The word “family” is ubiquitous at the Gathering Of The Juggalos, the infamous yearly festival of arts and culture thrown by Detroit’s notorious Insane Clown Posse. It is used by Juggalos only slightly less frequently than Smurfs use “smurf” and Jews employ “shalom,” and serves a similarly vast array of purposes. Within Juggalo culture, the oft-chanted phrase “family” has a connotation that is at once broad yet strangely specific. It refers less to nuclear families, or conventional families, than to the makeshift family that constitutes the whole of Juggalo nation. Family is perhaps the central theme of the Gathering (with “delirious debauchery” running a close second), so for my fourth trip to this strange horrorcore Shangri-La, I decided to explore its different iterations.
The first form of family that I encountered surprised me. It was less the traditional Juggalo surrogate family than the brotherhood of Christ. In the upside down world of the Gathering, however, what’s shocking isn’t extreme behavior but piety. So I was not expecting to enter the camp grounds of Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio, and immediately encounter a group of fresh-faced, smiling Christians manning a “Juggalos For Jesus” booth.
The group was started by a former Juggalo whose ICP-rich early existence dead-ended with addiction and imprisonment. He turned his life over to Christ, and after a few years into his new life spreading the gospel, he received a calling to minister to his former contemporaries within the Juggalo community.
The Juggalos For Jesus booth was decorated with a gaudy sign of a spectral Jesus clutching the chest of a face-painted Juggalo wearing a Hatchet Man T-shirt. At the bottom of the sign is the Jesus Loves Juggalos’ weirdly brilliant logo: Hatchet Man, the mascot of Insane Clown Posse and Psychopathic Records, carrying a cross.
From the outside, it looks more than a little like a hoax, or a parody—like the story that went viral just before the festival that the Bronies were going to be a major presence at the Gathering. The juxtaposition of Insane Clown Posse iconography and culture and evangelical Christianity is comically incongruous. Yet the folks behind Juggalos For Jesus were no UCB-trained wise-asses engaged in the longstanding all-American sport of mocking Juggalos. No, Juggalos For Jesus could not be more sincere in their mission. And if you’re looking for sinners who might be seeking out a new spiritual path, the Gathering Of The Juggalos is not a bad place to look.
I asked a pleasant, matronly woman in her 50s who was manning the booth what kind of preaching the Juggalos For Jesus did. She said that they did not preach at all, but rather were dedicated to giving out free Faygo, free water, free mixtapes of artists ostensibly working that strange intersection of Christian rap and Juggalo hip-hop, and bag lunches.
“How did you guys get such a plum spot here at the Gathering? I don’t think people who enter the gates expect to see Christians handing out food immediately upon entering,” I asked the Christian working the booth.
The woman smiled an enigmatic smile and beamed, “I guess it was just God’s grace, I suppose.”
Insane Clown Posse and Psychopathic Records were happy to have the Juggalos For Jesus folks representing, but there were rules they had to follow. They could only give away free food for a specific period each day so that they wouldn’t interfere with the business of the carny food proprietors selling giant turkey legs, nachos, corn dogs, and other foods beloved by the deeply stoned.
Over the course of the weekend, I was struck by the ubiquity of Juggalos For Jesus T-shirts, especially among Juggalos who didn’t exactly look like they were worried about missing Bible study. Then again, I think that speaks less to the persuasiveness of the Juggalos For Jesus’ message, and more to Juggalos’ eagerness to accept free things, and to the usefulness of a clean item of clothing to people spending four days camped out in the woods. It’s also entirely possible that Juggalos will be wearing the T-shirts ironically, the same way stoners often wear “D.A.R.E” T-shirts.
The Juggalos For Jesus booklet admonishes Juggalos to let the spirit of Christ fill them with a sense of purpose, belonging, and contentment that transcends even what is offered by Insane Clown Posse. “Now take up the cross and go tell others about Jesus!” it implores above an image of the Hatchet Man on a cross that struck me as vaguely heretical on two levels: It’s a little disrespectful to Christianity to depict the mascot for a band in Jesus’ pose on the cross, but it’s also disrespectful to the Hatchet Man to get him mixed up in Christianity. Having the Hatchet Man proselytize on behalf of Christianity instead of singing the praises of artists like Anybody Killa and Blaze Ya Dead Homie is injurious to the rap label’s fundamental dignity.
