Now come one, come all to this tragic affair.
Wipe off that makeup, what’s in is despair.
So throw on the black dress, mix in with the lot.
You might wake up and notice you’re someone you’re not.
At my middle school, appropriate crushes included Orlando Bloom, Blake Shelton, and Usher. You could slide by with Billie Joe Armstrong or Pete Wentz if you were one of the scene kids, but Gerard Way, lead singer of My Chemical Romance, was right out. The fake blood smeared across his face, the dark circles under his eyes, the greasy black hair occasionally streaked with turquoise: this was all too much, too weird. To me, though, Way was not only stunningly gorgeous but brave as hell. I wished I had the courage to stride through the halls of Heron Creek looking like him. The first time I sat on the bathroom counter at home and smeared cheap black drugstore lipstick over my mouth in an effort to capture some of that glam-rock gothic, I felt like I’d just put on armor. It was the same feeling I got when I freaked out my entire language arts class with a gruesome comic of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The same rush of pride I felt when a girl spread a rumor that I was a witch and had cursed her for looking at me wrong. I wanted to be something frightening, because I couldn’t manage my own fright.
While recording their third album, The Black Parade, MCR stayed at the notoriously haunted Paramour Mansion in Los Angeles. Way began writing track ten, “Sleep,” as he struggled with night terrors and nightmares. The song’s frame is a warped recording of him talking about it: “Like last night, they are not like tremors, they are worse than tremors, they are these terrors… Sometimes I see flames and sometimes I see people that I love dying and it’s always…”
The horror of sleepless nights is a feeling that I’d come to know well only a few years after The Black Parade came into my life. My great-grandmother died in January 2008; my mother’s cousin shot herself less than three months later. For months afterward, falling asleep peacefully was impossible. I sat on my bed well past one, two, three a.m., wrapped in blankets and watching late-night marathons of The Twilight Zone. Between the low volume, the black-and-white glow of the screen, and my own weariness—not to mention the show’s frequently bizarre imagery, which delighted me by day and terrified me in the dark—those nights felt like fever dreams. Sometimes, I’d mute the TV and lie down with my headphones on, praying that tonight would be the night I could get some real rest, with Rod Serling’s reassuring presence on the screen and, most often, Way’s voice in my ears.
Usually, though, I didn’t dare play my music. Then I might not hear the phone ringing, might not be able to prepare myself for whatever awful news was coming that night, for whatever relative was dead now. It was never a question of if a call would come, just what—just who it would be about. Would my grandmother fall again and break her neck this time instead of her hip? Would my father, who’d survived almost two decades in the army and another decade as a state trooper, finally have his luck end and his bulletproof vest fail him on the job?
One night, I managed to fall into a half-sleep before the shrill ring pierced through the house. In an instant I jolted up like I’d just come off a catapult nightmare in a movie. No one else was awake—how could they not hear that awful sound? I crept out to the kitchen trembling from head to toe. The caller ID read FL Highway Patrol. Had my father made it home that night? I could have sworn I’d heard him snoring, but… I tried to remind myself how, if something really bad had happened to him, there’d be troopers at our door, not on the phone. And soon my head was clear enough that I knew I wasn’t hallucinating his reassuring snores from the other bedroom. Still, when I answered, my voice was an embarrassing squeak of panic. The dispatcher on the other end had only called because my father forgot to disconnect his radio that night.
The Black Parade is a concept album deeply preoccupied with death. It focuses on The Patient, a dying man whose end comes for him in the form of the eponymous parade. The inspiration came from Way’s idea that death appears as our most beloved memory—in The Patient’s case, a parade his father took him to when he was a child. It’s not hard to see how this might be comforting, but it doesn’t work for me. Whatever possible appearance death could take doesn’t change what it is. It could look like a parade; it could look like Disney World; it could show up looking like Gerard Way himself. I wouldn’t be any less dead.
Throughout the album, there’s not much of an effort to make death appear particularly comforting, anyway. The parade might have been a cherished memory for The Patient, but the music video for “Welcome to the Black Parade” is set in a grim, gothic, decaying landscape haunted by characters called things like Fear and Regret and Mother War. “Cancer” is a haunting soliloquy for The Patient as he grows more and more ill, and “Mama” is full of cheerful reminders like “Mama, we all go to Hell” and “Right now they’re building a coffin your size.” When Black Parade first came out, I appreciated this macabre tone in the same way I appreciated things like Edgar Allan Poe stories and Living Dead Dolls: something to make me look scarier to people, something to give me armor and courage. When the melancholy strains of “Disenchanted” or the rage in “The Sharpest Lives” helped to get me through a sleepless night, I fell in love. But ever since fear of death gripped me again, ever since my fright once again became unmanageable, it can be hard to listen to without wondering when the parade is coming for me.
The summer before my final year at college, my fear started to manifest as an anxiety disorder specializing in sickness and disease. It liked to deal in specifics, and every few weeks it changed tack to make sure I’d continue waking up in breathless panic attacks at four in the morning over what was going to kill me that day. One week it told me that a sudden new allergy would throw me into anaphylaxis whenever I ate a favorite food. The week after that, it was obsessed with the malignant melanoma I no doubt had growing on me already. And the week before, it had been the old standby of a blood clot in my lung, something the doctors speculated I might have had when my first panic attack drove me to the emergency room in blind, terrified certainty that I was dying.
Counting down the days to go might not be living, as Way sings in “Cancer,” but it became my new normal. The first few months after the anxiety diagnosis, last-minute doctor’s appointments were a regular occurrence and the only reason I went to the ER just twice was because I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford the copay more often. When the constant panic became too exhausting, too unsustainable, I resorted to therapy. I wore a Gerard Way shirt to my first appointment—not an MCR-related one, but a colorful cartoonish one connected to his solo album, Hesitant Alien. It didn’t quite feel like armor, but it didn’t have to. It felt more like bringing a friend along to help me. My therapist, Daniel, thought it might be good to work on getting to the root of why my anxiety was suddenly taking the form of this fatalistic hypochondria, why it was always battering through my mind to make sure I heard the news that I was dead.
On the occasions I’ve had to share how my anxiety works, the usual response has been surprise. “But you’re so young and healthy!” Which is true. I am young and—at the risk of the anxiety latching onto this as a jinx—reasonably healthy. Maybe it’s just another consequence of my lifelong morbid streak, that I’m obsessed by such thoughts at my age. Perhaps this is what you get when you grow up pushing yourself through Rotten.com’s photo galleries of violent deaths, and collecting dolls who live in coffins, and forcing yourself to keep awake in some grim exhausting vigil for the next family tragedy.
But The Patient is young, too, and has already survived war and addiction, and the Black Parade comes for him anyway. And I know that even if my own parade doesn’t come for me until I’ve had six or seven more decades on this earth, I’ll still cling to the world of the living with all the tenacity and desperation of a victim of live burial scratching at the lid of their coffin. To borrow the line from the last track, appropriately called “Famous Last Words,” I am not afraid to keep on living. I’m afraid of the alternative.