Krampus: The Grinch That Saved Christmas

by Whatsblem the Pro

St. Nicholas and the L.A. Krampus Troupe - IMAGE: Phil Glau/Al Ridenour

St. Nicholas and the L.A. Krampus Troupe – IMAGE: Phil Glau/Al Ridenour

UPDATE 12/05/2013: If you are planning to attend the Krampus Ball on December 7th, PLEASE NOTE that due to the popularity of the event, it has been moved to a larger venue. The Krampus Ball will be held at 
Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S Ave 57, LA, CA 90042.

We’ve told you about the Cacophony Society; we’ve told you about their role in creating Burning Man, flash mobs, the film Fight Club, and SantaCon; we’ve introduced you to Al Ridenour and his psychomedical-cum-burlesque arts troupe, the Art of Bleeding.

Al Ridenour is not one to rest on his laurels. His latest project, Krampusfest, is rapidly coming together in Los Angeles for this year’s Yuletide.

Working from an idea by comrade-in-arts and co-producer Al Guerrero, Ridenour, Guerrero, and the troupe – many of whom have been active both in Cacophony and at Burning Man – are poised to unleash a robust echo of traditional European Krampus festivals on Southern California. Wearing elaborate, unique Krampus costumes made largely by hand and from scratch, the L.A. Krampus Troupe will make scheduled and unscheduled appearances throughout the month of December.

Krampus is a Yuletide boogie man who acts as the yang to Saint Nicholas’ yin. With a cruel switch of birch wood in hand, he takes care of the naughty list from December 5th until the 21st, punishing children for their misbehavior. Regional traditions vary; depending on where you wander, Krampus morphs and mutates into Knecht Ruprecht, Hans Ruprecht, Rumpknecht, Rû Clås, Bûr, Bullerclås, Zwarte Piet, Père Fouettard, and others. He arrives traveling with Saint Nicholas, and his various guises range from that of a wizardly old bearded man who looks like a second Saint Nick, to a Moor in fancy dress. . . but the canonical Krampus, the oldest of Krampuses, is a hideous demonic or demon-like abomination, first seen in obscure medieval iconography depicting St. Nicholas taming a chained-up demon.

Typically, the European traditions involve young men of the community dressing as the local interpretation of Krampus, having a parade accompanied by Saint Nicholas to mark his arrival, and running loose in the streets bearing chains and/or bells. Sometimes they carry birch switches or whips, sometimes they distribute booby-prize gifts (like lumps of coal), and sometimes, in the milder traditions, they hand out candy. It is often customary to offer them schnapps or other strong drink, to placate them.

Krampusfest, like SantaCon and like the Art of Bleeding, carries a sulfurous whiff of mayhem to us from a less safe and more primitive world. It reaches through and beyond the lurid horror commonly found in original-version fairy tales, in which brutality, beheadings, immolation, dismemberment, and horrible, violent death of all kinds is featured prominently; Krampusfest reaches deeper and farther back for its elements of terror. One does not touch the truest archetype of Krampus without touching all the implied menace of prehistory; the tradition has its deepest roots in the adrenal, primitive-dark sympathetic magic of forgotten hunters gathered ’round fires on the edges of eldritch forests. That primal, mist-obscured, stag-headed terror of which Krampus is an agent will allow Krampusfest to carry out its mission with sublety; it will surely be wild, but the blatant mayhem and hobo-style public drunkenness of an old-school SantaCon wassail won’t be necessary.

The website of Ridenour’s L.A.-based Krampus troupe explains:

“While the Cacophony Society was known for a general attitude of cynicism and satiric manhandling of sacred cows, Krampusfest encourages an inquisitive and respectful regard for the practice of Krampus traditions (along with playful reinterpretations!). Krampus Los Angeles is in correspondence with Krampus groups overseas in an effort to ground our activities in authentic practice and understanding of the tradition.”