What made the Juggalos For Jesus so oddly charming was the soft-sell nature of their appeal. They weren’t hectoring Juggalos or condemning them (at least overtly) but rather offering up simple kindness, along with Faygos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The second kind of family at the Gathering Of The Juggalos is found in the Psychopathic Records family and the extended family of artists embraced both by Insane Clown Posse and Juggalos: artists like Tech Nine (who at this point has only slightly fewer fans among Juggalos than Insane Clown Posse), Kottonmouth Kings, Mad Child, and Wolfpac.
The previous three times I went to the Gathering, the bill was full of artists designed to appeal to non-Juggalos—expensive titans like Ice Cube, Geto Boys, Scarface, and Busta Rhymes. There was precious little to appeal to non-Juggalos this year, however, which may have something to do with the flurry of bad checks Psychopathic Records doled out at the 2013 Gathering, which resulted in the festival being kicked out of its previous home of Cave-In-Rock, a barren wilderness that’s somehow even more primitive than its name suggests.
Though it’s a coup to have Scarface perform before Insane Clown Posse, no one was going to make the trek to Cave-In-Rock just to see him perform. This year, however, the bill was packed with the kind of hungry acts for whom it would be an honor to received a bounced check from Psychopathic Records. This saves the festival a lot of money, but it also contributes to the organic, intimate vibe of the festival and the sense that everyone is there specifically for artists who embrace Juggalo culture and not just out to see a particularly weird music festival.
Not surprisingly, Psychopathic artists were popular favorites and the outside acts that did well put a premium on showmanship and walked the tricky line between appealing to a very specific audience and pandering shamelessly. Waka Flocka Flame, for example, perhaps the biggest non-Psychopathic rapper on the bill, started out weakly but gained momentum once his performance stopped being about him, and his money, and his Ferrari, and became about the crowd and energy and throwing a party onstage.
The third kind of family love at the Gathering is between Juggalos themselves and the artists they adore. Upon entering the Gathering on Thursday, I went to a seminar given by a minor rapper named Hoodoo who spoke eloquently about the sense of connection and identity that comes with being a Juggalo. Then he had all of the first-time Gathering virgins line up in front of the stage so that they could all smoke his weed.
“Share your drugs, share your drugs!” someone yelled imploringly from the crowd. It was a redundant plea, since drugs were being shared everywhere you looked, as was food and alcohol and everything else a Juggalo might want or need. The Juggalos For Jesus weren’t the only ones handing out free food to those afflicted with munchies; a 4:20 weed party featured complimentary Faygo dogs as well, and throughout the camp grounds heroic young men made it their mission to smoke out strangers.
The Gathering is an overwhelmingly welcoming environment, even for people who do not look bizarre or who are reviled by society. At one point a Juggalo stopped me and my comedian friend and asked where we were from, since we did not look like typical Juggalos. In the feverish imagination of the general public, this encounter would inevitably lead to a murder in the woods, or at least a stabbing. In real life, however, I explained that I was a writer covering the festival and my friend was a comedian who’d performed a few nights earlier and he replied, “That’s awesome! Enjoy your Gathering.”
There weren’t a lot of children at the Gathering, for understandable reasons, but I did encounter some nuclear families, with kiddies in tow, most notably A.J., his wife, Amanda, and their son Austin, a fresh-faced cherub who had a hustle of his own at the Gathering. He would take pictures in exchange for a dollar bill with the intention of getting dollars from every state in the country. And if he got a few extras, well, he didn’t seem to mind.
Amanda was pregnant with twins who she intended to take to the Gathering in about six years time (they had determined that 6 was the appropriate age to bring their progeny to the Gathering). They did what they could to shield their progeny from the debauchery but also seemed to understand that it was not necessarily inherently traumatizing to see naked people or profanity or people who are not sober.
Later, I met a man whose adorable but uncomfortable-looking young daughter held a sign asking for donations to her college fund and asked him about the challenges of bringing a child to the Gathering. Eyes fiery with intensity, he talked about getting into Insane Clown Posse when he became “spiritual and shit” about seven or eight years ago. While his daughter looked on, he forcefully told me, “Shit changed in my life and I couldn’t listen to radio shit music, you know what I’m saying? I was reintroduced to ICP and I realized the message behind it—the gnosticism and whatnot, you know—find God through freedom, through this, through thinking for yourself. Our daughter comes with us. We home school. We’ve never not cussed in front of her; she doesn’t cuss. We’ve never done drugs in front of her and shit like that. She’s smart as hell, she does her little hustle. She sold shots a couple of years ago. She won second place on the Gong Show yesterday.”
