Oh My Goth
The mortals of Blue Springs put forth a decree that their children are in peril, threatened by a black plague that calls itself goth. In the distant capital, a parliamentarian takes pity on the melancholic young people of Blue Springs. He sends forth a fortune “to identify Goth culture leaders that are preying on our kids.”
The word spreads across the land and the Internet.
Wrath and mirth ensue.
Tax slayers make argument. Mordant midnight jesters swarm, like bats to a belfry. The Daily Show mocks the Kansas City province.
And the goths themselves?
At the darkest hour of a Monday night, they arrive at Davey’s, a rustic rock and roll club in midtown Kansas City fifteen miles west of Blue Springs. About forty people dance and mingle. A DJ named Annabel Evil spins music as a female performer sets her tongue on fire, then ignites a piece of paper with it. Goths clap.
In the basement, leaders convene. They speak of Blue Springs’ intentions. A barkeep named Mokie tells them that Blue Springs authorities called months ago and asked to take photos of the Monday night events for their goth research. They are aghast. They wear black.
Shawn Catlin also wears a pair of old aviator goggles around his head. It’s anyone’s guess why. He has a tattoo on his belly representing a band called My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult. Thrill. Kill. Kult.
Most unsettling, the alleged predators talk like geeks. “Shawn’s the anomaly, because he can’t put a Web page together to save his life,” says Phil Johnston, Catlin’s partner in this evening’s event. Phil grins. Shawn retorts. They snicker.
The beats of Annabel Evil emanating from a floor above can barely be heard in this underground lair, but somehow Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves’ sentiment echoes loud: Leaders that are preying on our children. Leaders that are preying on our children.
Here’s Graves’ $273,000 question: who are these scary people? Catlin, the guy with the goggles and the tattoo, slaves by day as a manager at the second-busiest McDonald’s in town, slinging about $10,000 worth of burgers and fries each shift.
Catlin grew up in tiny Anthony, Kansas. Around the time he entered middle school, he started dressing in black and listening to heavy metal acts such as Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. He quickly became an outcast for these tendencies.
He got his ass kicked daily. At least, until he hit a growth spurt that left him 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 230 pounds. With size came duty in his small school. So he dressed in battle armor and struggled with 21 other young men for possession of an oblong leather bladder for the glory of team and school. “I could have been considered a jock,” he says, but even shoulder pads and a helmet couldn’t protect him against a more likely tag: freak.
After high school, he got the hell out of Anthony. He went to Coffeyville Community College in southeast Kansas. Then, in 1993, he experienced the goth epiphany at a club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he discovered people who communicated and dressed as he did and shared his taste in music, which had by then veered deep into the industrial genre. (Imagine a musical backdrop for fast and furious robot sex.)
Two years later, he moved to Denver, where denizens of the goth scene numbered in the hundreds. He met a woman. They moved to Kansas City and, along with Johnston, began hosting Monday-night goth events at Davey’s in January.
The woman, Valerie, is at Davey’s, too. While Catlin sits downstairs, Valerie is upstairs in the main room, being wrapped from head to toe in cellophane by a woman wearing a black eye patch.
Which brings up a point. Although Catlin and Valerie landed in the same scene and found common ground, their interests aren’t identical. She has a sensory-deprivation fetish; he listens to noisy music.
That’s the story of the whole small Kansas City scene, where everyone must accept these differences for goth to survive. It’s why the music on Monday nights constantly switches from goth to industrial to techno. It’s why devotees dressed in elaborate corsets or ruffled shirts and pointy boots socialize with others who throw on black T-shirts and jeans. It’s why even those without a fetish for bondage will pay admission to support a goth fetish show. In a place such as Kansas City, the alternatives are limited.
So these goth leaders have created a scene that happily welcomes newcomers. “Everyone here is friendly and nice, and when we see someone new, we go up and embrace them,” says DJ Annabel Evil, a cheery thirty-year-old native of Eureka, Kansas, who habitually wears her blond hair in thick pigtails.
“You can make a friend pretty easy in the gothic culture, even if you’re not wearing black,” says old-school goth Alexavier Strangerz.
A lonely kid makes a few friends. Why would Sam Graves oppose that?
