The Crimson Ghost
(Originally published in The New Inquiry here)
A teenage girl hangs a poster on her bedroom wall. It will stay there for a year or two: a grinning white skull plastered against an otherwise adornment-free black background. If she’s lucky, her parents won’t get it but her friends will—not the fact that she’s a fan of the band it represents but what it feels like to drive the final tack through the poster’s bottom corner, to meet its gaze with hers and shudder with a pleasure known particularly well by loners: that of recognizing something they know to be of their kin. When the poster comes down, it will be because she no longer sees herself in its weirdly alive-looking gaze. (This skull has eyeballs in its sockets). Maybe she’ll take it with her to a first apartment or a college dorm room. One day, however, it will be put away for good, and some time later, when she walks down a city street or through the back corners of a bar, she’ll find it beaming up at her from a stranger’s T-shirt. She may think to herself: that used to be me, but she’ll dismiss the thought as silly, a remnant of a now mostly irrelevant adolescence.
But how irrelevant is that adolescence? And do we ever leave behind the desires that take shape there?
The name of the skull is the Crimson Ghost, a title taken from the mid-century film serial from which the punk group The Misfits repurposed it as a logo. The Crimson Ghost is one of the most instantly recognizable pop culture insignias; it’s been featured on everything from knock-off Ugg Boots and thong underwear to diaper bags. In fact, it is a cultural cliché. Unlike some clichés, however, its widespread popularity has endured across decades with its dignity more or less intact. While some self-aware teasing is leveled at it from within its home subculture, it hasn’t deteriorated into a full-on joke. The Ghost has a lot of guardians; it is deeply personal to them.
Despite first appearances, the Ghost isn’t worn strictly as a challenge to societal convention: it is the sign of a contract between the wearer and the forces it is understood to signify. The terms of this contract stipulate that the wearer cede agency to these forces, falling entirely under their control, and these forces may be brutal. In other words, it is a contract of masochism. That may sound absurd, but I know what I’m talking about: I spent the better part of my youth as an avid fan of Glenn Danzig, founder of the Misfits and progenitor of horrorpunk, a subgenre distinguished by aesthetics culled from mid-century B horror films and a devotion to all things spooky. Danzig has had a long career and remains a well-loved figure across the globe.
But Danzig doesn’t love people. He’s brooding, he’s cold, he’s dedicated to building a career and legacy based on exposing and lauding the sides of life we’re taught to suppress. His lyrics reflect his own sadistic sexual urges, existential loneliness and interest in the occult, among other subjects that court taboo. Danzig’s fans knowingly enter a shadow world in which they are subject to his whims, offering themselves up to whatever they may experience inside its walls. Performers like Danzig are the ministers and shamans of this world; they make it appear possible to live a life in which the theater of the terrible and the absurd never ends. They exude an intractable commitment to the shadow world that provides a temporary passport to those who are curious but incapable of residing within it permanently.
As a rule, these figures are necessarily more invested in asserting the presence of this fantasy world in everyday life than they are in exchange of gestures of adoration with fans, a point that distinguishes them from mainstream performers. The best of the best, in fact, appear to be disgusted by their admirers, as if the fact that they’ve accrued a following is incidental to what they do, save for the fact that it pays the bills. Many of them are downright nasty toward their fans. Whether this disgust is real or feigned is impossible to determine. They are in the business of blurring such lines; their ambivalent loathing renders them all the more appealing. For me, the possibility that my adoration is regarded as worthless is part of the attraction. I adore performers that hate me.
Throughout my tenure as an arbiter of the brutal and bizarre, I’ve maintained healthy relationships, held decent jobs and earned a Master’s degree. I’ve also obtained a degree of cultural savvy that allows me to laugh along with my friends at those who seem to never outgrow their teenage goth phase, as if we’ve achieved a permanent state of enlightened self-awareness that places us in an entirely different category than those who mope around in Joy Division T-shirts. By our own account, we have better things to do with our time than be sad.
As conventional wisdom would have it, the older we get, the more we should focus our energy on loving objects and individuals without explicit reference to ourselves. Our identities ought to be fully developed and stable enough to relate to others as entirely separate entities, with agency and wills of their own, by the time we’re in our mid-twenties, at least in theory. But every now and then, even those among us who enjoyed a more or less successful transition from adolescence to adulthood need to be reminded of what it feels like to fall in love with ourselves by way of an external object of adoration. For those who love performers such as Danzig, the force of this self-love is compounded by the fact that the one we adore rejects us: their dismissal of us makes our adoration seem all the more like a function of our authentic selves. It feels endogenous, as opposed to the desired outcome produced by an external force, as would be the case with the painstakingly cultivated (and highly lucrative) fandom of mainstream celebrity vehicles (see: Bieber, etc.).
A few years ago, my best friend and I went to see Danzig play in New York City. Having spent a large portion of my adolescence daydreaming about what it would like to see the man himself perform live, I was excited. I ordered enough vodka so that I could feel the pulse of the blue-black lights beaming from the stage deep inside my head.
That night broke the wall between my imagination and reality in ways I didn’t anticipate. The first strains of guitar from the opening act were accompanied by a question addressed in song from lead singer to audience, who responded without missing a beat:
How do I like my women?
When Danzig came on, a mosh pit gathered toward the front of the stage and hordes of sweaty people groped and groveled their way to the front of the crowd to get an eyeful of the legend. I followed suit. As I approached, glass flew by inches away from my face and smashed on the floor in the barracaded foot of space in front of the stage. It had been thrown from the balcony above. “Oh shit,” I said to my friend. “They’re throwing beer mugs.”
A few songs into the set, an overly enthusiastic female fan managed to bypass the barricade rope and climb onstage. Danzig then appeared to strike the woman upside the head, knocking her backward off the stage and into the arms of a waiting security guard.
