The Devil’s Playground by Karen Hunt
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, March 1st, 2017
"drugs on the living room table, like other houses have flowers or a bowl of fruit."
THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND
Death of a Juggalette in the SFV
“We’re clowns, so you can’t go wrong with us. We’re the ultimate picked on type, the ultimate buffoons.” Violent J, ICP band member and a co-founder of Psychopathic Records
Lena’s mother, Wanda, has a question that haunts her: Who gave Lena her last dose of drugs? Whoever it was, they had something to do with that Juggalo traphouse, Wanda is sure of it.
The traphouse Wanda’s talking about looks normal enough. Just another middle class, two-storied house on a quiet street at the north end of the San Fernando Valley, or the SFV—birthplace of the porn film industry and the Kardashians’ horrible reality show. Just down the street from this house horses graze in an open field. Rock formations of Stoney Point Park rise above the field. Peaceful. Idyllic.
But walk inside and enter a world as dark and perverse as a Stephen King novel. Open the basement door and fall into Dante’s 10th Circle of Hell.
Basement? Who the fuck has a basement in earthquake country? This house does.
Allow me to introduce you to those who haunted this house when Lena lived there. Upstairs, the elderly owner lay in a bed, an invalid ghost who allegedly had given up control of her money to her sixty-ish son. He, in turn, had a son in his late twenties who went by the name of Deadbody. He lived in the basement with his pregnant girlfriend.
Oh, that basement…
A web of traphouses stretches from one end of the SFV to the other. Teenagers know how to find them, connecting with liked-minded people online. Neighborhoods are no longer bound by streets, schools, and churches; they are built in virtual worlds. Lena found this traphouse very easily. Or perhaps it found her. I got to know Lena through my son. It’s why I wanted to write this piece.
In the early 1990s, two rap artists calling themselves Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, created the horror rap band Insane Clown Posse and the cult of the Juggalos was born. Their lyrics were violent, misogynistic; their videos cartoonish and vampy. They claimed their violence was only aimed at perverts and child molesters. Like Grimm fairytales and medieval morality plays. Like the Bible.
ICP didn’t care that nobody in mainstream music took them seriously. Being the laughing stock of the establishment was what endeared them to so many young fans, many of whom didn’t fit into the mainstream school system and had become outcasts by a society that cruelly punished them for not fitting in. Participating in an ICP horror rap, where they could slice through the abuser’s head with a chainsaw, helped to ease the pain in their own lives. A pain that should not be discounted, but is.
We would do well to pay better attention to Juggalos. They are a metaphor for the growing dissatisfaction within not only the poor but the shrinking middle class as well. Just like Lena, Juggalos represent the death of a nation beneath a mask of bravado.
You might say, to understand Juggalos is, in fact, to understand Trumpland.
Lena was fourteen when she first started listening to ICP and horrorcore. The music and the message led her to the traphouse.
“This house in Chatsworth wasn’t the first I’ve busted down,” Wanda tells me. “When someone you love is an addict, it consumes not only them but it consumes you. I’ve broken down doors to get her out. So many 911 calls.”
Lena and her mom were living in Santa Clarita, a suburb with a large Juggalo and skinhead population. They were older men who introduced Lena to her first drugs and to the music of ICP. Wanda would hear the horrible lyrics degrading women and try to stop it but Lena was obsessed.
“Somebody might say, ‘Why didn’t you protect your daughter?’ I tried. But I was a waitress. I had to work. No parent really knows what their kid is doing when they walk out the door.”
Things got worse and worse. On a night in March, 2014, nine months before the end, Wanda’s son finally told her where the traphouse was and that Lena was there. Young people had been warned never to reveal the address to their parents.
A couple of weeks after I spoke with Wanda, I interviewed Jasmine. She had been a good friend of Lena’s and had lived in the traphouse for a year. She was now free of it; a strong, vibrant young woman studying at California State University, Northridge.
When I asked Jasmine how she ended up living in the house, she said, “My boyfriend took me there. The first thing I saw was a bunch of drugs on the living room table, like other houses have flowers or a bowl of fruit. That was the first time I tried meth. I was on top of the world. I felt like I could do anything, be anyone.” She paused and shook her head.
“It must have been a week later, and I didn’t even know a week had passed. I remember looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself and thinking, I should be at work, I should be at school. I started to cry, but everyone just laughed and offered me more drugs so I took them.
“I lost my job, I stopped going to school. That house steals your soul. It’s evil. The older men would make the girls go up to the second floor. One time Lena went up there and she didn’t come down for two days. She went up laughing and she came down looking a hundred years old.”
Tears were streaming down Jasmine’s face when she said this. She was severely traumatized. “I was lucky to get out. I know of at least three deaths associated with that house.”
It was past midnight when Wanda showed up to try and save her daughter. She banged on the front door and then she just walked in. It wasn’t even locked. She found Deadbody in the kitchen. When she asked where Lena was, he pointed a long skinny arm toward the basement door. And so, Wanda descended into hell.
