To enter Killjoy’s Kastle, the lesbian feminist haunted house set up in West Hollywood just in time for Halloween, one must summon the courage to cross through an archway resembling a gaping, toothed vagina.
What lies beyond these bloody fangs is more fearsome than the vagina dentata myth that had misogynists across the globe paranoid for generations. On the other side of this doorway, through a courtyard filled with zombie folk singers warbling Melissa Etheridge covers, lies the history of the feminist, lesbian, and feminist-lesbian movements embodied in living, breathing, tongue-in-cheek glory.
Can you survive the coven of polyamorous vampiric grannies? The ball-busting dyke, smashing away at patriarchal constructs? The straw feminist hall of shame?
The brainchild of Toronto-based artists Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell, Killjoy’s Kastle was inspired in part by the 2001 documentary Hell House, about the Christian attractions that dot the heartland bringing the fear of sin to life for young people in the form of seasonal Halloween haunts. Those hell houses are meant to scare kids straight. Killjoy’s Kastle has a very different intention.
“Welcome to Killjoy’s Kastle! You are probably going to see things here tonight you’ve never seen before,” declares an undead docent named Alex who’s wrangling the line of eager patrons that weaves through WeHo’s Plummer Park, through an empty basketball court and along the tennis courts. “We have hired demented women’s studies professors to take you through the Kastle and help you understand the things that you’ll be seeing and introducing.”
“There is nudity… it’s great nudity,” winks Alex, who’s in costume tonight, a few days before Halloween. “I’m still trying to find my identity, but tonight I’m dressed as Stoic Butch… in a smock.”
Groups of visitors await their guided tours through Killjoy’s Kastle in an open-aired quad where all eyes are on keytar-wielding musician Bitch. The now L.A.-based performer once played herself in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. Tonight she’s singing a minimalist Casio cover of her 1999 Bitch + Animal queercore punk track “Pussy Manifesto.” It rings out in playful syncopation, filling the autumn air: “Pussy manifesto, pussy manifesto, pussy-pussy-pusssssy manifesto…”
Dozens of queued up patrons mingle outside restrooms labeled “Oppressed” and “Oppressor” (“it’s your choice,” we’re told), and my demented women’s studies professor makes her introductions. I realize later my guide is none other than installation co-creator Mitchell, clad in glasses and a muumuu.
She gives her welcome address at a fiery hand-drawn hell mouth labeled The Marvelous Emasculator. “I must warn you about things you’re about to see. Are you fully prepared to experience some lesbian performance art? Are you aware that you might experience a paradigm shift? You may see a ball-buster… you might smell some cunt breath.”
We enter a hallway adorned with ominously painted signs warning of the horrors to come: “Back Tickling & Hair Braiding Indoctrination Ahead.” “Super Natural Pussy.” “Paranormal Consciousness Raising.”
As we move into the next room, our “Professor” doles out Lesbian Feminism 101 lessons, gauging her students’ level of study. “Class, anyone here know what a clubby is?” she asks, peering around for raised hands. “A clubby is a hard clit. You knew what that was—you just never had a word for it before. Vocabulary! Education!”
A disquieting wail breaks out ahead from the only “hell” in Killjoy’s Kastle that doesn’t allow photography: The Paranormal Consciousness-Raiser Den. This is where the Kastle’s nudity is being performed, and rather early on in our lesbian feminist education. Not that I would presume to dictate what should or should not happen, or when, in anyone else’s personal experience, in life or in the Kastle. We round the corner and behold an exhausted stereotype personified.
Well, cackling ghost women wearing sacks over their heads, bottoms and bushes exposed, shouting in frenzied ecstasy, “Genital power!”
“The problem is, the feminist stereotype of consciousness-raising has been reduced to this empty husk of the lone suburban housewife, gazing at her vagina with a mirror in her living room,” our professor lectures. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s do it collectively! These ghosts are reclaiming that empty stereotype in a sex-positive way.”
As we leave the specters of self-exploring feminists behind, our guide cautions, pointing at the walls. “Don’t scratch your faces on the horrible lesbian textile art as we move into the next room!”
Over a dozen ghostly frights await all who enter Killjoy’s Kastle, which makes economical use of West Hollywood’s historic Long Hall, a single-story Spanish Colonial complex where AIDS advocacy group ACT UP held meetings in the ’80s. After staging the first Killjoy’s Kastle in Toronto in 2013, Logue and Mitchell adapted the experiential installation for Los Angeles, reimagining several of their original pieces.
An element new to the West Hollywood iteration is also one of its best. A “Daddy Tank” modeled off of the segregated holding cells for butch women and gender non-confirming persons in the 1950s through the ’70s is one L.A.-specific addition, according to collaborator David Evans Frantz, curator of the ONE Archive at USC Libraries.
Others sprang from the planning process, inspired by the locale, including a blood-spattered bathroom in which courageous patrons are asked to help a sister empty her diva cup.
There’s also the Intersectional Activist manically boxing with giant, swinging tampons representing capitalism, colonialism, transphobia, and more; the daunting Riot Ghoul and Gender Studies Professor Dance Party one must cross to get to the next room, while judgy performers clutching classic feminist tomes shriek, “She hasn’t READ that?!”; the Graveyard of Dead Feminist-Lesbian Ideas; and the Day-Glo lair of the Lesbian Feminist Internet Troll.
“By day, her politics are right on. By night, she’s a fucking bitch patroling the universe waiting for you to screw up, go to the wrong event, use the wrong words to describe your own experience,” narrates our Professor. “Don’t get too close to her—she’ll friend you, then she’ll fuck you up!”
Next to me, a fellow “student” whispers to their companion. “Sounds like me.”
The only familiar faces you’ll see here adorn the hallowed walls of the Straw Feminist Hall of Shame, where everyone from Beyoncé to Sarah Palin lie in judgment. Even 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon gets the tsk-tsk for giving faux-pop feminism a bad name.
The creators of Killjoy’s Kastle save the scariest horrors for the end. That’s when, at the end of the tour, each visitor is asked to sit on a white blood-stained stool and explore their feelings with a probing volunteer—the true killjoys of the Kastle. As I emerge from the darkness into this final stage of “Lesbian Hardcore Processing,” I hear Bitch in the distance singing “Pussy Manifesto” again for a different crowd and wonder if I’ve somehow become caught in an existential loop, deep in the heart of West Hollywood.
“Please state your name, your desired pronoun, your sexual orientation, and a word to describe your experience,” asks our feminist confessor. Many who are still processing the haunt seem to struggle to verbalize this meta-processing stage, which itself teeters somewhere between performance art and open discourse. Our answers vary: Fun. Thoughtful. Uncomfortable.
“It’s important to have a space after this experience to reflect on the Kastle, and the histories is delves into,” Frantz explains via email the next day. “What I think is so powerful about a project like KillJoy’s Kastle is that is creates an experiential social space for humor, play, reflection, and dialogue on histories of feminist and lesbian feminist and feminism in the present moment. We don’t really have many places to do this. Mostly it happens online and I don’t think this is really adequate. Bodies in a room together in dialogue is, at the heart, the processing that concludes the Kastle.”
What would Liz Lemon make of Killjoy’s Kastle, I wonder?
“Your guess is as good as mine!”