We are sitting in Goth VIP, a velvet-roped off balcony at the annual New York City Vampire Ball. Below us the dancefloor sways in sync, a seaweed of black lace and pleather. Emerald lasers cut geometric patterns; floating neon hieroglyphs above the crowd. A strobe light begins to pulse to Depeche Mode. “It’s Goth Top 40” says Gala, my friend and date for the evening.
Neither I nor Gala are part of the Goth Scene but we have dressed the part for the evening. Gala in a velvet plum dress, sleeveless showing her arms. Toned and covered in aqua-green tattoos. Her cleopatra bob teased up all teenage-witchy. Me in a tulle ball gown skirt and nude corsetty top. Looking into the mirror again and again while getting ready, I imagine the vampire’s virginal victim; what happens to the girl just after being bit.
“Its like sociological research” Gala says, as we look at the goths who stand around and lean against things, looking at each other. We are here, I guess, because I want to write about the fleeting Dark Phase. That moment of becoming aware of the gaze of others; of attempting to control it. The phase which is often that first incarnation of Persona.
Gala and I push our way onto the greenish dancefloor. We sway and twist our arms toward the ceiling, false eyelashes cast downward. ‘False eyelash addict’ I remember was once a part of a Gala’s bio online. Odd: The random pieces of internet persona that stick forever in your brain. When I close my eyes and think of Gala, I see a starry sky and her name Gala Darling in hot pink. Clouds shaped like bunnies. She is a special one. On the Internet, Gala is full of exclamation points; and IRL her persona unfolds into full three dimensions. Meeting her makes her online self make more sense… but Gala can surprise you. She is dry with a wicked sort of humour. Her mind works fast, always looking at a larger picture, always knowing where she’s about to land. She has a sense of self that is apparent and solid, something diamond-like. Something with symmetry.
The Vampire Ball is full of femme. Women in latex ballgowns with blacklight milky eyes. Girls in corsets, a single rose pressed to spilled cleavage. Androgynous bodies dripped with lace. And then I feel it: There is a 15-year-old inside of me who would be impressed. The one who lingered in Hot Topic stores; wanting to make a sort of emotional home there. A nest out of Bettie Page incense and shiny black skirts.
Gala and I find another staircase; the basement of the club holds a second dancefloor with speakers blasting EBM. To the right is a brick cell in which a woman is chained up, moaning, half nude. Another woman in a dress stands over her, striking her with a crop. Two other women and a man watch on, sitting close enough to hear the thwap-thwap-sting of the leather.
The Dark Phase in itself is femme; is inherently sort-of queer. I imagine that when goth became a scene — the Batcave in London in 1982 — that the more dramatic, poetic dimension of Goth made it a safe haven; an alternative to the increasingly masculine and aggro punk scene. (Perhaps inevitably this queerness, this femmeness is why goth eventually became so mocked.)
Goth still works as a protection of sorts for teenagers. The black stone obsidian is said to have healing properties: it repels negative energy, increases self control, encourages exploration and I think swaddling oneself in all-black-everything feels similar. People find Dark Phases at an age where the self-hatred folded up inside becomes conscious of itself. It is an age of sudden awareness, as a young woman, of being viewed. Of being a display item. Of your Beauty and Fuckability being constantly called into question.
“My goth persona is really mean, just so you know” Gala says, as we wade through the crowd. What would it have been like if she and I were friends as teenagers? I imagine that we would have shared clothes: plaid skirts splashed with skull and crossbones freely moving in and out of each others’ closets. That we could have asked one another through the mirror: “What do you think? Can I pull off red lipstick?”
The Dark Persona is a time of becoming aware of the male gaze… it often somewhat subverts this gaze and shifts beauty standards but it remains a slave to obsession with looks. It is a trap of expressing self through styling; a self that needs to be looked at to exist.
Had Gala and I been friends in highschool we would have spent long hours on her couch. We would have watched A Clockwork Orange, The Craft, American Beauty film after film until 5 AM. We would greet the sunrise wearing robes and dancing maniacally to Mozart — a funny change from well worn Bikini Kill and Bright Eyes records. We would be girls obsessed with alternative culture; girls obsessed with each other. And we would perfectly curate our Personas; they would be our medium, our canvases. A muse for an imaginary someone. (While the boys we knew toyed with guitars in garages, slowly getting better.)
Gala and I go back upstairs. “I want to talk to people” I say. Gala’s eyes dart around the room. Her moon eyes with their inky feather lashes.
“Talk to that guy wearing a carpet,” she says about a fortyish guy with short hair who stands motionless in the crowd. The carpet is a cloak that belonged to a priest. It was worn for funeral proceedings, he says. He tells us that what brought him to the Vampire Ball was nostalgia: memories of Bauhaus and The Cure. We nod. Yes.
