WEST HARTFORD — Back in 1998 when Matt Warshauer moved into his house on Main Street, he decorated for Halloween in typical fashion with pumpkins, spiders and witches on trees.
But reality became scarier than fiction for him in 2003 with the Iraq War. Warshauer said that was the first year he introduced political themes to his Halloween displays, enlisting the help of his daughters.
“In 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, I felt like I needed to make a statement,” he said.
That year, he created an effigy of then-President George W. Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney, both wearing pants covered in flames, next to a sign that read “liar, liar, pants on fire.”
Over the years, local residents have come to know Warshauer’s home as the “Halloween House” as thousands pass by each day on the busy West Hartford street.
Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, said this year’s display and the one in 2003 were his response to “gigantic lies ... whether it’s lying to send us to war or lying about the legacy of systemic racism ... and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This year’s display highlights what Warshauer said are “the two leading cultural and political issues and that is obviously COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
With the help of his three daughters, ranging in age from 16 to 20, Warshauer finished the installation of this year’s display on Sept. 26.
One part of the display features a COVID-19 panel covered in Styrofoam virus “molecules” and honors some of those who died from the illness, while also providing data and information from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Spanish Flu in 1918.
The Black Lives Matter portion of the display focuses on the origins of the movement, the history of slavery and the impacts of systemic racism. It includes quotes from leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
There are also memorials to well-known Black Americans killed by police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
This year’s display also features a public art aspect — something Warshauer said he introduced about five years ago after his daughter added a wall as part of a Vietnam War display in honor of the 50th anniversary and urged passersby to write the name of a veteran.
That year, there were hundreds of responses, he said. He said he’s hopeful this year’s display will create as much interest.
A panel that states “what is your truth” gives visitors a chance to react to Warshauer’s display and further stimulate conversation.
“I haven’t heard anything negative yet,” he said of the display, adding that he’s had several productive conversations with strangers about the displays.
Earlier this week, Warshauer, who is white, said he was talking to two Black women when a Black man in his mid-20s drove by and pulled a U-turn to see the display. Warshauer said the man told him the display gave him “goosebumps.”
“The four of us stood there and we had this moment,” Warshauer recalled. “Those moments are why I do it. I am trying to tap into something so that when people see the display, they know they’re not alone in how they’re feeling.”
Warshauer said his Halloween displays have grown bigger and more elaborate over the last decade. Some years, especially when there’s a big election, he said he uses his display to showcase a “very specific political message.”
In 2017, for example, he said he created one of the most complicated and time-consuming things he has ever built — garnering the attention of national news outlets — when he installed a display he called “The Trumpian Ship of State” in reaction to the 2016 election.
The 2017 display was featured on Fox News, and he said it led to some backlash with people calling for CCSU to fire him.
“My displays never hurt anyone,” he said. “They’ve never been a hateful message ... It is mean to present ideas in an out-of-the-box way and to get people to reach a little bit deeper into their own hearts and minds and maybe re-consider what they believe.”
This year though, he said he didn’t want to feature either presidential candidate.
“I didn’t want any images of Trump. I didn’t even want his name — or Biden’s for that matter,” he said. “Our country is so frenzied right now, so I decided to avoid that.”