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Brandon Hardy’s as Billy Butcherson Village Halloween Parade
Photograph: Rebecca Handler for Time Out New York

Behind the screams: A look behind The Village Halloween Parade

We spoke with the artists behind the iconic parade about how they prepare for their biggest night of the year.

Shaye Weaver
Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Shaye Weaver
&
Rossilynne Skena Culgan
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NYC’s biggest, zaniest party in the street is just four days away and the excitement is growing. New Yorkers are putting together their costumes and making the finishing touches on their larger-than-life puppets for the Village Halloween Parade.

If you’ve ever been before, you know that the event is a brilliant mess of creativity with a dash of passion and a sprinkle of whimsy. Massive puppets of all shapes and sizes tilt and twist over the cheering crowd. “Undead” New Yorkers from vampires to zombies and famous and infamous lookalikes growl, wave and march down Sixth Avenue. 

It’s perhaps the most joyful Halloween celebration of them all thanks to the passion, spirit and creativity of its participants. 

Ahead of the big day, we chatted with four New York artists who are bringing their own brand of whimsy to NYC this year, from puppet veterans to prop masters.

RECOMMENDED: A guide to the Village Halloween Parade

Meet the artists

Brandon Hardy is a full-time artist who makes original works in puppetry, painting and sculpture and also creates props, puppets, and scenery for Broadway, television, and stages around the world. He built a following on Tiktok by making videos showing how he was staying creative during the pandemic. Because of its success, he just launched an expansion—a spooky web series called “Out of the Ether with Brandon Hardy,” where he’ll be doing longer tutorials showing how he makes his most haunting and complex projects, including his puppets for the Village Halloween Parade (Billy Butcherson and the Sanderson Sisters).

How did you get into costuming/puppeteering?

“I’ve always had an interest in it. I grew up watching things like The Muppets and Pinocchio and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which sort of turned my eye toward puppetry, and from there looked into things that took the artform even further and in stranger directions. I was the kid who turned the garage into a haunted house every Halloween, and I never grew out of it. I still make stuff in the garage, but things have expanded far beyond too.” 

What is your favorite costume from childhood?

“Once I made a costume where it looked like a was riding on the back of a giant penguin, with my feet in the penguin’s feet and fake legs straddling it—that was the year my parents decided I was old enough to be trusted with a hot glue gun, so I swung hard. I got some weird looks on Halloween, but I think that encouraged me more than it discouraged me.” 

What made you want to participate in the parade originally and what keeps you coming back?

“Halloween and puppets are two of my great life-long loves, so having an event in the city where they collide on such a massive scale was just a beacon to me. When I got there I realized what a real community-building event it was. It’s an annual opportunity to come together and make something enormous as a collective, which is so important in a city like New York. To affirm community with everybody and revel in that.

It’s both a cultural institution and an exhaust vent for the spirit. Every kind of person shows up and brings their own magnificent mess to share with everybody. The parade takes so many of our most elemental human instincts and gives them room to breathe—coming together, making things, celebrating, sharing, transforming, performing, witnessing … it’s music, dance, art, sculpture, theatre, procession, ritual, and it’s also rebellion, reclamation, protest, all those things at once. And it’s available to everyone to see or to be in, whichever we prefer, in one of the main arteries of New York.”

Where in NYC do you source your materials?

“Often I use leftover materials from other projects, or I’ll be inspired by something that was gonna go in the trash, but there are shops like Canal Foam and Rubber and Canal Plastics that I stop in no matter what I’m making. Those shops are incredible resources if you’re a creative person. I also shop throughout the Garment District for fabrics with surprising textures or movement, those can really bring a puppet to life, especially in the elements with the Parade. But I work a lot with what happens to be around me—there’s no prerequisite to making a great costume or puppet.” 

What is your favorite spooky/atmospheric attraction in NYC?

“There are a lot of great purportedly-haunted buildings in this city that I love spending time around. Actually, the Jefferson Market Library is one of the best, and lucky us the parade goes right by it. We use its spectacular Clock Tower every year, Basil Twist’s giant Spider Puppet crawls out and descends right as the parade first reaches the building. The Spider is a living landmark of the parade; it hasn’t really begun until she shows up. I’ve been up there helping to Puppeteer her a few times over the years. The spooky feeling in that old tower can give you those real deep chills, and you can’t beat the view on Halloween.”