Al Ridenour works on a Krampus mask - PHOTO: Phil Glau

Al Ridenour works on a Krampus mask – PHOTO: Phil Glau

I caught up with Al Ridenour early this week for a Q and A:

Whatsblem the Pro:
Al, what is Krampus?

Al Ridenour:
Well, the name probably comes from Austria, but it’s also used in Southern Germany and elsewhere. He’s a folkloric devil character who basically plays bad cop to St. Nicholas’ good cop, when Nicholas is off doing his gift-giving. . . and I don’t mean Santa Claus here. All this mythology is associated with December 6th, the feast day of the 4th century saint. The Nicholas figure dresses like a medieval bishop and is accompanied by a few Krampuses on house visits.

There are also Krampus runs, which consist of lots of these groups, each traditionally with their own Nicholas marching down the street. The bigger Krampus runs, the ones people here are more likely to see videos of, can be very elaborate with pyrotechnic effects and such, but in the smaller Alpine villages where this stuff originates there’s not really an organized parade route; it’s more just like a bunch of groups running around the town all at once — and there’s more risk, i.e., fun; that is, spectators get chased and get some light smacks with switches. . . especially women.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How much of that will you be reviving in L.A.?

Al Ridenour:
We’re actually trying to do all of it. We put the word out offering a traditional home visit, but somehow no one has jumped on that. Maybe something about having their kids scared shitless.

Actually, I should say that kids are never really smacked with switches. We certainly wouldn’t be doing that, and from talking to Austrians and what I see in videos, it’s really just about the Krampus throwing scary theatrical tantrums and rattling his chains and cowbells.

Whatsblem the Pro:
But you’ll be doing a Krampus run?

Al Guerrero suiting up - PHOTO: Phil Glau

Al Guerrero suiting up – PHOTO: Phil Glau

Al Ridenour:
Yes, a run and some other events. We’re doing a public run in conjunction with the Downtown Art Walk on December 12th. The Krampus L.A. Troupe will be there in full costume, and we even have an ‘Austrian’ band marching alongside. They’re actually a Balkan band, the Free Range Orkestar, but the one I talked to lived in Austria, and they’re learning Austrian-style folk tunes. So there’ll be music and switch-swinging and we’ll have a Saint Nick giving out some sweets, too.

Whatsblem the Pro:
How many of you are there in the troupe? Can other people just join you in costume?

Al Ridenour:
Yes. That’d be great. We just want to touch base with any participants first. We’re just asking them to arrive early to check in with us to go over some guidelines. Because switches are involved, and it’s a new potentially scary tradition, we just want to take that precaution.

There are about fifteen of us with full costumes, maybe even a couple more. Some people are still working on stuff, so I’m not sure.

Whatsblem the Pro:
The costumes look pretty elaborate. Do you expect a lot of people to show up in full Krampus suits?

Al Ridenour:
Well, that’d be wonderful, but I know the suits I made took quite a lot of time. Unfortunately, I don’t know a way to do it quickly or that cheaply, really.

At first you might just think “gorilla suit plus devil mask,” but if you look at the European costumes, there’s much, much more going on. Still, simplified costumes are okay, particularly for the other events. In fact that’s part of the reason we added other masquerade-type events, so that folks who just want to wear furry boots and their horned headdress but don’t want to go whole hog will also be able to take part. We’re doing Krampus Ball, and a Krampus Rumpus where we’re mixing up traditional stuff — like an Austrian brass band, and a Bavarian group doing traditional dance and music accompanied by alpenhorn — with goofier costumed parody bands like The Kramps and Krammpstein. Of course, the Krampus troupe will attack those events too.

Jason Hadley (foreground) and Al Guerrero (right) ponder a naughty child's fate - PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Jason Hadley (foreground) and Al Guerrero (right) ponder a naughty child’s fate – PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Whatsblem the Pro:
So how did you make those costumes? They’re wonderful.

Al Ridenour:
Everyone approached it somewhat differently. There are certainly some elements you can buy ready-made; in fact, you can buy a whole traditional suit ready-made online from European websites, if you want. . . but it’ll cost you a grand or more.

