Welcome to Pop Optics! This is a feature in which I will explore some particular life moment that was shaped or influenced by some particular pop culture or even vice versa.
In 6th grade I was given detention. My crime? Sketching a “gang” symbol into my notebook. No, not the commonly seen geometric “S” that everyone associates with thug life. Nope. My gang affiliation was not with Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, or Latin Kings. White kid from the suburbs? My alliance was with the Ministry of Darkness. That’s right: I was given detention for drawing the symbol of noted wrestler from the dark side, The Undertaker, who at this time was cycling through his Satanic lord gimmick. The late 90s were truly a blessed age.
And that’s probably why my drawing was given scrutiny and my pleas dismissed. Forget facts; this is about making a statement against the corruption of the youth. This was the spring of 1999. The wake of Columbine when two loners from an affluent suburb in Colorado played god for a day. At the time, the story was they were outcasts by design, bullied and angry. The retreated into a world of violent games, violent movies, and violent music. It was a celebration of violence and they drew their influence from those sources to take our revenge on the world that treated them so cruelly. Well, except that narrative was fictional. It turned out that they were actually outcasts by design and were in truth the aggressors in an environment full of people they saw as beneath them. They looked upon their schoolmates with scorn and disgust. And no one could understand it. No one could make sense of it. It was a shared delusion among all citizens. There was conflict regarding the why’s and the how’s and everyone was looking for something to blame.
At this time, there was one man everyone in near-unanimous agreement on who to blame: Marilyn Manson.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but, Marilyn Manson was a highly controversial figure, believe it or not. Where others saw a devil, I saw a savior. And there were definitely some people who were none too pleased about that. Listening to Marilyn Manson wasn’t just the cool thing to do: it was the edgy thing to do.
I attended public school like any other kid in the suburbs, but at least one day a week I had to attend something called “CCD.” For those not in the know, CCD is for kids raised Catholic but don’t have to be subjected to the horror of the religion on a daily basis. Just once a week for the school year, breaks included.
The gist of CCD went as such:
- Jesus was better than you
- You’ll never be better than him or even as good as him
- Do as we say or else you go to hell
- Everything is a sin
To this day I have no clue what “CCD” stands for and I refuse to learn it. Having to sit in a Catholic school after hours, when all the religious kids have left for the day to go home, drink warm milk and play checkers with beige and white pieces before being tucked into bed, in total fear of the outside world. The screams of the damned echoing throughout their heads. It was weird, I tell you.
None of my friends attended CCD. No one else from my normal school went as far as I could tell either. Although when I was going through confirmation during high school, a classmate was also in the same group as me. She would later be expelled for starting fires in the bathrooms at school. You make friends at CCD, but really, you’re all hostages bonding through the shared experience of re-education.
I engaged in guerrilla combat with religion on a weekly basis. It was a symbolic war, done through the faintest means of passive resistance. Sometimes with tantrums. Often with outright denying the existence of god and damning the flesh and blood of his only son who he let get nailed to a couple planks of wood, propped up in the desert like an offering.
Religion left a bitterness in my mouth that I could not wash away. Anything I could do to shake the taste of poison merely coated it. Music was a way to counter its influence. Not just any music. Angry music. Aggressive music. Blasphemous music. I wanted to listen to someone streaming nothing but constant, prophetic denial of a great authority. I wanted to associate myself with that, I wanted to affect that attitude. Discovering dark aggressive music and all black clothing was a great way to disguise myself. Covering myself in a uniform of disillusionment and sadness that wasn’t yet earned and not fully understood, I was ready to project onto the world a sorrow I claimed no true ownership to. It was borrowed even if it had wrapped itself around my heart in a melancholic and melodramatic clutch.