I asked if he was worried about the nudity and he responded:
I never shielded my daughter from anything. I never told her that Santa Claus and Jesus was real. I never lied to her. What if she walks past and people are fucking? And she asks, ‘Hey daddy, what are they doing?’ And I’d say, ‘They’re fucking.’ And she’d probably be all, ‘That’s fucking gross. Shouldn’t they get a room?’ She’s safe here. I wouldn’t leave her at fucking church camp, but here she can sleep at night and be perfectly fucking safe. Nothing is ever going to happen to her. So it’s a beautiful thing out here. Family should be involved. It’s all about the fucking family. It’s like the Joker’s Cards. It’s a new era now. We have to realize what we need to not do. It’s about the things also that we have to do: find God, find peace in your heart, and love everybody. It’s the year of the goddamned Juggalo.
There’s no presence of the artists in the campground. It’s all been family the whole time. It’s been different. It’s been good. It’s been really good. I’m getting goosebumps. This is amazing! Amazing venue—the campgrounds, the people—it’s completely changed. It’s gotten good and it will only get better. Li’l JJ [Violent J’s son] came out for his first Gathering a few years ago. I see more and more families. I’d like to see a family campground, with extra babysitting and shit, and children’s ticket prices would be nice too, because at some point they’re going to be all, ‘You can’t sneak her in.’
The Gathering must be a confusing, as well as a fascinating, place for a child, because there are all sorts of ostensibly child-friendly elements that turn out to be anything but. So while there were plenty of people in clown makeup with balloons, they’re most assuredly not entertaining children at birthday parties.
The parents I spoke to tried to shield their children from the worst of it, but it is damn near impossible to avoid nudity, sex, drugs, and profanity at the Gathering. It’s the kind of place where people held up signs reading, simply, “Fuck.” Though the parties and contests had different names (my favorite was “DJ Clay’s Horny Nutts And Big Butts Party”) they generally all consisted of teams of scantily clad women gyrating to punishingly loud music while men looked on in slack-jawed, drooling admiration, many of them commemorating the moment for posterity with their iPhones.
But the tedious, boringly excessive sexuality wasn’t limited to the “parties.” There were also booths that consisted of teams of scantily clad women gyrating to punishingly loud music while men looked on in slack-jawed, drooling admiration. The most notable and notorious booth belonged to Mike Busey, who offered a free lap dance from his “Busey Beauties” with each T-shirt purchase. This was a savvy way to undercut all the T-shirt vendors who weren’t offering a sexually charged dance with each purchase, but it also speaks to how degraded sex and sexuality is as a commodity at the Gathering. There were still folks with signs begging to see naked tits, but considering how ubiquitous naked female flesh is at the Gathering, asking to see boobs at the festival is like meekly asking for a dinner roll at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It’s very easy to get jaded at the Gathering, particularly when it comes to sex and drugs. There was no drug bridge at the Gathering this year, in part because there was no bridge, but drugs were easy to find and the air was perpetually clogged with weed smoke. Instead of a proper drug bridge, the festival resembled a free-floating drug bazaar with dealers hawking their wares through megaphones while wielding signs with products and prices.
This might be my final Gathering, so I figured I would take the plunge and, for the first time, get my face painted in preparation for Insane Clown Posse’s climactic performance on Saturday night. I waited patiently while other Juggalos got their faces painted by a very nice woman who was very good at what she did. I requested Violent J’s signature face paint and sat in a lawn chair while she very carefully applied makeup to me.
Like so much involving the Gathering, wearing clown makeup is nowhere near as big a deal as it might seem to outsiders. Honestly, after about an hour I had forgotten that I was even a 39-year-old father and husband wearing clown makeup at the Gathering Of The Juggalos, which was no small feat, considering that it was so punishingly hot that the makeup kept running down my face, giving me a look not unlike the one Marlon Brando sported in Apocalypse Now.
When I returned to my motel later that night/early morning to request a wake-up call, I had completely forgotten that I was wearing makeup at all, though the clerk behind the counter’s look of mild mortification probably should have been a giveaway. I washed the makeup off that night in a ritual of cleansing and purification, but a little black makeup remained on my cheeks, giving me the look of a fake hobo with a painted-on beard. I felt more than a little silly wearing clown makeup. But I also felt a little more like family. In the five years since I first entered the Gathering, I went from being a gawker and rubbernecker to the kind of guy gawkers and rubberneckers steal pictures of because they look so weird and wrong.