We did a lot from scratch as well as adapting some ready-made stuff. I’m not really sure how everyone made what they did. My masks, I actually used lots and lots of pieces of cardboard, hot-glued together. Then over that, coats of Bondo mixed with Fiberglass resin. Some epoxy putty details, some more tooling of the plastic, and you’re ready for paint.

The horns are all real; I used goat and kudu on my biggest one. In Europe, the masks are traditionally carved from wood. I did sculpt my teeth from wood, but I’m just not a woodcarver. I tried to emulate that chiseled look in what I made, though.

The fur suits are a combination of real fur from old thrift store coats, as well as sewn wefts of bulk synthetic hair sold for braided extensions, along with faux-fur yardage. There’s a lot of raggedness and wisps of long fur on traditional suits, so even if you buy a werewolf, gorilla, or Yeti suit, you need to doll it up a bit. We’re hoping to do some workshops next year, after we generate some interest and get the public acquainted with the look this year.

Whatsblem the Pro:
It does sound like a lot of work. So why are you doing it? Why Krampus? Is this a sort of next step beyond Santacon/Santarchy? An antidote for the creeping sanitization of Santa crawls?

Al Ridenour:
There’s no way to get around the comparison, especially since it was some of us from the old Cacophony Society that started that ball rolling. Honestly, I haven’t been part of that for going on twenty years, so I wouldn’t know anything about sanitized, but I do know it can be fun if it’s new to you.

I was there for the Santa gathering of the tribes in Portland in 1996, when Santa Palahniuk was along taking notes and we ended up facing off with riot police in full riot gear, so after that they started seeming a little anti-climactic, I guess. I organized one, I think, the year later, where the Santas attended the gun show they used to have out at the Pomona Fairplex. That made for lots of nice photo opportunities, but the joke just sort of got old.

The real problem with things like this is, as the numbers grow, the challenge and adrenaline rush diminishes. When it’s just a few of you out there, you don’t feel as safe; there’s more individual risk. As the safety-in-numbers factor sets in, the rush diminishes. Because we’re not just talking about a $35 Santa suit you can buy the day before you get here, we have some built-in safeguards against this thing becoming the same kind of mob scene.

Whatsblem the Pro:
But isn’t the Krampus run you’re doing sanctioned by virtue of being part of the Art Walk?

Al Ridenour:
Yes, and that’s a very good point. It does make it less challenging, but we’ll still be encountering people who have never heard of this tradition, and who won’t like what looks like a bunch of Satanists armed with bundles of wooden sticks. There is always the danger of some radical misunderstanding.

Krampus isn’t just a funny visual spectacle, like a mob of drunken Santas. He directly confronts and interacts; he swats at people, for heaven’s sake. The performers need to be on their toes to make wise judgments about who seems to comprehend what’s happening and might want to be playfully chased, and who to stay away from. It’ll be a balancing act. . . and beyond that one event, we’ll also be doing a secret guerilla-style appearance on December 6th, just to honor the traditional date and the rambunctiousness of the tradition as it’s practiced closer to its source, in the smaller villages where the Krampus runs wild and isn’t presented as a parade.

Mike Biggie strikes a menacing pose - PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Mike Biggie strikes a menacing pose – PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Whatsblem the Pro:
But again, why Krampus, and why now?

Al Ridenour:
This really just seemed like the last possible moment to make this our own, before someone else took over the tradition, reshaped it, and sold it back to us. Krampus was a figure I always felt close to. My B.A. was in German Culture and Literature, and I had grandparents who spoke German at home, so I felt a little possessive once I discovered him. Then, way back in college, when I first read those passages in The Golden Bough that you and I were talking about, it just set my little heart a-pattering and I began digging for more info. I’ve been watching this thing catch fire with the compilations of Krampus postcards appearing in books and circulating online, and the next thing I know, I’m hearing about Krampus cameos on The Colbert Report, The Office, American Dad, and The Venture Brothers. This year I discover that even Walmart is selling a shitty Krampus mask, via their website at least. I guess I felt like I was losing my intimate connection with my buddy Krampus. The only way left to get closer to Krampus was to become Krampus.

