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"
From Whence Cometh Goth?
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. 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". Like the original Goths, today's Goths "dwell in their own realm . . . apart from the rest of the world".
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". 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". 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.
Getting Gothic: Is Black Nail Polish Necessary?
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". It is further described as "sophisticated barbarism" that "uses darkness to illuminate" and is "the unholy, the uncanny, the unnatural". 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".
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".
Yet another Goth writer defines Goth as a "state of mind" that "embraces what the normal world shuns". 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. 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".
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".
Poetry and Coffins: From Romantic to Vampiric
Music was seminal for the Goth scene at the beginning, and after the initial poignant and melancholy style of Goth music, Goth tastes ran to New Wave, industrial music or even rave. Goths vary in musical tastes from the haunting Darkwave to more industrial groups like Skinny Puppy or Nine Inch Nails. Goth music has given birth to a progeny of styles such as EtherGoth, ElectroGoth, Orchestral Gothic Metal, GothPop, PerkyGoth, GlamGoth, Zombie Rock and others. It is now increasingly tricky to identify what Goth music is, or to link one kind of musical style to Goth.
Goth has been around long enough for some Goths to consider the original Goth movement - the Old School -- as the true Goth period and themselves as the only true Goths. Subsequent claims to Gothdom by a younger generation are rejected as fake or at least inferior by the older generation. Those who may look Goth but fall short of the real thing are called poseurs. Author Kilpatrick notes that being Goth is not a phase: "For most goths, a goth is a goth for life".
One area where a split on what constitutes Goth is seen is with rocker Marilyn Manson. While many teens identify Manson as Goth, many original Goths tend to dismiss him as a mere shock rocker. Many Goths reject Manson because he is considered too commercial, his music is not truly Gothic, and he achieved fame and popularity. Popularity is antithetical to Goth. However, With his black clothes, bizarre trappings, industrial type music, avowed rejection of society's mores, ties to the Church of Satan, and outcast persona, however, Manson continues to draw teen fans who consider themselves Goth (although many of his fans are increasingly mainstream).
Manson fans say they like him for being an intelligent individual who does not try to please society. They say that he reveals the hypocrisy and artificial veneer of our culture. Manson once said that he gets the kids America throws away, and this resonated with a lot of teens. One fan wrote, "I love the music, it tells the truth. You just have to be smart enough to know how to interpret the songs". Another admirer said, "One of his main messages is to not follow the calls and boundaries of others, but to make up one's own mind". And yet another explained what Manson is all about: "He builds himself up like a symbol of all bad, corrupt and fake things in america, and sings lyrics with ironical themes but with true meanings. When the christian american mothers says they hate him, he just replies: Well, then you hate yourself, because i am a imitation of you...(pretty smart i think)".