Yes, it happened again.
This past weekend, the American Heartland played host to the many faces of our splintered culture, inviting them to unite behind the notorious harlequin mask of the Juggalos. For more than a decade now, The Gathering of the Juggalos has tended and entertained thousands of devoted travelers, determined to experience its distinct vortex of music, violence and low culture. Curious and perversely amused by such prospects, I embarked on a pilgrimage to The 2010 Gathering with little more than a notebook and an ample supply of deodorant. My time amongst the Juggalos was often agonizing— four days in a psychopathic-psychotropic carnival tends to dishearten those, like me, who lack a certain zeal. But, face-paint and Faygo stains aside, my dip into the self-proclaimed “most misunderstood people of all time” left me strangely engrossed— though I can’t call myself a Juggalo, it’s difficult not to identify with some aspects of their lifestyle in this era of mass alienation and converging sub-cultures.
Like many, I only became aware of the Juggalos after Saturday Night Live aired a satirical ad for the Kickspit Underground Rock Festival—clearly an homage to the series of promotional videos for The Gathering which maintain a cult following on YouTube. Rising amongst the devoted followers of Insane Clown Posse or simply ICP—a generally artless entertainment duo known for their signature face paint and lyrics as profound as “I dropped outta’ school and quit my job/ All I want to be is a fat, fuckin’ slob”— the movement has all but declined over the past two decades.
Described pejoratively as “Orc-like creatures, donning demented clown makeup and dirty-Sanchezes [sic] of Cheetos residue,” the Juggalos deserve a much richer analysis than Urban Dictionary is willing to provide. More than anything else, these people are genuine. Devotees to horrorcore music, they live earnestly as Juggalos, often sporting tattoos of the ICP logo in places that are inconvenient for job interviews. If they’re wearing any clothes, they maintain a fascinating sartorial affinity for ill-fitted graphic t-shirts which, by comparison, make Ed Hardy seem veritably tasteful.
Often referring to one another as “ninjas”—a more inclusive and markedly less offensive supplement for the n-word— the Juggalos employ a distinct dialect of American English which is interspersed with ubiquitous profanity and frequent use of the phrase “Whoop! Whoop!” Unsurprisingly, this behavior attracts the attention of cyber-trolls, who take their cue from SNL and defame the ninjas through internet memes and hate sites like lookatthisfuckingjuggalo.tumblr.com.
But, even with swaths of society against them, the Juggalos abide—forming enclaves across the country and banding together on internet forums like ninjatactics.net and truejuggalofamily.com. Ghettoizing themselves within Juggalo communities, they preach social inclusion and interracial harmony and, flaunting these banners, they welcome anyone interested in promoting harmony amongst what, ICP member, Violent J refers to as “the scrubs and the losers” or his devoted fans. The Juggalos’ strict focus on family, unity and clown doctrine invites parallels between their culture and organized religion. Violent J goes as far as saying that for Juggalos, a trip to The Gathering equates to the experiences of “Muslims [visiting] the Holy Land of Mecca.” And, each year, more pilgrims come.
For the past five years, The Gathering has permeated and overwhelmed the border town of Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, a former haven for river pirates and a portal between North and South. The town is 99.47% white and, unlike almost every other hamlet in the Land of Lincoln, it doesn’t boast a main thoroughfare commemorating the president who freed the slaves and vanquished Jefferson Davis. A massive outcropping in the limestone bluffs which bolster the Ohio River provides the town’s name and, in the summer, green puss oozes from the eroded rock formation, contributing to its vernacular sobriquet: The Big Asshole.
This is the sort of charm which, just last weekend, drew thousands of Juggalos to Hog Rock Camp Ground—the epicenter of the festivities a few miles north of town. They come in droves, passing the squadron of precautionary ambulances and law enforcement vehicles which abut the entry road and serve more as omens than as actual guardians. When the Juggalos come to town the local police staff more than doubles. And, more than anyone else, the sheriff remains apathetic—allowing mayhem of all kinds to unfold within the chained off set of murky ponds and sloping lawns which comprises the site.
Of course, The Gathering is hardly a lawless syphon of misery and mud. It is a for profit event, after all. Six performance venues, consisting of temporary lattice bandstands and a number of haystack bleachers, speckle the site in addition to a wrestling ring, devoted mainly to the Half-Pint Brawlers, and an autograph tent which peddles ICP merchandise by the truckload. A centralized outcropping sports a Ferris wheel, countless midway games and a stockade of Porta-Johns and Porta-Janes. There’s even a helipad— albeit a slapdash one— from which a chopper gives particularly daring Juggalos an overhead view of the sprawling complex unfurled on their behalf. The sound of the chopping blades is ubiquitous during the daytime, establishing a sense of faux-surveillance and— when coupled with the inevitable mosh pit erupting on the ground— evoking images of the fall of Saigon.
With campsites rechristened with names like “Scrub Central” and the “Chaos District,” the sanctioned festival map seems to invite lawlessness. Of course, the Juggalos are seldom satisfied with ordered chaos and, inevitably, new neighborhoods have sprouted up. There is “Hepatitis Lake,” a foaming brown watering hole, boasting a few shirtless Juggalettes, dozens of empty Faygo bottles and an eroded wooden platform that must have most recently accommodated lifeguards during the Ford Administration. Makeshift latrines dot the edge of the lake. And, a fiberglass hog rests atop a shale platform, giving the campsite its name and offering visitors a remarkable opportunity for novelty photographs. Look at me, I’m butt-fuckin’ a pig!
At The Gathering, there are ten thousand people and one bathhouse. The temperature never dips below ninety-five.
And, championing the entrepreneurial spirit, there is the infamous “Drug Bridge,” a muddy isthmus rife with dealers so flagrant in their trade that many wear cardboard signs openly advertising their offerings and rates. Miniature baggies of everything imaginable sit idly in coolers with their caps cracked open. Passersby who aren’t stocking up on DMT—perhaps half the stampede— record videos on their phones and the dealers don’t seem to mind. Discretion is hardly an issue for most people, who hawk their goods plangently. Two dimes and you can see my tits!