Whatsblem the Pro:
And convince a bunch of other people to become Krampus, too?

Al Ridenour:
No convincing was needed; that’s just my story. The others in the group had already grown their own attachments, I’m sure.

What happened, actually, was that in 2012 I finally made it to Austria and Germany to attend some Krampus events, and in the evening after I came home from my first event, I opened an e-mail in my hotel room to find that my friend Al Guerrero from Cacophony was announcing the creation of an L.A. Krampuslauf — a Krampus run — so I was just all over that.

Maybe there was also some aspect among us of wanting to give SantaCon a second try. I remember doing lots of reading on the history of Christmas, and trying to tell reporters that what we were doing was really, in a sense, the ‘real’ way to celebrate the holiday, in that drunken costumed street theatrics have an older historical association with Christmas than the red suit we were all wearing. In Europe they had wassailing. In early America, they called wassail groups Callithumpians. These wassailers would blacken their faces, or cross-dress, or turn their clothes inside-out, and bang on pots and pans and light fireworks while singing drunken songs. When I read about it, it felt a lot more like what we were doing.

I don’t think we could have stated it quite like this at the time. . . but in a way, I think you could fairly say that with SantaCon, we were breaking down that wholesome Coca-Cola character. We were besmirching his reputation by drunken assholery, and thus destroying him so that he could re-emerge in his original form.

Whatsblem the Pro:
There’s The Golden Bough again: Kill the ceremonial king, so he can be born anew. So Spring will come! But Coca-Cola Santa came from Madison Avenue.

Al Guerrero wears the traditional chains - PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Al Guerrero wears the traditional chains – PHOTO: Jon Alloway

Al Ridenour:
Yes. That version of Santa Claus was created to get people off the streets, to turn the holiday into a quiet family-centered idyll.

The popularization of Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was really part of a concerted effort by New York bluebloods to create something closer to the Santa we know. It’s true he may have been somewhat standardized by those Coke ads, but the basic idea goes back to that poem. . . and what’s funny is that the illustrations that went with it were drawn by a German immigrant, Thomas Nast, and both what he drew, and the poem itself, are still close to the German Belsnickel — or “Pelt Nicholas” — who is more of a sly trickster character than our old familiar Santa. He didn’t leave gifts in your home; he threw treats out into the street to bait kids. They would go for the treats, and he’d crack the whip he carried, to send them scattering. It was much closer to a game, and with his face blackened by soot and the ragged animal pelts he wore, he’s really only a hop, skip, and a jump from Krampus.

The real kicker was the cowbells. Krampus, in a few remote regions, cracks a whip. . . but everywhere he wears cowbells. This noise-making tradition associated with the holidays goes back to the pagan idea of driving away bad spirits at turning points in the year whenever they are likely to menace us mortals. We still have this notion preserved in the idea of New Year’s fireworks and tolling church bells, but it was also part of these costumed Christmas riots with their pot-and-pan banging.

When I heard the cowbells on the belts of the first Krampuses I encountered in Europe, it really hit me that this was my kind of cacophony! I just hope we can make a good run of it.

Whatsblem the Pro:
I hope you can, too. Wassail, Al!

For information on upcoming Krampus L.A. events, visit the troupe’s event calendar at

Ashley ‘Actually’ Huizenga lays down an informative Krampus carol

SAY YOU LOVE SANTA: A Cautionary Tale

Image: AFP

Image: AFP

by Whatsblem the Pro

We all know there was more of a police presence than ever at Burning Man 2013, along with several alarming law enforcement innovations, like the partnering of officers from different agencies for the duration of the event. Vehicle searches, often with K-9 units in on the fun, were eyebrow-raisingly common right up until well after the event was over. Numerous reports have been bandied about of aggressive traffic stops for trivial infractions like driving seven MPH in a five MPH zone; there was even an incident in which a DPW worker was reportedly threatened with sex offender status for peeing on the playa, and handled like a potentially dangerous perp who might need to be gunned down because he had a knife on his belt.

