By Lindsay Eager
The first time I saw a Juggalo, I was nineteen.
I’d gone into a gas station to pay for ten bucks of fuel with equal parts cash and coins. On my way back out into the frigid January air, I nearly bumped into them—a man with a shaved head, a hatchet-man hoodie, and basketball shorts, and his companion, a woman with neon red hair and holey fishnet stockings under her miniskirt. Both wore clown paint, smeared by sweat and snow but still vivid enough to be memorable.
They bought soda and Hostess snacks. They drove away in a Buick covered in ICP stickers.
It was not a sight you saw every day in Utah County.
I didn’t know what a Juggalo was, but I had definitely heard of Insane Clown Posse (ICP).
There was plenty of loud, deprived music meant to shock your parents and church leaders at my junior high and high school. Kids played Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Marilyn Manson, and, of course, ICP on their Walkmans at lunch and on the bus.
It wasn’t my particular musical rebellion—I went the angry-girl-with-piano route—but I sat behind a kid who regularly wore ICP shirts beneath his trench coat in my sophomore health class. He was an absolute menace in the classroom, if you’d asked the teacher, but he was utterly kind to me. Once he wrote me a poem for Christmas called “Candy Cane Stab.”
Anywhere with a strong culture is bound to grow a strong counterculture in response. My teenage years were spent in the conservative, homogenous land of the Mormons, with its mostly white neighbors, gentle Sunday hymns, and approved local Top 40 stations.
And in the fringes, beyond where the sunshine reached, anyone who didn’t quite fit in could head to the aisles of CDs in Walmart and learn that they were not alone.
Insane Clown Posse is an American hip hop duo from Detroit. They gained popularity in the 1990s and have released sixteen albums, as well as various extended plays and compilations. To listen to their music is an experience of psychedelic chaos.
There’s a bit of dark circus vibe, there’s nightmarish rock riffs, there’s nonsensical lyrics that tout both violence and a childlike sense of storytelling. Their specific subgenre is “horrorcore,” which feels both accurate and also not enough—their songs are about final judgments, the wonder of magnets, rednecks, weed, magicians, murder, hating bigots, and more.
It’s not necessarily easy music to listen to—at least, not to the uninitiated. But perhaps it requires rumination to squeeze the juice from each song. It leans much less into metal or industrial and much more into the happy combination of club music and funk.
ICP’s lyrics are packed with cursing, descriptions of ridiculous and graphic sex, exaggerations of killing and hacking… and yet it’s all surprisingly light-hearted. Not mocking, exactly, not tongue-in-cheek, but playful. You can take the more extreme lyrics as metaphor, or you can chuckle at the imagery the way you chuckle through a dark Edgar Allan Poe tale.
But ICP gets serious with their lyrics, too, with many reflections on self-improvement that are delivered without angst and without the hyperbole of serial killer imagery or evil carnivals. The delight of their catalog is how they can dart back and forth between earnest and self-parody. If you’re ever unsure of how to interpret a lyric of theirs, especially if it’s on the more ultra-violent side, ask yourself—could this be seen as funny? Even a little bit? And there’s your answer.
DOWN TO CLOWN
The first time I learned about Juggalos was around seven years ago, when my then-fiancé, now-husband showed me a clip of a Juggalo wedding. He’d sent it to me as a joke, since we were planning our own nuptials at the time, but I was fascinated.
“They have a name?” I marveled when he told me what a Juggalo was and what it meant.
Not just a name. Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalos are not the same as Frank Sinatra’s famous Bobby Soxers, Grateful Dead’s Deadheads, or even Taylor Swift’s Swifties.
Juggalos are not only a fandom; they are an entire society.
As neutrally as I can provide, here are some of the hallmarks of the Juggalo subculture:
They come from all backgrounds, all classes, all genders, and all races (though they are majority white, cis, and working class). They often wear face paint to mimic evil clown features, bright colored hair, T-shirts, tattoos, and ICP merchandise.
They have their own language, their own emblems. Faygo is a cheap soda that Juggalos throw on each other during ICP concerts. There are hand signs, slang, and “Whoop, whoop” which is part greeting, part battle cry, part trumpet call.