What are three places or people you draw your inspiration from?

“I’ve always been inspired by spooky movies from across the ages, especially ones that had less technology at their disposal. This year my costume is a character from Hocus Pocus, which was filled with practical effects. My costume is of the zombie Billy Butcherson, who gets his head knocked off a few times—I’m the right height to recreate that effect, so I have false shoulders by my head and then I made a zombie head that’s attached with magnets so it can come off.

The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland is also hugely inspiring. Every element of it is designed to create the impression of something impossible happening in front of you. There’s a vitality to that kind of magic trick, it scratches the part of my brain that’s torn between knowing it’s not real while feeling viscerally that it is. 

And of course, something that always inspires me is other artists. When I was asked about being on this cover I was only interested if other artists were involved. No one person represents The Village Halloween Parade, it’s a cumulative effort. It comes from people working both together and separately to weave one big perfectly imperfect tapestry. Seeing what the other artists create makes me want to push to reach their level, but also support them in the making of their own works. It leads to this great recursive effect where everybody is growing from everybody’s growth.”

Have any Halloween costume tips?

“Personally, I say it’s OK to go BIG! Especially for the Halloween Parade. Be extra, take a creative risk, make that costume that’s gonna leave you sore the next day. I’m not somebody who limits their celebration of Halloween to October 31st, but if you are I think you should make the most of it. One of the best parts of Halloween is the permission to self-actualize, so if you want to shake things up it’s the perfect time to test-drive a new look or even a new personality. Use what you have and don’t be afraid to make a mess! Just be mindful of your surroundings so your costume doesn’t poke anybody’s eye out.”

Ken Ard

Ken Ard has lived much of his life in costume on the stage. As a dancer and performer on Broadway for nearly two decades—including in Cats—he achieved his childhood dream. But until he met his partner Basil Twist seven years ago (the master puppeteer who dangles a huge spider over the annual Halloween parade), he didn’t think much about Halloween costumes. That quickly changed, and now he’s creating extraordinary outfits like this one.

For this look, he built everything around a lacy blue velvet coat by his friend, designer David Quinn. He added a handmade harness to evoke themes of royalty, anime, and sleek vampirishness. “These clothes are not a costume; they’re just what I have in my closet.” 

How did you get into costuming/puppeteering?

“Basil Twist is Mr. Halloween. I wear a costume all the time in theater, but I would bypass the Halloween parade and go home.” Once I met Basil and attended the parade, “I was like ‘this is my holiday.’ On Halloween, you can wear whatever you want.”  

What is your favorite costume from childhood?

“I always wanted to be a witch. I liked the way I could make something flow. I wanted that hat, I wanted that cape.”

Where in NYC do you source your materials?

“My favorite place is Reminiscence; they have a really good thrift store price. That’s my number one go-to where I’ve found capes, boots. Usually, it’s any kind of second-hand store like Salvation Army. The garment district is where I find accessories. At night at the end of the month, they put stuff out on the street. That’s where I found these chains.”

What is your favorite spooky/atmospheric attraction in NYC?

“I get to go to the Jefferson Market Library Tower because Basil drops the spider. That’s my favorite thing being in the tower at the top and watching the parade go by.” 

What do you draw your inspiration from?

“I want something to frame my body—something that looks good, that’s a little unusual. As long as I have it, I want to show it off. I never want a bought costume or an assembled costume. I’m inspired by, ‘what can I do with that?’ I’ll find a collection of things and drop it in there—in my tinker chest.”

What are your best Halloween costume tips?

“Don’t throw anything sparkly away. There are clothes that people have in their closet that they think, ‘I could never wear that, it’s too flashy or I look like a hobo in that.’ Put that in a separate space and you can pull it out when Halloween comes around.”

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Serra Hirsch

Serra Hirsch is a voice actor now, but she has a long history of puppeteering and costuming. She owned her own company, where in 2010, she built a 12-foot-tall Stephen Colbert for a rally. She’s been participating in the parade since about 1997 and each year, she comes up with a completely new idea that inserts her into a story or scenario. From a skydiver without a parachute to an inmate in a phone booth, Hirsch takes on new characters every year. The most charming thing about her is that she revels in the interactions she has while in costume. It’s all about creating an experience for her viewers and being as creative as she can be.

