Welcome to the Dark Side
Goth: a Brief Introduction
It’s a word that conjures up many images, from black clad waifs, to graveyards and Poe, to the barbarians who sacked Rome. The subculture was born in the 1970s, consisting of pale teenagers with a fascination with Gothic literature and old horror films. Unnamed for the first part of its existence, it was only after Punk died down that anybody noticed that it was there at all, at the infamous Batcave club in London. ‘Goth’ was as much a term of scorn from the music press as anything else. Nobody envisaged that the kids in tie dye and black would embrace the label and make it their own. Now, over thirty years after Bauhaus first made it into the charts with Bela Lugosi’s Dead, the subculture is one of the most successful, reinventing itself endlessly into dozens of different varieties, while staying true to the central core that embodies it’s truth. The success of the movement means that we can now talk about generations of Goth, with all the clash of differences that brings. Musically, and in terms of fashion there has been evolution and the novels written from within the Tribe have provided a unique perspective on many aspects of horror. Far from only being focused on music, there have been Goth comics, games, films and so on. A whole slice of dark culture has spun out of one source.
Goth is just one of many alternative cultures that have sprung up since the end of World War Two, and the creation of the Teenager not only as a phase in life but as a commercial market. This is at least what spawned Teddy Boys, Bohemians, Hippies, Glam Rockers and so on, shuttling back and forth between peace and love and, at the other extreme, the destructiveness of Punk. Most subcultures squat somewhere in the middle, drawing from each extreme.
Goth for example turns the Punk’s destructive impulses inwards, but also embraces notions of beauty. Yes, death is idolised to an extent, and beauty is found in the macabre, in graveyards and blood. But in a world where we push the notion of death so far away that we have to have Death Cafés to even bring ourselves to talk about the notion, a willingness to face up to our mortality is surely a good thing? The distinctive look of Goth draws from a similar place, the funeral parade became established by accident (UK Decay performed in black for purely practical reasons, hiding the travel stains on their clothes), but by the mid 1980s it had become a uniform with bands like The Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim happily adopting the look. By the end of the decade, more historical styles were creeping in, being reinterpreted for the modern age, and these elements arguably form the core of the Goth look. Reaching back to plunder the past is a common theme; whether that’s Victorian era fashions and accessories, or the ubiquitous big tin ankh. Small wonder that when Goth became more commercialised in America, the answer was to dive back almost wholesale to the Victorian period and create Steampunk.
Of course to attach the word truth to the Gothic is a strange thing to do. By its very nature the genre has more than a touch of artifice to it. The original stories envisaged imaginary histories, and in the case of Castle of Otranto at least, dissembled as genuine pieces of Medieval literature, or creating monsters to terrify their readers, who were largely young middle class women seeking an escape from the drudgery of their lives. In a similar fashion the architects of Gothic and Gothick buildings reached back towards an imagined form of castle, creating follies and grottos, secret passages and other fancies in the immense buildings they constructed. In the modern age we have a small chain of bars, Spooky Pubs which fully embrace the phoniness of the whole thing, right down to the morbid laughter track in the toilets, while the Romanian tourist board invites you to look around Castle Bram, claiming it to be the real Castle Dracula (despite it being nowhere near the site Stoker identifies in the novel).
What motivates most Goths however, is emotion, whether that’s the feeling of being alienated, or that life isn’t worth it. There’s also a fascination with the dark and the things in it, and well those outfits; is anything sexier? While that’s not the main motivation for most of us, there are Goths who are only interested in the fashion side of if, but I’d argue that for them at least it really is just a phase and they’ll be off when another ‘cool’ thing comes along. A recent study suggested that it was the subculture most likely to be connected to depression, though that seems to be more linked to the fact that Goths are bright and have a tendency to over think things. Personally, I found it made sense to become a Goth, like I finally fitted somewhere and I wonder how many others feel that way? I also found that the tribe was accepting, that LGBT, kinky, and feminist members met no problems. That’s partly because of a willingness to experiment, but also because once the people attracted to the subculture tend to be open minded; willing to conjure with fresh ideas; and make no mistake up until recently for all but a vanishing minority these were fresh concepts. It’s only in the last decade or two that they have begun to integrate into society and still have an aura of otherness for a lot of people.
The thing to take away is that the subculture is real, the people are real, even if the whole thing is based on an imagined world filled with monsters and fairytale endings.
Steve Cotterill is an author and Goth, dwelling in Birmingham (UK), currently working on his first collection of short stories. He loves vampires, werewolves and all the things that go bump in the night and lives with two very ungothic cats. He blogs at http://shoresofnight.blogspot.co.uk/
Five Gothic Works
Frankenstein: The text that arguably spawned the science fiction genre and cemented a large part of what horror is about, acting as a bridge between The Gothic of the late 18th Century and the more familiar works of the Victorian Age, Frankenstein is a fascinating story of hubris, mad science and rejection.
Dracula: Arguably the most famous vampire novel of them all, though far from the first, Dracula is also Bram Stoker’s finest story being more streamlined and evocative than any of his other work. Based on a ‘found footage’ technique common in Victorian Gothic, the novel consists of diary entries and correspondence that spins out a rich tapestry telling a tale so familiar that its become the lingua franca of vampire tales. Despite this it remains the seminal work in the traditional vampire genre, full of sensuality and horror.
The Woman in Black: Susan Hill’s classic tale of angry ghosts, the Woman in Black is a throw back to the age of M.R. James, told in a fashion that starkly captures women’s madness and anger. It’s a moving, involved tale that delves deep into the cruelties of child death and is highly affecting.
Lost Souls: A modern vampire story, one deeply rooted in the Goth scene, Lost Souls concerns a young man’s quest for identity, and family. There’s a strong sense of ‘American wilderness’ to the novel, and the horror arises as much from the alienation of the Goths and their desire for self destruction (even if they don’t actively realise that’s what they desire) as the acts of the vampires.
Coraline: Neil Gaiman’s story about a girl who discovers another ‘family’ on the other side of a doorway. This is a children’s story, but none the less terrifying for that, especially if you’re a parent. You’ll never look at black buttons in the same way again.