None of this is acceptable. It’s not fair, however, to be one-sided about it and simply blame the police as the sole responsible entity in creating and perpetuating the problem. The police certainly should be held to high standards and made to answer for any and all abuses they commit; the Org, too, should be questioned and pressured to find a way to keep local, State, and Federal agencies nearby but at arm’s length during the burn. As self-reliant burners, though, shouldn’t we be looking to our own responsibilities and setting our own bar high as well?

As individuals, we’re never powerless against the police, unless individual officers choose to abandon lawfulness themselves and behave like jackbooted thugs. Even then, our power is not diminished; it is simply not manifest until we can communicate with higher authorities like Watch Commanders, Internal Affairs personnel, and judges. . . which is why it’s so important to write down things like time and date, badge numbers, etc. Just remember: cops can be pretty tricky without breaking the law, and most of your rights may as well not exist at all if you don’t know what they are.

With all this in mind, I decided to use the power of shenanigans to test a random sampling of burners on their ability to handle a police encounter properly.

*       *       *       *       *

It’s shortly after dawn on the morning after Gate and the weather is perfect. The playa is burgeoning with new people; long lines snail-track their way through the checkpoints and into Black Rock City. Heavily-laden vehicles creep through every neighborhood, seeking their friends or just an open spot to set up camp.

I’ve been burning all night, and in the cool of the early morning I’m still comfortable wearing the full Santa suit I’ve been sporting. I’ve run into my friends the Mag Aoidhs, and they’ve invited me to a tea ceremony at their camp, featuring some very fine teas the likes of which I have not tasted since I returned from my long trip to China.

We’ve been talking about the troubling stories of encounters with over-zealous law enforcement that have been circulating, and in a lighter moment my friend points to a device mounted on the back of his bicycle. “I have a siren,” he says with child-like joy. His finger jabs at the button, and my own inner seven-year-old thrills at the impressively realistic sound and sheer volume of the thing.

A light bulb goes off over my head.

“I have an idea. . . follow my lead,” I tell him as I step out into the road. A car is approaching, and I get right in front of it and start rolling my hand in an authoritative circle at the driver: keep on coming. As the car inches toward me, Sean hits the siren, and I show the driver my open palm in the universal signal to stop.

The driver rolls down his window, puzzled, as I come around to the side of the vehicle. I nail him with a steely gaze and tell him that I’m going to need to see his license and registration. For a moment he seems taken in; then he turns to his passenger and they exchange significant looks. “No way,” they say, laughing, and I grin too. “Welcome back!”

After a similar experience with the next vehicle that happens by, I begin to think that people just don’t respect Santa Claus the way they respect other authority figures. . . but the third vehicle changes my mind. It’s a small Mutant Vehicle driven by a countercultural-looking fellow in his middle 40s; when I ask for his license and registration, he admits uncomfortably that he lacks both.

“I haven’t had time to register it yet.” His tone of voice is both apologetic and tinged with anxiety. I shake my head slowly, tsking ominously, one fist on my hip in a bossy pose.

“You know what’s going to happen now, right?” I am staring daggers into his eyes.

Just as I’m about to ask him for permission to search his vehicle, he blurts out hopefully that taking the seat off would render his vehicle perfectly legal, and I have to agree that this is the case. He has the necessary tools in his hand when I tell him it’s just a joke.

“Ha! Thanks,” he laughs good-naturedly. “I half suspected you were just messing with me, and I actually do know what you’re supposed to say to cops, but I didn’t want to take the chance.” He looks sheepish and shrugs. “You’re pretty believable.”

“As what?” I ask. “I haven’t identified myself as a police officer; I haven’t shown a badge; I’m not wearing a gun. I didn’t impersonate a policeman, I impersonated Santa Claus. . . and you bent your knee to Santa and did what you were told.”