Finally, and most dramatically, family was represented at the 16th annual Gathering Of The Juggalos by Juggalo Josh “Chicken Man” and Juggalette Kira coming together to become a family at a wedding held at the Carousel Stage, which an hour earlier had hosted a wet T-shirt contest. That alone speaks to the richness and diversity of experiences at the Gathering.
Before the nuptials began properly, a stocky man deep into his 40s or 50s who bore a resemblance to a shorter, homelier Tom Jones performed a spirited duet of “U Got The Look” with a female singer while dressed in Purple Rain-era Prince regalia, all purple and frilly and extravagant.
The bride was radiant in a blue dress decorated with the Hatchet Woman logos. The groom maintained a certain strange dignity despite wearing the head of a chicken costume as a hat of sorts. The podium was adorned with a Hatchet Man and the ceremony was handled by a gentleman known as Reverend Woof whose oratory was so weirdly funny and compelling and thoroughly Juggalo that I am including it here more or less in its entirety. In the cadences of a street preacher, Reverend Woof addressed the assembled and sagely, profanely proclaimed:
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get fucking married! Standing with me this evening are our bride and groom, Kira and Josh, also known as Chicken Man. They wanted to get married, and for some goddamn reason, they wanted to do it in front of you, this twisted lot of lovable fuck-ups we call the Gathering. But we all know the reason. Everyone here knows the reason: It’s because you’re family.
Most of you probably don’t know Josh and Kira. But you know what? That doesn’t fucking matter. All of you are here for the same reason as they are: to celebrate the love, the culture, and the music of the Juggalo family. And just like Josh and Kira, all of you have figured out that there ain’t no better fucking way to do it than to be right here.
Here, you’re part of something big, something loud and something beautiful, in its own warped and perverse way. This place, and all of you motherfuckers, create happiness. And it is because of that happiness that Josh and Kira have never missed a Gathering. But that’s only part of their story.
And what is their story? It’s one of boundless emotional connection, deep unrequited passion, and fucking pizza. You see, three years ago, they met at Papa John’s. Josh had been working there for a few months as a delivery driver; when Kira got hired, his first reaction to her when she got hired when she walked in the first day pretty much summed up their entire relationship: He said, and I quote, [Adopts Butthead voice.] ‘Huh, huh, huh, boobs.’
You see Josh, through no fault of his own, had spent a hot minute single. He was tired of jerking it by himself, and Kira had these boobs. And she was pretty! So he did the only thing he could think of to impress her. He folded pizza boxes really quickly. Now that might sound lame as shit, and it probably is. Lucky for him, she rather liked his eyes and his smile. So Speedy McPizza Box over here, got in them panties really quick.
He asked her to come over that very night, and come over she did. But the thing is, she just never fucking left.
Their second date was a U-Haul to bring all of her shit over there. And you know what? They probably banged in the back of that, too. Now Josh had been a Juggalo for a long time. And it was because of him that we now count Kira among us, as a Juggalette. She’d been sniffing around Psychopathic Records by dabbling in Tech Nine, but Josh fully brought her into the fold—made her down with the clown.
Together, they live out the ideals that we treasure here at the Gathering. They don’t hate. They don’t discriminate. They accept everyone for the fucked-up person that they are, and they reach out and help when others are in need. They. Are. Family.
And what these two do for fun is fucking priceless, and I need to share it with you. They bought two 50-inch plasma-screen TVs and they mounted them on top of each other on the same wall. Now my boy Josh is a bit of a gamer, so he’s got his Xbox hooked up to one. And my girl Kira here, well, she likes to binge-watch Netflix. So as a couple, they like nothing more than to sit next to each other and do different things.
But you know, that’s its own kind of love. In truth, though, Kira has learned to love Josh for being a giant man-child. He’s carefree, he’s got a free spirit, and he has a lot of toys. Take that to mean what you will. Right—those kinds of toys. They tend to buzz and whir and spin in a circular motion. And Josh loves that Kira pretty much just puts up with his ass.
We can say she accepts him for who he is, or he can completely be himself when he’s around her, but truthfully, she ultimately just puts up with his shit. But you know what? That means she wants to be with him, no matter what—which is its own special kind of love. And speaking of love, let’s see just how committed these two are by having them make some vows. And since no one does shit before a bride on her wedding day, we’re going to let Kira go first.
