Methods of Mayhem
Minty fresh. That's how the side of the bottle describes the blood's taste.
Pacing on the deck of a suburban home in gigantic platform boots that obliterate the leaves crackling underfoot, Maris the Great begs to differ.
"I think it's more like cherries," he says, and he should know. Although it usually winds up on the outside of his body and everything he touches, he's swallowed his fair share of the goopy liquid. "I use so much of it, I should be the company's spokesman."
Today he'll down some hefty doses. He's preparing for the final installment in this season's photo shoots chronicling his exploits as the creator of Maris the Great, the character, and maristhegreat.com, the Web site, and he's going to go out with a big red bang. The shoot's star as well as its director, he's donned his trademark costume: a black nylon bodysuit fashioned to resemble a skeleton, a captain's overcoat, large foam gloves painted like bones. His face is covered in green makeup, his teeth are blacked out, and there's some grayish gunk sticking out of his ears. Red contacts obscure the green of his eyes.
But in order to bring Maris to life, he's going to have to get really freaking bloody. Stepping away from the crew and other cast members, he lifts the fake blood to his lips and rolls the syrupy, cranberry-colored goo around his teeth. He gargles. He swills. Using his elastic and elongated tongue as a kind of paintbrush, he splatters the mixture all over his face and chest.
"I can do this all day," he says, a gleam shining through his red eyes.
He can, and he will. The shoots sometimes last eight hours, running well into the night. And on this postcard-worthy October afternoon, things are moving excruciatingly slowly. Cameras, makeup, props and supplies -- even a catering table -- are strewn about, giving this Aurora house the look and feel of a movie set. A volunteer crew that includes a photographer, set dresser and a host of "actors" -- members of the heavy-metal bands Malignari, Tyfoid Mary and Brutal Infliction -- shleps around, watching videos, smoking, drinking beer and Pepsi, and staring absently at two adorable Shih Tzus that lounge contently on the deck, more concerned with licking their hindquarters than the fictional forces of evil milling about them.
By five o'clock, Maris is eager to get on with it. He's got two groups to kill before the shoot's end, and every minute counts. One bandmember who's slated to play a big part in the early stages of the script is now two hours late, and no one has heard a word from him. "You know musicians," more than one person says, only half joking.
"Do you think he's wigging?" Maris asks. "His body language told me that he wasn't going to do this. I just had a feeling that he wasn't going to show."
Maris has gotten pretty good at reading body language in maristhegreat.com's two years. He's learned how to talk shy musicians into participating in staged murder scenarios and gotten straight men to kiss him on stage. He's grown particularly adept at talking drunken fans into providing source material for the Web project -- things like photos of their naked butts and genitals.
"There was one guy who'd been in the service in Afghanistan who told me he had been shot. The bullet had come out through his ass, and he still had a hole from it," he says. "I told him, 'Well, you know, people are feeling very patriotic right now. I think it would be a very good thing if you showed it to me.' At first he said 'No,' so I said, 'I really think you should let me take a picture of it.' Eventually, he did."
Tired of waiting, Maris decides to get started with the first shot: a faux ax murder to be staged in a regally sized shower in a basement bathroom. Brutal Infliction's Mikey Catalano is laid on the shower floor and advised to close his eyes as Maris and Cricket, his camera girl and co-director, cover his face with ground hamburger meat that's been mixed with fake blood. The lights are dim. Catalano lies still and lifeless. The effect is startlingly, nauseatingly real.
Maris flings the meaty mess around the shower like a kid throwing finger paint.
"Oh, this is sick," he says in a hushed tone. "This is beautiful. I feel this is real. I just got goosebumps."
The staged death of Tyfoid Mary and Brutal Infliction -- at the hands of Malignari, part of a twisted scheme to usurp Maris's power -- is only the latest plot line to careen around the vast digital space that houses maristhegreat.com. It will also be Maris's last bloodbath for a while. After killing off over thirty bands on his site and threatening scores more, the Webmaster, conceptual artist and deathmonger has decided to return to the land of the living. After a Halloween show at Sportsfield Roxxx, Maris will hang up his zombie gloves for at least two months.
