Parade brings dead to life

Aaron West

On Halloween, the restless, undead souls of the Circus of the Seven Dawns — a haunted, New Orleans style carnival-parade that, according to legend, resides in the world of the dead until the new moon rises seven days before All Hallow’s Eve – will invade Austin’s rowdy downtown streets and show the world of the living what we’ve been missing out on.

The cast of characters in the parade are all over the place, as long as that place is a hair-raising, supernatural circus. There will be three undead marching bands fronted by skeleton zombie drumlines, dozens of DIY, twisted carnival creature-puppets with reptilian legs and lifeless souls and cursed costumed stilt-walkers.

Throw in a haunted clown float the size of a VW Beetle and a homemade mythical, bat-winged wraith elephant that glows different colors and the Circus of The Seven Dawns is all accounted for. Between 150 and 200 parade participants are expected to show up, according to parade captain Chris McMillan, 32, who said that when the circus begins its death march at 9 p.m., everyone on Sixth Street will know.

“We have to warn marchers to keep their heads down because of the camera flashes,” McMillan said. He also organized the Circus of the Seven Dawns and the local parade club behind it, KreweDCM. “It’s just crazy. The flashes will totally blind you.”

The Halloween parade, the fifth McMillan and KreweDCM have arranged since 2007 and the first they’ve needed a police escort and a special event permit from the city for, will start at Auditorium Shores by the South First Street bridge. It will then march down Congress to Fifth Street, take a left onto Brazos Street and then “be released,” according to McMillan, “into the Sixth Street enclosure,” where they’ll mingle among thousands of drunken onlookers.

After braving the sea of camera flashes and the Sixth Street hoards — who McMillan said are welcome to dance along “in the back, behind the clowns” — the zombie marchers will split at the intersection of Seventh Street and Red River and host two haunted carnival after parties, one at Red 7 and one at Elysium.

KreweDCM, a local nonprofit started by McMillan in 2007, describes itself as a “Halloween marching club and parade krewe” on its website.

The music will be performed by the three marching bands and include original compositions like “The Monster March,” written by local music producer and composer Ron Carson, McMillan’s own “Circus of the Seven Dawns” and also carnival variations on spooky classics like Chopin’s “Funeral March.”

McMillan said the haunted sound is a big part of what gives KreweDCM’s New Orleans-style parades “an Austin twist.” He said Austin is a city that’s ripe for a parade movement – especially a Halloween-themed one – since it’s a city that is built around music and is infamous for its downtown Halloween celebrations.

He came up with the idea for KreweDCM while driving back to Texas from New Orleans, where he has family.

“It couldn’t be Mardi Gras, but Halloween – my other favorite holiday – that could work,” McMillan said. “Halloween is the big holiday that a lot of people celebrate in Austin.”

McMillan, who will lead the march while pounding a bass drum and screaming through an electronic megaphone like a zombie Tom Waits, said surprise is a big part of the parade’s thrill. People on Sixth Street on Monday probably won’t be expecting the parade, which is bigger and more ambitious this year than ever before.

“Austin has definitely grown,” McMillan said. “Even though we’ve been doing this for five years, a lot of people are still unaware that there’s a New Orleans-style parade group for Halloween. There’s a lot of folks downtown that see us, and its just a kind of ‘holy crap’ moment.”

That “holy crap” moment is partly because of the totally outrageous puppets and visuals that KreweDCM prepared for this year’s march. Ben Williams, a local metal fabricator and the group’s official Master Builder and Lieutenant of Logistics, oversaw much of that aspect of the parade and said that every year the creations get “a little bit bigger and a little bit cooler.”

In 2009, Williams and his crew constructed a 60-foot-long “Chinese light dragon” that blew both smoke and minds when KreweDCM unveiled it during their march. The dragon was featured in the 2010 documentary “Halloween on 6th Street.”

The visuals this year include an evil clown float that will release menacing, clowns out of its mouth, circus animal puppets with mutated features and the “Skelephant” – a 7-foot-long, aluminum-framed ghost elephant.

“I’m going to carry it on a backpack harness and pull its wings up and down,” Williams said. “He’s a flying elephant. He’s got bat wings, elephant ears, tusks, we put a smoke machine inside of his trunk, he’s got seven eyeballs. He’s kind of a mythical creature.”

When Williams and KreweDCM’s work is combined with the marching bands and a legion of clowns and stilt-walkers and then set loose downtown, McMillan said that Halloween-revelers won’t know what hit them,

“We get pretty much the same reaction every year from people who haven’t seen us before,” McMillan said. “They freak out at first because there’s a zombie skeleton drumline up front parting the crowd. Then, they look up and see these visuals above the crowd, and it’s this amazing jaw-dropping moment.”