This is truly a rough and brief overview; there are plenty of other elements to the subculture that aren’t official, but are Juggalo-adjacent nonetheless—junk food, whippets, overturning traditional beauty standards, weed, mushrooms, buttholes, to name a few.
And of course, there’s violence. There are Juggalos who engage in violence, Juggalos who instigate it. The group as a whole condemns senseless violence and largely insist they only resort to physical attacks when it’s a matter of protection or retaliation. But statistically, yes, there are subsets of Juggalos who are on the watchlist of law enforcement agencies—however, every culture or group contains within it members who use violence or other extremist behaviors. It does not define a group, especially if the group proclaims it as uncharacteristic or irredeemable.
Possibly the most familiar Juggalo news topic is the Gathering of the Juggalos, an annual event that is essentially what it says on the tin—it’s put on by Psychopathic Records, the label that produces ICP and other musical groups. It’s a five-day festival aptly described as Woodstock for Juggalos, and features concerts, contests, autograph sessions, farmers’ markets, seminars, karaoke, and mud wrestling, among other activities. The Gathering of the Juggalos has taken place in the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma) and has drawn nearly 100,000 people some years.
The discography of Insane Clown Posse is abundant and intricate; the subculture of their greatest, most devoted fans is even more expansive. Even if you’re not part of it, you can’t help but be a little bit fascinated by its spectacle.
All it took was that one Juggalo wedding on YouTube, and my phone’s algorithms were wired. My social media loved to bring me news of the Juggalos, and whenever it delivered, I clicked. I genuinely tried listening to ICP (not my taste, unfortunately, though I can absolutely understand the draw, because I, too, love bawdy, pearl-clutching hyperbole that’s meant to celebrate the delights and absurdities in life).
During those years, I consumed a varied diet of Juggalo tidbits:
-a man who came to the Gathering of the Juggalos and allowed people to staple dollar bills to his bald head and chest
-the year Juggalos marched on Washington to protest the FBI’s classification of Juggalos as a gang and subsequent harassment and targeting by law enforcement agencies
-many individual Juggalos under fire for petty crime, blatant homophobia and racism, and, yes, ICP lyrics cited that reflect those very ideologies, despite their cries against bigotry and discrimination
-scholarly articles arguing that Juggalos have higher incidences of suicidal ideation and drug addiction, as well as academic rebuttals arguing the exact opposite
-the tale of four men who woke one morning during the Gathering of the Juggalos to learn that the fifth man in their tent had died in the night due to drug-related causes
-Juggalo parents having Juggalo babies, dogs named Hatchet, Juggalo games at the annual gathering that involve nudity and buttholes, all in good fun
-the strict rule against displaying flags at the Gathering of the Juggalos, including but not limited to Confederate flags, Don’t Tread on Me flags, and any national flags (not even the American flag)
Before you roll your eyes at my clearly naïve display of wonder, let me just remind you of my context. I grew up in an incredibly conservative part of the country, and the views touted by the LDS church in this region are absolute: “We alone understand family. We alone prioritize family, and the world outside the church does not prioritize family, love, or anything but selfish vices.”
Family looked like a mom, a dad, multiple kids, a single-family home if you could swing it, and that was it. Occasionally a grandparent or a divorce for some variation, but the nuclear unit was the very definition of family, and the church had the corner market.
Over and over again, whether it’s in a documentary, on an Instagram story, or included as a detail in a Vice.com piece about ICP fans, the Juggalos repeat the same refrain: “It’s about family.” “We’re family here.” “ICP is about love, it’s about family.” They shout it as a group chant during ICP concerts: “FAM-UH-LEE, FAM-UH-LEE!”
Moreover, they don’t just say it; they show it.
Nestled among the clickbait about Juggalo poop-slapping each other’s faces (which is just what you’re imagining it to be) or having fried chicken buffets with ranch dressing fountains at their weddings, you find the actual details about how many Juggalos take care of each other like family.
They loan money. They buy each other dinner. They share their weed and mushrooms and whippets at the Gathering of the Juggalos, and they treat hydration with an almost pushy importance, handing out water bottles, encouraging each other to drink.
