Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes.
This is broadly true. But Heaven has the best choreographers.
Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
Steam billowed from our mouths as we fidgeted to keep warm. We were sheltered amongst graffiti-splattered pillars between the chancel and the crossing. Ahead, the roof of the nave had completely caved away, revealing the brumous sky. Only the skeleton of stained glass remained. Someone had drawn a swastika on the tiles beneath my boot. It was All Saints’ Day, the day after Halloween, when all the saints were to be equally venerated and humanity was safe from the works of the Devil. We were in the Rust Belt city of Gary, Indiana, home of the Jackson 5. After one broken drone propeller, Amy AKA ACRONYM and I made quick work of exploring the rest of the abandoned church before tiptoeing through the overgrowth, past the chain fence, and back to the highway.
We had a ritual to attend in Chicago that night.
Two joints and two margaritas later, Amy and I found ourselves against the barrier, downstage left in the Aragon Ballroom. Upon the stage, a skeletal chapel had been erected, with white marble stairs, and stained glass windows jutting to a liquid-night skyscape. Somewhere in the theatre the stuffed and preserved corpses of the former anti-Pope frontmen were coffined in glass for the particularly devout to pay indulgences.
I leaned over the barricade and noted it was predominately attractive young women in the front. With that observation, the theatre went dark, a recording of children singing a nursery rhyme played, followed by an apocalyptic chord to end the trance. Somewhere, frankincense was burning. The ritual had begun.
I have never attended a metal show where I could dance to the music beyond thrashing and headbanging, but Ghost certainly delivers on the beat. Ghost is a band that would be well at home in the late 70s, with its influences of KISS, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and even a hint of Donna Summer just to keep it interesting. Watching what unfolds onstage is something straight from an art house horror film.
A band of masked musicians called Nameless Ghouls menaced the crowd with their presence and musical prowess, while the singer, Cardinal Copia, worked his charms.
Like the Nameless Ghouls, the Cardinal too wore a mask, a prosthetic face that is just real enough to seem human, but not quite human enough to seem real. This uncanny valley created a dual response of fascination and revulsion. Like a Giger creature, the Cardinal and his Nameless Ghouls seemed just as likely to kiss us as they were to kill us.
But do not mistake Ghost for a band that takes itself too seriously. You are more likely to laugh during a ritual because the Cardinal has no shortage of bawdy, campy jokes about skid marks, or achieving a female orgasm in the name of Satan, while delivering it all in a hammy Italian accent. I once heard Gore Vidal say in an interview that if someone is truly threatened by you, they will either demonize you, or trivialize you. So maybe that’s what the Cardinal was doing: in the midst of death and chaos, he set our hearts at ease with laughter.
But why was my face getting so red? Why was a man in a latex mask who asked us if we’d like to hear a song that ‘tickled our taints’ also making me feel hot and bothered? Maybe it was the heavy bass. Maybe because I’ve always been attracted to a sense of humor. I laughed, mostly at my own embarrassment, and turned my face away.
WATCH: Ghost performs at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago
In the street, the air was cold against our faces. Amy headed back to the room – it had been a long day. I should have done the same, but I had promised to meet someone after the show. I stood outside the Aragon as the last of the concert-goers left. A young guy came up to me with the kind of smile that screamed too drunk to be any fun to talk to. But oh, did he try. He was also too drunk to take the hint that I did not want to talk to him and would ruin his fucking life if he persisted. I didn’t want to cause any sort of ruckus that would involve security coming out and breaking up the party, so I looked around for my escape. And there it was: a group of women in dark coats and brightly colored hair who looked like they would take no shit. I explained my situation, and they were gracious enough to let me stand with them.
There was Moni, who had come from Germany to follow Ghost from Indianapolis, Chicago, and Peoria. Out of the whole group, with her warm parka, sturdy walking boots, and backpack, Moni was the most prepared for any situation that could go down. It was no surprise; she had been to 27 rituals since 2013, with 9 more on the books for the next year. And that was just for Ghost. There were plenty of other bands that she would follow and blog about while juggling her full-time job. I was, and still am, in awe of her fortitude.
My would-be paramour approached at this point and proceeded to stand too close to me. “Can I touch you?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You should leave now,” said a voice from behind me.
Known on Instagram as @Steely.Damned, a svelte rocker in a leather jacket and winged-eyeliner. Chicago was her 21st ritual, and she hoped to reach 23 rituals before May: more years than she’s been alive. She and Moni had met at a 2017 ritual in Sweden and become friends through their mutual interest.
That, by and large, seemed to be what had brought these women from all over the globe together as friends. Many of them discovered Ghost at times of hardship or heartache, and something just clicked. They found themselves traveling to places they never expected to go, and meet people they would never think to meet. They go to rituals together, look out for one another on the road, and each have their own stories about their interactions with the band.
Steely mentioned a time, in a bar after a recent ritual, when she and her friend were mistaken for members of Ghost. With their encyclopedic knowledge of band lore, they made for a pretty convincing act. It didn’t hurt that one of the actual band members was there and joined in on the joke.
There’s also a tradition during rituals that fans refer to as being ‘Cirice’d’. It’s when the singer singles out a fan in the crowd during the song “Cirice,” and takes their hand and sings a verse to them.
For years, Ghost was an anonymous band, shrouded in mystery, no easy feat in the Age of Information. However, a lawsuit from its former members ripped away that shroud, and there are those who lament this loss of mystery. After all who doesn’t love a good secret? But, standing there with this coven of women, hearing their stories, I thought, maybe the mystery hadn’t disappeared, but merely shifted. There was a world of Ghost fans with rituals and mystique of their own, hidden in plain sight, and I had just barely scratched the surface.
It was getting colder by the minute, and all of us (except for Moni, of course) were starting to shiver.
It was close to Midnight, my phone chimed. Nylon was waiting for me at the bar.
Nylon, a classic beauty with a penchant for all things vintage, and especially nylon stockings, had been cast in the Ghost music video, “He Is.” I met her at the Exit Chicago, one of the city’s first punk dives known for its late hours and fringe parties. We sat at the bar, nursing our drinks, and trying to hold a conversation over the loud music and our own ringing ears. After failing to communicate with a series of hand signs and significant eye-contact, Nylon gave up and instead led me upstairs to the bondage club.
A dominatrix bound us together at the wrist with red rope, like a handfasting, before lashing us to the wall. Then, lovingly and expertly, flogged our backsides to the pulsing beat of dark wave. I closed my eyes and focused on the sensation, on the shift of my muscles beneath my skin, on the rhythm of my breathing. The roles had suddenly switched for us. Nylon and I were no longer passive spectators at a ritual, but performers in our own way. Like Nameless Ghouls in the shadow of a maniacal frontman. A sublime experience, really.
It was 3:05AM, I had settled into the leather seats of the taxi cab, my taint tickled, my backside stinging, ears still ringing. I was coming down from the experience, the thin veil between reality and fantasy, and perhaps so were the other girls. Or perhaps it had all been real for us. Perhaps not. I watched the harbor lights play over the black waters of Lake Michigan, and I thought that, yes, I’d like to do all of this again.
If my ass could take it.
Special Thanks to ACRONYM, Steely.Damned, Moni, and Nylon