Written by Alex Lopez
A T&E writer went to a Ghost concert during the middle of the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. This is what it taught him about the importance of keeping your imagination intact in the face of disaster
When I was a senior in high school, I took an English class centered on the classics of horror literature. We studied the works of Mary Shelley, Stephen King, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson in order to learn how these masters of horror used the written word to create a sense of disorientation that blurs the line between the physical world and supernatural forces. Stories like these tap into our collective fears and anxieties, and also illustrate reflections of society as a whole.
So how is this dynamic affected when the world is turning into more of a waking horror story every day? How do you use fiction to blur lines when the actual lines between real life and fiction seem to be becoming increasingly blurred before our own eyes?
Enter the band Ghost. I, like many other metalheads, have come to enjoy their music. In recent years, I feel like they have not only explored this blurring line, but embodied it as part of their persona. The Swedish occult rockers, known for their macabre, sacrilegious imagery and obsession with anonymity in a world that’s running out of secrets, released their fourth studio album, Prequelle, last year. The album is loosely based on the Black Plague – a period in history where swarms of flea-ridden rats spread the infectious Yersinia pestis bacteria through Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, and wiped out an estimated 30-to-60% of Europe’s population. It’s a concept that feels eerily familiar today, but it doesn’t surprise me that Ghost made an album fit for the times. Their last album, Meliora, dealt withquestions of what serves as your inner guidance in the absence of God, particularly in the face of disregard for individual responsibility to the larger society. Meliora felt relatable when I was spending the mid-2010s in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a booming tech economy helped a handful of people become extremely rich, and the rampant gentrification and sky-high housing costs that followed made it so that the only way to keep your head above water was to sell your soul to big tech. Ghost may be a spooky-looking bunch, but their music has been getting more connected to the outside world since their beginnings as a hellraising blend of the Blue Oyster Cult and Abba.
And so Ghost have embarked on their US tour in support of Prequelle, dubbed “A Pale Tour Named Death.” When they stopped through my city of Sacramento, however, they very well could have ridden in on the biblical horse of the same name. Five days before the show, about 100 miles north, in Butte County, the Camp Fire was sparked and it set off a statewide disaster. Fueled by high winds, low humidity, and dry vegetation, the fire wasted little time growing. By the day of the show, it had already scorched over one hundred thousand acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, leveled the small town of Paradise , and was confirmed to have killed at least 30 people (this toll would eventually rise to 88 confirmed deaths at the time of this writing). To make matters worse, a temperature inversion was preventing the smoke from escaping into the upper atmosphere, trapping it all at ground level. Air quality in the Central Valley and the Bay Area plummeted to levels deemed “unhealthy,” then “very unhealthy,” then finally, “hazardous.” Northern California was choking.
As an asthmatic, I had some reservations about leaving the safety and comfort of my plant-filled, oxygen-rich apartment that night. I was already questioning the sanity of anyone I saw outside that wasn’t wearing an N95 mask (to the uninitiated, these are respirator masks that you can buy at hardware stores to protect your lungs when you’re painting and sanding. They also do a pretty good job at filtering out particulate matter from wildfire smoke). But my tickets weren’t cheap, and I had been looking forward to this show for weeks. It also seemed like nobody in Sacramento was happy during those days, and I was in need of a reason to smile. So I threw on my N95, hopped on my bike, and rode off into the haze.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only one who showed up to the concert in an N95; but even if I had been, I wouldn’t have felt out of place. Plenty of people were dressed in Papa Emeritus makeup and Nameless Ghoul masks. Other goths were dressed like they were going to a night at the opera – fitting, since the Sacramento Community Center Theater is known to host more Broadway musicals than heavy metal concerts. The freaks were out in full force. I was with my people.
Shortly after I found my seat, the house lights went down, the curtains went up, and Ghost began ripping through the lead single off Prequelle, “Rats.” The lyrics evoked imagery that hit close to home considering what Northern California had been facing in the days leading up to the concert:
“In times of turmoil, in times like these; beliefs contagious, spreading disease.”
“Now all your loved ones, and all your kin, will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God.”
“This devastation left your cities to be burned; never to return, never to return.”
As coincidental as it may have been, the imagery wasn’t exactly subtle and it was hard to ignore.
This marked the beginning of the first of two sets that they played. The first set was mostly dedicated to new songs from Prequelle, along with a handful of deeper cuts from their previous albums. Lead singer Tobias Forge, under his Cardinal Copia moniker, embraced the spotlight. He was totally unfazed by our local events and drew no attention to the inferno to the north. He belted out the songs, treated the audience to snarky sexual humor in his banter, and pranced around the stage with the gusto of a ghastly Freddie Mercury. It made it seem like everything going on outside was simply part of the performance. Rather than ignore the world to provide a sense of escape, as so many concerts aim to do, the band played to their anonymity and theatrics, which embraced the turmoil to become one with it. They were completely in their element that night. For all I know, Ghost could have simply apparated onstage, born from the smoke coming out of Butte County to play the devil’s music for all those in its path.
They also closed out the first set with one of my favorite songs off Prequelle, “Life Eternal.” The closing song off an album with serious apocalyptic overtones poses one of the ultimate what-if questions that humanity has faced in its existence in a different scope – what if you had the chance to obtain eternal life? Even in the face of growing darkness, would you choose to live forever if it meant spending your existence with the ones you love the most? It may not be a question that’s ultimately worth answering, but it’s one that at least deserves some thought. I like to think at least a few people in the crowd that night chewed it over with me during the intermission that followed.
After the intermission, everyone returned to their seats for Act Two. This set mostly consisted of their hard-rocking hits from their previous albums. It was a treat for me since I had missed their tour in support of Meliora, and I had been itching to finally hear those songs live. They closed out Act Two with “Dance Macabre,” “Square Hammer,” and their cover of Roky Erickson’s “If You Have Ghosts.” These songs have disco-inspired beats and served well to get the audience moving. It felt good to get up and boogie. I had a big smile on my face the whole time.
That night, Ghost gave me a much-needed shot in the arm that ended up helping me keep my sanity intact over the next few days while the smoke was still over our heads. When it came time to put my mask back on and go home, it felt like I was simply entering another act in the show. Hell was empty, all the devils were here, and I was suddenly not out of place anymore.
Ghost did not put the fire out, nor did they make the air any cleaner, but they made the rest of the fire days a little more bearable. I listened to them exclusively whenever I had to step outside in order to remember what I felt that night. Eventually I also branched out to the likes of Slipknot, Behemoth, and Immortal – other bands that combined evil sounds with spooky theatrics to make themselves larger than life – to get in a similar mindset while introducing some variety. However, I’m most grateful to Ghost for showing me that when you’re going through hell, it helps to turn yourself into a demon. And if you can’t become one, it helps to at least pretend.
While this article was being written, California finally received some much-needed rain. The smoke cleared, and the Camp Fire was extinguished. Alex is safe, healthy, and has a roof over his head. Others aren’t so fortunate. To donate to the victims of the Camp Fire, as well as the Woolsey and Hill Fires that concurrently affected Southern California, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/cause/californiafires