“I guess that’s true,” he replies. “I’d better work on that.” He hugs me and we part friends.

By this time I’ve got spectators, and I’m hitting my stride with the role. I actually manage to look bored and slightly irritated as I step in front of a big white van and stop it in the name of love.

The driver and his passenger are 20-something males, and something tells me they’re first-timers. When I tell them I’m going to need to see the driver’s license and registration, they ask me if it’s a joke. I laserbeam the kid at the wheel with my eyes. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, sir. . . now shut that off and give me your license and registration.”

Incredibly, he shuts off the engine. A moment later he’s pushing his vehicle registration into my hands. He digs out a large trifold wallet and opens it, pulls a card with the words NEW YORK across the top out of an inner pocket. He’s got two more in there just like it, and when I demand to know why, he starts falling to pieces with nervousness.

“No no, it’s cool,” he assures me breathlessly. “This one is my learner’s permit, this one is my motorcycle endorsement, and this is my license.” His hands are shaking visibly as he pulls the other two cards out of their little leather pockets and hands them to me as well. I furrow my brow and pull a suspicious look as I scrutinize the cards, looking back and forth between the pictures and his face.

“Alright, this looks legit,” I say at last, and hand him back the learner’s permit and the motorcycle endorsement card. “but whose name is this on your vehicle registration?”

“It’s my mother’s,” he says, and I know he’s lying.

“Your mother’s?” I ask with eyebrows up.

“Well, my stepmother’s.”

“Oh? Then why does she have a different last name than you? She’s married to your father, right?”

The kid starts coming unraveled right before my eyes. “OK, OK,” he babbles desperately. “She’s just a friend of my family, but she told me to say that!”

I signal my friend to come over, and hand him the kid’s license and registration. “Frank, I think you’d better run these.” My friend, whose name is not Frank, nods alertly and disappears into his tent. We don’t even have a vehicle, just a Santa suit and a tent. . . but the kid in the van and his passenger both reek of fear.

I take it to the next level, leaning in and drilling straight through the driver’s head with my eyes. “You boys got any drugs in the vehicle?”

They are horrified. Four hands go up in protest; two heads shake frantically ‘no.’

“Look, you can give me your drugs now and I can go easy on you, or I can call the dogs in and find them anyway. You know what’s going to happen if I have to call the dogs in, right?”

“I swear we don’t have anything,” fibs the driver, perspiring freely in the cool morning air.

I decide to press my luck. “You mind if I look in the back?” I ask through a nasty smile.

He freezes for a moment and then his ashen face crumples. “Okay,” he says in a voice laden with utter defeat.

Image: King Diamond / Worth 1000

Image: King Diamond / Worth 1000

As I go around to the side of the van with the big door on it, the passenger suddenly grows a brain and half a ball. “Hey,” he protests, “what’s your probable cause?”

I level a rigid index finger at his nose. “The driver of this vehicle just gave me permission to search it,” I bite off quietly but angrily. “I suggest you keep your mouth shut, sir.” My patsies exchange a hurt, broken glance with each other and bite their own lips.

I open the sliding door of the van and discover two of their friends inside, hiding from me. They cower openly, prepared for the worst. Just then ‘Frank’ comes out of the tent with the paperwork. “Hey,” he calls to me, “it looks like this guy has a warrant for failure to appear.”

The driver loses it completely and wails “No, no, I swear, I got that cleared up!” He’s brown-towning himself with terror, and his friends are keying up right behind him.

“Well boys,” I cluck, “you know what happens now. . . WELCOME TO BLACK ROCK CITY!”

The tension thus released is like a taut steel cable snapping. The front-seat passenger holds his head and screams incoherently; the driver climbs, monkey-like, out the window of his van without opening the door, straight up onto the roof. His entire body spasms and quakes in silence for a moment until he gets enough of a grip on himself to cry out at the top of his lungs: “SANTA IS A FUCKER!”

