Monsters on Parade in Portsmouth
Our undercover reporter infiltrates a group of terror-artists who will not stop until they have all of Portsmouth cowering before them — or until the parade route ends, whichever comes first.
A giant black spider chasing an enormous fly, stalking its prey by night as it moves up and down the streets of Portsmouth to the screams of the masses. Is this the fever dream of a paranoid exterminator? (Actually, strike that. It probably is.) It’s also the dream of Holly Cook, the evil mastermind of the Monster Troupe. Her goal: Terrorize and thrill the Port City.
The editors of New Hampshire Magazine (dodgy people of questionable reason) asked me if I would go undercover, infiltrate the Monster Troupe, and learn their secrets for stealing the show at the city’s most popular grassroots event.
After making contact through Facebook a series of highly confidential communication channels I alone could master, Holly agreed to let me into her Halloween sleeper cell. It’s her enthusiasm for the parade and friendly nature that is her Achilles Heel, as she has opened Pandora’s Box by letting in a Trojan Horse with the Midas Touch to … sorry, I forgot where I was going with that.
Perhaps you don’t know who or what the Monster Troupe is. Let me share with you some notes I keep in a metal-bound folder, or as I refer to it, my steel dossier. The group marches in each year’s Portsmouth Halloween Parade. But this street gang stands out because of their homegrown, larger-than-life props they bring. Somewhere between St. Patrick’s Day float and Macy’s balloon, they bring an arts-and-craft monster 12 feet tall and the width of a city street. The group has even grown to include a color guard and dancers.
They have to be stopped.
A former biotech executive, Holly welcomes me into her home the afternoon of the parade. The mission is to transport their creation from her basement and garage in Rye to the parade staging area. The previous year the Monster Troupe made a splash with a “Beetlejuice”-themed presentation. Featuring marchers in Hollywood-perfect recreations of the movie’s characters, the centerpiece was the sandworm, Saturn. If you can’t remember him, imagine a gray Chinese New Year dragon with a head and mouth that features another head protruding from that mouth. Pressure is on to top that performance.
They will be hitting the town with a giant black spider. She shows me a giant devil’s head crafted from wire, PVC piping, paper mache and evil intentions. It will later be attached to a thorax and much larger abdomen and 18-foot-long articulated legs (8). The unit will also include two person-sized flies.
“I’m hoping it all comes together. It’s a little stressful,” she says. Holly claims to have gone to her first Halloween parade a dozen years ago and saying to herself, “I could do that.” Completely self-taught, she and her husband Tim Cook researched giant puppetry and studied the work of other parade groups. Starting with a single paper mache head, each year the effort got bigger and bigger until they’ve become the guerrilla army of gore.
She’s surrounded by a dozen friends turned puppeteers paid in potluck dinners and hard liquor. For months, they have spent late nights and weekends building, painting and rehearsing with their creature. Like every guerrilla warrior we don our uniforms, black outfits and devil’s horns. We spend two hours applying red makeup to our faces and arguing about what the secret ingredient in the taco dip is.
The spider’s body rests on a cart with wheels. Inside the cart resides the spider’s electrical system that will power its lights and the sound system for the dancers. Steve Goldberg will be one of two “Abdo-Men” pushing and steering the spider. (At least I think it’s him. There are three or four other guys named Steve and with red makeup on I can’t tell who anyone is.) He says, “I’m doing this because these are people deserving of help,” which you can take both ways.
After the last shrimp cocktail and deviled egg is consumed, the troupe loads a box truck with the spider’s many components. We’re off to Peirce Island to assemble the beast.
The Portsmouth Halloween Parade has been haunting these streets since 1995. The parade is not a municipal event. It’s operated by volunteers (known collectively as The Coven) and financed through a series of fundraisers throughout the year. The parade accepts no corporate sponsorships. They’re able to pay for police coverage, insurance and other expenses through concerts, horror movie trivia nights and a stress-relieving pumpkin smash.
The first march was fairly small: a greasepaint-covered marching band unit, some costumed pedestrians and the police escort that cleared the way. Today thousands descend on Market Square to show off their creative costumes, watch the procession or do both.
“People get their freak on. They cut loose because they’re in costume. They can hide if they want to,” says Tim McCoy, this year’s grand marshal. Decked in a black-and-white-striped suit and a ceremonial sash. His duties include waving to the crowd, but I’m sure he was required to sign over part of his soul at a crossroads somewhere.
Though it isn’t the bacchanalia of New Orleans or San Francisco, it did make the Travel Channel’s top 10, alongside greats like Greenwich Village, Chicago, and Nyak, New York. It’s not a glimpse of stocking that might trouble young eyes. The parade bills itself as being all-inclusive with no formal approval process for costumes. Participants have moved away from lowbrow slutty-fill-in-the-blank get-ups to high-quality outfits of gore, goth and ghost. More than one child has retreated into a parents’ arms at the sight of a wicked witch, a movie slasher, or a God-knows-what that creature is supposed to be.
