the consolation match
(3) ministry, “(every day is) halloween”
scared off/held off
(10) the chameleons, “swamp thing”
and earned the iron bat trophy
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on April 2.
this is my body: dave griffith on “(every day is) halloween”
Well I let their teeny minds think
That they're dealing with someone who is over the brink
And I dress this way just to keep them at bay
'Cause Halloween is everyday
My daughter is one month shy of turning thirteen and is presently upstairs getting dressed for her first middle school dance. I have no idea what she intends to wear. I have not been consulted. My role is purely to chauffeur.
The first thing I see as she comes down the darkened stairway are the toes of her black boots. The light at the bottom of the stairs is off, so for a moment she is a shadow standing in the hallway. “I’m ready,” she says, and crosses the threshold into the light of the living room, where now it’s clear that it’s not just her boots that are black, but her dress, and her tights, and, to top it all off, a large black bow on top of her head. Her face, too, which is usually round and sweet and freckly, has taken on an ethereal darkness due to some subtle kohl shading around her eyes and a ruddy, dusty red lipstick. “Wow, you look amazing!” I say, but she does not want to hear it. “Come on, Dad, I’m going to be late.” “At least let me take a picture real quick.” She lets out a big sigh, her shoulders actually rise up above her ears and then fall again. “Ok, fine, but hurry.” “Smile!” I say, but she won’t. She just tilts her head to the side and narrows her gaze on me, brow furrowing beneath her red bangs. “Dad,” she whines, sing-songy, “I’m trying to be Goth.”
This is rural Indiana in early November, the week after Halloween, so when we get in the car it is already very dark and cold. There is a small sliver of moon low in the sky. I point it out to her as I have always done: “look at the moon,” I say and gesture with my head out her window. “It’s a finger nail pairing,” she says, then we have a brief debate about whether the moon is waxing or waning—I can never remember which is which.
As we drive further into the country, it is now so dark that I can see a worrisome number of stars. I see the Big Dipper splayed low in the sky. I know that Sagittarius, the sign we both share, is somewhere up there, but I keep my eyes on the road, watching for deer that sometimes bound across, running from distant wind break to distant wind break. I want to make small talk about what she thinks it means to be Goth. I want to pull up on my phone some Sioxusie and the Banshees, or Bauhaus, which I think she will find delightfully strange, but I don’t want to influence her at this moment. I want this moment to be hers. And so we drive on in silence, her face glowing in the light from the radio display.
I’m 43, and though I grew up listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, The Cult, and Ministry, I’ve never dyed my hair or even worn it past my collar. I’ve never pierced anything or had anything tattooed. I’ve never owned black jeans. Beyond a two-year period after grad school when I played in a band that liked to smoke weed before every rehearsal and gig, I’ve never had much of an appetite for drugs. I did do cocaine once, but all that happened was I talked a lot (and very fast) about Flannery O’Connor until everyone walked away. And now that I’m thinking about it I did try acid once at a New Year’s Eve party, but I experienced no hallucinations only a deep sense of dread and emptiness that led me to sob uncontrollably for several hours until the sun came up. And, ok, I did try ecstasy, but all that happened there was I sat in a hotel bar and sketched out a proof with accompanying diagrams for the existence of the Matrix on a series of small beverage napkins.
I tell you all this now because lately I’m feeling deeply anxious. My daughter is having a hard time at school, and in order to get some perspective, some kind of frame of reference for what she’s going through, she’s been asking me a lot of questions about my experiences as a teenager. About drugs and relationships, mostly, but also about God and her grandmother, my mom, who died seven years ago this past month. She’s trying to reconcile it all. Trying to understand why life is so hard. Why she can’t just stay home and draw and read and listen to music, and be spared the moronic girls who only care about being popular and the bone-headed bros who make fun of her for saying that she’s a feminist.
Like all parents, I want to save her, find a way for her to be spared any and all pain and suffering. But I know that this is impossible, and I know that some of what she’s going through is necessary, a process in which she will try on different identities in search of something that feels authentic and comfortable for her. There’s so much I want to tell her, so much I’m not sure she’s ready to hear, and so much I’m not sure I’m ready to tell her.
She’s a brilliant and fearless kid. She identifies strongly with Hobbits, especially when it comes to eating. Loves the Beatles (Ringo is her favorite, and is the name of her black kitten), fan-girls over Hamilton, and devours graphic novels--lately she’s been alternating back and forth between re-reading Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints and John Lewis’ March.