Tell us, Kira, do you take this man to be your lovable fuck-up of a husband, to deal with the fact that he will always stop a conversation with you in order to talk to his friends on Xbox live? To continue to love him, despite the way he glazes you with cum every time he pulls out, so that you look a little bit like Bill Murray after he meets Slimer in Ghostbusters? Do you promise to bounce your titties in his face until such a time as you can tie them in a bow around his head? To slobber all over his ding-a-ling until the end of time? And to take care of his childish dumbass, until death do you part?
[Kira says yes.] Holy shit. [Speaks to Josh.] She just said yes to all of that. Don’t fuck this up! And Josh, do you take this woman to be your way better half? To accept that she has a big temper and will, in all likelihood, continue to take out her frustrations on you? To adore her despite the fact that she has been promoted to assistant manager, and now she gets to strap on her managerial cock and slap your ass around with it? And do you promise to occasionally do some romantic shit, like buy her flowers or lick her buttonhole on special occasions? To always remember to hand her a wet nap after coming in her hair? To put the toilet seat down and to care for her in sickness and in health, and all that other shit?
Now let’s exchange rings real quick so that everyone will know that you two are taken. And they should probably just back the fuck off.
The happy couple then made it official by pouring Faygo over each others’ heads. Then things took a turn.
In a clear omen that something was afoot, I was gently but persistently told that I should leave the front of the stage immediately unless I wanted someone hurled at me. I moved to the side of the proceedings, at which point a muscle-bound jock stormed the stage and angrily and very theatrically claimed to have had sex with the bride the night before in his tent.
At this point the ceremony morphed instantly and dramatically into what can only be described as a massive, inter-gender royal rumble with the angry, accusatory jock and a crony taking on seemingly the entire wedding party in a no-holds-barred matrimonial brawl. The wedding cake turned out to be entirely decorative. It was not there to be eaten: It was there to be a wrestling prop, something to hurl a body into.
The tables that held the wedding cake and Faygo turned out to be breakaway tables that dramatically and conveniently split apart as soon as someone was thrown into them, sometimes from a great distance. People were tossed off the stage and into the tables. Every single one of them took their falls more convincingly than the wrestlers mixing it up in the Gathering Of The Juggalos wrestling tent.
It was inter-gender wrestling action—the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the heyday of Andy Kaufman—as Juggalo took on Juggalette and vice versa. It was a blissful occasion that morphed suddenly into a matrimonial Royal Rumble ending with Kira definitively stomping the bully who stormed the stage with his deplorable slander and asserting that she was not about to let anything ruin her wedding, including him. I found the wedding genuinely moving and tender in a foul-mouthed, profane, lascivious, and wildly inappropriate way. It spoke to the sincerity and longing for connection and identity behind the Juggalos’ strangely enduring appeal.
The thing about the Gathering Of The Juggalos—and Insane Clown Posse—is that it manages to be both an enormous, elaborate, tongue-in-cheek goof and completely sincere at the same time. It’s a joke, but it’s also dead serious. The Gathering is consequently powered by a strange combination of utter debauchery and naked sentimentality. It’s about drugs, sex, profanity, music, wrestling, comedy, and freedom, but also intense displays of raw emotion and genuine tenderness.
So while there was part of me that was disappointed that this weirdly poignant ceremony morphed into something closer resembling The Jerry Springer Show, I also appreciated the effort and energy that went into turning this into one of the craziest sideshows at a festival that was pretty much all crazy sideshows. So it was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the Gathering for the wedding to be both a genuine and touching affirmation of love and commitment and a crazy spectacle. At the Gathering, the performers aren’t limited to the stages: everyone’s a star and everyone’s putting on a show.
The wedding wasn’t just a show, it was an extravaganza that, in a short amount of time, incorporated music, comedy, sex, raunch, philosophy, tenderness, violence, inter-gender physical combat (something that rarely is a fixture of non-Juggalo weddings), copious amounts of Faygo, destruction, and a lot of genuine emotion. It was one of the best shows I saw at the Gathering. It was at once a sweet and earnest Juggalo wedding and a wild and wacky burlesque of what a Juggalo wedding might be.
I asked the happy couple later whether they had any big plans for a honeymoon and immediately felt silly because their beatific smiles already conveyed what they were about to say: They were already on their honeymoon, in Shangri-La, in the place on earth they’d rather be than anywhere else. They were blissful. They were content. They were among family.