"I'm a little burned out," he says. "I want to continue doing this for a long time. It's gotten to the point where I'm paying more attention to the business side of it -- calling all the bands, arranging all of the feature shoots, making sure everything gets taken care of -- and I've lost some of my enthusiasm for the art of it. I always said I would stop if it stopped being fun. For the time being, it kind of has."
And right when Maris the Great was getting good. Vile, disgusting and shocking as it is, maristhegreat.com is a touchstone for the music scene, a community badly in need of some champions. Maris himself has become an indelible fixture at local performances: Several nights a week, he's at the foot of the stage at Herman's Hideaway, Cricket on the Hill, the Soiled Dove or Sportsfield Roxxx, in full costume and making hungry faces at bands. Like maristhegreat.com, his costume is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.
The Web site, in particular, is a well-executed grossout that titillates as it revolts. Most of the content revolves around Maris the Great, a gay, self-aggrandizing, wannabe rock star who has died and subsequently returned from the dead as a zombie. He's the leader of a band known as the Faggots of Death, and fearing the threat posed by talented Denver musicians, he murders all competition. Maris lures the musicians to his realm under the auspices of conducting a straightforward interview; at the conclusion of the interviews, the artists are killed, dismembered, eaten and brutalized. Many become zombies themselves. The site always includes a rolling text of the interview, interspersed with scenes from the band's bloody (and often ingenious) death.
Maristhegreat.com reads like a music- and gore-themed online comic book, with Maris starring as a quick-witted, self-deluded anti-hero. It's Wolverine and Dracula meets the Archies and the Pussycats. The feature interviews have varying plot lines and murder scenarios, but a few themes echo: Maris enjoys asking bandmembers about their sex lives as well as their craft, and he somehow manages to get them to reveal very personal information about themselves. As a result, his question-and-answer stories often contain as much dish and insight as they do wee-wee jokes and zombie doctrine. Local artists -- who usually want nothing more than a little bit of recognition -- get to feel like the stars of their own stories, however macabre they might be.
"I think it's become like a rite of passage for bands," says Cricket, who supervises Maris's shoots and takes all of the photos for the site. "It's become a thing that a lot of bands really want to be a part of, because only good bands are picked to be killed."
"Maris's entire premise is to kill bands that are good so that his can be the best. So all in all, it's a good thing to be hunted and stalked by him," says Rachel Simring, leader of local band Rachel's Playpen. "And compared to some of the more serious stalkers and 'fans' who have made their presence known throughout the years, Maris is a pussycat."
Not exactly. Bandmembers who agree to let Maris murder them may not have any real idea of what they've signed on for -- like being wrapped up nude in a sheet of plastic, or tied to a chair for hours while acting out a progressive torture scenario. Maris has consulted with forensics experts to ensure the authenticity of his shots and strives to create real-looking panoramas of gloom and doom. "The forensics people have told me that the only thing that makes it sometimes unrealistic is the amount of blood," he says. "There wouldn't be that much blood in a lot of murders, because the heart stops beating and pumping. But we like the blood."
It's dark stuff that only occasionally mirrors the music of the participating musicians. Although Maris favors heavy-metal bands from the extreme fringe of the Denver scene, past victims have also included singer-songwriter Mary Beth Abella, who ate her husband alive in the shower after becoming a ghoul; pop-rock band Rubber Planet, whose members gorged on bandleader Brice Hancock's intestines; and multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Eric Shiveley, who was thrown off a building.
"I've always just had this idea that heavy-metal bands are going to really get into the blood-and-guts part of it," Maris says. "But actually, they tend to be the most squeamish. The times that I've worked with artists that I might not have expected to be so much fun, I found that they were up for anything, which is a dream for me.
"While we were working on Eric's feature, we had him on the ground all bloody like he'd just splatted on the road," he says of the Shiveley shoot. "All of a sudden, we hear these fire trucks and sirens. I held out my hand and said, 'It's not real!' They jumped out and pushed past me and started getting out all of their equipment. Once they figured out what was going on, they were really impressed at the job we'd done. They were taking pictures. I asked them, 'So, is this really how it looks?' And they shook their heads yes and kind of shuddered. That was a very proud moment for me. It was like winning a Grammy."