I didn’t have any sort of wild or troubled youth. I was not and am not a reckless person. I don’t do any illegal drugs, and I’ve never had the urge to get on stage and hurt myself, or punch anybody in the face. Nonetheless I became a fan of the late punk singer GG Allin and even went to see one of Allin’s more famous backing bands, the Murder Junkies, when I was 15.
Calling himself “the last true rock ‘n’ roller,” Allin is famous more for his theatrics than his music. Among his regular stage stunts were the physical beating of concertgoers (a practice in which he was consistently gender-agnostic), indecent exposure, the ingestion of all sorts of drugs, and—his signature move—self-defecation. Combining both sadism and masochism in their most extreme forms, it was not uncommon for Allin to mutilate himself on stage before gnawing on the faces of fans who presented themselves to him for abuse.
Danzig’s relationship with his audience might be described as begrudging tolerance peppered with a fist-beating here or there, but Allin’s was all hell, all the time. Throughout his career, he maintained that he would commit suicide on stage during a Halloween show. This was prevented year after year by the fact that he was always incarcerated around the 31st of October. Of the multitude of crimes which led to his jail stints, several involved the direct physical endangerment of his audience.
On June 28, 1993, Allin overdosed on heroin before he had the chance to make good on his suicide pact. Fans gather at his grave on the anniversary of his death to remember his legacy with parties that are occasionally reminiscent of his lifestyle—a young woman was recently arrested for drunken disorderliness and was noted to have injured herself by banging her head on the police car that took her away.
The music Allin made is rarely emphasized in writing about his career. More typical are tales of the extreme revelry engaged in by his followers who, taking Allin as a guide and exemplar, were notorious for indulging in hedonism tinged with not-so-subtle excursions into self-destructive behavior as part of their fandom.
The last true rock ‘n’ roller referred to himself as such because what he sought for his own life was what he offered to his admirers: a sense of genuine danger and unpredictability coupled with the ability to exhibit the supremacy of individual will above and beyond all else, particularly the conventions of civil society. He operated under the assumption that rock ‘n’ roll’s foundational principle is authenticity—if it doesn’t feel real, it is worthless—and his transgression was as real as it gets. Those who went to his shows did so because they knew they might end up bruised, bloodied, or worse. The price of their ticket offered them the opportunity to become subject to an experience they would never encounter beyond Allin’s shadow world, a space in which his fans become something that, like him, exceeded societal bounds.
This identity is irrational by all normal measures of reason. But this makes the fan all the more convinced that is a reflection of their true selves. It stands in relief against more typical forms of fan worship, in which desire is made instrumental. It gives fans the opportunity to dwell in and take pleasure in their own adoration without feeling as if this pleasure is a mere service to the capital machine.
However, this feeling can never develop beyond its role as a framework in which we understand ourselves. What the fan “loves” in this case is a sense of themselves experienced as an exponent of their taste in music and art. But because it appears in the form of an unlovable and contemptuous other, it yields an experience quite different from the rather masturbatory feeling of congratulating oneself for having “good” taste. It feels useless and therefore real rather than tactical. Routing self-love through figures like GG Allin allows one to love oneself selflessly and spontaneously.
In a February 2014 Vanity Fair profile by Toni Bentley of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, regarded as France’s most famous dominatrix, the following paragraph appears:
There is this little universe,” Beverly explains about the ceremonies, “where a few people offer their freedom and renounce their will and give it to another. One goes into what we call ‘the bubble,’ where what’s outside no longer exists and inside one person is possessed by another. It is not a game; it is a spiritual experience.
This is taken from an account given to Bentley by Beverly Charpentier, romantic partner of Robbe-Grillet, and it refers to elaborate events in which Catherine entertains a number of wealthy clients with performances of sexual sadism. But it may as well refer to a GG Allin show. Robbe-Grillet is worshipped for the same reasons that led to my adoration of Glenn Danzig at a young age and fascination with GG Allin’s life and death not long after. Her version of devilry is more artful than the work of either men, but it derives from the same basic human principles: to exist in explicit relation to something larger than ourselves, and to experience our identities as both stable and authentic.
To write these masochistic yearnings off as mere depravity would be to short-circuit the possibility of a full understanding of broadly shared human need, one that is more frequently misunderstood and distorted than it is satisfied. This form of fandom is one way in which this need is fulfilled. This fandom feels purer than anything easily explored on social media; its psychology confounds the simple logic of likes, favs and retweets. And though such fandom may smack of youth, it addresses unresolvable feelings that are carried into adulthood.
This type of adoration allows us to experience ourselves as more than the interpolation of points pre-set by forces over which we wield little control—husband, wife, daughter, son, seller of our labor to an alienated and impersonal market. The deep irony is that we’re supposed to envision ourselves as exercising free will over these roles. Regardless of whether this is true, our society is built on the belief that the lives of adults in Western society are generally a function of choice.
Figures such as Danzig, Allin, and Robbe-Grillet are powerful because they represent the inversion of that: those who love them feel compelled to do so in a way that defies the principle of volition and self-determination. What distinguishes this form of attraction from other forms, and what gives it power, is that insofar as our adoration is not only not solicited (as is the case with mainstream celebrities and their fandoms), it is rejected. This locates the attraction squarely within the loving subject, offering a uniquely powerful sense of self—and one that does not need to be consciously worked on, cultivated and maintained as with the other ways by which we demonstrate who we are.
I doubt that I’ll be at another Danzig show, let alone drunkenly bashing my head on a police car in the name of GG Allin anytime soon. But I’m still glad that those things happen. I wish GG Allin was alive today.
⚡️ emma stamm / 2016