When relative calm returns and he’s back on terra firma, I put an avuncular hand on the driver’s still-shaking shoulder. “Listen,” I say, “the ACLU has a monkey hut over at 5:20 and F; go there any day between 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM, and they’ll give you a necklace with a pamphlet on it that tells you how to talk to the police. . . because you suck at this!”

How many of us suck at talking to cops? Considering the legal backup we are gifted with in Black Rock City, we are protected like nowhere else when we are on the playa. The ACLU is there during the burn; after the burn, Lawyers for Burners is there to lend you a helping hand in court. The Org itself is interested in collecting your anecdotes regarding contact with the police, though what good that might do you is anyone’s guess, as they don’t much seem to care how many cops invade our city to brush aside our hard-working Black Rock Rangers and conduct constant unwanted and unnecessary surveillance on our population.

The point is, we’re all responsible for some part of the problem, and we all have to do our part. We all need to put pressure on the Org to keep the police outside the city waiting to be called in, and not roaming around in it, looking for trouble. We all need to go through the proper channels and steps to hold individual cops responsible when they overstep the bounds of their authority. We all must see to it that without resisting or being confrontational, we politely and appropriately assert our rights.

Be self-reliant. Educate yourself, burner!

Flash Santas

Perhaps CNet felt a bit left out from my round-up of Burning Man’s recent media blitz. The computer industry news site has just published a story on Burning Man founder John Law’s new book Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Flash mobs of 35 Santas – in the days before text messages. Before email, even.



Although the police sometimes thought Cacophony Society members like John Law, left, were up to no good, Law and his fellow Santas were usually just trying to help people enjoy life more. A new book, ‘Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society’ aims to help people understand the influence of the group on modern digital culture.

(Credit: Michele Mangrum)

OAKLAND, Calif. — If you live in Austin, San Francisco, New York, or any number of other cites, the sight of hundreds of Santa Clauses prowling around, ducking in and out of bars, department stores, or parks as part of the annual SantaCon has probably become second nature.

But imagine seeing dozens of St. Nicks walking toward you on a San Francisco street in 1994 or 1995 , when the Internet was anything but ubiquitous, when culture jamming was a phrase no one had heard before, and Improv Everywhere, the Yes Men, and flash mobs were still a thing of the future.

“You could show up with 30 Santas, as we did,” said John Law, an early SantaCon participant, “and [people would] literally be bewildered, and in shock….You can see it in people’s faces. Literally, their jaws are hanging open in shock. People hadn’t thought of it” before.

Though not a founder, Law was one of the first members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, a loosely-knit group of pranksters, adventurers, and experimenters that helped put SantaCon on the cultural map in the mid-1990s.

Now, a new book, titled “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society,” goes a long way toward introducing the group, and its exploits, to new audiences more familiar with taking in planned, packaged entertainment than with being responsible for their own excitement and fun.

The motto of the San Francisco Cacophony Society was “you may already be a member.” That’s because, while actual membership may never have been very large, the Cacophony Society was really all about enabling out-of-the-box thinkers to find their people.

Law and fellow editors Carrie Galbraith and Kevin Evans put the book together because there seemed to be a danger that the memory of the Cacophony Society, and the reasons why it mattered so much, might fade away. As Galbraith put it, “the story [of the Cacophony Society] needed to be told.” Before it was too late.

Spawn of the Suicide Club
In 1977, a small, secretive, group of San Franciscans began pulling off a series of pranks and other adventures built around helping the participants challenge their personal fears and explore their fantasies. Known as the Suicide Club, for the next five years, its members did things like climb the Golden Gate Bridge and ride San Francisco’s Cable cars naked. But few were part of the Suicide Club, and by 1982, some felt that its exclusionary nature wasn’t sustainable.

One favorite pastime of the Cacophony Society — and its precursor, the Suicide Club — was climbing bridges, especially the Golden Gate Bridge.