The Shiveley sidewalk splat isn't the only time Maris has confused the authorities. Last year he was required to produce a living, breathing Matt Need to the Littleton Police Department after detectives discovered the former Gothic Theatre booking manager had been killed on maristhegreat.com. "The cops had every page of the Web site printed out," Maris remembers. "They said they'd realized the photos weren't real because people in the background were smiling. I was like, 'Oh, well, I'm glad it was the people smiling that tipped you off -- because everyone knows gay zombies are real.'" After a photo shoot with Rubber Planet, police blocked off Hancock's street for several hours: Someone had called in and complained after stumbling across a wax-covered vibrator fashioned to look like a detached penis. Maris and Hancock had left the fake member outside as a joke.
"A lot of what I do are just things that I think are funny -- and I have a wonderful ability to talk people into doing things that they normally wouldn't do in a hundred years," he says. "If it makes me laugh, I think, 'Well, there must be something here.'" But he also admits that much of the material is derived from something darker than black comedy: "I've had a few dreams where I woke up with an image in mind and then tried to re-create it. And there have been a few images from features we've done that have really given me nightmares."
"We always just kind of thought it was fun. Even the gore was fun," says Hancock, who initially suggested the idea of a Web site and served as a creative consultant in the early days of Maris's project. "We were just trying to make each other laugh. I would pitch an idea, and if we laughed really hard, that's what we would do. Then it just took off like crazy."
Indeed, maristhegreat.com has become a legitimate tool and information source for both fans and musicians. Brutal Infliction's Dave Zaharia says he reads Maris's band interviews to study up on what to say, and what not to say, in an interview. And the site has even served as a regional tip sheet for music-industry scouts: Rocket Ajax and Abella are among the local bands that were contacted by representatives of major labels in Los Angeles after being killed by Maris.
"We've seen how bands that do things with Maris go on to benefit from it somehow," says Zaharia. "When you're in a band, you just want to do everything you can to promote it. We're looking for any kind of attention or press that we can get. Knowing how so many people are looking to this site, we feel really honored to be working with him."
Word of the possible perks has spread so rapidly that Maris currently has a year-long waiting list of potential victims.
"When I first started doing this, I would really have to kind of convince people to do things with me," he says. "The real difference between now and when I started is that now, everyone wants me to kill them.
"I use this as a way to see what people are made of," he explains. "Anyone who's ever been compelled to be in a band and be on stage wants to be a star. I can tell just from watching a band what I'll be able to get from them. A person with thin skin should not do a feature with me, because I'm going to push their buttons and find their weaknesses and turn them into strengths. I ask them questions about their lives and their families. I hate plastic conversation. I believe in being honest and open and human and getting on with it.
"Part of my art is to recognize that star quality when I see it in someone and just try to wrestle it out," he continues. "There's a tremendous temptation to fit in. But if what you're doing is not from your heart, or you're holding back, it won't have any edge, no power. I think about someone like Madonna and I think, 'What was Madonna like when she was local? Would she get up on stage and apologize? What would she be like at a Colorado Music Association meeting?' My guess is that she would be a star all the time. Like, 'Don't fuck with me.' I would love to think that I could help inspire the local equivalent of that star quality. I put myself out there to kind of say, 'Well, if I can do this, surely you can find a way to make your stage show exciting.'"
Not everyone, it turns out, wants to be killed by Maris -- or have anything to do with him at all. Tinker's Punishment, You Call That Art? and Hazel Miller are among the bands that have spurned invitations to die. And as Maris's notoriety has increased, so has his hate mail. He receives disparaging e-mails and calls -- most of them anonymous -- from musicians, scenesters and religious groups. Some say his act is tired, while others accuse him of upstaging bands with his live appearances. Some simply let him know that he makes their stomachs turn.
"I get that a fair amount," he says. "I'll be at a show and walk by someone who'll just hiss, 'You make me sick.' I've learned pretty well who I can mess with and who I can't. Cops, for instance, can't be messed with. But when someone criticizes me or hates me, I just take that as a sign that I'm doing something right. I always tell bands, 'When you get a negative reaction, that's a good thing. Don't worry about it, because you're in some very good company.'"
