[First written in 2005; adapted and modified from author’s article in The Christian Research Journal, Vol. 29, Issue No. 1, 2006]
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).
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 (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.
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” (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).
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 (Voltaire, 92). It is now increasingly tricky to identify what Goth music is, or to link one kind of musical style to Goth (Voltaire, 2).
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” (Kilpatrick, 24).
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 (Voltaire, 90-91; Kilpatrick, 89). 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” (Wendell, email message to author, Jan. 19, 2002). 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” (James, email message to author, Jan. 5, 2002). 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)” (Julian, email message to author, Feb. 1, 2002).
Goth musician and writer Voltaire humorously designates several types of Goths with names such as Romantigoth, Deathrocker, Cybergoth, Candygoth, Goth-a-Billy, and the Vampyre (Voltaire, 4-9). Another Goth writer categorizes Goths into groups such as blood drinker, cemetery goth, corporate goth, Diva, industrial, elder goth, fetish, graver, kindergoth, punky goth, Ubergoth, Vampire, Christian goth, Pagan/Wicca goth, and several others (Kilpatrick, 18-26; Kilpatrick does not capitalize “goth”).
Goths often take a special Goth name; for example, transforming from Laura into “Raven” or from Jeremy into “Dark Angel.” They might borrow names from vampire or Gothic novels, or from historical figures such as Poe or the mad Russian monk, Rasputin (Voltaire, 37). The purpose is to have a name to suit their Gothic persona, and ideally, the name should be “dark, mysterious, sexy, and romantic” with extra points it if evokes “an air of nobility” (Ibid.).
Spiritual beliefs vary widely, with agnosticism seeming to predominate. However, there are Goth Pagans, Goth Wiccans, atheists, Goths involved in Eastern beliefs, a very small number of Satanists, and Christian Goths. Goth Pagans and Goth Wiccans are becoming more common. The category of Christian Goth might surprise Christians, but Christian Goths in many cases were Goths before becoming Christians and find they still relate to the Goth style and outlook (. For extensive information on this topic, see http://www.christiangoth.com/ ).
Can there be a dark side to Goth? Yes, it is vampirism. Vampyres are a subset of the Goth scene, though many Goths reject vampyres as such and dislike being associated with them, finding it embarrassing (The spelling “Vampyre” is preferred by many to distinguish them from the fictional and stereotypical views of vampires; however, there are those who consider “vampyre” to be pretentious and prefer the original spelling). Vampyres may dress in capes, play a live action role-playing game such as “Vampire: The Masquerade,” wear artificial fangs (or even have their incisors sharpened so they look like fangs), and may or may not drink blood from a voluntary donor. There are vampyre games that incorporate their own mythology and religion.
There is disagreement among vampyres as to what a real vampyre is. Some merely play the part in clubs or in games, or are into fetish scenes. Some belong to groups, called clans. Vampire role-playing games often designate several types of clans, each with its own special attributes and talents. The term “the Kindred” is used in some games to identify the players. There are those who claim vampyrism is a medical condition that causes them to shun the sun or crave blood. Others believe that a true vampyre is initiated by another vampyre, often through a blood-drinking ritual. Still others believe that one is born a vampyre. Some vampyres do not drink blood and reject this as a part of vampyrism, while others claim it is essential. Evidence and testimonies from this group indicate that blood is provided by voluntary donors only. Then there are the psychic vampyres who allege that they gather their “life force” from psychically feeding off people’s life energy or emotions. The psychic vampyres often email me to insist that they are the true vampyres, while the blood-drinking vampyres do the same.
Some vampyres believe they are not human, and that they have reached a state of immortality. This non-human status is possibly an ironic reaction to, or comment on, our fast-paced and increasingly impersonal society, where shifts in relationships are casual and constant. The vampyre seems to say, if society treats us as non-human, then non-human we will become. Sometimes the vampyre guise is a way to reject others before others reject them, or a way to hide pain under a seemingly forbidding persona. The vampyre underground, although it is an extreme form of Goth counterculture, does exist, despite the fact that it is not commonly known, and despite the fact that society may not want to believe it exists. [For further information, see the CANA article, “The Vampyre Underground”].
Goths Today: Is Goth Still Undead?
Though the heyday of Gothdom seems to have subsided, Goth culture lives on. Some believe it has become mainly a fashion trend with no substance, but many still identify themselves as Goth, Goth websites proliferate, and books have come out in recent years delineating the Goth way of life. These books examine Gothic history, music, dress, movies, literature, Goth icons, and more. According to one expert, Goths are found in the United States, Canada, most of Europe, the Far East, and South America (Kilpatrick, 3); a special hot spot for Goths in the past was New Orleans. New Orleans, formerly the home of Anne Rice, author of Interview With A Vampire and other books, is also the setting for many of her novels and for the movie, “Interview With a Vampire.”
