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Culture Thu Oct 30 2014

Halloween! Visit Logan Square's Dr. Frankenstein

By Amien Essif

GB-gonzalez halloween.jpg
Photo by Amien Essif.

Nelson Gonzalez's front-yard Halloween display is so gruesome that parents on Bernard Street in Logan Square come over to complain every year. But every year, well over a thousand kids trick-or-treat down Bernard Street, many, if not most of them, just to see his horror show.

Gonzalez leads me to his shed at dusk to show me what's in store for his neighbors this year. Under the stark utility lights, an orange-suited convict with a lineman's build sits in an electric chair, a permanent howl stuck to his lumpy face. He's not a dummy. He's a robot that Gonzalez refers to as "electric chair guy," part three of his animated display that will also include a skeleton dropping from a gallows and another getting the French farewell--a life-size blade clacking down on his neck.

This Friday, on Halloween, from 4 to 10pm, Gonzalez will execute the three ghouls on a circuit run by a computer program, over and over, mercilessly. Electric Chair Guy is the one his neighbors have tried to censure. The scene starts with a warning siren, then the sound of an electric current. Pretty soon, the body is jolting back and forth in its straps and shrieking. When his soul departs, the contraption goes quiet, and a billow of smoke escapes from his eye sockets.

"He's definitely the most disturbing," laughs Gonzalez. "It's really violent. ...If I give him 60 pounds of air pressure, the legs of the chair actually lift off the ground." The robot is operated by a pneumatic actuator that converts compressed air into motion, and by ramping up air pressure via his computer, Gonzalez can increase the intensity of the robot's convulsions.

Gonzalez set up his first Halloween display about 10 years ago, and he explains his original inspiration like this: "I'm a little bit of a nerd, and I like Halloween." His first effort was a little more family-friendly. It was a Chicago Cubs-themed graveyard that featured a hand coming out of the ground holding a baseball, and it didn't have moving parts.

Then in 2011, when Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois, Gonzalez found his next theme. His new display would be a graveyard of capital punishment, with tombstones marking the dates of the last executions by hanging and by electric chair and the date that Quinn signed the death certificate banishing the entire practice.

That was also the first year that Gonzalez--an electrical engineer by trade--incorporated robotics into his display, creating an animated guillotine, a gallows with a trap door, and a seemingly fully functioning electric chair.

Gonzalez says it's not meant to send any political message. "I'm against capital punishment in general," he says, "but I'm sure there's circumstances where I'd say 'Yeah, kill the guy.'" Still, he thrives on the controversy. "Even though I haven't figured it out, I thought it would be a good idea to get people to think about it and talk about it."

That includes all the little fairies and Batmen with size-3 boots and trick-or-treat sacks. As a father of two, Gonzalez isn't deaf to the criticism of perturbed parents. "It's not a nice thing to do, scare the crap out of the neighbors' kids," he admits. But for the most part, he says, "even though the kids are scared, they like to be scared." And he did bow to safety concerns, electing to install an acrylic glass protection around the guillotine, despite the fact that the spectacle is already blocked off by a short garden fence. The blade is wood, he says, "but it could still cut your fingers off."

Those who don't hate it tend to love it. Many of them come up to his porch to ask him how it works. And Bernard Street, notwithstanding a developed sense of caution on the part of some neighbors, is "like a little oasis in the busy Logan Square area," says Gonzalez, who has lived there for 20 years. Nestled in between Wrightwood and Fullerton Avenues where it dead-ends on both sides, the block "has a real strong sense of community. Everybody watches out for each other."

So don't anticipate any neighborhood feuds. Gonzalez isn't so attached to his monsters anyway. This year, he's going to put a for-sale sign on the display and he'll give you a good price if you're in the market for a few spasming, screaming, smoking robots. It has nothing to do with pressure from the neighbors, he maintains. He just wants to get busy on "the next challenge."

So if you're in the market for some cheap revulsion on Halloween night, a stroll down Bernard Street might be your last chance to see a bit of hidden culture, filed away in the dead ends of Logan Square. Gonzalez' house is at 2510 N. Bernard St. You won't be able to miss it.

Amien Essif is a freelance journalist living in Logan Square.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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