How did you get into costuming and puppeteering?

“I’ve always built something. As a kid, I built puppets. One of the things I love is inspiring people and breaking down the divide between culture and age. I love to entertain kids and adults and provide something they can love together. It makes my heart sing. That’s why I do it.”

What is your favorite costume from childhood?

“We weren’t allowed to do Halloween, but when I was spending the night at a girlfriend’s house at age 12, I got to see it. After that, I trick-or-treated until I was 18 because I lost all these years. The first costume I went to the parade in was a bag lady. Then I started going to the parade every year with puppets—as Godzilla surrounded by buildings, Miss 4th of July—and I’d up the ante. The next year, I did eggs and bacon. I had a little half-yellow dome over my head with white cardboard around it and two strips of bacon on my flannel. I carried a coffee cup.”

What made you want to participate in the parade?

“Halloween is an opportunity to get creative. I love inspiring people to be creative and think outside the box. My costumes are not referential to media. I try and pick things people can understand as kids and adults and for those who don’t speak English—something universal. Between 2008 and 2013, I had a crew of four to five big-costume friends. We were like a team that would look out for each other.”

Where in NYC do you source your materials?

“I am part of a Buy Nothing group on Facebook and I buy things on eBay.”

What is your favorite spooky/atmospheric attraction in NYC?

I am a part-time tour guide and do a french walking tour. I love the Greenwich Village tours. I am really loving what people are doing in that neighborhood—the skeletons hanging out of windows. They’re going the extra mile and I applaud them. It’s much more satisfying when you go the extra mile. The Washington Irving House is covered in bats.”

What are three places or people you draw your inspiration from?

“Wayne White from Pee Wee’s Playhouse (he’s an amazing artist and so creative. He builds things in a creative way and uses gravity); artist Nancy Fouts (she did a purse open with teeth); and Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.”

What is your best Halloween costume tip?

“At the parade, it’s always helpful to incorporate lights. It’s a nighttime parade, so it’ll make your costume stand out more. Add them to anything you want to highlight. When I started, I had to use D batteries and they were so heavy I had to use them as the balancing weight. Now there is so much light-up stuff that blinks!”

Growing up in Union Square, Kate Mulhauser remembers the costumed crowds parading just a few blocks her apartment—and counting down the years until she could join them. 

Now, she’s a parade pro who works in props and creates her own detailed costumes in her free time. Two of her favorite looks are the Scarlet Witch from WandaVision and Rey Skywalker, her go-to cosplay character for years.

How did you get into costuming/puppeteering?

“I’ve always been into theater. I currently work with props at The Play That Goes Wrong, in wardrobe at Phantom of the Opera and as a freelance prop and puppet builder.”

What is your favorite costume from childhood?

“When I was in the third grade, my mom helped me with my Halloween costume and I was Pippi Longstocking complete with pipe cleaners in my braids. My mom made the dress, and I got to cut all of the ragged edges on the sleeves. I also hand-sewed patches onto the apron of the costume, which was important to me because it was the year I learned how to sew.” 

What made you want to participate in the parade?

“It’s such a local thing for me. It literally is a few blocks from where I grew up. Plus, as someone who worked as a sculptor/fabricator at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, parades are just fun. My first Halloween parade was around 2016. It’s a local fun thing to do. I grew up watching it on TV every year. When I was old enough to participate I was like, ‘let’s do this.’”

Where in NYC do you source your materials?

“I try to buy local whenever possible, like Mood Fabrics and Manhattan Wardrobe Supply.”

What is your favorite spooky/atmospheric attraction in NYC?

“The Halloween parade is number one. Even if you’re not participating, just watch it if you can get close enough. Also check out Madame Tussauds for their Halloween event [this year, it’s Warner Bros. Icons of Horror]. Wax figures are really awesome but also inherently creepy.”

Where do you draw inspiration?

“Movies, mostly, with their practical effects. I grew up in the age of Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings is another inspiration and anything with stop motion and a handmade aspect.”

What is your best Halloween costume tips?

“Play around with it and watch YouTube tutorials. If you’re especially interested, try a subscription with the Stan Winston School of Character Arts.”

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