The smell hit her first, a vile stench of urine and feces.
Through the haze she saw graffitied walls that looked as if they were dripping blood and vomit. Sheets on strings divided the space into six partitions. Bodies lay or sat slumped on filthy mattresses, some writhing in sex or drug induced nightmares. Wanda searched until she found Lena, pulling her up, just a skeleton really, nothing more.
It took Wanda’s breath away to hold her daughter like that. What had happened? At what exact point in time had Lena lost her joy, her wit, her intellectual curiosity? When had she stopped being Lena and become Cemetery Girl, inspired by an ICP song where every night is haunted?
The only way Wanda could get her daughter out was to buy her forty dollars of heroin.
“You never imagine, holding your newborn baby in your arms, that one day you’ll be making a forty dollar deal with the devil.”
Over the next nine months, Lena was arrested twice. Although the court ordered her taken straight from jail to rehab, she was let out both times back onto the streets.
Eventually, Lena ended up in an alley with all her possessions stolen. She called her dad and went to his house to detox.
And there, Lena came to the end of the hard road. On December 6, 2014, Lena died. Not from a heroin overdose as Wanda had always feared, but from meth. Her body had suffered too much abuse and her heart gave out.
Wanda tells me, “After I found out she was dead I stayed in my house, awake, for four days. Sometimes, I would find myself just standing there and I couldn’t remember why. No family came to help me. I was shunned because my daughter was an addict. And I was punished because she died.”
Wanda holds up a silver disc hanging around her neck. “See what’s written on it? Day & Night. Lena was wearing this when I saw her in the morgue.” Wanda stops for a moment, struggling to continue. “And you know what’s weird? Day & Night was also the name of the morgue. Then, when I was looking through Lena’s Facebook page, she had a photo album called Day & Night. Does it all mean something? I wish I could figure it out, but I can’t.”
After meeting with Wanda, I and another single mother, whose daughter had also been seduced by the traphouse, attempted to file a complaint at the Chatsworth Police Department.
We asked to speak to a narcotics detective but none were available. The officer at the desk looked at the picture of the house I was holding and said, “Oh yes, I know that place, we raided it three months ago. I was on that raid. We didn’t find any drugs.”
The officer listened to our complaints, jotted down a few half-hearted notes and gave us the number for the narcotics department. After leaving the police station, we called the number four times and left messages. None of our calls were returned.
When I tell Jasmine what the officer said, her eyes grow wide in disbelief. “That’s impossible! There are drugs all over that place, hidden in the walls, under the floor. You have to wonder what’s really going on.”
Wanda doesn’t know how to combat this apathy of the police and public. Neither do I or any of the other mothers who are willing to speak out. As long as the perception is that the people involved in these traphouses are on the fringe and of no consequence—buffoons wearing clown make-up—the only thing that will change is that it will get worse.
I’ve heard it said that a Mexican Mafia family runs the drugs in the SFV and the police are in on it all.
(The young people I ask about this roll their eyes as if it is obvious, doesn’t everyone know? But say it out loud, point a finger, that isn’t happening.)
In storybooks, heroes like Harry Potter pass through secrets doors into magical worlds where they fight noble battles and always win in the end. Our youth walk out their front doors every day and night and into alternate dimensions, where demons grab, whisper and torment, pulling them into darkness. Most often, our children do battle alone. And they are not winning. Nor are the adults, who hide their heads in the sand or benefit themselves from the promises of the Puppet Master’s pills and mind-numbing entertainment.
As Violent J says, the most despised of the despised. This they might be, but that despised underclass is growing and gaining a voice. That despised underclass extends from one end of America to the other. It is in every neighborhood.
Wanda will probably never find out who gave Lena her last dose of drugs. Maybe it was one of those at her memorial service. Sadly, the way most of Lena’s friends chose to mourn her death was by doing what they always do to ease the pain: dancing at the Dark Carnival with heroin and meth.
For every traphouse that fades into the ether, another will be built. For every child that dies, another addict will take her place. The line between the virtual and the real is fading and the walk down the staircase to the Devil’s Playground is becoming easier to traverse. Wanda can hope that others will learn from what she has to say. So can Jasmine. So can I. Just by writing these words.
RIP Lena. You will never be forgotten.
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Drawings credited to Lena.
Karen Hunt aka KH Mezek is, more than anything, a traveler. For the past two years, she has been on walkabout, writing her childhood memoir, Into the World, and her YA Urban Fantasy series, Night Angels Chronicles. “Reflections from Istanbul,” an excerpt from Into the World, won the 2015 New Millennium Writers Nonfiction Award. She is the author of numerous essays, co-founder of InsideOUT Writers, a creative writing program for incarcerated youth, and founder of MY WORLD PROJECT, an arts program connecting indigenous youth around the world. An avid full contact fighter and trainer, she is a 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do and a first degree brown belt in Eskrima. It’s hard to say where her adventures will lead her next, but her passport is up to date and she is ready to go. Find her on Twitter: @karenalainehunt