The All Souls Procession

Note: This entry is an addendum to Vol 1.4′s Wacky Festivals Article.

Good ‘ol Tucson: the heart of the Southwestern United States. Where Wyatt Earp and his boys participated in the infamous gun fight at Tombstone. Where Saguaro cactus take the place of trees in a harsh dry landscape. And where one of the most unique U.S. festivals takes place every first weekend of November, The All Souls Procession. It was started in 1990 by a local artist name Susan Johnson who wanted to honor her deceased father with a festive celebration. Inspired by Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos holiday, she gathered other local artists to perform a small ceremony on 4th Avenue and 4th Street of Tucson. The ceremony was well received and today over 20,000 people participate in what is now known as the All Souls Procession.

Let’s list some of the elements that make a festival fun; ‘unique’ people, costumes, music/dancing, and of course fire. The All Souls Procession takes all of these to an extreme. To be a part of the festival (not a spectator) you first have to be a ‘unique’ person. Anyone who has been to Tucson has realized that it is certainly a magnet for ‘unique’ people. This doesn’t mean ‘crazy’ people, just those who like to participate in unusual things like nude bicycle rides (yes Tucson has that too) and dress up in a clown suit to play the banjo at the local food coop. To be in the All Souls Procession, you have to face the fact it is a little wacky. You may find yourself howling to the sound of a taiko drum under the 4th Avenue bridge tunnel while waving a flag with a picture of a kitten on it. Wherever the procession takes you, you will have to accept that you may do something… different.

Next, you need to find yourself a costume. The All Souls Procession is about death, so costumes usually have the theme of, well, death. This isn’t the blood and guts sort of death, because not all death involves some gory scene, but costumes need to be playful looking and make the observer say, “What the heck is that?” or “Is this that Mad Max flashback again?” with an after thought about death. Costumes get more elaborate every year. Faces are usually covered with a paper maché skull or mask to hide the person’s identity and to allow participants to keep their jobs. Most people don’t talk during the procession, but instead dance around making unusual animal sounds creeping out the spectators. Some people actually think they are animals and run off into the night only to be found later by the police and put back in the procession. Anyway, costumes are a must and create and interesting and entertaining atmosphere.

You now need a musical instrument. This can be anything. Some people bring actual instruments like saxophones and French horns and some people pick up an empty beer bottle off the street that still has the crusty residue of someone else’s spit on the rim. Either way, you gotta make some noise. The procession passes through at least one tunnel during the night in which you hear the deafening echoes of everything being banged, blown, pulled, broken, and crushed. When you emerge, you will have 5 seconds of ringing in your ears and 3 more months of hearing aid use added to your senior years. There are many times the procession stops for no apparent reason and you may hear a series of sounds that sort of resembles music. Everyone within hearing then begins to dance and you begin to think back to high school English class when you read the book, Lord of the Flies and hope someone will come save you from this island of monsters.

Finally, after you have marched about two miles in approximately 5 hours, you reach the grand finale. At this point you are wondering, “What is the point of this festival again?” or “Why is my arm soaking wet?”, but then you see an orange glow and feel a blast of heat that melts your face paint. It is time to burn something. This part of the All Souls Procession makes Cirque du Soleil look like a sock puppet show. Every year the ‘unique’ (rich) people of Tucson dump about $70,000 into the 2 hour finale of this festival. The money goes to (you guessed it) lots and lots of fire. First we have the pyrotechnic theater troupe, Flam Chen, who play with fire, spin fire, eat fire, light things on fire, fart fire, and probably… well, you get the point. They put on an incredible show, which involves loads of dancers and two gigantic construction cranes in which they hang from and… yes, play with fire. After watching people nearly die in flames you finally see the final show in which things basically burn. It starts with a giant urn, which contains notes to deceased loved ones gathered from the procession down the streets. It is hoisted about 100 ft into the air and lit on fire so it can burn directly over your head. It is a pretty freaky sight and more than once a huge chunk of ash comes down to singe the hair off someone’s head. After this, people sometimes burn costumes or boats (similar to those at Obon festivals) or whatever they can find, until the police make them stop. People then disperse to various bars or an all night party and the dead are left in peace.

So there you have it. The one show in Tucson, Arizona that everyone looks forward to year after year no matter how crazy and weird it may seem. So if you find yourself driving through the flat plains of the Southwest on that first weekend of November and you have a craving for the ‘Thunderdome’ stop by Tucson and come see the show. The deceased will appreciate your efforts.

-Sarah Jane Humphrey

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