Family, Faith, and Faygo: A Journey Through the Dark Carnival of the Juggalos, by Kitty Stryker

Members of the Left Coast Juggalos "cramming into the ride before a show," circa 2004. Photograph courtesy of Ape Boy

Members of the Left Coast Juggalos “cramming into the ride before a show,” circa 2004. Photograph courtesy of Ape Boy

“There is a love and a vibe that I’ve never gotten anyplace else.”

Whatever their faith, wherever they gather, humans tend to gravitate towards spaces that make them feel connected. For some, it’s a neighborly community church; for others, the stillness of an urban mosque; for still others, a quiet circle of trees.

And for the Juggalos, that space is the sticky sweetness of an Insane Clown Posse concert.

I was somewhat familiar with the musical group Insane Clown Posse and their fandom from working in a suburban mall. Like similar stores all over the country, my former employer was happy to stock ICP’s garish merchandise…yet still felt entitled to sneer at the devotees who bought it. While my fellow workers were also often considered the dregs of society—punks, Goths, skater kids—Juggalos were always shunned, at the bottom of the social totem pole. The idea that anyone could draw anything of value—let alone a sense of family and fulfillment—from this most maligned of social movements would have undoubtedly raised a laugh.

A Juggalo is a devotee of the Insane Clown Posse, a “horrorcore” rap duo from Detroit who otherwise go by the names Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. Often identifiable by their clown face paint, “hatchetman” shirts, and multicolored hair, Juggalos are often working-class white men and women from traumatic homes and difficult upbringings. For many Juggalos, ICP isn’t just a music subculture; it’s a way to feel the kind of family bonds they often longed for in the past.

ICP’s music varies in tone from childishly nonsensical to gratuitously violent to incredibly heartfelt; but if one note is consistent it’s the constant ridicule that ICP have faced ever since their debut album, Carnival of Carnage, was released in 1992. ICP haven’t just swallowed the mainstream’s revulsion; they now actively pride themselves on being labeled “the worst band in the world.” I had repeated those sentiments myself, though I had never listened to one of their songs. Peer pressure is strong stuff.

Whether they are in fact the worst band in the whole world is hard to say; but they have certainly cultivated a tight-knit and dedicated band of followers in the Juggalos, who by some estimates number more than one million and many of whom are more devoted to the subculture than they are to the music. Almost every Juggalo I have encountered said that the feeling of family among other Juggalos saved their lives when they were in particularly dark places. Being around fellow fans demonstrated to these self-described outcasts that they were safe and among family, a transformative feeling for many who had not experienced that kind of love at home.

“You feel understood, loved, and have a sense of belonging,” said Jay of Humboldt County, California, about being among fellow “wicked clowns.” “Then add the fun and excitement of celebrating life. For a Juggalo, there is no better feeling.”

Being part of the Juggalo subculture comes with its own rituals, many of which inspire near religious feelings. Several of the rituals that occur when Juggalos get together, from the spraying of cheap, Detroit-made soda Faygo on the crowd to the name Juggalo itself (derived from an ICP song title), have been instigated and solidified by the fandom as much as by the band. The giant Faygo shower at the end of each concert, in particular, elicits a reaction that, in person, looks very close to the ecstasy you might see in a Gospel sermon. “It’s the nectar of the Gods, naturally,” said Devin from Columbus, Georgia. (While the rituals and love-ins might resemble a religious gathering, some—notably the FBI—have a different view of the Juggalo movement. In 2011, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center listed Juggalos as “a loosely organized hybrid gang.” The ACLU is currently working with Juggalos to overturn this classification.)

Juggalos genuinely and fiercely believe in the strength of family, coming together again and again at concert venues and campgrounds to reignite those connections. In the world at large, they may be ridiculed and harassed, but in the space of an ICP concert, they are surrounded by love and freedom.

Reverend Last Rite with his Navy buddies. Photograph courtesy of Reverend Last Rite

Reverend Last Rite with his Navy buddies. Photograph courtesy of Reverend Last Rite

One of the unique aspects of the Insane Clown Posse is a series of albums they call “The Joker’s Cards.” A series of six “cards” manifested as albums, with evocative names like “The Ringmaster” and “The Wraith,” guide listeners through a series of moral stories or trials inspired by both circuses and B-movie horror. The journey through the stories is called “the Dark Carnival,” and for many Juggalos, it is the closest they get to resonating with a religious message.

“I wouldn’t call myself spiritual,” mused Kyle from Greenfield, Indiana, “but being a Juggalo, to me, is about as close to spiritual as I can get. I believe with the Dark Carnival mythology, I brought myself to a whole other level.”

Violent J considers the Dark Carnival a place where souls face judgment based on their individual actions before being sent to Hell. Ultimately, if you scrape away the clowns and the hatchets, it’s a vaguely Christian-influenced morality tale. The characters represented by each Joker’s Card act as guides and warnings to reflect on behavior and change it before being damned. It’s a popular story; this is Dante’s Circles of Hell but repackaged for the masses, both warning and entertainment. I realized after hanging around Juggalos, watching them raise their hands and sob as they sang along to “Thy Unveiling,” that this was far more of a church of hard knocks than a dangerous street gang.