Now, in the years between 1996 and 2001, pop music was a diverse cesspool that stunk like a swamp full of skunk corpses as much as it could be as sweet as a bowl of Fruit Loops. So, this limited my options for rebellious music, especially since I was practically an only child (my brother and sister were out of the house at this point in my life) living in your standard suburban landscape. Yeah, there was a Tower Records, but how often could I get my parents to want not only drive me to it but to spend $13 for a CD? Not often. I don’t think I really understood how lower middle class we actually were at this time. Yes, I listened to some rather dubious music at this time. For every quality (yes, I will say quality) band I was a fan of like Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, or Nirvana, there were some clunkers like Korn or Limp Bizkit. Sure, I could slip in some KMFDM and Alkaline Trio at this time as well, but let’s not kid ourselves, I took to nu-metal and ran with it. I craved ear-popping noise full of lyrics about how dark everybody’s lives were, how much blood they let bleed because they wanted to bleed everywhere but it was all metaphorical unless it was real because they actually were bleeding. And right at the top of the heap of angry, bloody music was Marilyn Manson, a nice boy from Ohio who liked glam, metal, Satan, and D&D.
Owning Antichrist Superstar was like owning something forbidden. To me, it was like Black Sabbath or KISS records of yore, full of back-masking and youth corruption. Expect, he was very fucking explicit and upfront about it. It was obvious. He put it all right out there. He was the Antichrist Superstar. The pun was obvious. This is satire. This is parody of religion. But I didn’t get that then. I didn’t see it then. All it was to me was a call to arms to shout “Hypocrite” at a priest until my throat was raw cracking and bled dry. I wanted to go out and burn churches. Yes, this shit was a powerful as Black Metal to me in my disdain for organized religion.
God was an intrusion into my life and who I was becoming. I didn’t know who or what I wanted to be, just that I didn’t want to conform to anything. I was phasing out of childhood and into adolescence. I wanted to fight against everything that I felt was being forced on me. I acted like I knew better. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. What I did know was that I didn’t think god was all that important to me and I would have preferred if he didn’t try to insert himself into my life like some absentee father coming back home after many years on a journey spent looking for a pack of smokes. He should have just stayed gone and I would continue pretending he was dead.
We weren’t a particularly religious family. Basically, each generation was one step removed from Catholicism than the one that came before. I decided to make the cleanest break possible. At some point we did stop attending church but I still had to make up for the lack of salvation by going to CCD. It bugged me. I didn’t feel right. There was this yellow tint to everything, like a wax coating. I could taste that, chewing on a candle that was burning slowly. Sometimes it was somber and dour, other times it could be positive but you still felt like they were speaking to you three grades below where you actually were.
When I told my folks that I was done with soccer, they accepted that. When I told them that I didn’t want to attend CCD anymore, they didn’t budge. I was stuck. It was only an hour of my week I had to sacrifice for salvation but damned if I actually learned anything other than I really did not care for being told how to live my life otherwise I would never see the glorious kingdom of Heaven. Fuck Heaven. I wanted to die and go to hell.
Listening to “Satanic” music meant having to look like a Satanist. All black everything and anarchy symbols everywhere. Black nail polish optional. Skulls a must. All standard issue rebel youth outfits could be found at your nearest Hot Topic. Bring your parents’ credit cards. Mind the cashier with a dozen piercings in their nose alone. Be sure to get an Auntie Anne’s pretzel on the way out.
I fashioned a disguise. To gain acceptance, I retreated further into the behaviors of those with influence on status because any indication you’re some sort of “other” will lead to a new level of alienation. My social group was full of kids like me. We fancied ourselves rejects when in reality we had just opted not to participate with anyone else who didn’t look like us.
Despite the sense of belonging to a group of others who didn’t feel like they belonged either, I also couldn’t be me. I didn’t know who I was but I was a kid. No kid has a fully idealized self, but sometimes we know when things don’t feel right in ourselves. I’m not sure I wanted to be any version of me at this time. It was like eternal confusion; I saw no end to my quest for understanding. I gave up and accepted my state of disillusion. A total lack of sense of self and being.
This disillusionment bled into my daily life. I was bored, indifferent, down, apathetic, angry, content, fine, everything other than just plain happy. Most of the time. I read a lot Poe and King. I read books on serial killers and devil worship. I remember finding a book in my middle school library all about how to summon the devil and other rituals related to devil worship, such as proper attire, symbols, and candle placement. For the life of me I can not recall the name of the book other than that the author’s name was Coen or Cohen. I’ve searched in vain for that damned book ever since. Not so much to recreate the ceremonies contained within, but to add to my small collection of books dedicated to the occult. I think it would pair nicely with my Necronomicon.
I drew knives, nooses, coffins, skulls, pentagrams, and upside down crosses in the margins of my notebook. I was a walking warning sign. Looking back, my struggle with depression extends back further than I could probably remember. I can’t say I had a happy childhood and that isn’t for a lack of effort on my family’s part. A lot of the time I felt like I came into life like one comes in too late into a movie: you have missed damn near all of it and there’s no way for you to catch up now to really enjoy it. CCD and religion just crystallized that for me.
Having to sit in attendance for something that emphasized things like virtue, beatitudes, selflessness, and also their chief weapon of guilt, it made me feel like less than anything. I could not live up to lofty expectations to be a better person. At least not in their mold. I learned this one day in the distant year of 2000.
I wore a Marilyn Manson shirt to CCD once. Once. Only once and never again. It was a Holy Wood shirt, with Manson fashioned as the Hierophant as seen on a Tarot card. Compared to other shirts of his, this one is probably the least visually offensive, but the fact that I was wearing anything affiliated with him was seen as a celebration of his crusade against the teachings of the church. I was pulled out of the classroom and informed of this. My plea was “well, uh, free speech and you know.” Did you know I was never in a debate club? I was reminded that Manson was seen as a figure of controversy and that his views on religion were blasphemous and not anything they would tolerate. They wanted me to turn it inside out for the remainder of the day. I scoffed. I can’t recall how the rest of this went, but I ended up conceding and turned my shirt inside out. I think at the time I had an out, that maybe if I stood my ground they would just kick me out of CCD all together and I’d never have to return and I would be free to shout at the devil with all the glee in my heart.
But for some reason I acquiesced. At that moment I felt guilt. I had sinned. I felt shame. I had sinned. They had broken my spirit. I was defeated. I compromised. I surrendered. I forfeited my ideals. I sold out. I did exactly what I thought I would never do. No matter how I could spin this as me standing up for myself and fighting an unjust system, valiantly and with vigor till the end, it was just simply me grumbling and huffing “Fine,” with all the inconvenience of having to pay full price for something you had a coupon for.
I had lost. But not because they were in the right nor I, but because I decided this was not worth it to me to make it a fight. I opted not to engage in a power struggle. Nor did they. We both knew this could have gone down with harsher words and threats of crucifixions. How much was it worth to me to proudly and defiantly wear a shirt of a man who fashions his entire life to be one grand dark fairy tale in a place I knew it would be looked down upon? What was my challenge to myself? What was my goal? Was the goal to be noticed? If so, I won on that front. But it was a hollow victory.
My freshman year of high school, I completed confirmation and no longer had to fulfill any obligation to Catholicism. I walked in between atheism and agnosticism, settling on the latter. My fondness for actively angry music waned, replaced by music full of sadness. I still struggled with my emotional growth and confidence in myself was still off in the distance, waiting to be discovered. My anger towards Catholicism subsided. Eventually, I reconciled much of it following the death of my grandmother in 2005, just before graduation and my leave for college. Ironically, I was to be attending a Catholic university (albeit, a liberal one but you know, liberal for Catholics) and even more ironically it was attending this university that helped me to gain a better sense of myself. Of course, I think that’s the college experience in general.
In reflecting on my youth and relationship with religion, even in a brief and abridged manner, I realize that it did have a profound influence in my life. I don’t consider myself religious at all, but there might be tenets that myself and most religions share. That’s just overlap of societal principles if anything, really. Although, I do like to look at the people who claim to be true Christians but use it as a shield against criticism for being horrible fucking wretches who require a saving by flames of the oppressed. Ultimately, there are truths about life I can accept and truths about myself I wish were lies. What I wish I could accept was that everything that religion taught me has made me a better person but that means giving too much credit to something I don’t believe in, and that’s just down right spooky.