Taraka Larson was born on the birthday of Ludwig Van Beethoven in Houston, Texas, homeland of DJ Screw. She is one half of Prince Rama and founder of NASA (Now Age of Spiritual Aesthetics), touring and exhibiting her art internationally alongside her sister and other half of Prince Rama, Nimai Larson. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
(photo credit: Brian Chippendale)
On tour in the summer of 2013, we crossed the North Carolina border under the wing of a giant storm. It was pitch black and the rain was slanting sideways — and our van was careening dangerously close to the steep drop-offs of the Appalachian Mountains. We were the only ones on the road for miles, save for the occasional trucker belligerently driving with his high beams on, making the world momentarily disappear under a haze of yellow. The lightning seemed to be spelling out some kind of code to us: bright neon fingers etching out the vague shapes of an ancient alphabet, illuminating the empty moonscape and making it daylight for milliseconds.
The road itself glistened with amorphous whitish debris, and, the harder we looked, the more it appeared to be undulating like television static. Slowly, we came to the eerie realization that what we were staring at was a mass of tiny frogs. The highway was covered in them. It was surreal as fuck. If the apocalypse was going down tonight, it was totally doing it by the Book.
We blazed down the parkway, praying to the storm gods that we would make it in time for our midnight set in Belmont, North Carolina. At the stroke of twelve, we pulled up to the address that we had been given for the venue. Could this be right? We were parked in front of a dimly lit abandoned grain silo adorned with a lone, hand-painted banner that read “THE HAUNTED MILL.” It was nowhere near Halloween, so why would anyone go to a haunted house? Yet, when we stepped inside, there was the usual all-ages show crowd — scores of drunken teenagers — milling around, and a crude poster taped to the wall advertising “Prinse Rama [sic] playing tonight.”
We started loading in all our stuff in the pouring rain, occasionally bumping into one of the dozen or so Day-Glo papier-mâché alien statues that flanked the entrance. It turned out that the Haunted Mill was some sort of perennial haunted house and blacklight mini-golf attraction guarded by a large bald man sporting a knock-off Monster Energy drink shirt, bloodshot reptilian contact lenses and a neck tattoo that read “ZEUS.” We assumed that that was his name.
The show was totally insane, probably one of the rowdiest in Prince Rama history. There was a mosh pit, strobe lights (which caught on fire), crowd-surfers dressed as aliens, and several mysterious substances being imbibed out of unmarked containers. The fact that everyone was probably on some crazy, backwoods, homemade chemical concoction perhaps added to the already out-there atmosphere.
After our set, I was approached by a woman who told me she that was thirty years old — and that she had just dropped acid for the first time. She kept talking about how she saw God during the show. Suddenly she stopped talking and widened her eyes. “It’s you! You are God! You are creating a new religion right now and we are all following you!” she continued.
I opened my mouth to interject, but she closed her eyes impatiently and made broad gestures with her arms to silence me. She was really convinced. Then she had another epiphany: “Wait a second… I am God! I need to start my own religion!” She hugged me hard and wiped tears from her eyes, thanking me profusely, and asked if I wanted to get a tattoo with her later.
Luckily, before I could give the tattoo any thought, this other chick came up to me and started asking about the mink pelts that were draped across my keyboard during the show. She had a blonde mohawk and a witch’s dress that looked like it came from the Hot Topic Halloween bin. Her arm was draped around the muscular shoulders of this buff dude who looked kind of like the lead singer of Nickelback.
I told her that I saved the minks from the trash. She was really into them. She told me that she saved dead animals from the side of the road, and after a few years of collecting rotting corpses, she was like, “Maybe I should learn how to taxidermy them!”
So she started with her dearly departed pet ferret. She laid out to me, in detail, the entire grueling process. First, she took out the bones. Then, she tanned the hide with pig brains, rubbing the brains across the skin for hours until the membrane came loose enough that she could strip it away, sinew by sinew. I was really impressed. Apparently the Nickelback dude was, too, because while she was talking about peeling the sinews off the tendons and bleaching the marrow out of the bones, he kept leaning down to lovingly nuzzle her mohawk. Later on in the conversation, I found out they were brother and sister, which totally caught me off guard — but, hey, it’s the Deep South.
Suddenly, Acid Chick grabbed my arm and asked if I had been inside the Vortex yet.
“Um, no actually, I definitely haven’t,” I said. I had no idea what she was talking about.
Soon enough, I joined my sister and band-mate, Nimai — plus thirty-odd drug-addled show-goers — inside the Vortex, which was essentially this spinning papier-mâché cylindrical room fashioned from some old discarded piece of agricultural equipment that had been hand-painted with glow-in-the-dark galaxies and alien faces subtly resembling Ronald Reagan. I kind of felt like I was inside a black hole disguised as a rock tumbler, lit only by black lights and strobes and smelling faintly of vomit and human bile. It was totally disorienting! It was totally genius! I definitely want one in my house — if I ever get a house.
I have no idea how long we all stayed in that damn Vortex. Maybe hours. Maybe days. Finally, lights flicked on and “ZEUS” kicked everyone out. Nimai and I started packing up our gear, trying not to hurl. It must have been about four in the morning at this point. Then, just as we were about to leave, “ZEUS” asked if we wanted to visit the haunted mill. Apparently the owners were getting it amped up for Halloween season and needed guinea pigs to try it out.
Fuck, duh. Of course we would. Why wouldn’t we want to get an exclusive preview of some renegade backwoods haunted house from a strange bald man with a neck tattoo and bloodshot reptilian contact lenses at four in the morning after everyone else had left?
In we went, and Halloween organ music haphazardly flipped on moments later. Nimai was clinging to me for dear life and sinking her nails deep into my arm. The rooms were in a state of total decay and disarray, smelling slightly of mildew and rotting meat, which perhaps added to the genuine strangeness of it all. Portraits of old Confederate heroes leered at us with flesh hanging off their faces and dust hanging off the painted flesh. Cobwebs covered a pickup truck packed with dead, bloated bodies that drooped out of shattered windows, the license plate reading “666.” I prayed to God that the bodies were fake.
A guy kept popping out to scare us. He was roughly three hundred and fifty pounds, with half-rotten teeth and a T-shirt that said “BOOBIES MAKE ME SMILE.” (We found out later that he didn’t know how to read, so maybe we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt?) Anyway, every time he popped out, Nimai would let out a bloodcurdling scream and destroy my arm with her nails. Even if she saw him coming, she’d still scream. The dude was just flat-out terrifying.
When we asked him afterwards how he got so good at scaring people, he told us he used to hide in the women’s clothing racks at Walmart and pop out screaming at unsuspecting customers. He was eventually banned from setting foot in a Walmart ever again.
As we were finally leaving, we picked up one of the hundreds of tiny frogs still littering the road, their rain-kissed bodies glimmering in the moonlight.
“Perhaps we should bring it inside to them as a gift?” Nimai said.
It seemed like a polite thing to do. When we walked back to the venue with our gift to say goodbye, all the lights were out and there was no trace of anyone in the building. Not even “ZEUS.”
Was this part of the haunted house prank? Perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps they were never there to begin with. Terrified, we jumped in our van and sped off into the Appalachian twilight.
(photo credit: Christopher Conway)