They greet each other by name, even if the only time they see each other is on a concert floor once a year. They paint each other’s makeup. They hug you if you need it. They cheer you on if you need it. They make you laugh, let you cry, chase down people who caused you harm.
They lift heavy things. They help you move. They hand over clothes if you’re lacking. They provide each other with job referrals, rides, housing, if necessary. They give emotional support through addiction, abuse, trauma.
Like a family.
Again, I don’t want to gloss over the problematic aspects that can surface in this group. There is anti-intellectualism. There is racism. There is sexual assault and objectification of women. There is homophobia and transphobia. There is casual distribution of dangerous substances. If you want to find it, you don’t have to comb through the dark places of the internet—you’ll find it.
But just like conservative or religious groups do not hold a corner market on family, the Juggalos do not hold a corner market on harmful, hateful ideologies. To focus on ICP fans’ most controversial and distasteful practices can be elitist, especially when recent events have given us the perfect opportunity to view the Juggalos at their best.
JUGGALOS IN THE PANDEMIC
In April 2020, my algorithms were working overtime, bringing me every bit of information about the impending pandemic. It was a time of high anxiety, high engagement. I clicked every headline that seemed like it would be the missing piece for me, the final conclusion that would promise my family would be okay.
And then I saw this.
“Due to the spread of COVID-19, the annual Gathering of the Juggalos will be postponed until 2021,” said the Rolling Stone article, a mildly interesting announcement, sure. But the next quote from ICP itself stuck me in the gut:
“The bottom line is that we REFUSE to risk even ONE Juggalo life by hosting a Gathering during these troubling times… BE SAFE. Watch your step and take it easy. You can’t replace what you mean to our team. Without you, tell me where the fuck we’d be? Whoop whoop.”
ICP refused to risk a single Juggalo’s health or safety, even though it meant canceling their main source of annual income and demonstration of community. You’re welcome to contrast that against many official policies released by various state and federal leaders during the pandemic—more proof that to the Juggalos, family is more than a buzzword. It’s a way of living. It’s as real as a shaken-up can of Faygo. And your family is worth protecting with everything you have.
During the first two years of the pandemic, Juggalos reached out to each other via Facebook, Reddit, and ICP forums like Faygoluvers. They checked in. They donated some 300 T-shirts to be sewn into masks. They passed money around so people could make rent, buy groceries, pay bills. They swapped advice and commiseration for parenting during quarantine, for isolation, for an uncertain future.
And throughout all this, they never, ever let go of the music. If Juggalos are family, the music of ICP is Daddy and Mommy, the perfect little nuclear unit.
THE DARK CARNIVAL
What comes first? Feeling like an outsider, or finding ICP and realizing you had never really fit in until now?
The Juggalos are an interesting group to watch in 2022, because for nearly twenty years now, we’ve had the internet, which means we had ways to find our people. (My first online people? A forum for fans of Xena: Warrior Princess when I was about ten years old.) Before the internet, your best bet at generating a found family was to show up in person—concerts, plays, book readings, church activities, sports events, college, anywhere you might find like-minded people, and then you’d have to awkwardly make eye contact, initiate conversation, try to create a new connection out of thin air.
It's no wonder many people felt overwhelmed by the amount of emotional work required to find a community. It’s no wonder many people found solace in the tracks of their most beloved albums, music that provided a mirror for one’s darkest, most desperate despairs and longings.
It’s no wonder bands like ICP served as an ecosystem for togetherness. Among all the shadows of the dark carnival, their songs shine a light into every Juggalo’s heart—letting them know they are not alone, never alone.
But now, to come into the fandom of ICP means joining a tradition. A group. You no longer have to source your people through clumsy meet-ups or scan the web for other weirdos who will have you. You listen to ICP, you come to the shows, and you immediately become family. They’ll take you however you are, however you come, with whatever baggage you bring with you.
It helps if you bring whippets and Faygo, sure—but more importantly, bring your darkness (and a set of EARPEACE concert earplugs). Juggalos are ready to help you slap some clown paint on it and delight in your miraculous demons.
Lindsay Eagar is the author of several novels for children and adults, including HOUR OF THE BEES and most recently THE PATRON THIEF OF BREAD. She lives in the mountains of Utah with her husband and their two daughters.