It’s a gorgeous morning when I pull into the Maudsley Park parking lot. I’m here for a photo shoot, one of a string of artistic endeavors called ‘Shades of the Past, headed by photographers Monica Bushor and Matt Lavigne. This is my second ‘Shades’ experience. In the first, I got to play His Girl Friday. This time, I’m not a model – I’m a lighting tech or, as I preferred to call myself, the Bringer of Light and Shadow.
When I arrive, there is already a hub of activity surrounding the picnic tables. Models yawn, stretch, and pull costumes over their yoga wear. Make-up artists unpack brushes, powders, and lipsticks, while the prop crew fusses about with mirrors and plastic skulls and staffs. The photographers are directing traffic while juggling expensive equipment. It’s a merry mess of setting up and I’m struck by how similar it is to the film projects I am often involved in.
The theme for this ‘Shades’ project is Creeptastic Beauty. It’s the brainchild of Monica Bushor, a mother and homemaker besides artist, and she’s enthusiastic about the idea. “It’s about the beauty of death,” she tells me. “Not a Halloween horror shoot.”
That’s obvious in the subjects she’s chosen: the Fates, Spirit Dancers, La Mala Hora, the Banshee, Bean Nighe, La Llorna, Will o’ the Wisp, and the Storm Hag number among the many characters she’s has planned for the ambitious one-day project. The self-appointed project assistant has a clipboard loaded with inspiration photos and notes.
“So much for a simple little shoot,” someone remarks.
“Actually, compared to the others, this is a little shoot,” Monica says.
Eventually, we are ready to begin. A small group of techies, myself included, load up with equipment and head off down the path towards the first location. We’re going to spend all morning in the park, crisscrossing all over one end of it. It’s a good location for a spooky shoot. Remnants of the old mansion are everywhere, from the lush gardens to the abandoned bunker to the remains of the pool house.
But this morning doesn't lend itself easily to a chill and thrills. Sunlight pours through clear skies to drench the park in warmth. There are luxurious lawns, well-maintained gardens, giant, welcoming trees, and charming nooks to read in. I can imagine filming a scene from a Jane Austen novel, but not a Bram Stoker.
Still, I’m game. We reach our first destination, a tree-lined lane, and we set up the lights and fuss about positioning them until the models arrive.
The Fates are first, in the form of a dancer, the costumer, and a woman I do not know. Velvet robes cover their rolled up jeans. One carries an over-sized set of shears. They slip out of their sneakers, laughing and joking, and tip-toe up to stand in between the lights.
We stand back, behind the photographers, and watch as the women shift positions, and stare down at the camera. But while we’re trying to create a remote atmosphere, the real fates seem determined to cross us. Maudsley is busy today. Joggers, dog-walkers, and mothers pushing carriages stream around us, craning their necks curiously as they chat about work and family projects. They are respectful, but they remind us that this is not a medieval forest – this is present-day Massachusetts
When the Fates are through, the Spirit Dances take their place. Wrapped in white and black gauze, they are graceful and the little lane resounds with laughter and suggestions.
We move from set to set, and I get to see a good deal of the park. I learn a bit about lighting, and watch as the models come and go. They come dressed in fanciful clothing from a variety of places, from thrift shops to mall stores. Standing on the sidelines as I was, I can see the chipped gilt on Blood Mary’s mirror, the Savers tag on the Ghostly Girl's shirt. My Ebay-bargain wedding veil is used for a shroud for one of the ghosts. As heavily made-up dancers perform a Danse Macabre, one of the directors and choreographer takes advantage of the echoing set to sing Phantom of the Opera. While preparing for their shoots, the models compare their vocal imitations of Ursula, the villain from The Little Mermaid.
I am lulled by the ordinariness of the experience. We are, after all, only people, in a beautiful setting. But there is nothing magical or dark or other-worldly about the experience.
Or so I think.
Point of view is everything.
I am constantly being reminded of this. Every life-improvement expert teaches some form of perspective-reframing, whether it’s detachment or acceptance. It’s easy to accept this intellectually. It’s harder to put into practice, and it’s can be absolutely startling when you see it acted out in real life.
While I see a woman wrapped in a gauzy sheet, Monica’s camera captures a lonely statue, reaching for comfort. The lawyer who chats with me about her new house becomes a menacing Bloody Mary, terrifying a woman in a lonely wood. Through the narrow, focused gaze of Matt’s lens, the lovely wooded lane becomes a frightening gauntlet for the dancer in white to traverse while disembodied hands hover around her. All I saw was the ordinary. The artists saw the extraordinary.
Through the eyes of Monica and Matt, using the talents of those around them, an ordinary state park, flooded with families and joggers on a gorgeous Saturday morning, becomes a remote and otherworldly place, a place of hidden magic and menace, and ghostly beauty.
All it took was a little bit of magic.