Some have tried to personify ICP as a Christian band, which is sort of true. “God” is mentioned, though not really described further. Reverend Last Rite, a retired Navy analyst who founded the Fellowship of Juggalos, says his understanding of God in the context of the Dark Carnival is complex. “The Carnival is a variable.  It is God, but what is God?  Is God a He, a She, Many, Singular, or simply a concept and manifestation of our philosophies and self-consciousness?  Who knows? Who cares? What does it matter as long as the message is peaceful and loving?”

Not all Juggalos feel that their relationship to the Dark Carnival requires a spiritual bent. “Some may see it as a religion of sorts, but I say it’s as much of one as a happy uplifting movie,” one Juggalo, Scott, said to me via email. “I’d say it provides a new way to look at things for people.”

But while there are atheists among “the Family,” they tend to be live-and-let-live about spiritual context, choosing instead to focus on the mutual-aid aspect. “The Dark Carnival may be the closest I will ever get to the secure feeling that religious people must have,” said a kindergarten teacher and Juggalo from Berlin, Germany. “What Juggalos showed me is that no matter where I am, there might be someone, even someone I never met, who will help me in a crisis.”

While much of the media around Juggalos either taunts them or demonizes them, Juggalos, regardless of whether they considered themselves spiritual or not, told me how the Family and the Dark Carnival led them to more moral lives. “Ever since becoming a Juggalo, honestly, I’ve become a better person,” said Dennis Davis, a twenty-one year old from South Carolina. “I believe there’s good in this world.” Snapz, a Juggalo artist from central Ohio, agreed. “I relate to The Dark Carnival on a personal level,” she said. “You get to have a better understanding of yourself. It’s hard to understand a concept so large such as life, when you can’t even understand yourself sometimes.”

Reverend Last Rite with his Navy buddies. Photograph courtesy of Reverend Last Rite

Reverend Last Rite with his Navy buddies. Photograph courtesy of Reverend Last Rite

It’s striking how many Juggalos, so often made invisible by their class status, feel seen by the lyrics and themes. In over 150 interviews I received asking about spirituality and the Dark Carnival, seventy percent said something about how the music came at just the right time to be relevant to something intense they were experiencing. I believe that shared resonance is part of why the feeling of family is so strong among Juggalos. When their blood relatives were not present for them during times of hardship, ICP and the Juggalo world came through. “I was definitely lost before I found the Juggalo community and I feel the general moral standards are much more reasonable than those of the people that raised me,” said a Juggalo from Dallas Fort Worth who goes by The Dyke. “I think my Juggalo family probably knows and accepts me better than my blood family.”

With the weight placed in this trust and family dynamic, I expected that outsiders would not be made welcome. It felt like, perhaps, something you had to earn your way into. But my experience among Juggalos, listening to their stories, has made it clear that I was wrong. Within minutes of attending a major Juggalo event, a multi-day campout called Gathering of the Juggalos, strangers invited me to hang out, sharing their beer, and asked for me to sign their program book. They immediately made it clear that I was also now part of the family.

“It isn’t about blood or how long you’ve known someone,” said Bonita Fea, who hailed from Tucson, Arizona. “It’s about coming together and building a force so strong that it is indestructible.”

It’s not just a sense of family that appears at a concert or the Gathering. The bonds extend out to the human race in general. This can be seen in the charity work that both ICP and Juggalos champion, something you will rarely read about in headlines. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope offer regular benefit concerts, often with the price of admission being cans of food which are then donated to a local food pantry. Violent J’s wife, Sugar Slam, runs a toy drive every Christmas, and Juggalos donate regularly to that. They’ve also been known to donate funds and merchandise to fans suffering in the hospital. And the fans themselves also have a charitable streak; as I write this, three groups of Juggalos are gathering resources and making plans to help support rescue workers and victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Why would Juggalos do all this, especially when so many of them are struggling to survive themselves? It’s not terribly surprising; research has shown time and time again that the poor are more likely to give to charity and do community volunteering than the wealthy. Additionally, people who have gotten food from food pantries before may be more likely to donate better food when the opportunity rises. And there are the core values of the Family. “If you ask a Juggalo about Juggalo morality, most likely something about karma is gonna come up. If you do good things, you get good things. If you do bad, you get bad,” explained Twitch from Raleigh, North Carolina. “Most people think that they have a set of morals. Juggalos know we do,” said CellE, who lives in Columbus, Ohio.

Recently this fierce sense of family and morality was underlined with the Juggalo March on Washington D.C., a rally to protest the FBI’s gang designation for Juggalos. While media swarmed the event, expecting to see violence and clashes between Juggalos and leftists, Juggalos and the alt-right, and Juggalos with Juggalos, they came out reporting consistently that the March was one of the safest, friendliest protests they had ever covered.

These are strange and different times. Perhaps we can learn something from Juggalos and their ability to see beyond politics and identity to offer each other mutual aid and uninhibited love. Perhaps the worst band in the world has come up with the best formula for community: family, faith, and sure, maybe even Faygo. ♦

From Parabola Volume 42, No. 4, “Families,” Winter 2017-2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing