Every October, the animatronic life-size mummy takes his place of honor on my front porch. By then, I’m already intoxicated by the sensory delight of autumn. The smell of burning leaves. A sliver of horned Harvest moon obscured in the night sky by scuttering platinum-edged clouds. Racks of horrifying costumes — zombies, witches, monsters — scaring the crap out of kids in the local Target. For the grown-up Goths, freaks, weirdoes, queerdos, and other miscellaneous self-identified creeps I call my tribe, this — not Christmas — is “the most wonderful time of the year.” I thrill at rows of Styrofoam headstones askew on a lawn, skeleton hands reaching from under the lid of an ersatz coffin. Pagan at its roots, but democratized by commercialism, I admire the holiday’s sly paradox. Halloween allows us to wear death lightly.
By my own definition, a Goth is someone who likes dark, macabre music, culture, and clothing, someone whose romantic, rebel heart is barbed wire-bound by a wry sense of irony about doom, religion, the afterlife, and the Underworld. If you’ve ever seen someone walking around in, say, July, dressed in a way that makes you want to call out, “Hey, freak! Halloween is over!” C’est un Goth.
Halloween is a misfit’s high holy day, but I didn’t comprehend the sacred aspects of Halloween until I’d celebrated it as a baby Goth in a gay neighborhood. As a questioning teen, the trip to the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade was a pilgrimage of incalculable personal value. The event illustrated that the ritual of dressing up — of choosing an alternate persona — can be the quickest route to self-affirmation. Show me a young man in a woman’s costume, and, as often as not, I see someone hiding in plain sight. Show me a girl entranced with Victorian mourning attire and other aesthetics of death, and I see someone who’s trying to figure out life.
Goths, with their fixation on stylized morbidity, may seem at first glance of black velvet cape and blood-red lips to be tough customers, but as Cole Porter sang, it ain’t necessarily so. Once, during a photo shoot in an old graveyard, I nearly fell into a partially sunken grave and shot clear out of my skin — thus proving that you can be both a Goth and a wuss. And if you think that participation in this death-as-high-camp culture would have inured me to seeing death run its wrecking ball through our gang at the height of the AIDS crisis, it didn’t. If you think it can lessen the pain of grief that stalks me each Halloween that I live without them, it cannot.
That Goth style exerts such a strong pull on LGBTQ people comes as no surprise. For many of us, The Hunger acted as a gateway drug, making polymorphously perverse immortality appear gorgeous just as we were worried we wouldn’t survive our own befuddling, isolated adolescence. The vampire is our ultimate relatable anti-hero: Dangerous desire. Limited hours of safe operation. Hiding in darkness. These are all familiar themes that, for all their implied risk, are oddly comforting; this shadowy subculture becomes, ironically, a safe space. The same can be said for the ghoul’s paradise of Halloween, when all that is deathly becomes delightful, and what is terrifying becomes irresistible. You make a friend of danger. You hide, seek, and are sought, an identity pieced together through peekaboo. In Guernica, beloved novelist Alexander Chee wrote about his first Halloween foray into female drag, “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.”
With my boundless affection for darkness and the cobwebby margins, it was somewhat disorienting to find, a couple years ago, that like Linus waiting in the patch for the Great Pumpkin, I believe, with a faith that has taken on a surprisingly Jesus-y shape. I considered, at first, trying to be a cut-and-dried mainline ‘thumper, but I love all that spooky, mystical woo-woo too much.
With the tug on my spiritual sleeve unrelenting, I decided to look for a church. Hearing a lot of good things about a certain Presbyterian church in Manhattan, I showed up at their congregation’s West Side location feeling doubtful, unsure of the value of the endeavor and wondering if I’d fit in. According to the Pew Research Group, 55 percent of people pray daily, including 44 percent of the non-religious. That morning, I had only one explicit prayer: “Make it obvious, Lord.” If I was meant to keep on with this Christianity thing, I asked, please show me a sign. Not, like, a vague “feather on the wind” kind of sign. Something even a bonehead like me couldn’t ignore.
