A strange scene is unfolding in a small dark room adjacent to a downtown Chinese buffet: Fortune tellers, clowns, scantily clad zombie girls, mimes and the devil himself dance happily together and swig cheap beer. Fluorescent lights reflect off skin wrapped in tight latex and leather, while eardrums absorb trance, EBM, goth-rock and industrial music. A woman with pink hair and black lips twirls and twists violently to the music, oblivious to everyone else. Another woman with a pentagon stamped on her forehead shouts a manifesto of death-metal culture. Others cling to the shadows: one man in a dramatic Elizabethan-era mask stands by the bar, quietly observing the action.
Suddenly, a dispute erupts---a lone fiddler and the devil, armed with an electric guitar, enter a musical duel for possession of the souls of two "maidens." The women emerge, bedecked in horns, feathers, garters and red gauze. One woman has bright red hair and is wearing five-inch heels. The other has shiny black hair, scarlet-coloured lips and a long feather tail. Am I having a hallucinogenic trip of some sort? No, I'm just at Club 1668 enjoying MasQ, a monthly costume ball.
Halloween every month
SandE Jordan and her boyfriend Pete Green are the masterminds behind MasQ, which has been attracting solid crowds since May 2008. In the past, goth nights, such as Shadowplay at the Marquee, occurred on Sundays. The duo worked to secure Saturday nights at Club 1668 for MasQ, which is big news for the goth community and anyone else who has to work Monday morning.
MasQ has a different theme each month. Past themes have included dark fairytales, mobsters and dames, and steampunk. When I meet Jordan and Green at July's carnival-noir-themed MasQ, Jordan is dressed as a fortune-teller, wearing several choker necklaces and a red scarf around her head.
"MasQ gives people a chance to dress how they want," says Green, who doesn't dress in costume himself and wears only black. "You know, there's a bunch of girls wearing thigh-highs with garters and bat wings and then you have guys that can walk around without a shirt on."
"And there's no sexual harassment at all, ever, which is terrific," interjects Jordan. "These girls couldn't dress like this and go to one of the bars downtown without being grabbed and harassed by jocks."
"They're not even let in," says Green. "The Palace won't let you in with ripped jeans, yet they have wet t-shirt concerts. How does that work?"
MasQ has its own dress code, which is the antithesis to a typical nightclub dress-code. There is a strict no jeans and no ball caps policy. Instead, leather, fetish/kink, punk, uniforms and gothic attire are encouraged. The dress code is enforced to ensure meatheads who just want to gawk at women in fetish gear don't crash the party.
Jordan originally started the event with Chris Capstick. Green and Jordan decline to speak about Capstick on record, and Capstick calls the relationship a "touchy subject." When Capstick pulled out of MasQ last year, he took Green and Jordan to court, laying claim to around $1,000 in funds he had invested in MasQ.
"SandE and her boyfriend Pete were my best friends, but business and friends," he says, sighing. Despite everything, Capstick says: "I would still go to MasQ if they'd let me, but clearly that's not going to happen."
Now Capstick runs his own masquerade, Cameo, which has had three official events to date. Capstick admits that Cameo is "very competitive," with MasQ, though he says his event is less about celebrating the gothic or fetish lifestyle and more about having a sexy party with house music pumping.
On the surface, MasQ and Cameo appear uncannily similar: Almost identical dress codes, rules and themes pop up on the websites for both. There are differences, though, which are obvious in the way both groups approach the same Back to School theme. Capstick encourages patrons to dress as sexy school boys and girls, or teachers, while Green and Jordan put a different spin on the familiar theme.
September's MasQ will be a "Rock 'N' Roll High School" party, where bar-goers dress as the rebels, punks and outcasts. It's happening after the Marilyn Manson concert (Friday, September 25) and Jordan promises $3 drinks, $3 covers and a healthy dose of Manson tunes.
If you head to the next MasQ, you're bound to be wowed and entertained by a motley cast of characters. At one event there was even a "pulling demonstration," where two people pierced their flesh together and leaned back, somehow without ripping their skin to shreds.
The dark-haired "maiden" whose soul was up for grabs earlier goes by Careotica Lovicious. When Lovicious went to high school in Windsor, she was Carrie Sanford, a bright teen with social anxiety disorder.
"I dropped out of school three times," she says. "People find it funny that I like performing because I grew up with social anxiety, but when I'm on stage it's completely different...I just feel at home. I feel comfortable."
The 20-year-old works a back-shift cleaning job to pay the bills, but is passionate about expressing her creativity through fashion, fetish modelling, special effects makeup and film production, which she's in the process of learning. She resists labels, describing her dark-fashion sense as "a bunch of subcultures thrown together."
