the decorative skeleton is, for better or worse, mostly a Halloween thing. Halloween mostly happens at this time of year, when the country turns its lawns into test sites for the chaotic possibilities of anodyne scariness. A boneyard is fine in October, but the homeowner who installs his werewolf in July should expect some pushback — not that I would discourage anyone so inclined. Halloween is a meaningful exception to decorum, a fleeting window of time when swaths of otherwise unremarkable subdivisions — relying on tradition, of all things — collectively acknowledge the joy of the strange.
Over the course of this current Halloween season, which belongs to this tender year, I have noticed a new abundance of skeletons scattered across Houston lawns. On the surface this seems counterintuitive. In the midst of such a traumatic era, with so much in the world left boiling and uncertain, one might expect a Halloween with softer edges. All pumpkins. Instead the community has made a full-throated commitment to the spooky, albeit one that does not feel rooted in cynicism or dread. Skeletons, because they have no skin, are always smiling. This makes them incredibly charming. Many people simply sit their skeletons in chairs on their porches and make them wave towards the street, their jaws nearly unhinged. It’s nice.
Halloween decorations are, on the whole, good, but I would like to live in a place where I can photograph the skeletons year-round. They are basically clown puppets. Both are weird non-sentient distortions of human figures, anonymous stand-ins for doers of person things. Importantly, each clown puppet and every decorative skeleton exists as some fluid mixture of scary and funny. To turn a yard over to skeletons is to transform it into a puppet theater. The newest generation of decorative skeleton is highly articulated, seemingly able to hold any pose, and thereby well-suited to melodrama. Two of these objects working together can portray a fancy couple on a date as easily as they can dismantle each other with kitchen utensils while flying, and both acts feel like standard parts of the repertoire. Of course, the fantasy is countered by displays of skeletal realism. The most relatable arrangements often feature a subject that is just kind of standing there, a six-foot vertical line taking up some space. “Yeah buddy,” I might think as I walk past a skeleton who is propped up against the side of a completely ordinary home, grinning stupidly with its arms at its sides. “I never know what to do with myself either.”
Bone theater. It is probably art. It is thrilling, impractical, odd, a little vulnerable. It is a form that holds up to every meaningful definition of art, whether or not the practitioners identify as artists. Consider, for example, this tension: Even the most elaborate of lawn dioramas are executed in a low-fidelity style of horror that betrays the presence of directors pulling strings offstage. Odd and ordinary form a giddy feedback loop. One can always see the zip tie that holds the skeletal hand to the fence, the dim blue glow of the Ring security doorbell, the yard sign printed in seven fonts that begins, “In this house we believe…”
I moved to my current apartment at the dawn of the pandemic. It has been lonely. I have become familiar with the sidewalks, the alleys, the facades of buildings. The neighborhood is kind of fancy and clean, lots of big homes and young families. When I go for a walk by myself, wearing something I got at Goodwill twelve years ago that is now tattered enough to be suitable for a Frankenstein, I do not fit in. I don’t mind — there are trees. In those trees are owls and raccoons and even black-bellied whistling ducks. Also, for now, there are vinyl ghouls. Sometimes I nod at a dog-walker, but the first real human warmth I have felt from this landscape has come from my neighbors’ Halloween tableaux. It is rare to get a glimpse into an unseen stranger’s mind — art can provide this, so can estate sales — but it happened over and over this October as the decorations were revealed. What strange proclivities these homeowners share, kept buried for eleven months of the year. It is a notably bipartisan impulse, judging by the campaign signs that accompany some of the setups. There are skeletons in face masks and skeletons guzzling bleach. They perform as us, for us.
These decorations have a lot of history. My childhood plywood cemetery expanded more or less annually. Some variation of the phenomenon happens every year in every town. The endeavor is rabidly commercialized. Jack-o-lanterns rot and are fed to pigs. Maybe people think they’re doing it for their kids. Maybe they are. But like most things that are so wildly human, it has never felt as special as it does this year.