Elora is a tight-knit community in Wellington County, Ontario. Vintage country properties with authentic 19th-century charm dot the hilly community. The main strip is punctuated with restored turn-of-the-century buildings that house an interesting variety of craft and specialty stores. Elora is also a state of mind – idealistic, nostalgic, charming, civilized: serious Stars Hollow vibes. It is the perfect setting for a truly unique calibre of hair-raising art, and every October artist Tim Murton invokes the spirit of Halloween with his unique collection of paper lantern sculptures.
I met with Tim on a sunny, crispy mid-October day, at a park in the heart of downtown Elora, amidst a handful of his fantastic monsters. I asked him what spawned these ghoulish creations.
“It’s an artist’s instinct to try and make the world a more interesting and creative place,” he responded. Tim worked in the Toronto film industry for nearly 20 years as a scenic artist. Towards the end of his career, he was running crews, dealing with union problems and moving away from the artistry of it – essentially doing the opposite of what he had wanted to do.
“I kept getting burnout,” he said. “I was getting depressed.” His doctor suggested that he return to his creative roots. “I made four little ghouls and put them on the corner of my house. Everybody loved them, so every year I kept building more and more and more,” he explained.
“Working with wire is like drawing in air,” Tim said. He walked me through his process, which is all done by hand. First he creates a three-dimensional shape out of wire, covers it with gauze, cheesecloth, tissue paper and glue. As soon as he adds light, it transforms into one of the ghostly glowing wraiths that skulk atop storefronts and hide down alleyways all around the town.
“It’s a lot of work,” he noted. “See these?” He opened his palms to me, fingering the thick, ridged callouses at the base of his thumbs. Artist’s hands.
I asked Tim who the monsters are. He gave me one of his throaty trickster laughs before responding, “I tell everyone they’re all people I used to work with in the film industry.” That grin again.
I asked him what his art was meant to say, expecting a cast-off answer to the tune of ‘art for art’s sake.’ But he divulged something very important. “We live in some very difficult times,” Tim ruminated, “We’re all popping anti-depressants. Depression is the flip side of anger. People are frustrated because they have no control over their own lives. We all seem to be slaves to this idea of success… victims of high expectations.”
Tim revealed he hasn’t watched TV in 10 years. “There’s so much stuff out there that’s just designed to engineer our way of thinking. People are lazy because they don’t think for themselves.” He believes that this brainwashing is why we need art. “Most artists are employed in selling stuff. This is not about selling stuff. It’s just about enjoying the creative experience. The idea is to light up the dark side and have a giggle. It’s a celebration for the dark winter months to come. It’s a cultural way of preparing for that in a positive way.”
According to historian Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, characterized by rituals that mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. Samhain was seen as a liminal time, meaning the boundary between the human world and the spirit world could more easily be crossed.
The souls of the dead were thought to revisit the homes of their kin seeking hospitality, so offerings of food and drink were made. The custom of trick-or-treating comes from the belief that the souls of the dead needed to be appeased, lest they tamper with the crop and livestock and compromise winter survival.
Tim Murton’s Twilight Zoo has been haunting Elora since 1996, and these wire and paper monsters have become an annual fall tradition. Visitors from all over Southern Ontario come to see his sculptures and, as popularity has grown, other organizations have added events to the Halloween theme, which has culminated in “Monster Month in Elora”.
I spoke with the man who has been keeping the Twilight Zoo alive these past few years. Kirk McElwain, Chair of Sensational Elora and Chair of the Monster Month Committee, bought all of Tim’s creations in 2017.
He explained that Monster Month started with Tim’s designs, but expanded from there into other events like Scare Fare – an event held at the Centre for the Arts where participants created Halloween-themed art displays, the Monster March – where families (including pets) are encouraged to dress up in their costumes and march through Elora and Monster Mash – a dance put on by the Riverfest Organization.
“Kids look forward to it,” said Kirk, “It’s their opportunity to go out and test out their costumes before Halloween.” Other Monster Month festivities include tarot readings, ghost walks, murder mysteries and more.
Sensational Elora’s two main objectives are to attract visitors to the Centre of Wellington and to raise funds for the local food banks. It has been around for 12 years and has raised over $130K. “Overall it’s a very positive thing for the community,” Kirk explained, for both the fortunate and less fortunate.
I asked Kirk why the town gets behind Halloween in such a big way (as opposed to the holiday season or another cultural milestone). Kirk explained that it is Tim’s monsters that excite the town and rally them around this particular holiday. So I asked Tim the same question – why Halloween?
“It’s this time of year that everyone feels the license to be creative,” he said, “Halloween is about having fun. Christmas is about obligation.” I feel that. He also mentioned that becoming a stepdad gave him a deeper appreciation for Halloween festivities. “Seeing the world through kids’ eyes is wonderful,” he said.
I asked Tim if COVID-19 has stifled the Halloween spirit at all. “It’s actually a better experience this year. I wish it could stay like this,” he admitted. He explained that the bridge, which opens the village up to a ton of thru traffic, is closed. “It’s made the village way more intimate,” he said.
Contrarily, Kirk explained that many traditional events like the Monster March and Mash have been cancelled this year, and it has thwarted the fundraising efforts. While the fundraising events will take an unfortunate hit this year, the Halloween spirit is still alive and well in Elora.
Both Tim and Kirk hope the tradition will continue and expand. When asked what his legacy might look like, Tim replied, “I think the coolest thing to leave behind on this planet is a festival of creativity.”
Check out the Monster Month website for details on events that are happening this year in Elora!