The sexually explicit, pro-gay aspect of maristhegreat.com has proved a flash point. Last year Murray Neill, a former Marine and leader of the band Drudgery, was the subject of Maris's rather aggressive online affections. At one point, Maris erected a digital shrine to the bald-headed, well-toned and wholly straight singer that featured zoom-in shots (many of which highlighted his groin area) alongside explicit explanations of what Maris would do with the singer if given the opportunity. Although many supported the campaign and cheered Maris on, a few visitors felt he'd crossed a line. Spirited debates regarding the "Maris Loves Murray" feature filled the site's guest book for months.
Maris's relationship with the gay community has been rocky at times, too. He was required to leave the 2001 Pridefest parade after five cops told him that organizers from the Colorado Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center didn't want him there. After Maris posted a diatribe about the incident on his Web site, the center was bombarded with letters from his supporters. Then-director Mike Smith called Maris to apologize, explaining that it had all been a mistake: The organization hadn't wanted him to leave, only to move away from a float of veterans who were sensitive about who marched near them.
"I accepted his explanation, but it still didn't sit well with me," Maris says. "I didn't go back to Pridefest this year. If I had been just a regular drag queen or a leather man, it wouldn't have been an issue, and that was my bone of contention. The gay scene likes to think that it's all about diversity and tolerance, and if you've got your little rainbow sticker, you're fine. But if you're doing something that's different, they get scared, just like anyone else.
"The gay community isn't my family; the music scene is," he adds. "I feel I'm the most openly out person in Colorado, and in a way, I'm doing more to break down barriers between the gay community and the straight community than anyone else. I've had a number of supposedly straight guys in bands, with very public girlfriends, confide in me that they think they might be gay. I'm all about the idea of coming out of the closet in every way -- not just in the sense of your sexuality. I want the outside of a person to match what's on the inside, to find out what everyone's issues are, and get together and talk it out over a beer.
"Everyone has secrets. Part of what I want to do is get to those secrets and bring them up to the surface. That's what gives something edge. That's what makes it real."
Maris the person has a few secrets of his own. Who he is, for example, and what he looks like. Where he comes from, how old he is, what he does for a living. Very few of the many people who know Maris the monster have ever encountered Maris the man, a late-thirty-something native of small-town Montana who moved to Denver roughly ten years ago. Only when communicating about a project, setting up a shoot or conducting an interview does he break character and speak in his natural voice. On the rare occasion that he ventures out in street clothes, Maris wears a mask to protect his identity.
"I don't let people see my face, and it messes with them, but it also intrigues them," he says. "If people saw me out doing laundry, it would diffuse the whole thing. It's like seeing Santa without the big red suit. And I want to mess with them. That's what gives the character its impact. But people will come up to me and be like, 'Oh, ha, ha. Nice makeup. So how long does it take to put it on?' They'll expect me to just break character and talk. Instead, I'll just growl at them: 'AAAARGH! I'm not wearing makeup!' They don't always know how to react."
As much as it might enhance his art, Maris's insistence on anonymity is a shame. Despite the cruelties of his character, Maris is articulate, funny, artistic and quick as a whip. During photo shoots, he exudes the exacting vision of a film director or a choreographer, fussing over a shot's composition, motivating his crew to find the right mood. (In fact, he's taken a shot at film directing: His two ten-minute features, Bite My Halloweenie and Thrilled to Death, co-produced with Matt Campbell, will be screened during the Halloween show at Sportsfield Roxxx.)
"Maris wouldn't want me to say this, but he's the biggest sweetheart I've ever met," says Cricket. "He knows what he wants, but he's really good at working with people to get there. He's one of the most interesting people I've ever worked with."
Still, some of those who do know the man behind the Mohawk say they've heard quite enough from Maris the Great. Last month, a seven-year romantic relationship ended when his partner tired of seeing him continually blood-spattered and zombiefied.
"He just got sick of coming over and finding me like this," Maris says. "I've got blood tracked throughout my condo. It's on everything. Sometimes I'll be in this makeup for three days straight. Most of my old friends aren't my friends because of this. People who aren't involved just don't get it. My family is horrified. They're like, 'Where did we go wrong?' I used to be this good boy from Montana. I was very moral and very polite. I wanted to be a minister, a spiritual teacher. So they just can't see where this came from."
After all, he didn't grow up dissecting cats and wasn't particularly attracted to dark arts or even comic books. He liked horror movies, but no more than any other kid. What he did love was rock and roll, out-there artists like KISS and Gwar. And he was always creative. Today Maris says he's in touch with something called the Vagina Voice -- an almost physical, automatic creative energy similar to Yoda's Force and Michael Jordan's Zone.