Probably because Strangerz, thirty, looks the part of a PTA nightmare: long black hair, fingernails grown out like miniature daggers, a thin beard that creeps around his face like a serpent and meets at his chin in a bushy explosion. In 1992, while living in San Francisco, the Kansas City native “progressed into” the man he is today — an artistic, heavy-thinking, musically obsessed, goth-inclined fellow whose conversion was so complete that he legally changed his name — albeit from Alexandre Strangegroth, itself a revision of Alexandre Strange.
Strangerz lives in one of the many colonnaded apartment buildings that dot midtown Kansas City. He stands in the middle of his cluttered but orderly living room on a warm spring afternoon. He wears a long skirt. It’s comfortable.
He fears that Blue Springs will misuse the $273,000 from Graves.
“The danger is that we are already alienated,” Strangerz says. “And if we alienate a group of goth kids or goth-interested kids and make them feel dirty, that could lead to two things.”
One, he says, is a sense of shame, a questioning of “Am I an OK person?” that could end in suicide.
The second is rebellion.
Regardless of intentions, Blue Springs authorities have already singled out goths as kids inclined to use drugs or cut themselves — as if jocks don’t pop Ecstasy, as if preppy girls never need Prozac, as if loners can be considered low-risk as long as their wardrobes include salmon-colored shirts. “We’re talking about dangerous things being connected to gothic culture,” Strangerz says.
When Strangerz left for San Francisco in the early ’90s, the goth scene in Kansas City was virtually nonexistent. A Westport club sometimes attracted influential acts such as KMFDM and Ministry, but a community hadn’t developed.
By the time Strangerz returned to Kansas City in 1996, a small crowd started to develop for coffee nights at Sydney’s Diner and Broadway Café in Westport. A few years ago, a goth/industrial night began at Davey’s. The promoters brought in new DJs, including Catlin (Replikant) and Johnston (Sacrifice), who took over the weekly events in January with their Industrial Area promotion crew.
But that’s solely for the over-21 crowd. All-ages events have taken place, first at Olathe’s Gee Coffee and again last summer at Trago downtown. But underage goths, at least those who tap into the Web list, now must rely on house parties, bowling nights or camping trips organized by older goths.
As for young Blue Springs goths, they tend to hang out at a suburban Barnes and Noble.
P.J. Petrillo is livid. The director of the Blue Springs Youth Outreach Unit says her program is under attack. And as if criticism from the media hasn’t been enough, she’s looking at a piece of hate mail that begins “Dear Cockfuckers.”
It’s Sam Graves’ fault. Gleefully celebrating his power in Washington, D.C., Graves issued a boastful news release after Congress approved money “to identify goth culture leaders that are preying on our kids.” Petrillo says the ominous tone wasn’t what she had in mind when she requested $273,000 for a goth study by the Youth Outreach Program, a joint operation between Blue Springs’ police department and its school district.
That’s study. “No place in the project does it say anything about ‘combating’ goth culture,” Petrillo says, criticizing language widely used in news reports. The term does not appear in her 21-page funding application.
Blue Springs leaders expressed a need to stop behavior that could lead to self-mutilation, suicide, drug use and harm against other people, says Graves’ spokesman, Jewell Patek.
“From the beginning, the Youth Outreach Unit leaders portrayed an urgent need for [goth] youths who were having trouble,” Patek says.
And he insists there is no misunderstanding between the congressman and the Y.O.U. “After speaking with P.J. Petrillo, I think we speak with the same accord,” Patek says.
Petrillo claims that the Y.O.U. simply wants to “educate” students and parents about goth culture. “We’re trying to promote diversity, but we’re just getting slammed, and we’re sick of it,” she says. “Truthfully, the facts have not come out.”
Petrillo points out that the Y.O.U. sponsored a school visit by the Scary Guy, a motivational speaker with a head-to-toe tattoo that serves as a visual aid for his speeches against judging people by appearance.
She’s kind of guarded with those facts, though. After receiving several calls and a few letters from the Pitch, Petrillo spoke briefly with a reporter about her unit’s misrepresentation by the media but didn’t respond to requests to watch the Y.O.U. staff in action.
