Monday, February 2, 2009

Goth shop attacked for "Satanism" in Ireland

Raining hellfire on the scary doll store
Irish Times (Dublin); Jan 24, 2009; p. 4

Ballymena councillors are incensed by a shop selling 'Living Dead Dolls', but its owner says it's just a fun place for teenagers to meet, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH .

TROUBLE IS brewing in Ballymena, the bustling market town at the very heart of North Antrim. A recently opened shop - Tracy's Livin' Dead, which stocks the dark, morbid and often eroticised "goth gear" beloved of gloomy teenagers everywhere - has incurred the wrath of some local councillors.

One representative has raised concerns with the police that the store is "purely satanic and witchcraft-related", and is a bad influence on the town's children. DUP councillor John Carson told a meeting of the Ballymena District Policing Partnership that he was concerned about the location's "close proximity to a bus stop used by young people".

When contacted by The Irish Times, Carson refused to comment further on the matter, adding that to do so would be to draw more publicity to the shop.

It's clear that shop owner Tracy Wilson is unfazed by all the fuss. "Welcome to the root of all evil," she sings out as I walk into her premises. It's an unexpectedly bright and breezy place: "We cleaned all the blood off the walls before you got here," quips Tracy's assistant behind the till.

With its rather comical skull transfers on the windows, a shop like this wouldn't stand out at all if it was situated in Dublin or even Belfast, but in Ballymena - which, despite the town's notorious drug problems, retains a facade of 1950s-style genteel propriety - it seems exotic.

As does Tracy herself: the 43-year-old grandmother of two is resplendent in a pentagram necklace and a "Protected by Satan" hoodie. Her other favourite hoodie, perhaps guaranteed to rile the councillors even more, is emblazoned with the slogan "God is busy . . . can I help you?"

As far as Wilson is concerned, the satanic schtick is all a bit of a laugh, and she's frustrated, if not entirely surprised, at the councillors' hostile stance.

"It's not meant to be offensive, it really isn't," she insists, "and I'm going to keep on stocking it as long as the kids want the stuff." Far from deterring youngsters from entering the shop, Wilson says that part of her motivation for opening Tracy's Livin' Dead was to give young people a place to hang out in a town that's sorely lacking in opportunities for them.

She evidently has a great affection for the crowd of black-clad teenagers sipping mugs of coffee and chatting away together on sofas at the back of the shop. "You'd never find a nicer bunch of kids than the ones that come in that door," she says proudly, in a tone far more mother hen than anarchic punk queen. "When I was growing up in Ballymena, it was the kind of place where the swings were locked up on Sundays - it's always been very old-fashioned - but with this shop the kids have somewhere where they can dress the way they want and just be themselves."

ALL THE SAME, it's easy to see why some parents wouldn't be delighted with the kind of gear Tracy sells. Most of it is fairly innocuous, the usual goth fare - red and black stripy legwarmers, "weeping rose" scented black candles, tightly corseted velvet dresses and the odd pair of absurdly campy silver spider-web stiletto boots - but Wilson's selection of "Livin' Dead Dolls", after which the shop is named, are distinctly gruesome. The very antithesis of Tiny Tears, these ghoulish little mannequins have black-rimmed eyes, bloody scars and sinister smiles, and each comes with its own "death certificate" and the warning "only for spooky kids over 15".

They may well be collectors' items, as Tracy tells me, but isn't stocking such controversial dolls a step too far? "I have the highest morals where children are concerned, and I'm responsible about what I do," says Wilson. "I make sure that the dolls are on a high shelf so that younger kids can't see them. I bring my own little grandson in here, and I wouldn't do anything to worry him. And I won't sell the dolls to anyone under 15. Sometimes I do get 12-year-olds coming in, wanting to buy a hoodie or something, but I tell them to bring their mum in so I know they have permission. When the kids don't have much money, I set aside stuff for them and let them pay it off bit by bit."

It's not the first time that the spectre of witchcraft has been invoked in the traditionally God-fearing town. When JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, Ballymena DUP councillor Roy Gillespie urged parents to boycott a local launch, claiming that the series of best-selling books amounted to a "cult", and contained "material totally unsuitable for young minds".

Strangely enough, the wider North Antrim area is historically notorious as a home of witchcraft: in the early 18th century, a series of strange events in nearby Islandmagee led to Ireland's last witchcraft trial in 1711.

Yet, while Tracy's Livin' Dead may not be to everyone's taste, it seems that the shop functions more as a friendly teenage drop-in centre rather than a satanic den of iniquity.

And so far, Wilson has yet to receive a visit from the police. Besides, she says, "I'm sure they have better things to do than bother about me selling PVC dresses and tartan trousers."