She’s working on a couple of her own graphic novel projects, one about the Founding Fathers in which they are cast as irritable and unpredictable teenagers, and one that she describes as a Steampunk teen dramedy. She plays clarinet with a tone and sensitivity beyond her years, and would like to learn to play guitar. In these, and many other ways, she’s a typical kid.
The thing that sets her apart is that at age seven she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurological condition that,, among other things, makes it hard for her to socially gel with kids her own age. It’s marked by obsessions, both with collecting things and with intellectual preoccupations, as well as a hypersensitivity to justice and fairness. Currently, thanks to Hamilton, she is obsessed with the drafting of the Constitution, but before that it was Sir Isaac Newton and his fierce rivalry with Robert Hooke. But her most enduring obsession, the thing that I hope she never loses, is a belief in the supernatural. This kid loves Halloween. This year she Wirt from Over the Garden Wall, the year before that George Harrison in full Sgt. Pepper’s regalia, before that Marie Antoinette, the before that Joan of Arc, and the year before that Amelia Earhart. (All of them her choice.)
Making friends is hard for her, but not because she chooses costumes that her peers don’t get, but that she inhabits these personas in great depth and detail, and will talk about them, like a historical re-enactor, with anyone who will listen, and she gets very irritated (to put it mildly) when those she’s talking to do not share her enthusiasm.
As we get closer to the school, I remind her that she can call me whenever she’s ready to go. “I know, I know…” she says. “I’ll be fine.” As the lights of the school come into view, she pulls down the passenger side visor and flips open the mirror to check her make-up and hair. “You look great,” I say. “Yeah, you kind of have to say that, Dad.”
I pull up near the main entrance of the school, though not too near. She leans over and kisses my cheek. “Love you, Dad.”
What is anxiety-inducing, is not so much her intensity, but that I’m starting to see myself in her, starting to reflect on my own obsessions, my own, old feelings of alienation and darkness. At her age, I would not have been able to walk into a dance on my own, like she just did. I needed the safety and anonymity of a pack. And though I had plenty of friends, I had my share of obsessions—I just didn’t tell anyone about them, and as a result I “passed”—I appeared like your normal, standard-issue, Midwestern white boy.
As I pull away, I pass the gym doors and can’t help but stop the car for a moment and peer in. Through the glass I can see dozens of dark silhouettes flailing in whorls of stroboscopic blue and orange before an altar of speakers and lights.
Confession: When I was thirteen I was obsessed with the body and blood of Jesus. I had just had my first communion. Thirteen is late to be celebrating first communion--usually it’s like seven or eight years old, but my parents, neither of them cradle Catholics, didn’t abide by all those prescribed timelines. And though I was older than all the other kids, I was scared: What would it taste like? What if I forget how to hold my hands?—right cupped under left, like begging for alms. What if I dropped the host on the floor? But within a few weeks the fear faded, and communion became something I looked forward to because 1.) I actually kind of liked the taste—an odd combination of stale bread and tinny wine and 2.) I was told that it would bring me eternal life.
There was a third thing, something that I never told anyone, because who would I tell?: I was obsessed with transubstantiation, that mystical process that theologians have argued over for hundreds of years, by which the bread and the wine are transformed—they did not elaborate on how exactly in my CCD classes—through the power of the Holy Spirit into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. This dark, death cult dimension of my faith thrilled me.
I began to so anticipate receiving the body and blood that on Sunday mornings, as Father John pressed the thin disc of bread into my palm, the hair would stand up on the back of my neck and all along my arms. The feeling was so dizzying that by the time I was being handed the chalice of wine I was unable to focus, unable to maintain the kind of consciousness I wanted so that I could really be aware as the wine, now blood, passed my lips. I wanted to capture that precise moment of exchange; to be present at my weekly salvation.
As I walked slowly back to my seat in the pews, I became ponderous. I kept my head bowed and reverently allowed the bread-made-flesh to dissolve on my tongue. Kneeling in the pew, waiting for the other parishioners to file to the front, I held two thoughts simultaneously in my head: Thank you, Jesus, and then, Jesus, what did I just do?
Methodists didn’t drink the blood of Jesus, they drink grape juice. I learned this when I joined the choir at Grace United Methodist Church. My best friend and neighbor, Chip, invited me to join. Chip was seventeen, and the coolest person I knew. He was a skater, published a skate and music zine that he made using the photocopier in the breakroom of the K-Mart his dad managed, and ran a fake radio station, WPIG, out of his basement.
By “fake radio station” I mean that no signal was being broadcast into the atmosphere; he would just make mixtapes in the format of a radio show, with lots of banter and guest appearances by other neighborhood kids. Somehow I convinced him to allow me to be part of his DJ crew, and so we would take turns selecting songs and introducing them into a plastic Radioshack brand mic.
Listening to the tapes now, I cringe hearing my high pubescent voice announcing songs whose messages and meanings were way beyond my years of experience, like The Cult’s “Black Angel” or Janes Addiction’s “Whores.” Just hearing my small voice enunciate the words “Angel” and “Whores” triggers a wave of panic, especially now that I have a teenage daughter. But listening to the tapes I am also remembering how formative making those tapes was for me--how agonizing over the playlists and obsessively recording and re-recording intros to the songs so that my voice sounded just right, was my way of avoiding becoming what I feared most: being like everyone else.
I think this why I joined the Grace United Methodist choir. Our Lady of Lourdes, apart from not having a choir, youth or otherwise, had the most awful music: a guitar-playing husband and wife duo that stood to the right of the altar and led us, like a Catholic Sonny and Cher, in the post-Vatican II hits like “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness,” (whose time signature and melody bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”). It was not nearly dark and plaintive enough for me. If I was going to be Catholic, I wanted Latin. I wanted the Stabat Mater, to weep with Mary at the foot of the cross. I wanted a soft and humble kyrie eleison. I wanted the Lord to have mercy on my soul. And if I couldn’t have that then I would simply get my body and blood from the Methodists, who at least, from the way Chip described it, had fun. There were pizza parties and cute girls, and something called Choir Tour, which by the way Chip described it, was my ticket to getting a girlfriend.
The Grace choir repertoire contained exactly zero Latin, though we did sing a catchy song about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo, the Hebrew men whose faith protected them from being consumed in a fiery furnace, which I liked to sing because while singing I imagined the opening hook from the Beastie Boy’s “Shadrach” playing in the background:
Riddle me this, brother can you handle it
Your style to my style, you can't hold a candle to it
Equinox symmetry and the balance is right
Smokin' and drinkin' on a Tuesday night
Eventually, I started attending Grace Methodist choir rehearsals, where I sat in the last row against the yellow painted cinder block wall with Chip and all the older boys. But rehearsal was not what I expected. It was mostly an excuse for Chip and his friends to flirt with the girls in the row ahead of us and alter the words of the hymns in explicit ways. During a song about Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who later helps Joseph of Arimethea prepare Jesus’ broken body for burial, instead of singing the refrain “Nico-DEE-mus, Nico-DEE-mus,” the boys in the back row would sing in a faux-operatic way “Lick-my-PEE-nis, Lick-my-PEE-nis.”
“Sacrilegious” is the word that comes to mind now, literally “the stealer of sacred things”—the removal of the sacred and insertion of the profane. My mom, not a Catholic but a Seventh Day Adventist, had taught it to me. She wasn’t a stickler when it came to matters of doctrine. She didn’t think church-going was compulsory; she didn’t think you had to confess your sins, or tithe 1/10th of your income, or volunteer at festivals held on the parish school playground blacktop, because she had a personal relationship with Jesus. He walks with me and talks with me, she would say.
Despite her anti-clerical views, she did not have a sense of humor when it came to making light of God, Jesus, or any other biblical personages. Though never stern about this, she made it clear that to make light of sacred things was indecent and disrespectful. “I don’t like that,” she would say, flatly, as though it made her physically uncomfortable.
This kind of two-mindedness dominated my thinking. Holding the sacred and the profane next to one another in the mind--the would-be martyrs proclaiming their love for God as they approached the furnace vs. the Beastie Boys’ funky dance party track; Nicodemus undergoing a conversion of faith vs. blowjobs—introduced me to irony in a way that no text book definition ever could.
But the ultimate lesson in irony came during the first communion service I attended at Grace. I knew that Methodists only receive communion once a month during a special service. This seemed sensible to me. Doing a thing less often made it more special, didn’t it? I was doing everything I could to rationalize skipping mass, but still I felt a twinge of guilt, like I was cheating on the Catholic Church. But on this special communion Sunday, I was free of that guilt, and I felt even freer as the service began, because it was, to my surprise, liturgically, in terms of the order of the ritual, and the actual words spoken, nearly identical what I heard every Sunday at Lourdes:
On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: "Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
And then the same with the cup filled with wine: “…take, drink; this is my blood…” I sat there in the choir loft watching the pastor lift up and present the bread to the congregation, and then the same with the cup of wine, and I felt the same thick anticipation I felt at Lourdes, the words “this is my body…this is my blood” triggering a sense of gratefulness and unworthiness in me, but then, just as suddenly as it had come, the feeling went out of me. At the end of the my row, a tray appeared filled with little clear medicine cups each containing a knuckle of bread, followed by the same clear cups filled with purple juice. It felt like snack time or the dispensation of meds on the ward. The bread was thick and chewy, the juice so sugary that it left the roof of my mouth slick. I sat there feeling vacant, rolling my tongue around the inside of my mouth.
