My first experience with the “cult of clown” was one hot summer afternoon in East L.A, where I found myself pondering the possibility that I had a drug problem. I asked myself this because I had spent the bulk of the day driving from pawn shop to pawn shop with a teenager trying to sell his guitars off. During this adventure, he was playing a new cd by the Insane Clown Posse. During my research for this article, I found the album I heard that fateful day: The Amazing Jeckel Brothers. I was not high enough to ever think that that what I was hearing could be defined as good. So anytime I try to tell myself that Nu-Metal wasn’t that bad, I remember it’s the bandwagon that lowered the standards so much that clown-painted rappers jumped aboard.
All photos: Emily Harris
The Insane Clown Posse has gone from being a couple of failed pro wrestlers who decided to stop wrestling in backyards in order to become a cultural phenomenon. Their lure has enticed many people you would think might know better. Alice Cooper, Slash and Steve Jones appeared on their 1997 album The Great Milenko. Countless respected hip hop artists have performed at The Gathering of the Juggalos – Ice Cube, Method Man, Red Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. After seeing a documentary by Sam Dunn – who also helmed Metal: a Headbanger’s Journey and the Vh-1 metal series – I was still a little confounded by the phenomenon of Juggalos. I can understand the tribal sense of community one might derive from an event, as I attend Horror conventions. The imagery might hold some trappings found in horror, as do many of the artists who preform at the gathering think of themselves as being “horror rap.” So why doesn’t it work for me? I liken it to Bronies – another sub-culture I watched a few documentaries about. I think the episodes of the My Little Pony cartoon I watched with my daughter – who was five at the time – had more appeal than then the sonic equivalent of a cartoon that is the music of Insane Clown Posse and their family.
Depending on who you ask – law enforcement or a Juggalo – they are less of a cult and more of a gang. Juggalos have filed lawsuits against the FBI for being classified as a gang, prompting the Juggaloosfightback.com site where they report mistreatment by law enforcement. In this way, they have adopted an attitude similar to the Kiss Army, where it’s them against the world. In my sobriety, I have come in contact with Juggalos during my work at various haunted attractions across the southeast. Once they came out of the clown car to me, I could not bring myself to take anything else they said about music seriously; but other than that, they seemed harmless enough.
In recent years, it seems that Juggalos are like cat memes in the way that the hover about our social consciousness, popping up for an occasional laugh on one social media stream or another. In some ways, they have replaced the mullet-sporting, Camaro-driving ideal of trailer park life highlighted in the 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, though, growing up in the 80s, I can relate more to the plight of wearing faded denim and having long feathered hair. I’ll admit to battling the temptation to go see the Guns ‘N Roses reunion (fortunately, Marissa Nadler is playing the same night), but I can’t bring myself to enter into a Gathering of any size. So this photo spread is courtesy of someone who did. I asked photographer Emily Harris about the experience going deep into Juggalo country when she went to the show at the Masquerade in Atlanta, and here is what she said about the experience:
“I have been photographing subcultures and the people involved in them since I was in high school. I have always had a need to document the people around me, so any time I was a part of a musical subculture, I have taken photographs of subcultures like punk, goth/industrial and metal. Though hip hop (and more specifically The Juggalos) is something I have never had a taste for or been involved with. So I took on this shoot as an experiment, and because I knew that the costumes would be great. I pulled people aside that looked interesting, and asked if I could take their portrait – I wasn’t sure how people would react to my curiosity in photographing them. All in all, they were very friendly and accepting.”
“As I was standing outside waiting for a few hours before the doors opened, people were already lining up and hanging out, spraying Faygo all over each other, and chanting “Family, Family!” This need for acceptance, a need for a community, and a need to feel like you have a “Family,” as they were chanting, is one of the driving factors behind these subcultures. That is the power that music brings into people’s lives. It’s more than just the music, it’s a bonding experience, an allowance to feel like you are part of something more than yourself. It was a very cool experience; I even watched the show upstairs in Heaven. It was my first time seeing ICP. I was shocked by how many people were there, and the show itself was out of control – Faygo and confetti flying everywhere, tons of people getting up on stage and dancing with the band. It was akin to a Gwar show in many ways. People were having a great time, and although it’s not my thing at all, I did too.”
I think it’s safe to say Emily did not experience a full conversion into the cult of the clown that night, and did not transition over into becoming a full blown juggalette; she has since gone on to return to her normal life shooting metal shows. I talked to a few other people who went to the show, and one girl said she was hammered the previous time this circus came to town, Deafheaven was playing downstairs at the same venue that ICP was up-stairs at, and she wandered up with friends out of drunken curiosity and had a blast. But when she went back alone, trying to re-create the experience sober, she was questioning what her life had become. Some cults might try to convince you to drink the Kool-Aid, this one asks for you to be sprayed with it. Where does a guilty pleasure begin, and becoming one with the “Family” end? The commercial for this year’s Gathering below might answer that. You can also check out Emily’s work here…