On the Rocks

I'm on my way back from the bar, with a beer in my hand, when I'm suddenly pulled up short. Something is tugging at my back. I turn around.

'Excuse me,' I say to the guy behind me, 'You're standing on my train.'

'Excuse me,' he says, stepping off the trailing fabric.

I can't believe I just told someone to step off my train, but here I am, in the balcony of the Wonder Ballroom, in a flowing, midnight blue velvet dress and a long, transparent cape embroidered with a spider-web pattern.

I'd stand out in a crowd just about anywhere else, but here, my costume is merely camouflage. No one's going to look twice at me when I'm standing next to a woman in a black vinyl ball gown, complete with hoop skirts, or a man dressed as an 18th-century courtier, or any of the other monsters, brides and dungeon masters attending the party, the fourth annual Vampires Masquerade Ball, which was held Saturday.

There is a smattering of vampires here, mixed into the crowd of more than 400. But the realms of fashion being explored extend further - the Victorian era, horror movies, fetish wear, art nouveau and underground comics have all contributed to the look that is now called gothic. And tonight, with a full moon in the sky, is the goths' homecoming dance. So who are these people?

When Nicole Stavenau, who organized this masquerade, talks about the gothic scene, she uses the word 'community' a lot. She says Portland and Seattle both have strong goth communities - as evidenced by the turnout tonight. At the same time, she worries about the old-school gothic scene fading out. Aspects of the style, which has its roots in 1980s club music, have morphed into newer musical styles, different fashions, maybe different attitudes.

'The old school is lifestyle,' she explains. 'It's velvet, it's lace, it's corsets, reading old literature - it's very romantic.' Of the Vampires Ball, she says, 'It's not focused on vampirism. It's more of the idea of romance, of not being afraid of death, having an appreciation for darker things and finding them beautiful.'

The dance floor is full of slowly twirling figures. It's sort of like a Halloween party in June, and it wouldn't take much - maybe a few sips of absinthe, or just a good imagination - to get disoriented. The red light, swirling fabric and bizarre masks could easily make you feel like you were caught in the dream sequence of a horror movie.

Outsiders are often leery of the goth aesthetic. There are a lot of misconceptions about the scene, Stavenau says. The list rolls off her tongue: 'We're all angsty 16-year-olds - perpetuate death - it's a phase - we're satanists - we're literal bloodsuckers - that we're angry, hateful people.' She adds, 'The biggest misconception is that we're not educated.'

As a matter of fact, there are four doctors in the room that she knows of, several lawyers and more than a few computer technicians. Stavenau herself works with high-balance credit card accounts. Right now, it's a little hard to imagine her showing up for work at a bank; her ensemble reminds me very much of Snow White's wicked stepmother, but with the addition of a tall feather headdress.

As positive and enthusiastic and friendly as Stavenau is, I can't help but notice that the whole time we're talking, we're being watched. A man stands silently against the wall, in a dapper suit and top hat, with dark-lensed spectacles. He could be a descendant of the Dracula family, if not for his cravat pin - it's shaped like a crucifix.

Not one but two hearses are parked outside. Michael Smith owns one of them, and he's dressed as an undertaker, only with fangs. When I ask him what he generally uses his hearse for, he replies, 'Haunting.' Turns out he snaps photos of people with the hearse, at haunted houses, to raise money for charity.

The Bondage Teddy also is a very nice young man, once you get to know him. Corporate graphic designer by day, fetish performer by night, he describes his costume as 'radioactive vampire cyborgation from the future.' The spike protruding from his lower lip is flanked by two smaller piercings; his eyebrows have been shaved and replaced with a series of dots. He's just over 6 feet tall in his socks, but with six-inch platform shoes below and a forest of quivering antennae above, he'd have to duck to make it through a seven-foot doorway.

Nearby is a vision from the past: Catherine Englehart is wearing a custom-made replica of the formal mourning dress of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, whose husband died in 1765. Englehart's date, Jeffrey Netz, is draped in a genuine priest's robe.

You could walk into this masquerade and see a gathering of creative individualists. You could walk in and see a bunch of kooks. Or, if you squint just a little, you could believe that you've walked into something truly sinister. Walk however you want. Just don't step on my train.

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