Her grant application — titled “Identification of Youth Adversely Affected by the Gothic Movement” — correctly notes that most goths are white, artistic, introspective, nonviolent, moody and intelligent. Other goth characteristics named in the application, listed from serious to silly, include dyed hair; piercings; tattoos; black eyeliner; black lipstick; clove cigarettes; attachments to animals (“mainly to cats”); fascination with graveyards, spiders, candles and skulls; and a proclivity for hanging out at coffee shops.
The main concern addressed by Petrillo’s application is that goth kids tend to take an interest in vampirism, which is often true.
Most just dust off an Anne Rice novel. Some fantasize about being vampires. Some role-play. But there is a small minority that takes vampirism quite seriously. These people might cut themselves. They might sip their own blood and the blood of friends. It’s a rare phenomenon, the application says, but it happens. Older goths agree.
The grant application also addresses more universal problems, such as drugs and depression: “Teenagers involved in the gothic culture are faced with the same basic decisions regarding drugs, drinking, smoking and sex as they would in any other youth social group.”
The grant proposal cites behavioral changes that should set off alarms and says funding would be applied toward educating parents and teachers to watch for “loss of sense of humor, avoidance of family members, a change in sleeping habits, loss of touch with reality and an increase in fear or anxiety.”
But what about black clothing? Or funny-smelling cigarettes? Does a young person need to be a humorless, detached, unrealistic insomniac and an intelligent, coffee-drinking, blue-haired cat lover to raise concerns?
“The people behind this campaign have the right idea — help troubled teens,” says Amelia Ishmael, a twenty-year-old Kansas City Art Institute student. “Yet by identifying the trouble as being related to the ‘gothic culture,’ they only pose problems. It sends the wrong message to the nation, and those poor teens who are going to be pulled into the counselor’s office for wearing black or acting spooky.”
Of course, bad things sometimes happen to goth people. Anastasia WitbolsFeugen died in an Independence cemetery in 1997, and her boyfriend committed suicide soon after (“Cemetery Plot,” May 16). Together, they’d drunk coffee, owned a black cat and dressed in black. But the murder trial of one of their friends this spring produced no testimony of goth influence on WitbolsFeugen’s shooting or the suicide.
“Yes, there needs to be more attention paid to teen-agers having problems,” Ishmael says. “But in the first place, this attention and help needs to come from home, not the school. And secondly, they need to take the label off of the campaign and realize that teen-agers who do not find a ‘home’ within the goth culture are at the same risk of depression and drug use, if not more so.”
So what, if anything, sets goths apart? A tolerance for the extreme, maybe. Certainly an acceptance of behavior and beliefs that most people would consider out-of-bounds.
Midnight. The Bottleneck in Lawrence. About 140 people pay $5 (21 and older) or $7 (18 to 20) for the second performance of Lawrence’s own fetish troupe, Contra Naturam.
A handful of people dance, but mostly the crowd sifts through the room, collecting at the bar and in booths. Styles run from black T-shirts and jeans to corsets to leather. The size of the crowd is comparable to that at Contra Naturam’s only previous event, but the number of fetish enthusiasts, goth and ungoth, has increased. So there are sporadic whipping performances around the room. One heavyset woman walks around with her arms bound behind her. A half dozen large men clad in unglamorous drag roam the club.
There are also curiosity seekers. A girl in white lace scans the crowd. A couple with a fetish for Patagonia clothing meanders through the room.
About a third of the crowd stands near the stage and watches three couples: one behind a shadow screen, one in the background and one in the foreground.
The shadows have sex. A near-constant murmur rises from the audience. Maybe it’s real. Or maybe not. Maybe so. The shadow of a dildo appears early on for an oral-sex sequence before the couple ditches it in exchange for conventional sex in a variety of positions.
This is as vanilla as it gets.
In the background, a thin young woman has her arms tied above her head by her partner, a bald, bespectacled guy wearing a bow tie and vest. He could pass for a magician.
The magician’s first trick is to make his partner’s buttons disappear, and soon she stands topless, her nipples covered with tape. Slowly, the magician runs a small flame over her petite body while she moves seductively.
