Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons alternatively thrilled and scared me as a kid. Thrilled me, in that it’s really cool to see your favorite cartoon characters super-huge and bobbing between skyscrapers; scared me, in that it’s really frickin’ terrifying to see your favorite cartoon characters super-huge and bobbing between skyscrapers. In terms of the latter, let’s start with some of the oldest balloons.
I. GIANT BALLOONS AS NIGHTMARE FUEL
The first giant character balloons appeared during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in the late 1920s. The doe-eyed, “safe for all audiences” Disney-style aesthetic had yet to be perfected, and so what we had instead were creatures from the deep recesses of a whimsical junk addict’s skull; Kaiju-sized floating rubber love-children of Tim Burton and David Cronenberg. The grainy photos from the time-period only add to the surrealism.
Most fearsome of all these balloons was from 1937 and called, simply, “Dragon.”
Appearing as some type of vaguely Lovecraftian demon from a Medieval woodcut illustrating the Apocalypse, I can’t even imagine a child’s (much less an adult’s) reaction to this creature:
Next, you have balloons that are creepy in that vague way old Fleischer cartoons and quaint wind-up toys peeking out of dusty antique shop windows are creepy:
There’s a quietly melancholic quality about these balloons…perhaps, in part, because they showcase a world that—even with New York City’s claim to memorializing the past via protected landmarks—are all but gone.
To be fair, some of the slightly more modern balloons also have a “creepy” factor, especially the human ones like “Superman 1″…
or “Superman 4”:
(OK, maybe the latest Superman balloon isn’t creepy per se, but that mean frowny expression is a little odd. Must be the Cavill version.)
Maybe it is something about seeing these gigantic humanoids that sparks an ancient, primal terror in us, like Jack Kirby’s Celestials (or, for that matter, Galactus) come to Earth to supplant us all. “Thanksgiving,” indeed!
And then of course there’s Ronald McDonald, who is terrifying just on principle:
II. THE DEFLATING HORROR OF THE DAMAGED BALLOON
Another aspect of the giant balloons that scared me as a youngster were images of the inevitable damaged ones. These were balloons that either started to spontaneously deflate as the parade was going on, or outright ripped apart.
The most common victim of this phenomenon was the ill-fated Kermit the Frog balloon…
Perhaps being of a more complex design (with the spindly limbs, open mouth, etc.), it was more prone to spectacular injuries:
But Kermit was far from the only balloon to literally fall apart on-camera. There was Barney’s horrific fate:
As chronicled in the Esquire article “Barney Died a Violent Death at the 1997 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” the year was a particularly gruesome one for giant Macy’s balloons in general. Who killed the dinosaurs? Maybe it was wind:
If the balloons themselves are marvels of human engineering—the helium-filled equivalents of our finest architecture or vehicles—then perhaps their occasional spectacular failures evoke dread by literally showing us the seams of what we feel is transcendent and unassailable.
Then again, maybe it’s simply the “creepy” part.
III. GIANT BALLOONS THAT KILL (OR, AT LEAST MAIM)
No discussion about scary Thanksgiving balloons would be complete without addressing the topic of GIANT BALLOONS THAT KILL. While I found no evidence of that, the structures have injured several people over the years.
Let’s go back to 1997, the year Barney was ripped open in front of a live television audience. The wind was particularly harsh that year, and many balloons were put out of commission including Quik Bunny (deflated on lamp post), Arthur (damaged arm), Garfield (damaged paw), Pink Panther (collapsed on the ground and stabbed by police to prevent injury to the crowd), and Sonic the Hedgehog (taken out of commission the night before the parade by strong winds).
But it was The Cat in the Hat that caused the most damage. An exceptionally tall balloon, it was pushed into a lamp post by high winds—sending debris flying into the crowd. Two people suffered severe injuries in the accident, including Kathleen Caronna, who was plunged into a coma for a month, had some brain damage, and ended up suing Macy’s, the city, and the lamp post manufacturer.
Because of the 1997 incident, new height requirements were set for the balloons. That didn’t prevent the second big Macy’s Parade accident, however, involving the M&M balloon in 2005. A streetlight in Times Square was snagged, again sending debris raining down on the spectators below. Two sisters were injured, and received cuts and bruises. While not as severe as the Cat in the Hat case, the spotlight was once again placed on the safety of the giant balloons.
But reviewing the full list of Thanksgiving balloon mishaps over the years, I think it’s pretty amazing that they have been as safe as they are. I mean, think about it—these massive helium-filled structures are being marched through a narrow path of skyscrapers and lamp posts, being tethered to the the Earth only by a bunch of Macy’s volunteers holding onto string. Not the most practical thing in the world—but certainly one that has tapped into the mass imagination.
IV. KAWS AND THE POSTMODERN THANKSGIVING BALLOON
With the introduction in 2012 of “Companion,” the balloon designed by the artist and designer KAWS, we have brought the idea of the creepy Thanksgiving balloon full circle. If “Dragon” was perhaps a horrifying image only in retrospect, “Companion”—with its skull face and Mickey Mouse-esque pants—is intentionally so. And yet, it’s possible that “creepy” and “horror” have lost their meaning at this point; it’s all, in a way, Commerce.
Indeed, one of the scariest things for me regarding Thanksgiving ended up not being the balloons themselves, but when I realized that the entire parade was, in the end, one big vehicle to sell things. I was in my very early teens then and had watched the parade faithfully every year. And then one year it suddenly dawned on me: from soup to nuts, it was all to promote Product.
And to me, this is what “Companion” not-so-subtly winks at. Its bony face covered, it is for all intents and purposes just another “character” balloon. But what does “Companion” conceal? And what does “Dragon” reveal? And why do we persist in being so fascinated by the large, often anthropomorphic figures that bob over the City below?