A circle of women in tattered white clothing, faces and bodies ashy with powder, kneel as one of their cluster, blindfolded with lace, begins to rise and sway on tiptoes. Across from her, a male preacher decries women as necromancers who fornicate with "the Great Deceiver." As his sermon continues, the blindfolded woman is hoisted on hooks piercing the skin of her shoulders. Angelic, she hovers suspended as the preacher accuses her and all women of blasphemy and evil.
Another woman — the priestess, wearing an ornate feathered headdress and all black — moves to face the preacher. She performs a brief ritual at an altar, then gestures over a pair of coffins. Slowly the bodies of two women rise horizontally from their crypts. Suspended from hooks inserted into the skin of their rib cages and thighs, they begin spinning slowly from horizontal beams.
Suddenly a scream pierces the air and a dreadlocked woman is dragged out, connected to hooks pushed through the skin of her clavicle, which are held by the preacher via red ropes. The priestess approaches, holding aloft her athame, a sacred knife, and kneels in front of the bound woman, cutting one of the cords that holds her. She then hands the woman the knife so she can set herself free.
The preacher backs away in horror. Now released, the bound woman stands and pierces herself through her cheeks, blood trickling slowly down her neck. The lights go down. A man in the audience, seated next to me, tears in his eyes, begins to clap loudly and the rest of the sold-out crowd joins in.
This is Coven of Ashes, a group of women of all shapes, sizes and colors, brought together by ritual. Their performances, says founder Lauren Davis, honor their own liberation, bodily autonomy, dark goddesses and dark rites. On Saturday, these women, along with suspension troupe Embrace Chaos, sought to honor Alse Young, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in Massachusetts, on that same day, 370 years earlier.
The Saturday evening event, "Desecrated in Death," carried other messages layered over and into the performance. Coming a day after disgraced studio executive Harvey Weinstein’s arrest on rape charges, the performance was a timely indictment of misogyny and abuse, and a synchronistic nod to Rose McGowan, who played a witch on TV, starring in the occult drama Charmed from 2001 to 2006. McGowan, of course, was pivotal in exposing Weinstein and launching the #MeToo movement in 2017. At one point last year, the mogul retaliated by hiring a private intelligence agency to spy on the actress, discredit her and try to suppress news stories about her claims and the investigations into his misdeeds.
The triumph of women’s voices for justice in the Weinstein rape cases could be seen as a coincidence — though where witches are involved, “random” goes out the window — but Missy Munster, the woman who sliced away the cords that bound her (a symbol of cultural condemnation) to the preacher, was doing more than just a performance piece. She was cutting away at the societal restrictions that once sought to squelch her true nature, talent and drive, and by extension, she was removing those forces that stifle all women as they seek to achieve their goals.
Missy Munster is the 23-year old fabricator, makeup artist and fashion designer whose creations are an intrinsic part of the Coven of Ashes’ performances, and she debuted her latest fashion collection, Let the Devil in, as the second part of the evening’s program. Munster, raised in Palmdale where her Goth aesthetic made her a target for ignorant rubes, had been placed in a strict Catholic school by her parents, who were appalled at their daughter’s interest as a preteen in dark metal and the macabre. The abuse and bullying she experienced in school from students and faculty, and from residents of her hometown, found an outlet in the blood and gore of the horror film industry. She began her career in makeup and prosthetics fabrication as she soon as she graduated. “At school they thought I was the devil,” she says. “But as an adult, I can harness the darkness into something productive.”
During a downturn in film work, Munster took the time to develop her own formula of poly-foam. And she had a vision. “I was poor, so I made my own business,” she explains. “I made my passion my profession.” And part of that passion was music. Munster had always been into music, reading metal magazines as a child, which is how she discovered black metal and other dark genres, which fed into her interest in witchcraft and ritual magic. She began creating props and mic stands for musicians, with clients currently including Behemoth, Cradle of Filth, Marilyn Manson, Prayers and The Misfits.
One of the rare female vendors at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants), the convention in Anaheim that draws tens of thousands of musicians and industry professionals, Munster discovered Coven of Ashes when a friend, knowing of her interest in occultism and body performance, tagged her in a post for the group’s first show at Black Castle, a dark-music and extreme-performance club at the unlikely cross streets of Manchester and Hoover. Munster contacted Lauren Davis and offered to help the group with makeup. She created the coven troupe’s visual aesthetics and, having been involved herself in the suspension community since she was 18, joined the group. “Lauren became my business partner, and we’re all witches!” she exclaims happily about her association with CoA.
Let The Devil In is Munster’s second fashion collection — her work last year debuted during Fashion Week at a satellite show in the Hungarian Cultural Alliance building on Hope Street, where Coven of Ashes performed a suspension piece in Munster’s headdresses and costuming, providing a stark contrast to the basic neon polyester clubwear shown immediately after. Along with elaborate feathered and horned headwear, for her new collection, Munster has developed lacy pieces coated in one of her formulas that turns the fabric into weblike material fraught with chthonic elegance. Some pieces are adorned with animal skulls, which Munster, a vegan, ethically sources. “They are all real skulls, except for the human ones,” she says proudly. “Those are casts.”
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Munster makes her art gallery debut June 7-10 at Coagula Curatorial as part of the group show Pure Not Proper. Her collection has been making itself internationally known via Instagram, where she posts process shots, finished pieces and editorial work she has styled herself, using friends and coven members as models. For the 2018 Met Gala, Heavenly Bodies, stylists who had discovered her via social media came calling and loved the work she sent them, though in the end she was told that her pieces were too “aggressive,” “evil” and “dark” for the Vatican-approved theme and Vogue-approved celebrity guest list.
Munster was unfazed: “I prefer the dark,” she professes. “With Let the Devil in, I aim to display the beauty of brutality and oppressive darkness. I have never been the poster child for ‘heavenly,’ and I have never aimed to be.” She concludes, “I will continue to make the darkest, aggressive, scariest items you’ve ever seen, and I will do it well. Fuck heavenly bodies, I’d rather be in hell.”
And what a lovely hell it is.