In the foreground, a similar-looking topless woman straddles a chair. Her partner takes a seat behind her. He wears plastic gloves. As she sits still, her pale back exposed to him like a canvas, he pulls out an X-Acto knife. He leans in and carefully scratches the razor across her back in short strokes. Thin lines of blood appear in an abstract design. Not once does she wince.
In the audience, there’s little reaction except an occasional whisper. A few people have trouble with what was advertised as “advanced cutting,” including the girl in white lace. She turns away but remains near the stage.
In the background, the magician now runs a handheld shocking device over his partner’s body, which still writhes erotically. The bug-zapping noise can be heard over the music, a William Orbit remix of Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street.”
Less than a week after the Contra Naturam event, another sizable crowd arrives at Davey’s for a special Monday night featuring the band Electric Hellfire Club.
Part of the crowd hovers around the bar in the main room. The rest spill into the concert room, where opening act Seraphim Shock performs under an almost constant red-light glow. Pleased with the night’s turnout, the group’s singer attempts a compliment. “Kansas City,” he roars, “you kick the shit out of Wichita!”
The night is a big one for the small Industrial Area crew. Shawn Catlin and Phil Johnston hustle about their business. At a slow moment, Catlin stops to absorb Electric Hellfire’s theatrical style, which, along with that of Seraphim Shock, makes the most of Satanic cheekiness. (A sample T-shirt reads “You fuck with the devil … you get the horns!”) Catlin finds this somewhat cheesy, but he acknowledges that satanism has its place in a scene wide open to alternative religions. There are satanists, just as there are Wiccans, New Agers, agnostics, atheists and, yes, Christians.
“Many people stereotype people who wear black clothing as satanic, but I taught Sunday school and led a Bible-study group in black dresses with eyeliner designs on my face at a First Baptist Church,” says Lisa Fishel, a 28-year-old accountant and goth. “Nobody told me that I was a bad influence on the youth or children.”
“OK, well, once, when I handed out little skull beads for Halloween,” she says. “But they didn’t stop me.”
Strangerz, a minister in the absurdly ecumenical Universal Church of Life (“Become an ordained minister in just three minutes,” promises the group’s Web site), believes in Jesus but does not limit his faith to Christianity — or anything else for that matter. “I do counsel via tarot and symbolisms and even find that, by getting people to dance out the hard times and also think some about hard subjects, not just escape into entertainment vortices, you can attain a balanced group around you,” he says.
The preoccupation outsiders have with goth and religion is so great that it often diverts attention from other more-obvious social misdemeanors. “Whenever I wore a skirt, no one ever thought I was gay,” Catlin says. “They just thought I was really evil.”
It’s a typical Friday evening at a strip mall just off Interstate 70 in Independence. Goths and other misfits gather in front of a Barnes and Noble bookstore. This is the root of all evil targeted by Graves’ money and the Youth Outreach Unit.
In something of a teen-clique version of Cold War-era Berlin, jocks and preppy kids hang out in front of the AMC multiplex opposite the bookstore.
At one point, a jock, sporting the makings of a neat little post-pubescent mustache, storms through the bookstore crowd, shoving and snarling, “You better get out of my fucking way.”
At the other extreme is “Draven,” a revved-up nineteen-year-old who’s constantly skipping about, pining for attention and smacking a fifteen-year-old girl in the ass.
Draven says he’s a vampire, that he drinks blood, believes in werewolves and smokes weed. “It’s a religion,” he says, though he can’t name any rituals beyond drinking his friends’ blood and partying. He says he likes that people seem afraid of him, but he also thinks people should accept him like anyone else. Then he walks off.
When he disappears, others gather around and dismiss his talk as bullshit, his opinions as fantasy and his behavior as grandstanding. They consider that maybe he’s the sort of person the Y.O.U. is concerned about. They don’t seem too concerned themselves.
“These kids are not goth,” says a tiny high-school senior named Jared, pointing to the majority of youths near him. “Just because they wear black and listen to Marilyn Manson doesn’t make them goth.” Three girls standing with him nod. All four have been coming to this Barnes and Noble for three years.
To be goth, Jared says, means more than music or style or shopping at Hot Topic. Goths tend to embrace the darker side of life. And however contradictory it sounds, there’s a certain happiness in that, he notes. “I like to go to cemeteries and take photos,” Jared says.
