By: Chuck KlostermanEach summer, 500 goths descend on Disneyland to smoke cigarettesand mock Snow White. Why? Because it’s the only place where theycan truly feel at home
If you can’t find a reason to hate Disneyland, you’re just not trying. Like the insincere smile of an aging bankteller, Disneyland represents a contradiction with no discernible upside: It’s hokey and archaic yet gaudy and corporate. It’s allkitsch sunshine and crass consumerism, and any self-respecting cynic would despise its very existence.
Unless, of course, said cynic listens to Bauhaus.
Don’t let anyone tell you the Age of Irony is over. It’s alive and well in California, and here’s proof: Goth kids loveDisneyland. On the final Sunday of every August, droves of goth-tacular witches and warlocks drive to Anaheim and enter theforeboding inner sanctum of Mickey’s Toontown. Welcome to Bats Day in the Fun Park, the annual SoCal collision of goth cultureand family fun.
“L.A. goth is very different from goth everywhere else in America,” explains Bats Day coordinator and Disney superfan NoahKorda, the diminutive 31-year-old who spearheads the pilgrimage. “I mean, it’s cold everywhere else. In places like Chicago, it’sgloomy. But goths in California are mostly happy people. I was just the kind of person who was always interested in creepy crap.For me, this has never been about being sad or alienated.”
Bats Day began in 1998. At the time, it was just an excuse to be weird: A few regulars from Hollywood goth clubs like HelterSkelter and Perversion decided to drop acid and walk around Disneyland on a summer afternoon. The following year it was officiallydubbed “Bats Day,” and it has grown ever since. When the sun was at its zenith on August 25 of this year, more than 500 black-cloakediconoclasts were tromping around Mickey’s playland.
It is not, however, a Disney-sanctioned event.
“We don’t contact the park,” says Korda. “And they probably wouldn’t care, but just in case, I don’t want to give them a chanceto come up with a reason to shut it down. But it’s got to be pretty obvious that this is going on.”
At times during Bats Day, it was impossible to swing a dead cat in Disneyland without hitting a goth (of course, if you hadswung a dead cat around Disneyland, a few of these kids probably would have found that pretty awesome). Here’s a Dionysiandiary from the Day of the Disney Dead:
10:10 a.m.: The sun is already pouring off the powder-blue California sky as I meander through the gates of Disneyland,assaulted on all sides by small children shrieking for merchandise and ice cream. At the point of entry, I see a sign thatreads here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy. I take ten steps into this world andimmediately see a man selling overpriced Kodak disposable cameras. Yesterday and tomorrow aren’t quite as charming or futuristicas one might anticipate.
My suspicion was that 10 a.m. would be too early for goth-hunting, but there are already dozens of specimens congregating nearsome poor sap in a Goofy suit, and a few of them are pushing baby carriages and donning mouse ears. I begin chatting with a40-year-old goth legal secretary named Crickett Hoffman. I ask her to explain the paradox of supposedly gloomy humans frolicking inthe happiest place on earth.
“Goths tend to be kids at heart,” says Hoffman. “When you’re young, you think the goth movement is about depression andalienation. But if goths were really that depressed, there would be no goth movement. They’d all kill themselves.”
10:54 a.m.: Several goths are gawking at a woman portraying Ariel, the chesty little redheaded mermaid from that movieabout the little mermaid, which I think was called The Little Mermaid. Although there are no goths at a nearby headgear outletcalled Hatmosphere, I spot several of them wearing newly purchased Captain Hook pirate hats. This prompts me to consider beginningwork on a nonfiction book titled Sir Francis Drake: The First Goth?
11:07 a.m.: My first error: I see a goateed guy wearing a skull T-shirt, accompanied by a black-haired girlfriend with moretattoos than Tupac and a complexion the color of cocaine. I ask him how many years he has participated in Bats Day in the Fun Park,but it turns out he has no idea what I’m talking about. “We just came here for the hell of it,” says 27-year-old BrandonStratton. “I had no idea any of this was going on.”Stratton and I then have a brief conversation about Tim Burton movies whilehis girlfriend stares at me silently, probably fantasizing about how I would look swinging from a gallows.
NOON: The entire goth army convenes at Sleeping Beauty Castle for the first of three group photos, all taken by NoahKorda. While we wait for Korda to organize the sinister posse, I strike up a conversation with Scott McElhaney, a 6’2″40-year-old who vaguely resembles Marilyn Manson and has an interesting back story: After spending 21 years in the Navy, he hastaken a job with a defense contractor, building and testing military infrared sensors. This is an admittedly ungothlike move, butMcElhaney says goth-dom was never his bag to begin with.
“I don’t think I’m really goth,” he says. “I’m more of a hearse person. But hearse people are certainly sympathetic to thegoth sensibilities.” It seems that McElhaney is a member of “Phantom Coaches,” a subsection of humanity united in their love ofcars that tote corpses (McElhaney drives a 1970 hearse with a Cadillac chassis but concedes that the ultimate ride is the ’59Superior driven by Bud Cort in Harold and Maude). However, there is more to Phantom Coaches than just cars–the group alsoenjoys celebrating Halloween, hanging out in cemeteries, and listening to “gothabilly” music, which is sort of a synthesis ofthe Stray Cats and Siouxsie & the Banshees.
The highlight of our mass photograph in front of the castle is the appearance of Snow White’s nemesis, the Evil Queen,an Ã¼ber-wicked woman roundly cheered by hundreds of goth minions who evidently see her as some kind of role model. Theseguys certainly dig the black-hearted bitches. Moments later, an actress portraying the virginal Snow White tries to getinto the picture, and everyone boos her into submission.
