CW: Mentions of suicide, r*pe threats, and cyberbullying.
‘After years and years of silence and secrecy, I’m here to tell the truth,’ begins Sarah in her ‘coming-out’ video released earlier this year. ‘The videos were fake.’
It’s been over a decade since Sarah graced our screens as Raven Acid Bath Princess of the Darkness, her alter-ego that went viral in 2008, exposing her to the best and worst the Internet had to offer. Now, after years of hiding, she’s back with the answers to a mystery twelve years in the making.
It’s 2008, and Sarah has just released her first video. It begins with a sullen Raven announcing to her audience that her friend Azer won’t be joining her. Earlier that day, she recounts, she was in Hot Topic ‘being really goth and stuff’ when she saw Azer in a nearby Hollister, the ultimate betrayal of their goth identity. But Raven refuses to let Azer’s actions get her down. Joined by fellow My Chemical Romance enthusiast Tara, played by her real-life sister, the pair lip sync for their lives to MCR’s ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’, a metaphorical middle finger to Azer, Hollister, and all non-believers.
It’s a lot. But it set the tone for what viewers were to experience on Sarah’s channel: dodgy make-up and die-hard goth. The subsequent videos vary in popularity and quality, though they’re linked by a recurring theme: an undying love for all things undead. The videos are the perfect time capsule, offering up a rare insight into a lost subculture.
However, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Assuming the identity of Raven, Sarah managed to pull off one of the greatest feats of trolling seen on the Internet in recent years.
Taking inspiration from sites like 4Chan and Reddit, fertile grounds for your typical Internet troll, Sarah decided to practice the dark art of trolling. Her aim was to create a character so earnest, and yet so misguided in her allegiance to goth, that real goths everywhere would be incensed. Arming herself with some aggressively stylised eyeliner and the belief that nobody truly understood her, she decided to impersonate the most heinous of subcultures: the mall goth (or ‘baby goth’ as she calls them), an off-shoot of the fully-fledged goth movement that emerged in the late 90s. If the goth didn’t care, the mall goth cared too much, mainly about Good Charlotte, Hot Topic, and Edward Cullen.
‘I asked myself – what could I do that would really piss off little baby goth Sarah?’, she tells me.
And thus, Raven Acid Bath Princess of the Darkness was born.
And she was a success. The videos were an instant hit, and Sarah began to experience an archetypal virality. She soon learned, however, that entering the cultural conscious comes at a price.
‘The reception that Tara, Azer and I received on YouTube when we originally posted the videos was not good,’ she begins wearily. Some applauded her ingenuity, recognising Raven as a comedic creation, but most thought the videos were real. ‘And because the internet was a much different place back then,’ she continues, ‘we attracted a lot of comments from people who basically bullied us.’
She reads me a selection from the thousands of comments left by anonymous users. They’re difficult to listen to.
‘ “Ugly fast-ass fake bitches you’re not gothic you stupid fat fucking bitches the only reason you hate life is because the girl sitting right next to you is prettier than you you fat dumb-ass bitch and the girl next to you is a stupid poser both of you are ugly as fuck why don’t you go fuck each other that’s the only way you will ever get laid you ugly fat ass bitch why don’t you both go cut yourselves because you’re a waste of fucking space you fat fucking bitch ☺”,’ Sarah reads from her phone. ‘That was one run-on sentence by the way.’
Most involve some sort of critique of her appearance. Many include incitements to suicide or rape threats.
‘Oh here’s a good one,’ she says, ‘Hands down the best example of satire I have ever seen. Super talented kids, for sure.’ A momentary relief, but it’s quickly buried among countless threats and insults left by the anonymous mass.
‘As a very sensitive person, the comments really got to me after a while,’ she tells me, ‘there’s a difference between reading “haha go kill yourself” from an Internet stranger once a year, or once a week, but if it’s every day, year after year after year…that’s a lot. And it weighs on you.’
Things got worse after an interview with journalist Ethan Chiel was published. Chiel had spoken to the girls in order to address the false rumours circulating that Tara and Raven were the co-authors of My Immortal, an infamous work of Harry Potter fanfiction released at a similar time that likewise parodied the goth genre. The hate took on a new power, as trolls began to link Chiel’s interview to the videos, blurring the line between Sarah and Raven. ‘People were bringing my real self into the harassment,’ she tells me, ‘crossing that boundary.’
This is what led her to go incognito, ceasing to upload videos and denying all links to Raven. It’s also the reason she was reluctant to reclaim the identity all these years later. ‘We were worried that if we came forward it would be 2008 YouTube all over again and we would just be bombarded with people telling us that we were fat and ugly and should kill ourselves,’ she tells me, ‘we stopped paying attention because we assumed that it was going to be the same negative bullshit we’d been inundated with pretty much every single day since we started posting.’
