GWAR's Halloween Haunting Grounds
As Oderus Urungus -- lead singer of the world's most notorious heavy-metal satirists -- he's a playfully terrifying billion-year-old alien warrior. But the man behind the mask acknowledges that his home state of Virginia's bloody history may have helped shape his dark-comic vision.
I love Halloween so much that I figured out a way to celebrate it every day. All I had to do was 1) swear my allegiance to a bunch of intergalactic mutants and 2) agree to spend 90% of my life criss-crossing the country on a tour bus….Confused yet?
Don’t be, as there is a perfectly good explanation. Well, perhaps "good" isn't the most-fitting word, actually, as the explanation rises from deep below the blood-soaked soil of my home state of Virginia.
Let's pick up the story 25 years-or-so ago, when a bunch of art students at Virginia Commonwealth University (you know, Richmond’s VCU -- last year’s NCAA basketball dark horse?) came up with an idea that would one day transmute into the world’s premiere shock-rock comedy/horror band, the mighty GWAR.
And when you’re in GWAR -- especially when your alter ego is their hulking chaos-demon lead singer, Oderus Urungus -- every day is indeed Halloween. In fact, every day is Halloween so bad that when the real Halloween comes around, GWAR dresses up like humans. (Oderus enjoys dressing up like renowned TV quizmaster Alex Trebek -- before he shaved off his mustache.)
I completely blame my home state for the creation of the most notorious (and disgusting) band in rock history. Virginia has a history nurtured by fear, shock and disgust. I grew up in Northern Virginia and the endless, dreary suburbs that encircle our nation’s capitol. Some of the earliest memories I have are of undergoing terrifying drills at school for the possible event of Washington, D.C. being vaporized by a nuclear attack. “Duck and Cover” was a classroom reality for me, though even at that tender age I realized that my desk would afford me little protection from a searing wave of nuclear plasma.
Also lurking in the area was “The Bunny Man,” a local adult male (we hoped) that took to dressing up like a rabbit, carrying a large hatchet and accosting local lover’s lanes. The police distributed a sketch of the fiend, and the frightening depiction gave me many more vivid nightmares than did the fact that he might actually exist. Bomb-happy President Reagan didn’t do a lot to assuage any of my fears. When I packed up to attend art school in comparatively rural Richmond, I was more than happy to leave the proximity of our nation’s capitol/potential nuclear pothole.
But what I soon found out was that Richmond, despite it not being pre-programmed into the payloads of Russky warheads, was nevertheless a scary locale. Richmond -- especially the art school at VCU -- was a magnet for all of Virginia's malcontents who couldn’t afford to go to school out-of-state and who refused to drift into the military. The combustible combination of unhappy youth and a history as dark and creepy as any Southern locale created a gloomy, gothic atmosphere, which makes it a logical place to celebrate Halloween -- or to form an internationally notorious heavy-metal band.
Southern cities are usually good candidates for Halloween settings, in that they always seem to be rife with back stories involving ghosts, hauntings and the occasional axe-murderer. Richmond has the added dubious bonus of an alleged curse cast by the Native Americans who got kicked out of the area by our somewhat genocidal forefathers. The specifics of the malediction are a little murky, but nobody would disagree that, in many ways, Richmond seems like a cursed town -- in no small part thanks to its genius decision to declare itself the capitol of the Confederate States of America. That unfortunate choice led to the city being reduced to rubble by its own people as it was burned in the face of the approaching Union troops.
Obviously, the Civil War had a huge and disturbing effect on Virginia, and many of its bloodiest battles were fought around Richmond. For years, the city eluded the efforts of Union troops trying to take it, efforts that led to devastation in both camps. Early in the morning of June 3rd, 1864, a little hamlet named Cold Harbor, just north of the city, was witness to one of the most appalling incidents in the war -- or in the history of modern warfare. Union general and future 50-dollar-bill frontman Ulysses S. Grant ordered a frontal assault on rebel lines, and his troops marched into what became a meat-grinder of musket and cannon fire, killing thousands of men. The mayhem stopped only when the heaps of corpses prevented the soldiers from advancing any further. It’s hard not to feel the presence of ghosts when you stand in the same spot where countless numbers of young men met a violent, grisly death.
Richmond is a city full of old, Southern-style mansions, and many of them boast tales of spirits and apparitions. But by far the creepiest place in town is the infamous Hollywood Cemetery, final resting place of not less than two U.S. presidents -- and the confederate one! There is a huge stone pyramid on a hill full of Confederate dead, who lay largely uninterred on the Gettysburg battlefield until brought to Richmond on a special train, with full military honors.
Hollywood has tons of amazing funerary sculpture, and even a weird iron dog, but the cemetery’s creepiest resident is W.W. Pool, a turn-of-the-century mystic who has the inscription “the wolf shall lay down with the lamb” above his tomb. Somehow he became “The Vampire of Richmond,” through the combination of a terrible accident and the febrile imaginations of Richmonders. A couple of savvy mouse-clicks will get you to the bottom of the mystery, but you may prefer to believe (like me) that there really is a vampire in there. A lot of people did, as rumors and actual accounts of satanic rites occurring in the cemetery -- including the recent-day desecration of dead bodies -- got so out-of-hand that the owners set up a special “ninja” security force. The ninjas continue to patrol the cemetery's sprawling grounds -- and let me tell you, these dudes are far scarier than any ghost could be.
There is no doubt that the threat of nuclear annihilation, the proximity of blood-soaked battlefields and legions of nefarious bunny-men and blood-suckers had a huge impact on my life and my art. Hell, for better or worse, it led me to create GWAR. Of course, not every Virginian is compelled to dress up like a psychotic monster from outer space, but it's true that Virginia is a legitimately haunting place to celebrate Halloween. As for myself, I wouldn’t know -- I’m always on the road!
Dave Brockie is, in addition to being the lead singer in GWAR, an artist, writer, and aficionado of all things bizarre. Follow him on Twitter @therealoderus, and check out GWAR on tour this fall in the U.S….and in Chicago on Halloween!
Want other great Halloween-season events? Check out more FrightQuest.
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Interested in more stories about Virginia? Go to Patch and scroll the list of states to get great local coverage of your neighborhood.