“I also like Tool” he adds.
The three of us stand there for a while, silent and sipping drinks. Looking around.
“Talk to that guy” Gala says. She points to a man, mid-thirties-ish, wearing a suit with a red satin tie and pocketsquare. Long hair slicked beneath a fedora, a silver ring in one ear. “Jesus-christ, pick-up-artist” I say. We walk up to him.
“So what brings you to the Vampire Ball?” I ask. “Why are you drawn to goth culture?”
“I’m not into goth culture” he scoffs.
“Oh well, I mean. So why are you here?”
“Lots of reasons.”
“Oh. Like what?”
“Women” he says and draws his mouth tight. “I like goth girls.”
“Interesting, what is it about goth girls that draws you in?”
Gala, sensing the rhythm of a conversation spinning out of control, comes in. “Is it their pallid complexion?” she offers. “The fact that they might cast spells on you?” The mans face is reddening, his eyebrows pulling together.
“Look. I don’t have to answer your fucking questions. And I am not going to answer your fucking questions” he says loudly, firmly. I feel my face go cold.
Later Gala and I are leaving the dancefloor when we meet a party photographer. He takes our photo and while we pose for him (“Here, look down. Give me sexy”) I spot the pick-up-artist-guy on the dancefloor with a woman I had noticed before. I complimented her dress, a taffeta black ball gown with ruching and delicate fishnet sleeves. They are dancing and the guy is whispering something into her neck and she is laughing. The thought I have is: I hope that the sex is good for her, at least.
Gala and I will piece back the evening over 4 AM breakfast at some famous Polish diner in the East Village. We talk about the angry guy. “I feel like it would be fun to go home with a goth girl,” Gala is saying “and see what her apartment looks like, the crushed velvet furniture and the bedding. You know she’d have candles all over the place.”
This is what my inner teenager is most impressed by. My friendship with Gala. With her scent: a cloud of sweet and spicy Guerlain and Pacifica Mexican Cocoa body lotion. With her vast knowledge of astrology and all things new age-y. With her great taste in literary fiction. With her earthy eyes and furry lashes.
Persona gets better as you age. At age 22, I lived in a hot fuschia apartment with floors covered in silver confetti crosses. I wore prom dresses and giant jewels glued to my face. I downloaded entire music genres feverishly and updated MySpace. Searching always for the profiles of other girls. Girls with iridescent and purple-y profiles; profiles that rained half moons. Persona needs a twin; a mirror girl. An inverse image to yours. Two girls alike enough so each can reflect to the other how cool and desirable she is. A girl to see yourself through.
The internet channels Persona. “Who are you?” ask social networking sites. You are defined in 140 characters. You are what you share. At 22 I wanted to write but I was not yet writing. But I was filling out ‘about me’ sections. I was a character in some imaginary film. I was the protagonist of my own life. A muse, I thought, to my future self. Sure that I would remember it all. Sure I would write about it someday.
Around the same time Gala was just starting to write, to blog. And she was taking off. In her ‘about me’ section she wrote that she was an international playgirl and thus; instantly became one. She was figuring ways to fuse Persona with her work. She garnered success and fandom from the girls and queer boys who understand creating a self. Who know that it is worthy; a way to be creative.
Persona is a sort-of-art that deserves more celebration and more experimentation. And Persona is double-edged. A tumblr trap of re-blogging into a void. A way to not actually create. A mirror within a mirror. A trap within a trap: Persona being not taken seriously because it is girls and often queer people who dabble in it.
“Why do you think that guy was so angry,” I ask Gala, who is eating sweet potato fries from my plate. “Why do you think that some men fetishize goth girls?”
“Okay I hate this,” Gala says. “But I think some people have this idea that, you know, goth girls have low self esteem.”
We wince. Because there is more to it. The Dark Phase involves an unusually high amount of self confidence and self assuredness all mingled in with self hate. (At the Vampire Ball, I thought “Did they take the subway here?” about a couple in PVC catsuits sauntering past.)
Those who’ve had a Dark Phase have taken on a burden. The affliction of asking: is this me? Who am I? What is it I believe in? It is a question that multiplies. A never ending rabbit hole. It is the (upside down) cross we must bear.
Just before leaving the Vampire Ball, the MC announced there would be a mass ritual. We walk up to the balcony, I hurry, lifting the hem of my skirt, dramatic string music punctuating each step up the stairs. Perched from a leather couch we look over the crowd below, a crowd bathed in laser green spiderwebbing. The club feels quiet. “Turn to the person to your left” a voice from the stage boomed. “Turn to the person to your right. Accept them with complete love and positivity.” I feel a softness to my skin, a calm inside. “Intense” I say to my friend.