One by one the components of the spider are removed from the truck and reassembled in the parking lot of the staging area. This includes lots of people holding up heavy things while I pretend to lift. The monstrosity is drawing a crowd, as marchers wander over to see what’s being put together. Their eyes pop when it dawns on them what the shape is becoming. After an hour of fastening, untangling and readjusting, the spider is ready. In the dusk, the lights outlining the (8) legs switch on and the bug’s headlight-size eyes glow. All lit up, the spider looks like … well, what the hell? Just look at the photos in this article. That’s what they’re there for. We know you’ve already looked at them; you’re not that disciplined a reader. You already know it’s both cool and creepy AF. (Apologies to those listening to the audiobook version of New Hampshire Magazine.)
Off to the side, the dance unit is rehearsing, a group of 20 or so folks dressed in top hats, tails, black masks and glowing canes. They too have spent weeks preparing their choreography, dancing behind the spider to a small medley of songs including “Sympathy for the Devil.” If there’s just one more dastardly thing to make these terror artists more entertaining it would be this.
The Monster Troupe is ready to step off. I must find a way to sabotage their mission.
While several of the marchers have roles operating the spider or one of the two flies, the rest of us are taking jobs as leg spotters. As they stretch nearly the width of the road, we’re to walk between the sidewalk and the (8) spider legs to keep spectators from getting bonked in the head or grabbing hold and toppling the creature. I realize I have just been assigned to a spider Secret Service detail.
The route is just under a mile and a half. The first stretch consists of uneven pavement, so Steve and Steve must negotiate a few bumps. Imagine placing a refrigerator on top of a grocery cart. One bad pothole could result in the whole apparatus capsizing.
Marching in front is Holly, pulling on cords that operate the (8) spider legs. I am positioned at the left front corner of the protective detail politely asking those who’ve spilled over the sidewalk and into the street to step back. In a collision of (1) spider leg vs. pedestrian, there can be only one winner.
The first reactions from the crowd are of awe and appreciation. They get their up-close look at the mixed media of plastic, faux-fur and pasted newspaper, and applause rings out. We’re feeling the love and it’s starting to get to me.
As we make our first turn on to State Street, we hit an (unexpected?) obstacle. The Scott Avenue overpass is only 12-feet 4-inches tall. A miscalculation in the total height of the mounted monster could result in a bent (8) leg or an abdomen wedged into the entrance and damming the whole parade. Steve thinks they won’t clear it, but Steve disagrees and the spider shimmies through by inches.
As we get closer to Market Square, the crowds are getting thicker, louder. I’m really getting into the (haunted) spirit of the night. It’s kind of fun basking in the admiration of this group project I have spent zero hours making. Perhaps I’ve been wrong about the effort. That’s when trouble strikes! The sound system for the dancers cuts out. After only a street block of indecision, the crew picks up the silent choreography and resumes their dance. With no Mick Jagger, they make do by singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in the same tempo. It means the spectators will still see their skills but will miss out on the full effect of their long-rehearsed performance. It’s too bad.
By no means is the Monster Troupe the only part of this parade. Costumed marchers include the Wicked Witch and all of her flying monkeys, some young kids dressed in full KISS makeup, and a formation of Imperial stormtroopers from “Star Wars” (although I think some of those nerds dress like that every day). Día de Muertos-style skeleton face paint is popular. There’s even a group of zombies doing the “Thriller” dance.
We groove along, making a left turn on to Chestnut Street and the jam-packed audience is even too much for me. This is the moment I’ve waited for: the complete destruction of the marching unit. But my black heart grew three sizes that day. Expressing the threat to public safety, I’m able to convince a police officer to say words he thought he’d never have to: “Move out of the way of the spider!”
The Monster Troupe completes its march by turning into Prescott Park (btw that’s a good-size hill when you’re steering a 12-foot spider on wheels). Though the parade is over, downtown is now a hubbub of costumed partiers hitting the bars and listening to live music. The paper mache arachnid is disassembled and the devils, the dancers, and the undercover journalist all say goodbye.
Although my intention was to expose the nefarious plans of the Monster Troupe to bring terror to town, I must confess I’ve been compromised. I’ve been turned double agent, as I believe this example of Yankee ingenuity and unearthly esprit de corps is pretty great. Holly has even invited me back for the 2019 parade. I hear they’ll be featuring a marching contingent of 50 and celebrating one of the season’s most famous monsters (hint: he’s aliiiiive!). There is no doubt that the Monster Troupe will — again — steal the show.