Into the Light: A Consideration of the Goth Identity
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What does it mean to be goth? What does it mean to be anything?
From the 1970s to the present day, the contemporary term “goth” – as applied to music, fashion, outlook, and lifestyle – has attracted innumerable interpretations and meanings.
As a subculture, goth resists easy categorization. A better understanding of goth’s definition comes from considering what it is not. Goth is nonbinary, nonpartisan, and nonconformist. From the fervent believer to the unwavering nihilist, most anyone can find a sense of belonging in the goth community. The identity develops out of a fascination with the macabre and grotesque, with the romantic inevitability of death, and with the philosophical drama of impermanence.
The goth lifestyle is embraced and maintained, worldwide, by devotees of all ages and backgrounds. But how does anyone become goth? Is it a passing phase or a way of life? Who’s asking, and why does it matter?
Young people find out who they are through what they love. The player falls for the field, the actor falls for the stage, the chef for the knife, the writer for the page. Sympathy for deviance, disinterest in social hierarchies, a predilection for darkness and mystery – these are early signs of the goth consciousness.
Less depressed than melancholy, the goth disposition is typically peaceful and introverted. To be goth is to remain oneself in spite (and defiance) of the homogenizing forces of a shallow mainstream. Countercultural fashion, music, art, and literature fortify the goth spirit against the wearying tide of beige normalcy that beats against the daily lives of everyone. It’s a world of Mark Harmons out there, and not enough Pauley Perrettes. (They were on NCIS together – she played a goth forensic scientist – they’re not friends.)
Origins of the gothic subculture can be found in Victorian-era ghost stories and other literature from the 19th century. Frankenstein is goth doctrine, Mary Shelley its queen mother. At 18, in her creature she created an enduring archetype of the brooding outsider. The creature’s unfinished “bride” (brought to life in the 1935 movie adaptation) is another goth icon. Notable writers of gothic fiction include M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Alice Munro, and Fleur Jaeggy.
From page to screen, the popularity of goth culture grew in the 20th century through the ubiquity of cinema and television. In the 1960s, shows such as The Munsters and The Addams Family drew out the campier aspects of the gothic sensibility. Had Shelley’s creature lived long enough to discover beat poetry and FM radio, he might’ve become Herman Munster. Charles Addams saw his cartoon family lose some of its edge on television, but the show helped keep his name (and his characters) alive. Lily Munster and Morticia Addams continue to have an influence on goth styles of dress.
Within more traditional realms of horror, the elusive goth essence is frequently misrepresented, or caricaturized beyond relatability, on-screen. Movies made in the goth vein can be heavy-handed, toothless, or worst of all humorless. Excessive violence, gore, and depravity all have their place in motion pictures – they are not always requisite, however, for the goth aesthetic. Here are ten classic goth films with bite and levity:
Dracula (Browning, 1931), The Black Cat (Ulmer, 1934), Black Sunday (Bava, 1960), Carnival Of Souls (Harvey, 1962), Castle Of Blood (Margheriti/Corbucci, 1964), Spider Baby (Hill, 1968), Night Of The Demons (Tenney, 1988), Santa Sangre (Jodorowsky, 1989), Vampire’s Kiss (Bierman, 1989), The Doom Generation (Araki, 1995)
From a fashion perspective, the beauty of the goth identity is that it is unique to the wearer. Goth is an internal state – as such, options for self-expression are unlimited. The goth look, in its elegant deathliness, can be simultaneously anachronistic and of-the-moment. Passing trends in fashion have a negligible influence on timeless goth styles. Imagine dressing for a haute funeral taking place both a hundred years ago and a hundred years in the future. What worked in the 1880s and 1980s could very well remain viable in the 2080s.
To stand out or to blend in, to mix and match layers, or simply to state a mood, black is king. Goth or not, most people look good in black. Dressing in black is not the only way to express a goth affinity. Goths love to accessorize though, and black is optimal for this purpose. To enhance the gloom of head-to-toe black, common adornment symbols include coffins, crosses, bats, spiders, candles, and skulls.
Gothic Beauty Magazine has been documenting goth fashion and culture since 2000. After issue 48, the magazine went digital, but glossy back issues can still be found on eBay. Other out-of-print goth lifestyle magazines include Propaganda, Carpe Noctem, Drop Dead, Bite Me, and Blue Blood. Today, the goth-curious can find a variety of web channels and blogs dedicated to the culture. Sites like The Belfry Network provide links to Cemetery Confessions and other goth-themed podcasts.
Goth music – death rock, post-punk, dark wave, industrial, ethereal – has steadily grown in popularity and international recognition over the past 50 years. Goth concerts, club nights, conventions, and festivals create welcoming spaces for the nocturnally inclined and the music-obsessed. Participation in the scene – to whatever degree a local scene exists – can be passive, active, or oblivious. Dancing alone is never unnatural at a goth event. Even gathered together, every goth is alone – and the music speaks to this. For the uninitiated, these are five genre-defining albums:
Desertshore (Nico, 1970), Mask (Bauhaus, 1981), Pornography (The Cure, 1982), It’ll End In Tears (This Mortal Coil, 1984), Medusa (Clan Of Xymox, 1986)
Forever undead, always evolving, goth lives on around the world, beyond the pale, in the flesh, over the airwaves, through the night.
J. Blake Gordon is the author of love calls out to love, a collection of poems written between 1997 and 2017. He is working on a follow-up: more of the same, poems written between 2018 and 2038. He lives in Chicago.