‘Just like heaven’

Eugene celebrates its dark side

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Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
TheXplodingboys’ bassist, Michelle Pecchia finds her groove during her band’s performance at Old Nick’s Pub. The band performed The Cure’s 1985 album “The Head on the Door” in its entirety, as well as some of the band’s most popular songs.

It’s a mild Friday evening in Eugene, and Old Nick’s Pub is rapidly filling with dancers clad in black. The walls, painted black and adorned with dark chalk drawings and posters advertising upcoming black metal shows, pulse in time with deafening kick drum thumps. Up on the small stage sits a table piled with turntables, some flickering candles, a skeleton, and draped with a white sheet emblazoned with the words “Ghost House.” Behind the table, Seattle-based DJ Nervosa leans over a crate of records, carefully curating the night’s soundtrack. In the back of the room, a man dressed in knight’s armor plays a game of chess with a woman in a black ballerina’s uniform; both of them are nodding their heads in time to the beat of the music.

This is the scene at the kickoff of the third-ever Gothic Weekend, a two-day music and arts festival celebrating all things dark and macabre. Friday night, May 11, featured a special edition of the popular Ghost House goth dance party, featuring three DJs — the aforementioned Nervosa was joined by DJ Skully from Portland and Eugene’s own DJ Refugium — that specialize in goth music and its innumerable subgenres.

Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
Pete Norman, frontman for The Bitter Ends, strums his guitar during a cover of Gary Numan’s “Cars.” The Eugene-based new wave group played to a packed house during their Saturday night show, performing both original songs and several covers.

On May 12, Old Nick’s hosted the Dark Arts Market during the afternoon, where 20 vendors from around Oregon set up booths to display their wares, including handcrafted tarot decks, elaborately mounted deer and coyote skulls, jewelry made from “spiritual” stones and even antique books and photographs of open-casket funerals. That night, four artists graced the Old Nick’s stage: Black Woofer, The Bitter Ends, Vibrissae and TheXplodingboys, a Cure tribute band from Portland. Each one brought a different take on goth music, from pulsing synthesizers and robotic drum beats to crunchy guitar riffs and dreamy, spacey choruses.

The goth subculture first originated in England in the early 1980s among loyal fans of bands like Joy Division and The Cure. It blends the anti-establishment ethos of ‘70s punk with the elaborate fashions of 19th-century Victorian England, as well as a fascination with witchcraft and the occult. Unlike many of the subcultures that emerged during the ‘80s however, goth culture has remained resilient to the shifting cultural landscape. It continues to stay relevant by adapting new ideas and advances in technology, music and fashion. Modern goth culture is now influenced by cyberpunk and science-fiction as much as it is by horror movies and the occult — an artist at the Dark Arts Market named James Brothwell even combined the two realms in a cyberpunk-themed tarot deck he designed — and bands aligned with goth culture like Kraftwerk, New Order and Bauhaus were among the first to combine elements of electronic dance music with rock.

Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
Rose Downing gives a deck of tarot cards to Rebecca Carter to shuffle before a reading. Downing, who says she comes from a long line of mystics and shamans, has been practicing tarot and palm readings for nearly 21 years.

Despite its rich legacy, goth culture is, in certain ways, maligned by those who don’t understand it. Since its rise to prominence, goths have often appeared in pop culture as caricatures, dark clowns that appear in everything from sitcoms to police procedurals. Worse, those accused of violent crimes who identify as goth often find their subculture used as evidence against them. One such case involved three teenage boys, known as the West Memphis Three who were accused of committing homicide for a “Satanic ritual.” Prosecutors used the boys’ interest in occultism and gothic music as circumstantial evidence and imprisoned them for nearly two decades before they were exonerated by new DNA evidence. But many within the culture believe those characterizations to be unfair.

“I know a lot of people think we’re just about killing ourselves and worshipping Satan, but it’s so much more than that,” a dancer wrapped in fishnets who goes by the single name Raven said. “We’re just another community of like-minded people who like to dance and watch movies and make art. I mean, I think it’s weird when people obsess about sports, but I don’t go laugh at people in football jerseys.”

Anna C.K. Smith / The Torch
Merchant Ariana White, also known as DJ Refugium, shows her wares to Billie Brabbe at the Dark Arts Market while wearing a hand-crafted pirate hat. White, one of the organizers of Eugene’s Gothic Weekend, also hosts the monthly Ghost House goth raves at Old Nick’s Pub.

Ariana White — also known as DJ Refugium — started the monthly Ghost House events in 2009 and has helped organize all three Gothic Weekends. To her, bringing a goth night to Eugene was an obvious decision.

“When I moved here, there was no goth night anywhere in Eugene,” White said, standing behind a table where she was selling albums from her diverse personal collection –– including records by classic funk and country artists –– and vintage goods like books about witchcraft and sexuality. “It was either start one or make the drive to Portland to go dancing.”

Since then, Ghost House has built a loyal following among Eugene’s goths. Randall Young, who arrived on Friday night in bright white makeup, studded leather boots and a long black cloak, said that the Ghost House parties are one of his few expressive outlets.

“I work in an office, and I can’t get away with looking like this in my everyday life,” Young said. “But no one cares when I come here, I can be myself. I can dress like this and talk to a guy dressed like a knight or meet a witch, and no one bats an eye.”

If the packed house over the weekend was any indication, goth culture is as strong and vibrant as ever. The Ghost House parties will likely continue to fill up with full-time goths like Raven and those seeking to escape “everyday drudgery” like Young, united by a shared love of throbbing synth music, macabre horror and all shades of the color black. This was their chance to celebrate themselves and their individuality. To them, the feeling of the weekend could be best described by the last line of the final Cure cover of the weekend, crooned by a sweaty Robert Smith look-alike to an ecstatic crowd.

“Just like heaven.”