Years later, as a freshman in college, I would be required to take a theology course at 8:15 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. In that course, during which I consumed heroic amounts of coffee to stay awake, I studied the theology of the Eucharist. I don’t remember much, but what I do remember was that transubstantiation is like no other process known to Man. It is a supernatural event in which one thing (bread) is converted into another (flesh), not in its appearance but in its substance. It still appears to be bread and wine, but the bread-ness and wine-ness depart and Jesus’s substance, his flesh and blood, take its place. The eminent British literary theorist Terry Eagleton has written an entire essay on this matter. In “Irony and the Eucharist” he claims that the bread and wine are not just signs but meta-signs, which signal “an absence of signification, rather as zero is.” But, he continues, they are “not only signs about signs, but signs of the ‘beyond-sign’,” and thus “…signify the future death of signification.”
In other words, the bread and wine are Heaven. Not something like Heaven, but the thing itself. Eagleton concludes that Heaven is a place where the “body itself becomes our most eloquently expressive form of discourse. The ‘risen’ body is one with all the inexhaustible resources and fathomless creativity of language, the body as Word.”
I knew none of this theological and semiological business that sunny Sunday morning in 1989 sitting in the choir loft of Grace United Methodist, though I don’t know if it would have made a difference. The bread and wine tasted different, felt different, in my mouth, because they were different, in kind. If I were truly a person of conviction, I would also have to say that what I was experiencing was the lack of Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine. What I was experiencing was merely symbolic, a gesture toward the real thing, not the thing itself.
During those several months moonlighting as a Methodist and playing fake radio station in Chip’s basement, little by little, week by week, something in me was becoming alert to a general flimsiness, a lack of substance in my life. I was hungry for something that pushed past all the limits of what I knew, of what felt comfortable; something that went beyond the easy, irony of the Beastie Boys, white rappers ripping off Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and other black musicians to shape their sound, and the Methodist bro’s Nicodemus.
I knew that it existed. I had heard and seen it late at night on MTV in the darkened downstairs living room on a show called 120 Minutes that played two straight hours of post-punk, new wave, and industrial music, like The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Love and Rockets, New Order, REM, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode. And yet even much of that music, which everyone was now calling alternative, failed to move me: The Smiths were too maudlin; Michael Stipe’s voice had begun to sound whiny, and The Cure just made me feel lethargic and sad.
Then, one night, as I sat bathed in the silvery lunar light of the TV, I heard Ministry’s “Stigmata,” the first track off of their new album The Land of Rape and Honey. It’s a frantic, nightmarish anthem about a relationship that ends because of lies and deception.
Stronger than reason
Stronger than lies
The only truth I know
Is the look in your eyes
The look in your eyes!
The lyrics, delivered by Jourgensen in a guttural, menacing, reptilian shout, are almost completely drowned out by the grinding synth guitars. But if you listen closely you can piece together something about his lovers’ eyes, eyes that ultimately are empty and hollowed-out, an oblique reference it would seem to incidents of stigmata where the person bleeds from the eyes instead of the hands and feet.
It was as though drafty secret passage had suddenly opened behind the livingroom bookcase revealing a long, vertiginous stairway down into the darkness, stairs from which I could safely take in a view of the void while still keeping the light at the entrance in sight.
The video begins with a man kneeling at the foot of a cross from an old storefront church, an electrified cross made up of those round bulbs from a green room mirror. Though some are burnt out, my mind completes the image, and sees this imperfect cross. Then the man is running down a dark urban street, chased by someone on a motorcycle. In between these chase scenes is stock footage of earth moving equipment, churning machinery, a professor working on a complicated equation on a chalk board—all the tell-tale signs of goth and Industrial music and its pre-occupation with the Italian Futurists nearly a century before; a preoccupation with force and inertia, with bodies in motion and their lust to stay in motion, and, of course, a preoccupation with grinding, mechanistic, disembodied noises that make our nerves jangle; that make us more aware of our bodies. Then this man again writhing on the ground. He is laying in a pile of rubble. Then we’re at a Ministry show in a dark, underground club. Silhouetted bodies thrash to the pummeling bass. Then we cut back to the writhing man. He has a tattoo of a black, daggery cross on his upper arm. He is howling and running his nails down a brick wall, and, then as the song ends, still laying in the pile of rubble, a skinny robotic arm reaches out to choke him.