A girl named Jessie can’t help chiming in. “Cemeteries are beautiful!” she says, at once happy and defensive, as if there were a movement afoot to do away with graveyards.
The foursome includes two from Independence, one girl from Blue Springs and another from Lee’s Summit. Though the brute and Draven have cloaked the parking lot in an atmosphere of obnoxiousness, these four consider the Friday night bookstore crowd to be a sort of family. They’re happy to come. They feel at home.
They say there’s no reason for Blue Springs authorities to take any more interest in them than in the preps who hang out by the movie theater. It’s considered a matter of fact that some goths are into vampirism, but they say that’s not the reason they’re targeted. Rather, Blue Springs has its panties in a bunch because of nights like these in front of the bookstore, when about twenty kids roam around, being loud, showing off, looking scary.
“At Barnes and Noble, some people can get really out of hand,” says Angie, eighteen. “They’re the reason why we have so much trouble, I think.”
The Blue Springs Youth Outreach Unit won the lottery this spring with its goth grant.
The unit’s entire budget for 2002 — made up of local, county, state and federal funds — is $941,731. The grant will boost next year’s budget by 25 percent.
A true hybrid of education and law enforcement, the ten-year-old unit has sponsored hundreds of community presentations and brought drug dogs to high schools. It is the headquarters of the Blue Springs Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program and counsels young lawbreakers and their families.
The unit currently pays fifteen employees, but Petrillo hopes to hire at least two more with the goth grant: a $41,000-a-year psychologist and a $32,000-a-year secretary.
In addition, money would be spent on a counseling program ($109,000) educational materials ($25,000), snacks for town-hall meetings ($10,000) and accessories such as goth jewelry, dolls, comic books, movies and books ($422). “Each town-hall meeting, public presentation and intensive training for youth-related staff will be far more successful if the participants can see the visuals youth in this culture have in possession,” the grant reads. “This will also aid in the identification of youth that are involved in the gothic culture.”
Petrillo says she wanted to recruit more than just professionals. “Originally, the plan in the grant was to bring in people from the community,” Petrillo says. “Now everybody’s choosing sides.”
Not everyone. Tiona Hewitt, a thirty-year-old mother and former teacher, volunteered to help the Y.O.U. educate kids about goth culture. Hewitt and her husband have been involved in the scene for several years.
Officials from the Y.O.U. told Hewitt they would get back to her about her offer.
Hewitt called when she noticed the Y.O.U. softening its language under media scrutiny. If the group stays that course, she thinks the results could be positive. “I think it’s good that they’re trying to do their education,” she says. “Initially, they had no idea what they were talking about.”
Such an accepting attitude toward the Blue Springs grant is uncommon. The majority goth opinion aligns with that of Meredith Vacek, the twenty-year-old host of a goth and industrial show on the University of Kansas’ student-run radio station, KJHK 90.7. “It’s a backlash against kids that look spooky and maladjusted,” Vacek says. “But I also think it’s just a way to get money.”
There is a reason all of this Blue Springs goth stuff has Vacek confused, something more than all the reasons already given by goths. She wonders how the Blue Springs and Independence area can have so many goths when the scene feels like it’s shrinking everywhere else. And what could possibly be going on to necessitate a quarter million dollars’ worth of attention?
On her Tuesday night radio spot, Vacek plays goth and industrial tracks in addition to the indie rock play-list the station management requires her to shuffle through. She picks out a 1994 duet between goth icons Siouxsie Sioux and Morrissey, and as the somber song plays for her listeners, Vacek thinks about the commonality among goth’s different genres.
To a large extent, “it’s music based on disillusionment,” she says of the sound that initially attracts people to a goth lifestyle. As styles emerge, teenagers who embrace goth are less inclined to accept popular ideals, she explains. For example, the good guy does not always win. “Especially when you grow up as a social misfit,” she says. “It’s especially not true then.”
Of course, that pessimism scares people, particularly parents of misfits and teachers of misfits. And maybe it should. “It’s not meant to be palatable,” Vacek says. “It’s for people who are somewhat at odds with society but not people who are so at odds with society that they would like to harm anyone.”