WHAT BETTER NIGHT to check out the local Goth scene than the Saturday of Halloween weekend?

And so it was that I found myself walking down a flight of stairs and into the subterranean club Catacomb (actually a slightly transformed Meeting Place, 1707 L Street NW; 202/293-7755). I ask at the door for Robert Merciless, the man in charge, and am told to look for "the Victorian vampire." There are several vampires scattered throughout the crowd of around 150, but I steer toward the most Victorian (tall, skinny, pale, sleek black hair; you know, consumptive looking) and he is indeed Mr. Merciless (his nom de goth).

He is the gracious host as he guides me through the club, introducing me to his fellow Goths, complimenting them on their costumes, explaining the scene to me in quiet asides. "Even though it's our Halloween party, tonight isn't really all that different from our usual Saturdays," Merciless says with a cool smile. Isn't there a Ministry lyric like that? "Every day is Halloween." Merciless nods with arched eyebrows.

The small dance floor is packed with people, mostly dancing alone, though there is one obvious couple, a dark angel and a light angel. He's in black with small black wings. She's in gauzy white, with lovely white wings. She takes care to not bump them, but others are not so careful, and some damage looks inevitable.

"You just missed the costume contest," says Merciless, "but I'll introduce you to the winner." Hey, this one's gonna be good! A Goth costume winner! I'm expecting something straight out of "Evil Dead" or some other horror classic. What do I get? A sock monkey.

The sock monkey holds out his stumpy paw to shake and I'm cracking up. "Not very Goth, is it?" says I. "No, but we rewarded the brilliance of it," says Merciless. And brilliant it is. An absolutely full-blown version of a kid's sock monkey doll, made by Catacomb regular Cynthia Combs for her man Jack Collin.

"We thought we'd be a little different," says Combs, who's in her self-made Leopard Girl outfit ("I was always good with a sewing machine," she admits). An avenging angel with big black wings and a bloody battle axe walks by, eyeing the sock monkey, perhaps wishing he could hack off some more of its stumps.

It turns out that Collin and Combs have been coming to Catacomb since it began its Saturday nights on L Street this past March. And before that they went wherever the scene was: the Capital Ballroom and the Roxy before that. "The Goth scene in D.C. has had its ups and downs, but it'll always be around, because there are always more and more of us weirdos," bellows Collin through the mouth of his monkey mask. He looks at some of his fellow "weirdos," and waves at the folks on the dance floor saying, "that dancey stuff rubs me the wrong way sometimes, but the DJs always play enough classic Goth stuff to keep me coming."

Merciless explains that things have changed since the early days of Goth when the soundtrack to the scene was Siouxsie & the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, Peter Murphy, Bauhaus and other mid-'80s stalwarts. "I came to the genre late, just two or three years ago," he says. "Switchblade Symphony really hooked me, then Cubanate and Unit 187, and of course Nine Inch Nails." I'm a little clueless frankly, plus I thought Nine Inch Nails was classified as Industrial or something. "Well, exactly, but that's the thing," he says. "When you talk about the music scene now and say `Goth,' `Industrial' is the next word. The two have become inextricably linked now. Rarely do you find one without the other being close by."

His partners in Catacomb, Kangal and the Reverend Fish, are the primary DJs (Kangal is also the DJ at the weekly fetish night, Bound, at Bar Nun on U Street). The music is pounding and propulsive, but veers off into the soft droning of stuff like Black Tape for a Blue Girl or Dead Can Dance from time to time. It's an interesting mix of old school Goth, ambient and industrial. But Merciless says that all the styles share something basic.

"Industrial music is dark and brooding yet exciting, and speaks to the same people who were first drawn to Goth music because of those same factors." Goth of course, is short for Gothic, and Merciless explains that it's the "dark aesthetic" of the Gothic world that people are drawn to. "We tell people that it's okay to find the macabre appealing. That it's part of life, that death is part of life. We want people to know that there are those of us who share an appreciation for the dark beauty in things."

"The dark beauty." Nice phrase. Somehow I understand. It's a beauty that can be found everywhere, because nothing is permanent. Falling, dying leaves in autumn. Crumbling buildings. Rust. Cemeteries. "Even the `Addams Family,' " Merciless says. "Goths have a sense of humor too."

The bad press that Goths got in the wake of April's massacre in a Colorado high school was absurd, Merciless says. "The Goth scene is the most tolerant one I know. We only encourage tolerance of each other's differences, not violence against each other. If anything, I see society the other way around, being intolerant of us. It's sad that the mundane world is fairly narrow in what it will tolerate in terms of dress and music and sexuality, but fortunately Catacomb is a refuge from that."

For Merciless, who won't give his real name, Catacomb is his own refuge from his day job, "one of those high-profile Washington jobs." He says he has clients and colleagues who would be horrified to see him in full regalia because they wouldn't get it. "It's just not their scene, and that's fine. I just don't want them to judge me without understanding." To understand more of this literally underground world, check online at http://members.aol.com/catacombDC/ or send an e-mail to CatacombDC@aol.com, or just take a walk down those stairs on a Saturday night.

OOPS, MY BAD

The lead singer of local rockabilly band Jumpin' Jupiter is Jay Jenc, and I apologize to him for mangling it in a column a couple of weeks back.

NIGHTWATCH ONLINE

Don't forget to log on to your computer Friday from 3 to 4 p.m. for a live discussion with me and Seth Hurwitz, owner of the 9:30 club and I.M.P. productions. You can send questions in advance or just send 'em live. Click onto washingtonpost.com and you'll be able to figure it out from there.