As laughable and cliché as it seems now in the cool, po-mo, LED light of the 21st century, this song and video tapped into the viscera of what I was feeling. Here the sacred and the profane weren’t playing grab ass; here was an unapologetic—no nudge, nudge, wink, wink—clash of the holy and the unholy that sonically recreated what I was feeling in my soul.
Which is where I find myself once again, thirty years later. While waiting for my daughter to call, I lie on the couch staring at my phone nostalgically browsing YouTube for Ministry music videos. Though now my search is a vicarious one, it feels just as urgent. I can see that my daughter searching for that path, and I feel that maybe I can, somehow, through the right words of encouragement, or introducing her to the right album at the right time, spare her years of wandering.
And while I know that I can’t do this work for her, I can at least share my search with her, which has led me on this night to a Ministry track that I have never heard before: “(Every Day Is) Halloween.”
This is early, obscure, Ministry—no relentlessly pounding bass, chainsaw guitars or distorted screaming. We’re talking a synth-pop track on the B-side of a 1984 single.
Lyrically, it’s your typical teen angst anthem:
Well I live with snakes and lizards
And other things that go bump in the night
'Cause to me everyday is Halloween
I have given up hiding and started to fight
I have started to fight
Well any time, any place, anywhere that I go
All the people seem to stop and stare
They say "why are you dressed like it's Halloween?
You look so absurd, you look so obscene”
Musically, it sounds like your run-of-the-mill, 80s synth-pop song. At first listen the bass line bears an uncanny resemblance to Banarama’s 1988 hit “Venus.” There’s none of the crunching, distorted guitars, none of the menacing, reptilian yelling. It’s nothing like the later anarchic and anguished Ministry with samples of preachers yelling “Praise Jesus!” or George H.W. Bush calling for a “New world order.” But, according to Encyclopedia Gothica, it’s become the Goth anthem, right up there with Bauhaus’ “Bella Lugosi’s Dead.”
And so it’s not the music that grabs me, it’s the YouTube fan video (no official music video was ever made). It begins with clips from an old black and white cartoon set in what appears to be Hell. There’s the Devil, a spider swinging on a thread over a black pit, a tiny demon jazz band, bats, of course, and even three-headed Cerberus, but then, all of sudden, spliced in with the Devil and his minions, skeletons dancing in a grave yard, which I recognized immediately as a clip from a 1929 Disney cartoon “The Skeleton Dance.” For years “The Skeleton Dance” has been a Halloween tradition for us. It’s five and a half minutes of skeletons rise from their graves and performing a choreographed number to a vaguely Slavic sounding xylophone ditty. I don’t remember exactly when we started this ritual, but my daughter was maybe seven or eight. We would watch it on YouTube and she would jump around the house arms akimbo like the skeletons, playing air xylophone on the ribs of an invisible skeleton before her.
Ultimately, the video cinches the way I think of “(Every Day Is) Halloween”: on the one hand it’s a kitschy relic of the late 80s and early 90s when droves of teens powdered theirs faces, dyed their hair inky black, and squeezed into leather pants, but on the other hand, for someone in their early teens trying to find the strength to break the gravitational pull of all the bullshit and drama that comes with fitting in, or not, it is without a doubt an empowering anthem.
Oh, why can't I live a life for me?
Why should I take the abuse that's served?
Why can't they see they're just like me?
She emerges from the school alone and walks slowly toward the car with her head down. “What took you so long?” she asks, putting on her seat belt. Her face is red and sweaty. Her lipstick has been rubbed off.
I explain that I left right when she called. “How was it?” “Fine, except I didn’t win anything. It’s not fair.” There were prizes for best karaoke performance, but you had to compete as a team, and she couldn’t convince anyone to be on her team. And there were other games, too, but those were all won by the really athletic kids. And her crush went to the dance with someone else, and she’s just awful and fake and a cheerleader.
As we pull out of the parking lot and onto the dark county road we pass a subdivision of new homes that all look more or less the same. The trees in the large front yards are still barely saplings. “That’s where they all live,” she says. “Who?” I ask. “All the popular kids. They’re such jerks.”
