I Explored Toronto's Lesbian Feminist Haunted House—And Survived.
Every year on Halloween, evangelical religious groups set up hell houses: horrific theatrical events that showcase sins like fornication, abortion, and same-sex relationships—sounds like a scarring experience for those who don’t take shame in these ‘sins.’ Yet for the participants in these hell houses, their artistic efforts are a form of activism. This year, Toronto-based feminist artist Allyson Mitchell, along with a crowd of community members, constructed and performed Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian-Feminist Haunted House. Outlining the horrors of feminist pasts and presents, the hand-made installation and queer-crafted performance exorcised from the grave things which scare those both outside and inside of Mitchell’s artist, activist, and academic community.
I took a trip to the lesbian-feminist haunted house to experience the spookiness.
The haunted house tour began in front of a bloody-fanged rainbow archway marked LESBIAN RULE. I was greeted by an actor performing the role of Valerie Solanas. Tightly gripping her copy of the SCUM manifesto, she informs those entering that they’re about to witness, “Real live pussy, not the pictures you find in some man’s museum.” I was then led through the mouth of the beast and into a hallway of clever hand-painted warning signs: “No satanic transphobic humans allowed,” “Beware the sinking pit of identity politics,” and “This ain’t no woman haus!”
After a short performance from zombie lesbian-feminist folk singers (the song “Constant Cravings” took on a whole new meaning here), a “demented women’s studies professor” took over the tour and warned my group that there is no turning back from the problematic situations we were about to encounter.
The first room we entered held a giant paper-mached bearded clam. Its big tongue swooped down at us, thanks to a felt-costumed cat operating a pulley system. Around the corner, we wandered into a cave with reflective walls that was home to a group of paranormal consciousness raisers. As my professor tour guide explained, taking the stereotype of the bored housewife with a hand-mirror and turning it on its head, these ghouls in tie-dyed sheets turn the image into a sex-positive statement as they wail and moan exposing only their teeth and pearl-encrusted genitalia. Under a stairway, a rug-munching monster snarled at visitors while chewing on scraps of retro shag carpet. Across the way, a new goddess creation myth spilled out: Allyson Mitchell’s installation Big Trubs cracks at the abdomen, giving a non-vaginal birth to a universe of plush kittens. The professor then hit us with a pop quiz; when I passed, she led me up a flight of stairs (this is the only inaccessible part of the space) to experience “two adult women in love.” I crawled into a fabric-tunnel and lounged between two lovers grasping at each other from behind the walls and whispering sweet things such as “trans-women belong here” into my ears.
Next, we were led up a drawbridge and down a dark hallway to visit a creepy dank-cave monster who sat licking her long fingers in the black-light. The proceeding room contains Killjoy’s kitchen, which was cobwebbed in crochet from top to bottom. At the far end, a quad of polyamorous lesbian-vampire grannies perched in macrame slings and wicker chairs behind a celebratory sign that reads “JUST-NOT-MARRIED.” I then had to rush under a bloody Amazonian axe and into the next room. Here two performers stand with hammers smashing symbols of patriarchy—white plaster casted truck nuts—then rush through the intense social situation of a Gender Studies Professor and Riot Ghoul dance party. The music was so good, I didn’t ever want to leave.
But leave I must! I was led into a dark labyrinth dubbed “the Emasculator.” Upon my exit, I was confronted with the face of net celeb Chris Crocker telling you to leave Britney alone! The sign on the exit door instructs visitors to “get your shit together this way” and then my group is led into the processing room to sit and visit with real life feminist killjoys Kim Katrin Crosby, Anne Cvetkovich, Sarah Schulman, and Ann Pellegrini. I exited through the gift shop—where you can pick yourself up a “Creep Lez” t-shirt—and scarfed down a fish taco so I didn’t pass out from the experience.
Then, back out into the harsh light of the real world.
Outside of the dark confines of the haunted house, Mitchell explains that the inspiration for her Killjoy’s Kastle was in part her experience of seeing the 2001 documentary Hell House, but also touring across Canada with her she-beast sculpture project, Ladies Sasquatch. “Every place that they toured I had to have a discussion with somebody. They wanted to put up a didactic that said something about it being adult content or sexual content. Nobody’s having sex, although they’re naked,” says Mitchell. “But it was this weird uncomfortableness.” Killjoy’s Kastle is meant to explore that discomfort. The haunted house is “not just about how lesbian-feminists are monsters in the perception of the general population, but its also about how lesbian-feminists are monsters who would rather end a movement—for example the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—than make any changes around how gender is perceived.”
While Killjoy’s Kastle has been widely seen as a dark, humorous project, some visitors have taken issue with specific scenes in the house, like the “truck nut smashing” room that some folks felt was transphobic. Similarly, criticisms around consent (someone got out of hand with a shaker of glitter), a sense that the project was predominantly white, and the choice of in one character’s costumes has been called into question. Mitchell responded to the criticism on the project’s Facebook page, saying, she takes criticism of the work “seriously and happily.”
In Killjoy's Kastle I have attempted to create a non-oppressive and inclusive space. Saying that, the space inside the kastle is still informed by the politics and problems that exist outside its walls so it is not perfect. As well, it is a haunted house in which I am trying to play with stereotypes and realities of some of the greatest fears held about lesbians and feminists (as ball busters, carpet munchers, indoctrinators, collaborators and so on). I also chose to represent some of the more monstrous elements of lesbian feminist movements (such as racist cultural appropriators, gender binary orthodoxy protectors and self-righteous judgers). [full response here]
The project mixes contemporary ideas with nostalgia for queer and feminist pasts that are vital and legendary, but ultimately full of exclusionary and outdated politics. “I see it as a bit of a funeral for lesbian-feminist ideas that need to die or be buried,” says Mitchell. “But like anything that’s dead, it continues to haunt us. It never really goes away. It still exists in our imagination. I mean that’s part of the Deep Lez project. You can’t shake that history. You can distance yourself from it but it’s still there. It’s a way of figuring out how to live with those spirits.”
Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House will be on display until October 30th in Toronto, Canada. Haunted house hours are 4-8 every evening. While you may have missed the live performances from opening night, you can still see the installation in-tact, and take a tour with an onsite killjoy.
I warn you, feminism isn’t easy and neither is this haunted house!
All photos for this piece were taken by the talented Claire Ward-Beveridge.
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