(Credit: John Law)

But the ethos of the Suicide Club had hardly withered, and in its place, the San Francisco Cacophony Society filled the void. This time, though, the goal was to be more open. Anyone could organize an event, and its regular newsletter became the best place for people who had probably never been part of the popular crowd to find out the craziest, and oddest, ways to have fun. “It wasn’t about fashion, and there was nothing cool about the Cacophony Society,” Galbraith said. “It was a bunch of nerds [who] had our own ideas, and our own ways of thinking.”

Whether it was attending marathon watchings of the TV show “The Prisoner,” or sneaking into abandoned missile silos or having dinners on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cacophony Society was all about promoting silly — and helping those for whom silly living is essential have people to play with.

Zone Trips
A signature of the Cacophony Society was a series of events called Zone Trips. The idea was to take a group of people into an alien environment with no preconceptions, Law said. “You were opening up yourself to any interpretation of any environment.”

Added Galbraith, “We made a decision that once you stepped over a line, anything that happened to you was fair game. It was almost like you changed your consciousness. All rules were off. All bets were off.”

One of the very first Zone Trips involved a bunch of Cacophonists jumping in a van and driving to Los Angeles for the weekend. Galbraith’s family was fifth-generation L.A., “but I saw and did things in L.A. I’d never heard of,” she said, things like sneaking into buildings that had appeared in movies or climbing the Hollywood sign.

The most famous Zone Trip was unquestionably the fourth. In 1990, Burning Man was already four years old. But that year, police in San Francisco refused organizers the right to burn their wooden effigy of a man on the beach, citing safety concerns.

It fell to the Cacophony Society to propose an alternate venue: Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, one of the most remote places in the country and a seven-hour drive from San Francisco. A small collection of Cacophonists (and Burning Man’s founder, Larry Harvey) took the trip, and crossing the line they drew in the desert sand, the group inadvertently kicked off what has since become one of the most influential counterculture events in the world.

But the Cacophonists went back to their normal lives. They had bridges to climb, billboards to liberate, Santas to prowl with, and so much more.

One arm of the Cacophony Society was the Billboard Liberation Front, which made temporary modifications to make social commentary on public billboards.

(Credit: A. Leo Nash)

The end was in sight, though. An organization built around local experiences and a newsletter informing members of upcoming nearby events didn’t have a place in a modern communications world.

Whereas groups like Improv Everywhere blossomed in the age of YouTube, thanks to the ability to build a huge audience, and, of course, grow a base of participants — the Cacophonists were discovering that their thing wasn’t compatible with instant, global, digital communications. “Cacophoney as it was is simply not possible necessary today,” Galbraith lamented. “The Internet completely supplanted any need for a newsletter….Geography was (vital). It was all based on place, and the Internet changed all that.”

Plus which, Cacophony’s own spawn was stealing its thunder. As Law put it, the advent of the Internet was only part of the problem the organization was facing. Perhaps more problematic was that, as he put it, Burning Man was “kind of sucking the air out of the room.”

To be fair, Law was a co-founder (and co-owner) of Burning Man, and eventually had a falling out with that event’s leadership that culminated in a (now-settled) lawsuit.

Still, the Cacophony Society was very much an analog group, and by the late 1990s, the world had gone very digital. As a result, the society began to fade away until it no longer existed as a distinct organization.

Yet its spirit remains very much alive. Today’s regular giant public pillow fights, zombie marches, flash mobs, and so many other events found around the world owe it a spiritual debt. Yet some may have forgotten — or, perhaps never knew — how much fun can be had taking your own entertainment in your own hands.

“I’ve been teaching [about the Cacophony Society, among other things] for the last 12 years,” Galbraith said. “I have never once encountered a student who wasn’t hanging on ever word. They want to know. They didn’t encounter this…They’ve got [social games] but they’re not thinking in terms of ways of playing with their social environment.”

More to the point, it’s what happens after those lessons that really matters. “I just tell them the stories,” Galbraith added, “and they go and do whatever they want. That’s the whole idea. You may already be a member. Anything you can think of, you can do.”