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The Pagan Horror of Hungary’s Buso Festival

Mahmood Fazal

Mahmood Fazal

It's like Halloween, but everyone's wearing hessian sacks and drunk on moonshine.

When I first came across photographs of Zsolt Repasy, my obsession with rituals and the occult was aroused with a cold shudder. They look like screenshots from The Wicker Man—and not the Nicolas Cage version. Welcome to the southern Hungarian town of Mohács, where every February the rural village is transformed into a surreal pagan nightmare called Busójárás. The festival comes complete with smudged red lipstick, potato sack balaclavas, hand carved demon masks, homemade booze, and a lot of fire.

All Photo's by Zsolt Repasy

According to legend, the festival dates back to the the Ottoman occupation of Mohács in the 16th century. The villagers had fled into the woods to avoid Turkish troops and one night a mysterious figure appeared from the trees. "Prepare for the battle," said the figure. "Carve weapons and masks. Then wait for a stormy night when a masked knight will lead you."

Several days later, the knight arrived during a storm and ordered villagers to return to their town and pillage. The villages ran into town wearing DIY masks crafted from fabric, tree bark, and leaves, and the Turks got the impression that demons were attacking them. They bailed and never returned.

The rumour that evil spirits possessed the town stuck, and today the townspeople commemorate the event by crafting weird costumes and getting drunk.

We spoke to Zsolt Repasy, a local photographer who has captured the festival from the inside, experiencing the ritual through the lens of a real life Busó-walker.

VICE: Can you describe the experience of the Buso festival?
Zsolt Repasy: The first time I attended the Buso festivities was in the early or mid 80s as a kid. I found it fascinating, magical, and scary—but fun too. Four years ago I went to Mohács to photograph the event without a concept, so I just photographed what I saw. I only wanted to witness what's going on there and share this magic with people who don't have a chance to see it.

I made some friends who helped me understand the tradition and provided opportunities to join some of the Busó groups, so that I could become an insider. I always try to witness communities and traditions from the inside, because that's when you can see what it's really about. These are moments, a tourist or even a regular citizen would never be able to witness.

Is there still some superstition surrounding the festival or is it just tradition now?
I'd say it's 90 percent tradition and 10 percent superstition. On the Monday of the event, groups of busós visit the locals. Hosts welcome them and offer snacks, pastry and drinks (mostly pálinka and mulled wine). If busós are welcome and offered such goods, they "help" the locals by bringing in good fortune and luck; whether it be childbirth, good crops for the next year, and so on. But if they are not welcome, they bring the hex to the house or become hostile. This can be mild like climbing on top of the fence, the house, or picking up the hosts and covering them in flour or sawdust. Sometimes they get more naughty and let the pigs, hens, roosters, and cows out. Some cause chaos in the households. In the past, many people used this event to take revenge on others for real or imagined issues.

My favourite story happened a few decades ago—some peasants had a quarrel with a wealthy villager. During the night, they disassembled his horse cart, climbed on top of the house, and re-assembled the cart on his roof. There are many hilarious stories but some violence too. Violence has happened in the past, but it's not there anymore. It's completely safe now.

How often do you photograph the event?
I keep working on my Busó project, I don't think I will ever stop photographing it. Currently I'm documenting the work of the traditional craftsmen who are part of this culture: potters, woodcarvers, tanners, skinners and so on. I'm also preparing for a large scale exhibition about the Busó festivities in early February in Mohacs, then in Budapest in spring 2018.

What impression did the locals have on you?
Let me share a little secret. The sense of time for the people in Mohács (hometown of the Busó festivities) is different from ours. They start counting down the days when the Busó festivities are over and start counting until next year's event arrives. This is how excited and passionate they are about this tradition.

Why is it important to become a Buso when capturing the event?
One of my all-time favourite photographer, Robert Capa once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." By this you get closer, maybe even become an insider. The best and rarest balance is when you become really part of the community, while still able to look at it as an outsider. Inside out. It is a very challenging state-of-mind.

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