Tag Archives: ohio

Top 10 backward messages of 2012

James Holmes: Six months later, do we know why he did it?

We’re coming to the end of Backward Messages’ second year, and what a year it was. We had some immense tragedies, including mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut. Goths around the world also took a major hit, with attacks in Iraq and Britain, but a goth singer in the United States surprised everyone. The word “Satan” was tossed around, as it always is, describing everything from Lady Gaga to the Hunger Games.

Last year we looked back at the blog’s top 5 posts, but I wanted to go a little broader. Here’s what drew people most in 2012:

1. Let’s play “imagine the Aurora killer’s motivations!” After James Holmes killed a dozen people in a movie theater, the press had a field day trying to answer one deceptively small question: why?

2. Young opera singer proves goth culture can nurture: Although he didn’t last long on “America’s Got Talent,” Andrew De Leon surprised his audience by (gasp!) not sounding like a monster. Go figure.

3. New Yorker cartoon: the pagan version of blackface: Why are Wiccans still depicted like ugly old hags?

4. Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic? I can’t believe I even had to ask that question.

5. Goth, metalhead beaten in separate UK attacks: In the UK, being different remains an unfortunate liability.

6. It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men: After Newtown, how long will it be before we help young men struggling with violent thoughts — and support their families?

7. Bloody bath lands Lady Gaga in hot water: This wasn’t the first or last time Gaga was called “Satanic” this year, but it was one of the more creative. She was also banned from several countries, on the grounds that her stage show is Satanic.

8. “The New Satanism” in heavy metal: Speaking of Satanic, heavy metal persists in not being as Satanic as its reputation makes it out to be, but there are a handful of musicians keeping the faith.

9. Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it? After Columbine, the press has found ways to link almost every youth-committed mass shooting with goth culture. And every time, reporters have been wrong.

10. Iraqi youth stoned to death after leaders link emo culture to Satanism, homosexuality: One of the most heartbreaking stories of the year.

Happy new year, everyone. See you in 2013!

Ohio shooting: What’s “goth” got to do with it?

One Chardon High School student told reporters Thomas “TJ” Lane “got into a gothic phase” before Monday’s shootings.

It’s not often that we get two stories like this back to back, but just days after I blogged about goth culture erroneously linked to a UK stabbing, it’s also now being connected with a school shooting in Ohio yesterday that killed three students.

Reporters began combing the Internet and interviewing classmates and neighbors as soon as the gunman’s identity, Thomas “TJ” Lane, was leaked. It wasn’t long before MSNBC rounded up one of Lane’s fellow students who said Lane “got into a gothic phase” before the shootings. Does he explain? Well, sort of:

“He kind of got into the gothic phase and kind of silenced himself from his friends,” Nate Mueller said. “But I mean, he still had friends. He was still a nice kid … I don’t think anybody really ever expected it to be him. We didn’t think he would hurt anybody.”

Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Mueller says he was one of the shooting victims. A bullet grazed his ear. That’s not to say he’s lying about Lane, but people tend to distort or exaggerate facts when they’ve just been through a trauma.

2. What Mueller describes as “gothic” actually translates to “solitary.” These two concepts are not synonymous.

At this point, the term “goth” has become so distorted in mainstream culture — which is a product of the way it’s been linked to violent crimes, and the way outsiders view goths as depressed, lonely, alienated kids — that it no longer holds meaning when reporters use the term. It’s pretty much become a euphemism for a certain kind of outcast, violent-prone teen. But what does that mean for the millions of actual goths who are happily ensconced in their social scene — and who are decidedly peaceful, pacifistic people?

Of course, the link between “goths” and school shooters was popularized in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, when a source claiming to be a Columbine student (he wasn’t) described Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s penchant for black trenchcoats and industrial music as “goth.” But those boys weren’t anything like almost all goths — teen or adult — you will meet. And, so far, I don’t see any evidence that Lane is, either.

That said, people who knew Lane differently are tending to describe him pretty differently. One of his friends told CNN:

Haley Kovacik said she’s in “complete shock” that Lane — whom she described as a “a very normal, just teenage boy” — could be behind the shooting. “He did have a sad look in his eyes a lot of the time, but he talked normally, he never said anything strange,” Kovacik told CNN. “It was a really big shock.”

