The Petting Zoo

The Petting Zoo (2023)

As a church bell tolls in the night at the beginning of The Petting Zoo, a figure dressed in creepy wicker mask strides past a graveyard in an otherwise empty village lane – and then enters the Cornewall Arms Free House in Clodock, Herefordshire. There the figure reveals herself to be not some ghostly creature of myth, but the entirely ordinary Alannah (Naomi Dale Reidy), who is joining her friends Jay (Mikey JL Coombes), Rhys (Pete Bird), Julie (Amanda Vincent-Perkins) and Luke (Joseph Nurse) for some outdoor Halloween celebrations.

Indeed, this prologue to writer/director Virginie Sélavy’s short captures something of the holiday’s spirit: for in Halloween, the gates are said to open – like that pub’s doorway – between the living and the dead, the mundanely quotidian and the folkloric. In her mask, Alannah cuts an ambiguous figure of indeterminate sex, century and substance, but her unmasking marks a shift from gothic fantasy into a world – our world – of contemporary banality. 

“What do you mean, ‘come out to play’?”, Alannah asks Rhys, who is telling them about the ghosts said on Halloween to haunt the ‘twisted tree’ in the nearby woods, dooming any human visitors – like these five, and their friend Nadia who is running late – never to be seen or heard again. By the terms of his own story, according to which no witness ever returns to tell their tale, Rhys cannot answer Alannah – but as the masked merrymakers head out to the tree with a lamp, their questions certainly will be answered. For in transgressing the spaces between the real and the supernatural, this quintet is fucking around and finding out, as five others (Ayvianna Snow, Clova Perez-Corral, Keomi Dudek-Heathman, James E. Taylor, Brendan Hollywood) come out to instrumentalise these interlopers for their own – and in a different way, for our – playful amusement.

It seems clear from early on that Rhys’ lacunose legend will eventually be realised with all its narrative gaps filled, but one of the great joys in The Petting Zoo, apart from DP (and editor) Jonathan Zaurin’s mannered outdoor lighting, K. M. Joshi’s plaintive orchestral score and Ryan Jordan’s creaky, windy sound design, is the disarmingly surreal spectacle of this collision between two worlds, where spectres of Samhain come (out to play) with their own peculiar costumes and an unnervingly, insistently haptic presence. 

The end of The Petting Zoo, presented as part lunatic masquerade, part danse macabre, is utterly irrational – and the haunting connotations of the film’s title linger to creep up on you long after the final, grotesque freeze frame has burnt itself into the retina, truning first red then pink like celluloid fading before our eyes. For this tale of first (and last) contact chronicles its own disappearance, while adding another chapter – and cast – to an unspeakable and impenetrable, if momentarily visible, myth of Halloween. 

strap: Virginie Sélavy’s Halloween-set short follows five friends discovering their horrifyingly haptic rôle in the spirit realm

© Anton Bitel