It’s at moments like this that I struggle to be her father. I want to just to say, here, listen to this, and hand her my phone with “(Every Day Is) Halloween” already cued up, but I feel like it’s my job to point out the stereotype, warn her away from the generalization, help convince her that where a person lives has no bearing on their character, and that there is no conspiracy to defraud her of prizes at the middle school dance.
And yet, on this night, I am tired of keeping up this even-handed parental front. I know that she is bullied at school; I know that most days the beauty and genius of her mind goes unappreciated; that her attempts to make friends are misunderstood, and so I say to her, “You have a gift that they don’t have. You can see and feel things they can’t. And you should kind of feel sorry for them. They’re going to live their entire lives and never understand and never know what you do.”
This might be the worst possible thing I could have said. I might have just given her even more license to increase her already considerable intellectual arrogance, but you know, at this moment it seems better than the alternative, which is for her to go around believing that she in somehow not enough; that she needs to go the extra mile to make others feel comfortable, but dammit if this song isn’t true:
Oh, why can't I live a life for me?
Why should I take the abuse that's served?
Why can't they see they're just like me
It's the same, it's the same in the whole wide world
Back at the house she pounds, black boots still on, up the stairs and changes into pink, silky pajamas. She wants to snuggle on the couch and watch a movie, but her brother, eight years old and about as typical an eight year old boy as you can be, won’t cooperate—he’s watching YouTube videos of bros pranking one another. “You’re such a jerk, you know that?” “What did I do?” he yells back.
I re-direct her. “Come on,” I say, “let’s let him do his thing. We can watch something upstairs.” Upstairs, we sit on her bed and I pull out my phone and search Google for the “Skeleton Dance.” As soon as she hears the plucky xylophone, she brightens up, and as the skeleton emerge from their graves she is up on her feet and dancing. As she mimics the loose jointed skeletons, I am aware now more than ever of how she has changed/is changing. I remember when I could hold her in the crook of my arm, and now look at her: her arms and legs are impossibly long, her face is losing the baby fat, her feet are big, her steps are loud and sure.
I’m 43, and though I grew up listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, The Cult, and Ministry, I’ve never dyed my hair or even worn it past my collar. I’ve never pierced anything or had anything tattooed. I’ve never owned black jeans, and I’m just now realizing what a coward and a liar I’ve been all these years, pretending that I could keep the darkness at bay by just writing about it in a touristy way.
What I’ve neglected to be honest about, is that the darkness of the world is close at hand at all times. And until now, until my daughter, afraid, and yet braver than I’ll ever be, walked into that dance alone, I wasn’t able to see goth for what it is: a way of confronting the darkness by insinuating yourself into it and then dismantling it from the inside.
For most, Halloween is the one day out of the entire year when you indulge the darkness, this alterity you feel, we all feel, in a safe way, in a way that doesn’t make you seem weird or troubled or damaged. But to be goth is to say on a daily basis I’m not afraid to be seen for what I am and what I feel.
I don’t claim to have the answers. I just know that I wish I had been able to admit that darkness into my own life, be on speaking terms with it when I was her age, instead of allowing it to eat away at me all these years.
And yet, it’s not as easy as saying, just live every day as though it were Halloween. That’s a simile. What Ministry intends is metaphor. Every day is Halloween. Every day the darkness is close at hand. How will you ensure that it doesn’t take you down?
As she continues to laugh and stomp all jangly-armed around the room, I notice that she hasn’t quite removed all the dark make-up from around her eyes, and so now I’m imagining her at the dance, twirling and shimmying, eyes closed, black bow bouncing atop her head, in the blue and orange lights, all by herself. For a split second, despite the meanness and narrowness of the other kids pressing all around her in that dark gym, I feel a twinge of the joy and relief she feels moving her body.
I rise up from the bed and begin to dance with her.
Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Utne Reader, The Normal School, Image, and Creative Nonfiction, and on-line at Killing the Buddha, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Paris Review.
BERRY GRASS ON “SWAMP THING”
I mean, he isn’t called Marsh Thing. Too gentle for what was originally a 1970s horror comic about a man dying in a laboratory explosion & chemically bonding with plants, becoming a chlorophyllic, existential facsimile of a human. So is Fen Thing, and even Bog Thing sounds silly. What is it about the wetland word swamp that holds our collective darknesses? Swamps are essentially just flooded forests but we’ve imbued them with our fears, as if everything that we aren’t—or everything we’re afraid that we actually are—lurks beneath, waiting to consume us. What makes it scary to acknowledge one’s reflection in the muck and the murk?