And, as police revealed Lane’s identity, and a lawyer took up his case, they told reporters:

Thomas “T.J.” Lane … came from a violent family. His father was arrested numerous times for abusing women, including Lane’s mother, according to court records cited by The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Students say that Lane was shy and targeted by bullies. Although the shooting took place at 7:30 a.m. in the Chardon High cafeteria, Lane was enrolled at Lake Academy Alternative School, an institution for “at risk” youths.

It may be years before we get an accurate picture of this boy — as accurate a picture as we can get, filtered through the lenses of trauma, law enforcement, legal defense, and journalism. If we can learn something about Lane that will accurately help the right people identify the next school shooter, great — but so far, there doesn’t seem to be any one single “shooter trait” present in all these young men.

And certainly, “gothic” isn’t it.

Don’t fear the goths

A young goth at the Wave Gotik Treffen festival in Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Flickr user Grant Mitchell.

Parents may be uncomfortable, even worried, if their teenager adopts goth culture. Certainly aspects of it — the black clothes and hair, the extreme makeup, and so on — can be off-putting. Goths, like many subcultures, have developed a unique appearance that intentionally sets them apart from mainstream culture. It’s meant to say, “We are different from everyday people. Let’s celebrate that!” But sometimes, people are intimidated by it. That happened to Mayor Don Robart of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio:

What we’re trying to rid ourselves of are the people that are down their in their gothic garb, with their spiked hair, with their piercings, and it’s very — for most of you who haven’t been down on the boardwalk, I would suggest that it is a very intimidating atmosphere for the masses.

That meeting was held to discuss a curfew that would protect teens from gang activity caused by visitors from neighboring towns. Instead, the Mayor felt it should be used to protect “the masses” from goth kids.

He’s not the only one confused about the nature of goths. Years ago I attended a meeting in Redwood City, California, where police were explaining a current spike in gang-related activity to a group of residents. One officer had just finished describing that gang members tend to wear similar colors and hang out in groups. One woman raised her hand and said, “those kids who wear all black and hang out by the Safeway — are they a gang?”

“No, ma’am,” the officer responded. “Those are goths. They’re harmless.”

To help set things straight, there’s this light-hearted but not-inaccurate “Field Guide to Teen Fashion,” which will help you understand goths (and how to recognize them). For example:

Generally speaking, a goth is someone with a well-developed (if slightly twisted) sense of humor who looks for beauty in dark and unexpected places. Unlike the emo subculture, goth is not linked with being depressed.

Goth is split into numerous subcategories, including romantigoths, cybergoths, gothabillies (gothic rockabillies), deathrockers, gravers (gothic ravers) and many more. Goths love all things dramatic, so their outfits have a tendency to be elaborate. White foundation is traditionally worn, along with dark lipstick and elaborate black eyeliner.

One important aspect it leaves out is: despite their sometimes sinister appearance, goths are typically peaceful to a fault. They almost never get aggressive with anyone, even when attacked. Unfortunately, this combination makes goths exceptionally vulnerable to bullying. If your teen is exploring goth culture, and dressing the part, this is the thing to discuss and keep an eye out for.

For the goths out there: What’s most important for parents to understand about gothic culture? And for parents: has your teen adopted goth fashion or culture? If so, how do you feel about it?

Where there’s paganism (and journalism), there’s fire?

Two “supernatural” fires made news in recent days. Why? Photo by Flickr user Ferdi’s – World.

The newspapers are full of nothing if not mockeries of serious situations. If something seems weird, we like to poke fun at it. It makes us uncomfortable, so we laugh it off. Ha ha ha.

Except that when a woman is killed in a fire that injured 11 others and left 47 families homeless, it’s not funny. Not even when the fire started during a voodoo ceremony. Not even when the Voodoo priest in question claimed “he could turn people into ghosts, move buildings, turn people into buildings.” But reporters covered it with an air of humor nonetheless.