During the years that Sarah was in hiding, the mystery of Tara and Raven became a self-sustaining mythology, with Internet users adding new strands to the narrative. There’s the video of a teen performing Little Talk’s Of Monsters and Men under the name Tara Rowe, dedicated to an unknown Raven. It’s a deliberately ambiguous video, with the comment section turned off, posted on an otherwise empty channel. An attempt to further engage with the mystery? Perhaps. Then there’s the conspiracy videos, with YouTubers speculating over the girls’ fate and, of course, the My Immortal saga. There’s a theatricality to the whole thing, the mystery becoming something much bigger than Sarah could ever have imagined.
Her desire to keep the secret was also due to her concerns for ‘Tara’, whose real identity remains anonymous to this day. Recalling the vitriolic comments referring to their weight they received back in 2008, it’s something she wishes to protect 2021 Tara from:
‘[Tara] recently had a kid and her pregnancy was rather complicated and, as a result, her body changed a lot. She doesn’t look the same way that she used to and she’s really self-conscious about it. As her older sister, I really hate that, because she gave birth to a human baby and I think that’s pretty impressive. But she’s not ready to come out yet because she doesn’t look the same and she knows that if she does come out she would be met with all these comments. She can’t deal with that right now.’
Sarah’s decision to finally re-emerge earlier this year is not one she took lightly. ‘I came out because I felt like I had to,’ she tells me, a result of the ‘internet manhunt’ that arose in the quest to discover Raven’s true identity. Sarah now works as a dominatrix under the pseudonym Petra Hunter. Things became difficult for her when her followers began to speculate that Petra was an older version of Raven. Having shared her real identity in Chiel’s interview, she was worried people would in turn make the link between Petra and Sarah.
‘Because I’m a sex worker that means I’m already an easy target for harassment,’ she tells me, ‘I’ve been in the adult industry for a little over 10 years now and while the public perception surrounding sex work is definitely changing a lot, it’s still really hard to shake the fear of someone finding out my true identity.’
Sarah had managed to successfully deny allegations that Petra was Raven for years, but her followers became more aggressive in their assertions after a TikTok video went viral linking her two alter-egos. Her Petra account gained hundreds of followers in a single day; she was tagged in comment threads full of Internet theorists. Her followers became obsessed with finding the truth, at whatever cost.
‘It was kind of scary,’ she tells me, though she recognises that their desire to ‘out’ her wasn’t necessarily malicious.
‘I think it comes from the fact that younger generations, the ones leading the manhunt, haven’t really grown up without the internet,’ she tells me, ‘A lot of people find it really hard to believe that not everyone has an online presence or that not everyone wants to be found. People are so used to being able to search for someone and find them and when you can’t find someone, instead of giving up, you just double down even harder. For a culture that is very online, we made it very, very hard to be found.’
Sarah was worried about what might be exposed in their pursuit of the truth: her name, her address, her family. ‘I felt like coming out was the only way that I could regain control of the situation,’ she tells me, ‘I can’t be doxxed if I dox myself. So it was basically a fucking power grab.’
Hearing this, I question whether the virtual pat on the back these Internet theorists so desperately crave is worth the consequences this detective work can have on the lives of people like Sarah. I can’t help but wonder if we have a responsibility to leave some mysteries unsolved.
‘There’s always going to be an allure to a mystery,’ Sarah tells me, ‘and Tara and I loved keeping the mystery alive. We loved watching people try to find us, but it was actually really scary when they did.’
‘It’s so tricky,’ she continues, ‘because even if you think you’re being safe about what you’re revealing about your suspect, you’re never really going to know whether or not the information you’re posting is safe. You’re never really going to know if it’s fine or not until…,’ she pauses, considering this for a moment, ‘until the person speaks for themselves.’
A section of her website reads: ‘Tara and I don’t have personal social media, as we both prefer to keep our private lives as offline as possible. Please don’t overstep those boundaries.’ Coming out as Raven has allowed Sarah to set these boundaries, but does she think people will respect them?
‘I hope so,’ she says, ‘more for Tara than for me. I’m really protective of Tara and she’s made it pretty clear that she’s not ready to come out.’
The reaction Sarah received in 2021 is worlds away from what she was expecting: ‘99% of the reception I’ve gotten has been people saying “you’re hilarious, you were such an important part of my childhood, your videos are so funny…” etc. It’s been a real mindfuck for me because I have lived so much of my life convinced that the opposite was true.’ With a dramatic increase in followers and a long-overdue outpouring of love for Raven and Tara, is part of her thankful to those who ‘outed’ her, give the success it has led to?
‘It’s complicated,’ she concedes, ‘I’m really glad that I came out as Raven now. It’s been great. There’s part of me that wants to say thanks. But I don’t want to set a precedent at all…I don’t know. It’s a really weird position for me to be in.’
And what about the next person? The next TikTok or Tumblr user who finds a clue that leads them down an Internet rabbit hole in search of an answer to a mystery that might expose someone who wishes to remain hidden, what advice would she give them?
‘Pursue it,’ she says, ‘but be careful with what you find.’
Image provided by Sarah.