In the seminal trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, most cards feature italicized text found at the bottom of the card that conveys character or symbolism or story about the card itself. This is called flavor text. For example, the flavor text to the Magic card “Mind Sludge,” which makes an opponent discard cards from their hand, reads as follows: When you get into the swamp, the swamp gets into you.
Ambiguity is the hallmark of the goth aphorism. After nearly 5 minutes of delicate atmospheric construction—jangly guitars and propulsive drums and synthesizer keys held down making an eerie wind—the mood breaks and the melody sounds triumphant and the bass grooves with glee. It is at this point, the song winding down, that Mark Burgess, singer & bassist for The Chameleons, cries out over and over, “Now the storm has come...or is it just another shower?” The two being, apparently, not the same kind of rainfall. The Storm, then, capital S, must be for Burgess something rare, something important. Unraveled still by the looping twang of guitar strings, I can’t quite tell if the Storm is the nourishing kind, the prayed-for kind, or if it’s the Big One, the inevitable threat, The End.
In Magic: the Gathering you can’t escape the swamp. The most commonly played card in Magic are Basic Land cards, which generate the in-game currency, called mana, that players use to play creatures and sorceries and enchantments. The Basic Land card that generates black mana is called Swamp. Calling upon the swamps, extracting their resources, allows you to cast spells that embody (according to the developers of the game) “Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, & Paranoia.” Black mana’s creatures tend to be the undead or demons. Its spells evoke plague, vampirism, zombification, Faustian bargains, necromancy.
We’re all thinking it here: President Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” He was referring to Washington D.C., both the city and the political climate there. For the GOP, which is as close to a political embodiment of the values of black mana as can be, this slogan means that to drain the swamp would be to siphon out the mud and dreck of civil liberties protections & financial regulations to leave a useable crater to be filled back in with defense contractors and oil lobbyists and christofascists. You know, sturdier stuff. Ironically, when Democrat majority leader Nancy Pelosi was campaigning in 2006, she also used the slogan “drain the swamp,” and for her then the Wall Street tycoons and health insurers and roadblocks to campaign finance reform so beloved by Trump were the aspects of D.C. that needed removal. It’s often said that Washington D.C. was itself built on a swamp—not metaphorically, but on literal swampland. People point to the nearby mashlands of Maryland, and the fact that D.C.’s summer humidity is chokingly intense, but it’s an urban legend. The town was built on dry riverbed & woodland hills. Swamp somehow makes space for our collective ideas of rot. But far from decaying, the foundations of the city, much like the ideas of white supremacy and settler colonialism that make up the foundations of the American project, have been stable this whole time.
I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. When your mom has a cancer recurrence, when her cancer cells are metastasizing throughout her upper body, every ache, every sneeze, every skipped meal might mean the Big One is finally here. A routine trip to the doctor because of a lingering cough might mean the last hospital admission she ever has, might mean, like a sudden, violent downpour, the thing you couldn’t see it coming even if you knew it was always coming.
A comprehensive review of 189 wetland studies cited in the academic journal Marine and Freshwater Research found that the Earth has lost 54-57% of its total wetland area compared to pre-industrial totals, almost entirely owing to human drainage projects.
You tell me what the common thread is here. I had a childhood where, in assorted parts, I spent time obsessing over: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” series; walking around graveyards; trying to accrue as many extra lives in video games that I could; heavy metal bands; playing as the Necromancer class in “Diablo II”; the concept of séances & actually trying to perform them; Magic: the Gathering decks that brought creatures back from the dead; a band I was in that I named “Phoenix Down,” after the item in the Final Fantasy series of role playing games that gives a character the infamous revivifying qualities of the eponymous firebird; my favorite professional wrestler, who has always been The Undertaker—a supernatural lord of the dead, who began as a zombie gravedigger controlled by a mortician with an occult urn, who was killed, literally buried [un-]alive multiple times, who always came back from out the dirt months later with increasing consciousness & independence & preternatural power over light and electricity, who always came back to compete at WrestleMania to defend his undefeated streak of victories, who always came back.