"It's just something that runs through my head at almost all times," he says. "It's almost like I'm channeling. It's strongest when I'm driving. I'll just be going down the road, and all of a sudden the Vagina Voice will be like, 'You have to do this! Wouldn't it be cool if you did that?' And I can't say no to it.
"It becomes almost like a trance that I get lost in, like I'm drunk -- which, of course, I often am. That's part of what made me realize that it might be time for me to take a little break from doing this for a while. I've got to try to tune out the Voice. Because I'm just exhausted."
It's easy to see why: Since discovering the local music scene just three years ago, Maris the Great has consumed him. The project stumbled into life in 1999, when Maris interviewed the now defunct Latin metal band Colemesis for Stay Hungry Magazine, a publication that never saw print. After an editor cut out all of his references to homosexuality and the bandmembers' body parts, Maris decided to create his own medium.
"I was just so excited by the idea that I could go into a club and hear loud music and guitars," he says. "I kind of missed out on the stuff. The gay scene was all about disco, and I was afraid to go to straight bars. It was sort of that rush you get when you discover something and someone's talent, and you just want to be a part of it. Maris the Great became a way that I could use my love for music to contribute something to the scene and to make my own art."
Compared with recent blood-drenched scenarios, Maris's early features were tame. The musicians in Scary Valentine, the first group to be victimized, were photographed with only a few drops of blood splattered on their hands. As word of maristhegreat.com began to spread, though, bands vied to outdo one another, and the site soon became a lot bloodier. And Maris himself evolved into a fully realized character.
The productions grew ever more elaborate, and so did the expenses. Maintaining the site as well as the real-time character is a complicated and pricey affair. All that makeup, fake blood, hair dye and wax doesn't come cheaply. Maris, who will say only that he pays the bills by driving for a private transport company, says he's learned ways to save money -- by buying expired ground beef rather than fresh to simulate human guts, for example. He's friendly with the owners of several local costume shops, including the Wizard's Chest and Studio Lites on Broadway. "The Wizard's Chest staff once saw me walking up," he remembers, "and it was a little before the store was open, but they opened up just for me. I felt like a celebrity."
So fond is Maris of his alter ego that he occasionally wears his getup in non-music environments. To minimize the tedium of normal routines like grocery shopping, for instance: While standing in the self-checkout line at a King Soopers recently, he was asked to leave by a store manager who said he was scaring the customers.
"Once I was at the butcher counter at the grocery store, and I asked the man if I could have some brains," he says. "He started laughing, and I didn't recognize the irony of it at the time -- the idea that I must have lost my mind."
Maris fields more questions about his sanity than about anything else. Sometimes, he questions it himself.
"There are times when I will scare even myself," he confesses. "I'll wonder, 'Am I turning into a serial killer?' I'll come home and check under the bed. So far, no severed heads have turned up in my refrigerator. But I have sort of, you know, gone down the checklist, like, 'Okay, no mutilated animals in my past. But I did hit my head a lot! Oh, no!
"I think it's more that I am attracted to life in all its forms. I once saw a dead body, a motorcyclist who'd been decapitated. It sounds really weird, but I was able to look at it artistically, like, 'Why does this look the way that it does? What are the colors that it makes me see and feel?' Maybe it's morbid curiosity, but I believe that people are drawn to darkness as much as to lightness, and that's maybe even more true if you are an artist."
Back in the basement, Brutal Infliction's Catalano has removed the meat from his eyes.
"I felt fucking dead," he says to his bandmates, who are having a hard time concealing their horror at what they've just seen.
"Isn't that wonderful?" Maris asks, savoring every minute of the shoot -- his last hurrah before removing the paint, the hands, the boots, the blood, at least for a while.
"When you're a person like me, you really just have to make a point of doing ordinary things," he says. "I need to take time off to do things like wash my car and clean my house. My condo looks like a crackhouse. I'm going to just relax and go see movies, like a normal person."
He laughs at the absurdity of that notion.
"I'm almost afraid to listen to the Vagina Voice during my break," he says. "I've got to try to find a way to turn it off for a while. But I just don't know if I can."
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