A new cult dance movement is sending shockwaves through clubland. ROB FEARN charts the rise of the `cyberfreaks'
It's a regular Saturday night at the Gatecrasher superclub in Sheffield, but there's something different about the place. It's the crowd. Elbowing for space on the dance floor, angel wings on back and lightsticks in hand, are the self-styled Gatecrasher kids - or "cyberfreaks" - of club culture. You probably haven't heard of them. Unlike punk, heavy metal, goth or utility, cyberfreak is a purely "weekend" style. No one goes to work like this. You won't see cyberfreaks on any British high street. And yet these kids are members of the most striking youth cult since the advent of acid house.

Every weekend, these dedicated clubbers, almost all between the ages of 18 and 21, dress like parodies of rave fashion, their hair spiked and glowing at the tips, their clothes customised with flashing lights and protuberant lumps of rubber. Glow-sticks, rave's long-derided waveable wands, and babies dummies are making a comeback alongside an armoury of rave toys: phazer guns, hammers, devil's pitchforks.

"It's come full circle," shrugs Matthew Score, an 18-year-old warehouse worker who drives up from Worksop every weekend. Dressed in the male cyberfreak's uniform of skin-tight cycling top and fluorescent face paint, he teases his hair into spikes, coating the tips with UV dye. Later Matthew pulls up his left sleeve to show off a tattoo of the club's lion emblem. "The first time I came in shirt and trousers," he says. "I felt a right idiot. I stood in the corner on my own. I've met so many people since I started dressing like this."

Other cyberfreaks pride themselves on making their own clothes. The girls wear tutus and angel wings, UV pipe cleaners twisted into their hair and plastic letters fixed to makeshift tiaras. One spells "Horny"; another "Smile". Others, like "Shiny" Mark, opt for a tight cycling top on which he's pinned the "membership card" of the Gatecrasher Shiny Kids ("Shiny' means happy," he says).

The Shiny Kids are members of the cyberfreaks' inner circle, an elite sub-section of a youth cult that isn't immune to the fickle hand of fashion. Silver hair, once a cyberfreak staple, is now "too popular" and most have switched to other tonsorial options. Likewise, "obvious" logos like the Mitsubishi symbol, inspired by a potent brand of ecstasy, are "out".

Gatecrasher kids commonly spend the whole week planning costume ideas for Saturday night, and frown on anyone who steals someone's look, whether it's face paint applied in black and white tiger stripes or a glowing digital countdown on their chest. Ask them why they do it and they'll invariably give the same answer: to escape from reality into a childlike, playground atmosphere. In other words, to achieve exactly the same effect as the original ravers 10 years ago.

Cyberfreaks first appeared around a year ago. Club attendances were falling and the new generation of 18-year-olds seemed to be rejecting poor quality Es and house music. Around the same time the scene was buzzing with talk of "club freaks". Following the lead of Ibiza's outrageous Manumission parties and the hallucinogenic festival scene, clubs like Sundissential and Miss Moneypenny's spawned outlandish clubbers-cum-entertainers - nuns covered in blue body paint, alien stilt-walkers and crimson-horned devils. (The club freak movement peaked when a man dressed as a large suitcase was hailed as a clubbing celebrity and interviewed in dance magazine MixMag.)

Another key ingredient for the scene was the arrival of Mitsubishis, the MDMA-rich Es that flooded clubland in late '98 and rejuvenated it almost overnight. Before long 18- and 19-year-olds, for whom rave was ancient history - and so something to be pillaged and reclaimed - were pouring into clubs.

Not everyone was best pleased. Radio One's Judge Jules has angrily called for rave toys to be banned, and the cyberfreaks aren't too happy. "Clubbing's about freedom," Andy Lightfoot says. "You can't tell people what to do."

This friction is largely because the cyberfreaks phenomenon is clubbing's first real revival, with clubbers embracing a hotchpotch of styles they were too young to experience first hand.

So high are emotions that the cyberfreak debate is raging in the letters page of Mixmag, which has printed angry complaints about "gimps in bin- liners" spoiling the enjoyment of the original Gatecrasher crowd. "They're ridiculous," agrees one clubber in her early thirties. "They think they're so cool but they look stupid. If you don't look right you're not part of their gang." Renaissance, a long-running house club attracting older, more stylish clubbers, recently opened a lavish new venue in Nottingham and announced a "No Gatecrasher Kids" door policy. "If a load of kids start turning up with toys and dummies they won't get in," says promoter Geoff Oakes. "If they want to take the paint off their faces and dress a bit smarter, they're more than welcome. I'm sure they'll grow out of it."

Despite such opposition, the cyberfreaks are spreading fast. In January there were only a handful at Gatecrasher, but now they make up around 15 per cent of the club. It's contagious. Every converted cyberfreak says the same thing - they came to the club, saw how people were dressing, and wanted to be part of it. In this way phenomena start.

Denzil Ede, a 21-year-old genetics student, was bitten by the cyberfreak bug after visiting the Leeds club Sundissential North. His costume is an alien mask with a built-in voice-distortion box, teamed with a large pair of Dr Spock ears. "It's definitely a movement," he says. "I think it's going to grow, because it's so easy to join. You just have to go to a fancy dress shop. Anyone can be a cyberfreak."