At this church, a certain intelligence is assumed. Their brochures read “Skeptics Welcome.” I should have felt at home there, but I didn’t. Everyone was so well-dressed. The sermon — delivered by an all-male pastoral staff — reminded me of a TED talk. I kept scanning the pews, feeling myself rapidly curdling into Bill Maher. Turning fully around, I looked at the very last row. Sitting in the aisle seat was an older gentlemen with shaggy dyed black hair, white Gucci slip-ons, and clothes that could best be described as “Goth golfer casual.”
I squinted. No. Nope. Can’t be. I had to bite my lips to keep from laughing.
Alice Cooper is in this church.
Alice Cooper is in this church.
I spent most of my miserable teenage years under the headphones, walled off from the world. Music was my lone sanctuary, and Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare album was as cherished as a hymn. Didn’t someone once say “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous?” Short of a spectral visitation from Joey Ramone wearing black leather vestments, I couldn’t see how this could have been more obvious. That prayer? Asked and answered. And my church program? Autographed.
In the end, I learned that this particular church was of a denomination that interpreted the Bible in a way that, to me, seemed homophobic. This was a huge problem, because if you took away all the parts of me that have been shaped by LGBTQ experiences, friends, relatives, colleagues, and culture, all that’d be left is peroxide and an under-funded SEP-IRA. As I embarked on my church-hunt, the greatest concern came from the queer corners — Hold it just a minute there, Churchy McJesus — which makes sense given how many LGBTQ people have been alienated, if not outright damaged, through a repressive religious upbringing.
So many people have been traumatized by religion or religion-based prejudice that telling them “I’m praying for you” isn’t an affirmation, it’s a trigger. We are only now, as a country, outlawing gay conversion programs, many of which are church-based. Scripture-justified prejudice is alive and well, and spiritual abuse is real. The dangled promise of God’s love, and the threat of its removal, ceases to be incentive to stay put when you’re exhausted from suffering abusive, rejecting, or exploitative dillholes operating under cover of the cross. It happens so often, we’re becoming inured to the hypocrisy of it all. When Pastor Matthew Makela of Michigan, who once told a gay teen that he was “going to hell,” was busted on the gay hookup site Grindr, exactly no one was surprised. When duplicity is expected, I can’t blame anyone for leaving a church, or refusing to return. But it’s important to make the distinction that being abused, rejected, and disillusioned by a church is not the same as being abused or rejected by God, because by God’s loving grace, such a thing is impossible. Everyone is chosen. Everyone is loved. Everyone’s in. Even if certain congregations run afoul of this truth. Emily Dickinson, patron saint poetess of many a Goth, said, “If your nerve deny you, aim above your nerve.” I’d adapt that to say, “If your church deny you, by all means, aim above your church.” TEAM APOSTATE.
It came as a relief when the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA) voted to formally allow its churches to perform gay marriages this past March, joining the Episcopalians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. (Interestingly, a recent Pew study showing a declivitous slide in American Christianity found that 48 percent of LGBT Americans now identify as Christian, up from 42 percent in 2013) Now I can worship at several churches with ease in my heart, knowing that a huge swath of my social world, my band of misfits, would be welcome. My only regret is that so many of them died before they could behold this seismic shift.
Halloween (aka All Hallow’s Eve) and the days that immediately follow, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, are said to be when the barrier between the dead and the living is at its thinnest, but I feel that divide evanescent at all times, connection passing back and forth as we move unawares. Even separated by death, the fallen lost ones and I, we are each others’ light in the darkness. On November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, which, like All Saints’, is acknowledged in the Christian calendar, I will light a candle for my dearly departed — those hobgoblin activists who introduced me to the sacrament of mischief. Those lost boys and girls who had helped me find myself. As is asked in one of the Sisters of Mercy’s classic Goth dirges, Would you carry the torch for me? Always.
Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days represent a friendly (if bony, skeletal) handshake between Paganism and Christianity, an exaltation of escape and revelry, as well as somber respect for death and those whom it has claimed. I still love graveyards, rattling chains, black cats, black velvet, and all manner of spooky things. And I adore the blessing of sacred serendipity — that you can discover yourself while pretending to be someone else. That you can pray for a guiding angel and God will send Alice Cooper. So let us rejoice in this glorious, ghoulish time when we honor all souls, all saints, what we reveal of our personal truth through artifice, and the ghosts of our former selves.
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently the critically acclaimed I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles. Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana