Name Your God

On Alice in Chains, Christian camps, and Satanism

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I see the shirt from afar, like the midway full of people parted just for my sightline. BLEED THE FREAK, it says in big, blocky, bright red letters. I’m not sure what it means, but it doesn’t feel right. Something about the violence of the phrase, the awkward but hypnotic syntax. The words worm their way into my brain like a song, bleed the freak, bleed the freak, bleed the freak.

I’m 16 years old, at the Puyallup Fair with my church youth group. It is 1994. It’s before the deep-fried fair food explosion — before deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried Oreos, and before it occurred to food vendors at fairs large and small to experiment with dipping anything they can think of into batter and then deep-frying it. It’s before the Puyallup Fair becomes the Washington State Fair, before I grow up and move away from Washington, before going to state fairs becomes one of my favorite Midwest summer activities, and before I’ll care at all about seeing the animals, much less them becoming one of my favorite parts of a fair. Largely because seeing the animals — the horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, and rabbits — is one of my wife’s favorite parts of a fair and one of the side effects of marriage is often your partner’s favorite things become your favorite things. There are, however, plenty of the deep-fried staples, between corndogs, elephant ears, and funnel cake — but also the Puyallup Fair staple, fresh scones with raspberry jelly. Then there was a fair’s worth of girls for a 16-year-old to ogle and teasingly push your friends into. And lastly, a selection of rides like the carousel, Classic Coaster, Kamikaze, Scrambler, and the small, two-person squirrel wheels in which my best friend Brad would spin and rock us back-and-forth so fast and jerky it would make me feel like I just might throw-up, though I’d never say that to Brad, not wanting to give him the ammunition to make fun of me nor the encouragement to keep doing it.

As both of us move independently through the crowd, I keep my eyes locked on the guy wearing the shirt, like when I go to Mariners games with my dad and the stadium plays baseball three-card monte. The scoreboard hides a baseball under one of three Mariners baseball caps and then spins the hats around each other, hopscotches one over the other, jumbles them all over back and forth, and then asks the crowd to guess where the baseball is, under hat 1, 2, or 3. It’s one of my favorite little parts of going to a baseball game.

Later, I’ll think about how awkward we must all look walking through crowds of people, shoulders pulled in so as to make our bodies small and streamlined, our steps herky-jerky, short and long, fast and slow, as we pause or stutter step or sidestep, with all these little movements to alternately avoid or go with the flow of people. I’ll have an idea. What if you could see yourself moving like this, like from above, but without anyone else there? My mental image of it all will make me think of Family Circus, a dotted-line path of curlicues and zigzags, and it will make me laugh even though I never think Family Circus is funny when I read it every Sunday morning in the paper. I’ll think about telling Brad about the idea, but then it seems only dorky and weird so I’ll keep it to myself.

We’re here to volunteer at the Young Life BBQ booth. I don’t know what that will entail; we haven’t done it before, and I actually never even noticed the booth before, though apparently it’s here every year and I’ve been to the fair many times before. I think we have to just work the cash registers and make sandwiches, then Young Life keeps the money the booth makes. For Young Life, the booth gets run by volunteers and all the proceeds from our shift selling roast beef sandwiches go toward their various ministry expenses and to help with their mission of “introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.” For our youth group, it’s a means of doing something for our community, and also just an opportunity to do something together as a group.

For my purposes, it’s a free ticket and a ride to the fair — doing it with my youth group, Sr. Club, is a bonus. I love Sr. Club, I go every Thursday evening and we eat dinner together, hang out, play games, and sometimes we go backpacking, camping, or on weekend retreats to places like Mt. Rainier. And on spring break we go east of the mountains on mission trips and try to help restore old churches or Christian camps in the woods. I think of it primarily as a social activity, as my favorite social activity, really. I get to hang out with my best friend, Brad, who I’ve been in Sunday school and youth group with since third grade, and I also get to hang out with Todd, Tim, Wes, Chris, and Jason. At least half of my friends are youth group friends and at any given time I have a crush on anywhere between one and four of the girls in Sr. Club with us. I love Sr. Club because I feel like I fit in, like one of the cool kids, unlike at school where I always feel just the opposite.

I don’t really care that much about the sermon part of it every week, it’s the most boring part, but it’s fine. I believe in God, and Heaven and Hell. I don’t drink. I don’t use the Lord’s name in vain. I believe I’ll probably not have sex until marriage. I didn’t sign my virginity pledge at our church retreat over the winter though, because I felt weird making a promise to God that I wasn’t 100% sure I would keep. Having sex before marriage would be one thing, but signing a pledge?

Saying I wouldn’t and then doing so would be breaking a vow to God on top of the sex before marriage itself. That said, I still haven’t had a girlfriend, haven’t kissed a girl, haven’t even been on a date since going to see Ernest Goes to Jail with Heather, who is also in Sr. Club with us, but that was when I was 12 and I didn’t even hold her hand, so I’m a ways away from testing that belief. Next year I’ll start dating one of the girls here volunteering at the Puyallup Fair with us, though she isn’t one of the girls I have a crush on right now. In fact, we won’t ever have sex because, even though I didn’t sign the pledge, I’ll still be saving myself for marriage.

Finally, the Bleed the Freak guy turns around and I see the front of his shirt. It’s a picture of Jesus crucified and looking grotesque instead of peaceful and holy like the Son of God I’m used to seeing in representations of him on the cross. At the bottom of the shirt, down by the shirt wearer’s waist and below crucified Jesus, it says Alice in Chains.

The “something doesn’t feel right” feeling in my stomach tightens and gets more knotted, but also more defined. It’s a wave of disgust, confusion, and hurt, but like in my heart, or maybe even my soul. There’s the heresy of using Jesus on the cross as secular band promotion, but it’s not just that. It seems not just not-Christian, but anti-Christian. Together with the back of the shirt — bleed the freak, my mind repeats, bleed the freak, bleed the freak, as a reminder, as an earworm — it reads like a celebration, a taunt even.

It’s disappointing too because it’s a band I like. Alice in Chains isn’t my favorite, but I like them. I like when “Would?”, “Them Bones”,  “Angry Chair”,  “Rooster”, or “Down in a Hole” comes on the radio or MTV. I also like that they’re a Seattle band, part of the biggest and most popular thing in music from the last few years, and only an hour away in the city my dad commutes to for work every day. I like that when their acoustic EP Jar of Flies came out in February it was the third album in a row by a Seattle band to debut at number one, starting with Nirvana’s In Utero last October, then Pearl Jam’s Vs. in November, and continuing to a fourth in a row with Soundgarden’s Superunknown in March. I like the feeling that these bands aren’t just popular but are changing music. It feels like they are changing the world. And I like that I feel, albeit only tangentially, part of it.

I don’t like the idea of one of these bands, one of my bands, having a shirt like this Bleed the Freak shirt, even if Alice in Chains is my least favorite band of any of these. I don’t own any of their albums. I own and love In Utero and Vs. and Superunknown, but not Jar of Flies, Dirt, or their first album, Facelift. I don’t know that “Bleed the Freak” is a song on Facelift, and I’m not sure if being a song would be better or worse than a shirt slogan I presume is one part shock value and one part Christian antagonizing. I do know the biggest single from Facelift, “Man in the Box,” which I kinda love and am kinda unsure how to feel about. The video featured a mysterious man walking around a barn in a hooded cloak, which he removes at the end of the video to reveal that his eyes are sewn shut. He looks like Jesus, and I’m not sure what that is supposed to mean, but the lyrics include “Jesus Christ, deny your maker,” which seems maybe blasphemous or at least questionable. Though I like the scene in Singles when Campbell Scott first sees Kyra Sedgwick at a small club show:

CS: My friend and I have this long-running argument, and here it is. He says that when you come to a place like this you can’t just be yourself, you have to have an act. So anyway, I saw you standing there, so I thought, a) I could just leave you alone, b) I could come up with an act, or c) I could just be myself. I chose c. What do you think?

KS: I think that, a) you have an act.

CS: Uh huh.

KS: And that, b) not having an act is your act.

CS: Thank you!

And Alice in Chains is the bar band playing in the background. I like the scene, and I like seeing a little, mini Alice in Chains performance, but it’s also intimidating. Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are both shirtless, and I’ll start going to small, all ages, hardcore shows in just a couple months, but I don’t know that yet, and I was still forever away from even knowing those existed two years ago when Singles came out and I first saw it. The whole small club scene it portrayed was like an entirely different, scary world; Alice in Chains just seems darker than any of these other bands. I haven’t ever really thought of evil though, as I do with metal and the album art that my Taekwondo metalhead buddy Mike shows me, with its pentagrams and upside down crosses and blood everywhere and wizards and warlocks.

I realize a part of my reaction to the shirt is fear; it’s scary, though I don’t know what exactly I’m scared of. This is pre-Columbine, before “school shooting” becomes such a recognizable and familiar phrase. We joke about “going postal,” after a series of post office shootings, but when I see this kid I don’t think of him shooting anyone or even having a gun, though I might’ve thought that if this were ten years later. I picture him in the woods with a group of friends and a girl they kidnapped, spilling her blood in the name of Satan. I see this guy and I’m not terrified of him or Alice in Chains but of the thought process behind it all, the power of Satan, the evils of sin, and what we, as Christians, have to constantly battle against.

A few years ago, I went with my youth group, Jr. Club, the junior high version of Sr. Club, to see the Christian comedian, Mike Warnke. It was my third ever concert if you want to call it that. It was at the Tacoma Dome, the site of my first ever concert which I went to the previous winter (MC Hammer), so why not. My second concert was Chris Isaak at Bumbershoot, the annual arts and music festival in Seattle, with my mom and aunt. I think they, my aunt especially, found Isaak sexy, an opinion I agreed with, in my own way, having masturbated in my bedroom numerous times to his video for “Wicked Game.”  It featured Helena Christensen running and rolling around with Isaak, both shirtless with Christensen’s nudity covered by Isaak’s embrace or via camera angle, but still on display enough for a 12-year-old going through puberty and discovering his sexuality.

Warnke’s background was that as an orphaned child he grew curious about all things occult. As a teenager, and especially when he entered college, Warnke started using drugs, which ultimately led him from curiosity to the actual practice of Satanism. He dropped out of college and joined the Navy, when during boot camp he began participating in and then presiding over Satanic rituals, including magical spells, summoning demons, and ritual sex, including kidnap and rape. He claimed he had attended a Satanic ritual in the ’60s with Charles Manson, and rose in ranks to become a Satanist high priest. In 1985, he appeared on an episode of 20/20 titled “The Devil Worshippers,” where he described Satanic ceremonies and pointed to a scar he had where he’d been repeatedly cut to draw blood for use in those ceremonies. That appearance, combined with his 1972 memoir, The Satan Seller, led to him becoming something of an expert opinion on the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s.

In concert, Warnke — with something of a frizzed-out mullet, a mustache, one dangly earring, and a bright pink shirt — stalked back and forth with the presence of just what he was: one part comedian, one part reverend. He recounted these stories about his life as transitions between easy jokes fed through the filter of church and one-liners. “Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?” he asked, pushing his mouth to one side of his face, bugging out his eyes, and tilting his head like, Isn’t life crazy?! (I’ll still remember the line 25 years later when I’ll Google it.) He told jokes about how he didn’t look like the traditional Christian saying,

“Some of you husbands are now elbowing your wives, saying, ‘I thought you said this was gonna be a Christian thing. Praise God. If I’d known this was gonna be a hippie deal, I wouldn’t have come down here . . . I can tell you right now that boy up there on stage, he is not a Christian. Because he’s got that long hair. And everybody knows that Christians don’t wear their hair long on account of the Lord likes his little sheep shorn real tight.’”

Then he’d talk about going to church on Sunday, “I think it’s weird when you’re sitting in church and three pews behind you somebody goes —” and he made that gurgling growl noise of pulling snot out of your nasal cavities and into your throat, “—I always think to myself, what are they gonna do with that now? Praise God.”

And how people love to hold Christians accountable for what is or isn’t in the Bible,

“You get up in the morning and say, ‘I need a cheese sandwich,’ and somebody say, ‘Now show me the word ‘cheese sandwich’ in the word of God. How do you know that the Lord is leading you to eat a cheese sandwich? Did you have a revelation, did you have a dream? Were you speaking in tongues and the words ‘cheese sandwich’ came out or what?’”

He’s a little like Gallagher meets Jeff Foxworthy, except instead of smashing watermelons or a “you might be a redneck if . . .” refrain of a catchphrase, Warnke punctuates his stories with “Praise God” and “Amen” and then the show would end with a long personal story and a sermon, almost like a standup comedy set as an opening act for testimony both by Warnke. He’d get a stadium full of Christians laughing, and then he’d set his hooks in and scare the shit out of us with his stories of Satanism, “I’m talking about a little girl who was murdered last year . . . by having her sexual organs cut out while she was still alive,” Warnke told us, getting serious. A moment before, I’d been laughing along to church service observations and then Warnke stole my breath away.

“A lot of you think that when a Satanist kills, they do so because they want to spill blood. You’ve seen enough late night movies to think that.”

I hadn’t actually seen those late night movies, because I wasn’t allowed to watch scary movies. My parents didn’t forbid them so much as they were discouraged, and I was generally a good kid, a rule follower who rarely tried to push or test my limits. If I wasn’t supposed to do something I assumed there was probably a good reason. As I got older I didn’t really have an interest and I leaned on my parents’ disapproval as an excuse for not seeing movies that I didn’t really want to see, or was too scared of, anyway. I still hadn’t seen a Friday the 13th or Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, but I got Warnke’s gist.

“But if a Satanist or any other kind of occultist kills, an animal or a human sacrifice, it’s not to spill blood, it’s to release the life force,” Warnke continued, full preacher mode. “Because when the life force is released, and you’ve done the right incantations and rituals, you can absorb that force, they say, and it makes you a stronger wizard or warlock or whatever.”

Lifeforce and incantations and wizards and warlocks? Satanists, Warnke was confirming, were as scary as I’d imagined.

“And the longer the death and more prolonged the death, and the more agonizing the death, the more force is released. So they took this little girl and they killed her by cutting her sexual organs out while she was still alive. And after she was dead, they cut her chest open, took out her heart, cut it up into little pieces, and took communion on her. And after she was dead, they cut down both sides of her head and down the back, they peeled the flesh away from the bone, they stole her skull to be used in Satanic rituals, took her mutilated body and threw her in the dump.”

No, I thought, sitting there, eyes bugged out, body tense, mind sprinting all over the place while I felt my heart stop.  No, Satanism is way scarier than I’d imagined.

I don’t point out or mention the shirt to anyone. Not to Brad, our youth pastor, Ron, or to anyone else. I don’t ask if anyone else saw it, and I don’t describe it to anyone with big, can-you-believe-it eyes. I’m a little scared of it, like pointing it out might be its own kind of incantation, giving it power that it doesn’t have by being ignored.

For four hours, I work the register and sell barbeque sandwiches. When someone orders, I take their money, make change, and then I turn around and holler at the volunteers behind me whether the customer ordered a turkey leg or a roast beef sandwich. If they ask for a sandwich I yell what they want on it. There are pamphlets on the counter with information about Young Life and sometimes if someone asks, usually someone who volunteered at this booth at some point in the past, I tell them what church we’re here from, but I don’t have to proselytize or bark for people to encourage sales or really do anything other than work the cash register. All we have to do is work the booth for free, and the money it makes goes to Young Life to help pay for “staff, volunteer leaders, weekly clubs, leadership training, and various other ministry expenses.” I like working the register — I like the math of it. It keeps me focused and I know what I’m doing. I like trying to be extra cheerful and charming when a cute girl orders a sandwich, or even just smiling from afar when a group of girls our age walk by. This is pretty much the extent of what I know about flirting.

At the end of our shift, Brad and I put the shirts that we wore to the fair over the Young Life shirts we’d changed into for our shift, though we were supposed to take them off and leave them in bins to be washed and worn by future volunteers. The shirts are cool though, with colorful, bubbly “YL” lettering that looks retro, like old skate and surf designs from the 60s that are cool again. Brad found the last ringer in the pile, a white shirt with red bands around the collar and sleeve that looks kinda like what Ad-Rock was wearing when the Beastie Boys performed “Sabotage” on Late Show with David Letterman.

We spend the rest of our time walking around the fair, riding rides, eating food, and pointing out cute girls to one another until we have to meet back up with everyone at the entrance gate at seven. I don’t see the guy in the Bleed the Freak shirt again, and I never mention it again.

One day in Sr. Club, a few months later, or maybe even a year later, I’ll remember the Mike Warnke concert. Some of us in Sr. Club who’d gone to the concert has since moved away, or are going to a different church, or have stopped going to church altogether, but some just started coming to our youth group more recently.

“Whatever happened to that goofy comedian guy we all went and saw at the Tacoma Dome?” I ask. “He had frizzy hair, an earring?”

“Mike Warnke,” one of the older kids remembers, and laughs and shakes his head. “It turned out he’d made it all up.”

“What?” His jokes? I think. I don’t get what he means.

“He wasn’t a Satanist. He made up all those stories about devil worship and sacrifice.”

I can’t believe it. It had been so convincing, so scary. Why would you make that up?

It turns out that two years ago, a little over a year after that Tacoma Dome concert, the Christian magazine Cornerstone published a long, investigative expose discrediting Warnke’s exaggerated claims of Satanism. They found pictures of Warnke that showed him to be an average-looking mid-60s “square” during the years when he claimed he’d been an emaciated drug addict with long fingernails and waist-length hair. It also turned out Manson had been in federal prison at the time when Warnke claimed the two had attended Satanic rituals together and, in fact, Manson had no known ties to any Satanic church. Before joining the Navy, Cornerstone discovered, Warnke had been a member of his college’s Christian ministry, Campus Crusade for Christ. The article additionally came with a long sidebar that put together the few specific dates Warnke mentioned in his books and revealed how the dates and math didn’t add up; Warnke couldn’t have done many of things he claimed to have taken part in. Altogether, it seemed likely he’d never been involved in Satanism at all. •

Images illustrated by Barbara Chernyavsky.

Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart and the author of Backswing, a story collection, and Stephen King’s The Body, a nonfiction book about the novella that Stand By Me was based on. He’s currently working on a book of essays about music and growing up and religion and other stuff, THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE INTERNET. He is on Twitter @Aaron__Burch.

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