There were definitely some over-the-top versions of this story, which coined phrases like “Voodoo sex candles” and “Voodoo sex ceremony,” whatever those are. Let’s face it; putting the words “voodoo” and “sex” in the same headline are sensationalistic gold. Who wouldn’t pick that up to see what it’s about? At the same time, it’s disrespectful to people who legitimately practice Voodoo (which may or may not have included Mr. Pierre, implicated in this particular fire) to parade their religion around like a sparkly baton. As The Wild Hunt’s Jason Pitzl-Waters aptly put it:

Can you imagine this story being written in this sensationalist manner if the couple were evangelical Christians?

“Betty and Robert, despite being properly married and bible-believing Christians, were unable to call down the Lord’s aid in ending the blaze. Neighbors have wondered if it was the judgment of the Lord.”

A sentence like that, even from a tabloid, would have provoked a storm of controversy.

As a journalist, I’ve covered plenty of house fires, and almost all of them ignited due to carelessness. Food forgotten on the stove. Candles left unattended near a curtain or towel. Exposed electrical wiring. A barbecue too close to the house. Candles — any candles, not just “voodoo sex candles” — are a particular bugaboo, because there’s just so many ways they can go wrong. Just as they did in New York last week.

But that wasn’t the end of the fires. In Lincoln Heights, near Cincinnati, Ohio, a woman started a fire and then allegedly told the police it was “part of a Satanic ritual”. Then — no, wait — it was actually an attempt to remove Satan from her belongings. Fortunately, it appears that nobody was hurt in this particular blaze. The woman, Charmaine Ranford, has been arrested on arson charges and is apparently undergoing psychiatric evaluation, which is entirely appropriate.

That said, it isn’t automatically a psychiatric issue if someone believes in Satan (if it were, plenty of people would be cah-razay), not even if they believe that Satan is somehow living in their possessions and that burning those possessions will purify them. These are fairly standard ideas, both in Christianity and in pagan religions. I’m not saying it was wise for her to attempt this particular purification ritual in her apartment. In fact, that aspect alone suggests it was really less about Satan and more about her state of mind. Satan — the actual figurehead of evil — had little to do with this woman’s arson. When people start intentionally lighting fires in their own homes (not in fireplaces, I mean), that’s when you have to wonder what’s really going on.

Again, if this woman had said it was some kind of Christian act, would that have made the news? That seems unlikely. So, as with the Voodoo story, it’s more about what sells papers than about respect for spiritualities that are, for lack of a better word, demonized in our culture.

When you see headlines about crimes or accidents that mention the occult, does it make you more likely to read the article? What does it make you think about the occult? What does it make you think about the person or people at the center of the story? And what does it make you think of the reporter or news outlet that reported it?

This is not what Ozzy is typically blamed for

Photo by Flickr user Hope Abrams.

One of the reasons I started this blog is that my Google alerts were constantly lighting up with articles in which heavy metal music was linked to someone’s violent or criminal activity. In other words, someone would be on trial for rape or murder or arson, and the reporter would mention that the subject was a fan of AC/DC or Iron Maiden. This is not one of those news articles.

Recently, an Ohio man was arrested for drunk driving. When the police asked him why he was driving under the influence of alcohol and breaking the law, he told them, “Ozzy Osbourne and his music made me do it.”

That’s quite a stretch. It was enough of a stretch for folks to claim Ozzy’s song “Suicide Solution” (which is about alcohol abuse) caused anybody to commit suicide. As far as I know, Ozzy’s never written anything that encourages heavy drinking — or drinking and driving. Osbourne has struggled with alcohol addiction for many years, but recently wrote in Rolling Stone that a friend’s sudden death from drinking is keeping him sober these days.

So what’s really going on here? It’s tough to tell. Considering that witnesses say the Ohio man’s head was lolling around as he drove, and he allegedly ran a car off the road, it’s difficult to trust anything coming out of his mouth. It’s kind of too bad the police let this detail slip to the press — once again, Ozzy is being linked to something completely unrelated to his life and music. At least it’s being couched (mostly) as a bizarre, quirky story. Hopefully most readers will see it that way.