12:36 p.m.: “Disney came up with a wonderful idea, and a bunch of other people came in and perverted it,” KrystleBecknauld tells me, finally expressing the kind of goth sentiment I had expected to hear. She is particularly venomous toward”Disney’s California Adventure,” the modernized, upscale park that lies just south of the originalDisneyland. “That other park destroyed this area. Now they haveFerris wheels and cotton candy. Walt Disney never wanted that shit.”
Becknauld is a snarky, blonde 18-year-old poised to enter her freshman year at Cal State Long Beach. She walks the park withthree males wearing floor-length black leather trench coats. I tell them they are insane, as it is at least 80 degrees and I amsweating through my T-shirt. “Well, of course you are,” one responds. “The sun is beating down on your raw, exposed flesh.”
1:01 p.m.: One of the misconceptions about this culture is that goths are lonely. At Disneyland at least, theopposite seems to be true: Many of these demi-spooks appear to be in successful, mutually necromantic relationships. I ask agroup of three happy goth couples to describe the perfect mate, and they all say it’s the person that they’re currently with. I then
ask them to pick the celebrity they’d most like to have sex with. The guys choose Rose McGowan, the girls Peter Murphy.
1:43 p.m.: What do you feed a hungry goth? Apparently, Monte Cristo sandwiches from a restaurant called the BlueBayou in New Orleans Square. A party of five goths waits for a table in the Blue Bayou’s lobby, and I mention that Disney’smainstream parkgoers appear oddly unalarmed by the number of people bumping around in capes and hooded death robes. However,these goths feel differently about the level of tolerance.
“I was just in one of the stores,” says 28-year-old chemist Jennifer Nogle, “and all the normals were asking the staffquestions like ‘What’s with these people? Are they part of some weird religion?’ Get real.”
Nogle’s reference to “normals”–goth slang for nongoths–raises an interesting point: People are constantly asking gothkids what makes someone goth. However, an equally valid question is: What makes someone a normal?
“They are not us,” Nogle says with focused conviction. “They wear polo shirts.”
2:50 p.m.: As a single rider on the Indiana Jones Adventure, I am seated next to…a cute goth teenager! I strike upsome winning banter while we wait for the train car to commence rolling.
“So,” I begin, “are you enjoying your day at Disneyland?”
I try again, this time from a different angle. “So, do you think Marilyn Manson will survive the departure of Twiggy Ramirez? BecauseI thought that ‘Disposable Teens’ song was tremendous.”
More silence. I am running out of material.
“So,” I ask, “do you think Harrison Ford is goth?”
“Why do you keep talking to me?” she finally says, and suddenly, the ride begins. Now it’s too loud to talk, animated rats arefalling from the ceiling of a cave, and I remember that The Last Crusade was totally ridiculous.
3:46 p.m.: Things to do in Disneyland if you’re goth:
1) carry a Cure lunch box as a purse
2) make devil horns whenever photographed
3) insist you’re “not really goth”
4:00 p.m.: The second mass photograph of the day. This one is taken at Tomorrowland, which is how people at Disneyduring the 1950s saw the future, which means the future now resembles the early 1970s, which means their future is our past,which means Tomorrowland is kind of like Star Wars.
While Noah Korda snaps a photo of the growing mass of black storm troopers, I ask a pentagram-tattooed woman named LindaKnowles whether she felt ostracized by the 1999 Columbine school shootings, an event wrongly blamed on the goth subculture.To my surprise, she felt even more ostracized after September 11. “I was in a grocery store in Laguna [California] right afterSeptember 11, and I was wearing a T-shirt from Salem, Massachusetts, because my husband and I had just been there forvacation,” Knowles says. “And this woman points to me and says, ‘You’re one of those witches! Osama bin Laden was a fall guy.It was the witches who blew up the Twin Towers!’ So, obviously, there is still some prejudice against the goth lifestyle.”
5:32 p.m.: Five goths convince me to go on Splash Mountain with them. This is one of those rides where you sit ina log and get completely soaked, which I normally disdain. But I’ve never seen wet goths before, so I go along for the trip.
I find myself inside a log on an underground river. Everything smells like chlorine and Hot Topic. The girls in front of meare giggling at the animatronic rabbits surrounding us, and I find myself thinking, “How did America become terrified ofthese people?” Two trench coat-cloaked kids in Colorado may have become twisted killing machines and ruined it for everybodyelse, but most of these goths are the kind of folk who laugh at fur-covered robots.
The ride concludes when the log plummets 50 feet into a mini tsunami. I bid my soaked newfound acquaintances good-bye as theyreapply their makeup.
7:20 p.m.: I hate to beat a dead jackal, but the logic behind goth summer fashion is profoundly fucked-up. Whywould anybody wear a black sweatshirt in August? Why would people who live in Southern California drape themselves inblack velvet, unless they were appearing in an Alannah Myles video? The goth movement would be better off had it flourishedin Iceland. If BjÃ¶rk had made a record about vampires instead of polar bears, the world would certainly be less sweaty.
7:45 p.m.: Q: How do you make 50 goth kids sprint across Disneyland?
A: Put up a sign that says “Smoking Section.”
There are only three smoking sections here at Disney, and they all look like backstage at a Sisters of Mercy concert. Apparently, theMarlboro Man is way goth.
8:00 p.m.: As night falls on the Disneyland Park, the entire Bats Day flock of 500 descends like locusts on theHaunted Mansion for a final snapshot. It’s impossible to ignore how happy they all seem–smiling, talking on cell phones, andjoking about watching The Crow and drinking hemlock. And something becomes completely clear: For the first time in a long time, alot of these goths feel comfortable and accepted. Today, they are the insiders. They are the people who can sarcasticallypoint at others with impunity; they are the freaks who took over; they are, quite suddenly, the normals. When the tapestry ofalienation becomes the status quo, disaffection merely becomes fashion. And for at least one August night, it’s a goth world after all.