There are probably few subculture movements in society today that result in as many misconceptions and fears as does the Goth culture. When people hear the word "Goth," some immediately envision black clothes, tattoos, and pale faces, while others connect it to something more menacing such as vampires or even to Satanism. Goth is a cultural phenomenon rather than a religious one, though many beliefs are found among Goths, ranging from agnostics to Wiccans to Christian Goths.
While Goths (also called "Gothics") resist labels, and have no authority figures or leaders, there are some characteristics in common such as being creative, appreciating the arts, being introspective (not necessarily introverted), and rejecting the status quo, the shallow, and the artificial. Goths are anti-trend, embracing the darker side of culture. Think cemeteries. Think of the movie, "The Crow." Think melancholy.
In contrast to, "Have a nice day," Goths resonate more to "Life is dark, life is sad, all is not well, and most people you meet will try to hurt you" (Voltaire, What is Goth? [Boston, MA, York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 2004], x). Another Goth put it this way: "Goth stands in direct opposition to the Hippie free love, be happy attitude"( RedNight, email message to author, Nov. 2, 2002).
The word Goth, historically, is linked to the barbaric tribes that invaded the Roman Empire from the north, initiating the Dark Ages. Thus, "Goth" became associated with something dark and outside civilization (Voltaire, 11). Modern Goths have little in common with these early nomadic raiders, yet they situate themselves outside the mainstream culture, as did the warrior Goths of old. One present day Goth writer points out that "Goths are often feared and shunned, usually viewed as sinister, unwholesome . . . crude by the polished plastic standards of the status quo" (Nancy Kilpatrick, The Goth Bible [NY: St. Martin's Press, 2004], 13). Like the original Goths, today's Goths "dwell in their own realm . . . apart from the rest of the world" (Ibid.).
Goth's more recent roots rose from an identification with the Victorian Gothic novels and sentiments found in Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, and others who lamented the pains of lost love and the inner wounds inflicted by a cruel society. But the modern Gothic movement's clearest connection is the Punk scene of late 1970's England. The original Punk movement was famously outside the mainstream, derisive of commercial music, trendy fashion, and the mores and morals of culture, expressing itself primarily through what seemed to be chaotic music, spiked and maybe brightly dyed hair, multiple body piercings, and anarchic politics.
Goth was first visible as a post-Punk movement launched mainly through the musical group, Bauhaus, playing in a London club called Batcave ("Goth," Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth ). Bauhaus' famous Goth song was "Bela Lugosi's Dead," released in 1979 (for lyrics, see Alicia Porter Smith, "Origin of Gothic," http://www.darkwaver.com/subculture/index.html ). Other musical groups contributing to the Goth scene were Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, and the Cure. The word "goth," used for fans of Gothic Rock, was not commonly in vogue until about 1983 (Ibid.). Gothdom blossomed in the 80's, displayed in black clothing, body piercings, fetish fashion, and Goth clubs, such as the Bank in New York City, where Goths gathered to hear Goth music and meet with others of like mind. The Punks had been anarchic, attacking the culture; the Goths were brooding, withdrawing from the culture.
Goths are outsiders who cherish their outcast status and fashion their own world from what society has rejected. As one Goth told me, "For the most part, Goths just want to be left alone" (RedNight, email message to author, Nov. 2, 2002). Another said, "I tend more to blend in to a crowd, which gains me the isolation I need to do what we do best - watch" (The Marquis de Omni, email message to author, October 3, 2001; he identified himself as Goth and as a vampire ). Wearing black renders one less visible -- black is the non-color, or the anti-color, a supreme symbol of Gothic outlook. They do not seek approval from society, and, in fact, such approval would be the kiss of death.
While many imagine that Goth merely means black clothing and black nail polish, Gothic culture goes deeper. It is more of "an aesthetic, a viewpoint, even a lifestyle, its tradition a legacy of subversion and shadow" (Gavin Baddeley, Goth Chic [London: Plexus Publishing Limited, 2002], 10). It is further described as "sophisticated barbarism" that "uses darkness to illuminate" and is "the unholy, the uncanny, the unnatural" (Ibid., 19). Goths see beauty in what the social order considers ugly or unsettling, whether it be dark clothes, taboos in behavior, that which is eerie or in shadows, and even death. One website states that "one of Goth's defining characteristics is the need to take the underlying darkness that is in all of us and bring it into the light in such a way as we can recognize it as what it is-an integral part of all of us, for better or for worse" (Azhram, "Defining Goth," http://blood-dance.net/goth/origins.html ).
This love affair with darkness can become mawkish and Goths are well aware of this. They often display a strong sense of camp and comic irony about themselves, as can be seen with a Goth writer who peppers his book with statement like "Read this while I pretend to kill myself," and titles sections of the book with "dude looks like the matrix!" and "gothic makeover" (Voltaire, viii, 22, 58).
Yet another Goth writer defines Goth as a "state of mind" that "embraces what the normal world shuns" (Kilpatrick, 1). This is probably as good a succinct definition of Goth culture as any. There are many stereotypes and misconstructions of what Goth is. After the Columbine shootings, the media reported that the shooters, who had dressed in long, black trenchcoats, had been Goths. I, along with others, did not believe that the Columbine killers were Goth at all (See articles on the Columbine shootings at http://www.christiangoth.com/trenchcoat.html ). Goth culture originally has leaned toward the artistic and peaceful, not the violent; and neither guns nor revenge play a part in Goth culture. Goths reject the culture but are not in active rebellion against it.
The Columbine killers were angry loners with a cache of weapons, but their dark clothing and fondness for heavy industrial music gave many the misleading impression they were Goths. It takes more than black clothing and certain musical preferences to be Goth, especially with ungoth-like elements present, as with the Columbine shooters. As Goth writer Voltaire says, Goths are more likely to commit suicide than homicide, though he admits with characteristic Goth humor that instead of suicide, Goths would "rather contemplate suicide and then just write a really bad poem about it" (Voltaire, 86).
Goths might wear black clothing, black boots, black nail polish and lipstick, dye their hair raven black streaked with purple, red, or green, and wear unusual jewelry or accessories such as spiked dog collars, or they might not wear any of this. A symbol commonly seen in Goth culture is the ankh, an Egyptian symbol made from a cross topped by a loop, representing the Egyptian concept of immortality. This symbol is even more common in the Gothic vampire subculture. Some identify with the Victorian Romantic period and dress accordingly in turn-of-the-century clothing. Many Goths are into the music and club scene, some dressing in extreme outfits. Others simply express their Goth nature through poetry and artistic endeavors. In fact, a search of the Internet for Goth will turn up numerous sites heavily centered on Goth poetry.
But Goths vary in their style and enjoy defying stereotypes, even of themselves. It would be a mistake to envision Goths as a monolithic group who like the same music, or dress and think the same way; in fact, that would be very un-Gothlike. Although black clothes and certain styles of hair or accessories are common among Goths, each Goth is unique and has his or her own way of expressing "Gothness." Some identify more with the outward appearance while others immerse themselves deeply into the culture.
The variety of Goths make it difficult to define what Goth is, but the starting point is inward, not outward. It is the sense of disconnection from mainstream culture, and an embrace of what is considered taboo or rejected by society. One teen Goth said, "I think all humans are fascinated by evil, and the forbidden. That's why people stare at me in the street; they want to ask me questions so badly. I wish they would, I'd love to answer them. I'd love to let people know that the Goth lifestyle is not only beautiful, but also wise and culturally valuable. And that small-minded people are killing it" (email message to author, Dec. 2, 2001).