The closest thing to a conventional chorus in The Chameleons’ song, “Swamp Thing,” contains, in part, the lyrics: “Look around, look around./All around you walls are tumbling down./Stop staring at the ground.” I spend more days than I’d like to admit doing nothing. My depression and my executive dysfunction tag-teaming me into missing deadlines, not returning emails, underpreparing for work. It takes hours some days just to leave the bed in the morning. I skip meals simply because putting my body into motion is too daunting. I am not special in my struggle, I know. Many people feel the frustration of illness interfering with their capability or ambition. Feel like they are wasting time. My mental health is at its poorest after I read about how little time we all probably have left. Every week is a new report that ecological collapse is happening faster than even aggressive climate models were projecting. Every week we learn how fast the coral is acidifying, how drastically in decline is the world’s insect population, what year within the next twenty or ten that millions upon millions of people will be displaced from their coastal homes and become climate refugees, holding out a desperate hope that they will not be killed at the border of a neighboring country even as, right now in the year I am writing this, the world is already obsessing over the ideas of nationalism and border control and citizenry and ownership and hoarding resources and the world is already forgetting about the concept of mercy. Humanity has only a Hail Mary pass of a chance to keep global warming levels right under 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures (above which point the rate of warming is thought to increase exponentially in a way that we won’t be able to prevent), and it’s going to require a global rejection of capitalist models of resource and labor distribution as soon as possible. The bleakest climate models tell us that it’s already too late. I sit around, failing to write, failing to think, failing to do the dishes, trying to process that this is the best my life is ever going to be. That I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. It feels like this.
The thing about swamps is that we pour into them what we fear will harm us. The thing about swamps is that so does the Earth. Swamps and other wetlands take in atmospheric carbon, sink it deep within themselves. Swamps remove carbon from the air and turn it into plant tissue, which in turn collects & stores more carbon. Swamps act as a buffer for storm surge and rising water levels. If we could increase the total amount of wetlands on Earth, restore or refresh or repair them, we could dramatically fight back against the carbon crisis while helping mitigate some of the damage that we’ve already caused to our climate. It’s a cruel truth: that what we’re scared of, be it socialism or swamps or decolonial solidarity, is what will actually save us.
I’ve been trying get this essay to come together not by draining its excess but by addition, by flooding the page with associations. It’s gotten messier and messier as it has resisted saying the thing I’ve been trying not to say. I’ve barely written about my mom’s death because I’ve felt that some things deserve to be privately held. But what you feel is good for you is not always good for the art, so I think I need to show you what I’ve kept submerged so far.
Before she died, my mom had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form that was [arguably] violated by workers at the hospital she eventually passed away in. I’ll refrain from specific names so as not to get bogged down in a legal complication (I didn’t even intend to use a wetland pun there, but so hazardous & inscrutable is the justice system that it’s cliché to compare it to dark depths). They revived her body, keeping it alive on life support. It was midnight by the time I flew in & made my way to the hospital, right in time to see the nurse attempt to see if my mom still had active brain activity. It’s called an apnea test—turning off the respirator, flooding the lungs with pure oxygen, and seeing how the gasses in the blood respond. Ten eternal minutes went by with no change, then, quite suddenly, seemingly as if in response to my voice—“I’m here, your daughter Berry is here,” I said; the very first time I referred to myself as my mom’s daughter -- my mom’s arms raised themselves up for the first time in two days and her hands moved towards her face. In the part of me where I thought hope was the most radiant I thought she was trying to communicate. I thought through my presence alone I was bringing her back, but to place your hope in Black Magic is by design a selfish hope. What actually was happening was an autonomous response, her hands trying to pull the breathing tube from out of her throat. It was not a conscious movement. There was no indication of brain activity when her arms raised up for what would be the last time. In 14 hours from that point, my brother and I would decide, easily, to remove our mom from life support & she would pass, her brain at peace if negation can be said to be a kind of peace, into waters uncertain. It was an easy decision to make. She signed that DNR form because she had no interest in being kept, technically, alive by a machine. No desire to live as a scientific shell. To have put my hope into the impossibility of her mental consciousness returning to her would have been actually, I think, hopelessness. The difference between my mom and Swamp Thing is that Swamp Thing had to deal personally with the existential crisis of being alive but no longer human. With my mom, that same existential crisis instead belonged to me, my brother, everyone in her life.
I think what I’m feeling here is that I need to learn how to hope unselfishly. Hoping to be saved, that it will all work out, is selfish, like waiting around for the inevitable storm, when what is required is action. Unselfish hope is active. It’s working for and with other people. It’s collective action against Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, Paranoia. I think hope is about not staring at the ground. I think it’s about overcoming fear.
From the flavor text to the Magic: the Gathering card, “Tendrils of Corruption”:
“Even swamps need sustenance. We will give it to them, and in turn, they will sustain us.” —Ezrith, druid of the Dark Hours
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and Philadelphia. She is the author of Hall of Waters (2019, The Operating System). Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Territory, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. Her favorite bit of Goth street cred is that in high school she convinced her mom to let her paint her bedroom walls black.