Halloween: Ghostly Equestrian Ball invites fetishes out to play

Halloween has always given cover to explore alternative lifestyles. It's a night when usually hidden communities — like those patrons of local fetish "playrooms" who dress as overgrown infants, dogs or dominatrixes — are suddenly tantalizing to the outside world. It's a night when the "normies" crash the party.

The costumes of Halloween give the kink community an annual free pass that takes it from underground taboo to public spectacle at events such as West Hollywood's Halloween Costume Carnaval and the Bondage Ball, a well-attended quarterly fetish event hosted by Bar Sinister in Hollywood.

"Everybody takes their chances around this time of year because nobody is looking at them odd," said Tommy O'Brien, a.k.a. Tommy O., a photographer for many bondage and fetish magazines. "Just blame it on Halloween."

For the third consecutive year, Bondage Ball and Bar Sinister, a long-running goth and fetish night, have joined to produce the Ghostly Equestrian Ball on Saturday, making room for an array of fetish scenes — which are defined mostly by what participants wear, including leather, latex and equestrian get-ups like bridles, saddles and gloves that end in hoofs — to come out and play in the open.

"We had a fetish dog area where people came as puppies," said Bondage Ball founder Matt Grim. "They had the ears on and drank out of pet bowls on the floor. That was an interesting one."

It's nearly impossible to know how many people are part of the fetish community in L.A., since private playrooms and organized fetish groups are often invite-only and sometimes require anonymity, but the Ghostly Equestrian Ball has turned into a Hollywood tradition, drawing upward of 1,200 people last year.

On a recent Saturday night, college student Diana Smith, 24, sipped drinks inside the shadowy, web-filled corridors of Bar Sinister, which takes place at Boardner's Bar every Saturday night. She sees Halloween as an opportunity to explore her budding S&M fetish.

"If anything, coming here tonight tells me I have to up my game next weekend for this place," said Smith, a sociology major. She wore a tight black dress and laced-up dominatrix boots with 4-inch heels. "I already look too conservative to party in here. But trust me, that'll change."

Event organizers hope newcomers like Smith, who are preparing for their first ball, will feed the scene with new blood, Grim said.

And though openly inviting normies, or people outside the fetish world, can be looked down upon by veteran bondage practitioners, Ghostly Equestrian tries to go beyond that mentality to make it a night of experimentation. It insists that it's not just for tourists, but an opening for the curious.

"All of the underground scenes come out specifically for our event because that's who we cater to," said Tricia La Belle, promoter for Bar Sinister, which is tucked away through a narrow, cigarette-lighted alleyway behind Boardner's main entrance.

On a recent Saturday night, clusters of pale goth revelers packed the club's haunted mansion-style interior decorated with skulls, gaudy mirrors, candelabras and Gothic church murals. A thriving upstairs bondage playroom with leather whips, cuffs and dungeon furniture overlooked a dance floor flanked by female go-go dancers, a floating aerialist and jewelry vendors.

Jim Mill, a regular at the club, lingered near the go-go dancers, swerving his hips and strutting in knee-high boots, a black pleather bikini, long, black hair and glam-metal makeup.

Refusing to label himself with any particular fetish group, Mill, 52, says his look helps express his personal view of perfection.

"I come to these things obviously for a free-thinking environment," Mill said. "I can indulge my lifestyle no matter what my job or relatives think of it."

On Halloween, even underground groups want to go public. La Belle says several fetish organizations, like L.A. Pony Fetish Collective, who are into the equestrian garb, contact her before the event about getting on the guest list or inquire about whether their scene can be accommodated.

Grim says Bondage Ball has attracted housewives, teachers, politicians and judges.

Photographer O'Brien remembers his first Bondage Ball: A guitarist at the time, he brought a cheap, tiny camera to snap photos. The result was a lifestyle and career change.

"The minute I walked in and looked at everything that was going on around me and how everyone was dressed, I just felt like I finally found my people," O'Brien said.

"I've often been to Halloween parties and checked out people's costumes and wondered what was really going on," O'Brien said. "It's not a coincidence that that guy is the pirate and that girl is Cat Woman. They picked those costumes on purpose. If you delve a little deeper you might find out a few extra things about them. I guarantee it."

nate.jackson@latimes.com

Ghostly Equestrian Ball

Where: Boardner's, 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., Hollywood

When: 10 p.m. Sat. to 4 a.m. Sun.

Price: $20 advance, $30 door

Info: http://www.bondageball.com

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