She also finds inspiration in Bettie Page. "She made fetish fun. She made it innocent. It wasn't this dirty, filthy thing, where people were like 'Eww! Weirdoes!' It was an innocent thing."
Lovicious's boyfriend Jorahkai Wood, who goes by Kai, spins as DJ Freedom Danish. The 30-year-old had an It's All Gone Pete Tong moment when he was in his 20s, losing 95 percent of his hearing for four months due to a severe cold and small Eustachian tubes. When his hearing returned, his passion for music came back in full force.
He has an eclectic musical palette, spinning street bass, dubstep, glitch hop, industrial, dark wave, rockabilly, psychobilly and more. Aside from playing sets at MasQ, Kai frequently plays with The Root Sellers, who play a fusion of hip-hop, dub and electronica.
"I've never heard him spin a bad set," says MasQ belly dancer Angela Allain. "He's not just sitting there and spinning records. He's very into it and gets the crowd going."
On Halloween last year, Allain, with two zombie helpers, carried the DJ's body onstage in a straightjacket. The demonic women sacrificed him on stage and used his blood to raise ghouls, one of which was played by Lovicious. The performers planted packs of fake blood on strategic necks in the crowd, so it looked like many audience members were bleeding at the jugular.
Aside from taking part in bizarre sets, Kai has a fixation with food politics. For example, the name "Freedom Danish" is an amalgamation of two events: the official American renaming of French fries to "Freedom fries" during the Iraq War and the Iranian renaming of the Danish pastry to "Roses of the Prophet Muhammad" during the Jyllands-Posten cartoons controversy.
The name is "an ultimate fuck-you to anybody that wants to use food propaganda to control people's minds," explains Kai.
The DJ has also written a book of poetry, inspired by food and time spent at a grocery store, staring at lobsters. "Lobsters are a lot like people," he explains. "Most of them are crazy and most of them are trapped."
MasQ regulars aren't quite what many would expect from a group of people decked out in combat boots, corsets, chains, safety pins and leather.
"No one's puking in the bathroom, no one's breaking anything and no one's starting a fight," says Jordan.
In fact, "most people bring their empty bottles back to the bar," says Green.
People who go to MasQ are part of several fringe subcultures in Halifax. Many are goths---though Wiccans, metalheads, people into healing arts, punks and people who just like to dress up go to MasQ as well. Many feel like they can be themselves at the events.
"Most people don't look down their nose at you when you come in wearing the bra on the outside of your clothes or whatever," says Annalise Mcmullen, a MasQ regular who's also dressed as a fortune teller. "I like that it's not cookie-cutter people all the time."
Cynda Bellefontaine, a 20-year-old with fuschia hair who's been going to MasQ for a year, says she likes the event because she gets to dress up and not feel completely out of place.
"It's probably one of the few bars I can go to and not have people look down on me," she says.
Bellefontaine brought her mother to MasQ's Carnival Noir for her 44th birthday.
"There are very few places I can hang out with my daughter," says MaryAnne Bellefontaine. "We come here all the time together. It's something we really both enjoy."
Another frequent MasQgoer, Jennifer Landry, says she enjoys the event because "It's a diverse culture. You can be talking to lawyers, accountants, people who are 20, people who are 60, but they all like the same thing."
MasQ is definitely diverse. When I venture to the event, clad in leather pants for the first time in my life, I am immediately struck by the wide range in partiers' ages. People have an eclectic assortment of professions: I run into an elevator technician, a call-centre agent, a vegan who scoops ice cream for a living, a security guard, a former member of the armed forces, and fetish models for Suicide Girls.
Local astrologer Christine Davison has been a permanent fixture on Halifax's goth scene since the early '90s. When I meet her---a Gemini with Scorpio rising---outside of Steve-O-Reno's on a sunny afternoon, she's dressed to the nines---a black parasol, a long, flowing black skirt, fishnet stockings and bright pink lipstick.
To Davison, the reason why many love MasQ is in the stars. She tells me that in her experience, many goths, including herself, "tend to have their suns in their eighth house. The eighth house is ruled by Scorpio. It's a house that involves sex, death, magic, secrecy."
And what exactly makes a person gothic?
For Davison, it's partly an ability to see the beauty that's "hidden behind the mainstream facade," and to "expand upon it and make it even more beautiful, no matter how dark or forbidden whatever they discover might be."
When I go home and Google my natal chart, I discover that my sun is in the eighth house. I guess that means I'm heading back to MasQ.
I just might have to borrow those leather pants again.