"Back then it was more of a fiesta," Cervantes said. "We camped in the plaza and didn't have to pay. There were bottles of tequila and we'd just be passing them."

Today, entry to the festival costs $10 and alcohol is not allowed, although many people sneak it in.

Robert "Otter" Allen, 28, came from Albuquerque, 50 miles away, where he works as a massage therapist.

"There's a lack of ritual in today's society," Allen said. "But it's so important. The soul cannot migrate unless it goes through a transformation."

Suddenly, the floodlights that had illuminated the field went dark. A roar of approval rose from the crowd of more than 20,000, and people began to chant: "Burn him! Burn him!"

McDowell -- unemployed, alone, his face paint smeared -- stood near the front of the tightly packed audience.

A troupe of "gloomies" -- children cloaked in white bed sheets -- flooded the stage in front of Zozobra and whirled around. Dancers in black body paint twirled flaming batons. The "Gloom Goddess," a young woman dressed in shimmery white, danced with a giant torch.

Fireworks erupted over the frenzied crowd. And Zozobra came to life.

His eyes, shining blue lights, blinked madly. His arms, controlled by ropes, groped angrily. A low growl was amplified over giant speakers.

An arrow of fire shot from the ground pierced Zozobra in his neck. He groaned. A ball of fire erupted from his mouth and began creeping up his face. Soon his towering head was swallowed up by flames, and then it collapsed onto his body.

On the stage in front of McDowell, a pile of rubble burned like the remains of a great car wreck. Around him, people whistled and howled and screamed.

McDowell just stood there, hands in his pockets, and gazed up at the smoky sky.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com