Aside from Rice’s novels, Goths are drawn to the horror works of Poe and H. P. Lovecraft; to dark movies such as “The Crow,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice” and “The Matrix;” to vampire movies such as “The Hunger,” and others; and to various role-playing games. These books, movies, and games feature characters who are misfits, outcasts, vampires or otherwise outside mainstream society. Rice can perhaps be credited with crafting the contemporary vampire figure into the ultimate anti-hero, a figure of power who inspires terror yet who also suffers a doomed status, and is beset by inner turmoil, conflicting desires, and the eventual pain of being forever shunned by society. The price for immortality is high.
Despite the popular perception that Goth is simply a matter of style, there remains a sense that it goes deeper than appearance, even among teens. An 18-year-old Manson fan told me that even though she dresses in Goth style and most people would consider her Goth, she herself does not think she qualifies. She said, “Goth, like most cultures can go pretty deep, past music and appearance, I have not gone past that myself. So depending on how you want to define Goth . . . I would still say I’m not” (Kathy, email message to author, June 12, 2005). A Manson fan, wanting to be Goth but disliking labels, says, “I wanted to consider myself goth, because i thought Manson was goth. But now i think the word ‘gothic’ is more of a label on people than a religion, or belief (Anonymous emailer in message to author, June 21, 2005).” On the one hand, we have a careful use of the term “Goth,” while on the other hand, there is the equally strong dislike of the Goth label.
Though there is ongoing disagreement and debate among Goths of different generations as to what authentic Gothdom is, this may be what keeps the Goth culture thriving. Rather than being unable to adapt, the fact that a younger generation is making its own claims on Goth shows that it continues to appeal rather than being unable to adapt. It is not seen, at least by younger Goths, as just something for 25 years ago, but remains relevant to how they want to express themselves today.
Meanwhile, movies considered Goth, like the two-part “Underworld” series, continue to come out, (though the storyline is about Vampires versus Werewolves). Goth writer Voltaire believes that Goth culture will have a moment in the sun and then slip back into the underground from whence it came (Voltaire, 93).
Attempts to define or pigeonhole Goth go against the Goth grain. The Goth subculture is resistant to examination. An example of this resistance to the spotlight is Goth clubs; as soon as they become well identified or popular, the real Goths flee for lesser-known hangouts. Goth is anti-trend. To a certain extent, when Goth is dissected, it is no longer Goth, and Goths would have it no other way. As the author of The Goth Bible says, “Goth is one of the premier artistic movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and true artists are, by nature, unique and unpredictable (Kilpatrick, 3).
For Christians: How Should You Respond to Goths?
The first thing Christians should do in responding to Goths is to set aside stereotypes, especially any misconceptions that Goths are Satanists or are violent. Goths are usually gentle people.
Secondly, you should not be unsettled by how the Goth person appears. The more extreme Goth styles may be off-putting to some, but it is important to see the Goth as a person first. Showing distaste for their appearance only confirms to Goths their suspicions that Christians dislike or fear them. Goths are usually gentle people whose dark clothing belies a friendly spirit. Like anyone else, Goths want to be treated respectfully.
The third thing to be careful to do is to see each Goth as an individual. As pointed out earlier, Goths may look alike in the way they dress, but it is crucial to bear in mind that each one is a unique person created in the image of God. Approaching a Goth as an individual is much more respectful and productive than viewing him or her as just part of a subculture.
It would also be an error to think the Goth person is someone who feels rejected by society. Many Goths do not feel rejected at all; rather, they merely feel they do not fit into the mainstream mold, or they find it shallow.
It is best to talk to Goths in the context of relationships. Goths typically enjoy discussing books, music, movies, or their own creative pursuits. A useful question to ask is why the person became Goth. Ask what they think Goth is, or what they like about Goth. Each of these questions opens many doors to understanding their views and what it is that they seem to have found in being Goth.
Goths are usually interesting to talk to, and hearing their perspectives on society and life can be both stimulating and challenging The Goth culture can be commended for its acknowledgement of the “dark” side of life – the unpleasant and ugly realities that society often ignores or denies — and of death. These two issues can be good starting points for dialogue and discussion. A true Goth, for example, will have reflected on the significance of death. From a biblical perspective, death is our enemy – an enemy that Jesus Christ has utterly defeated through his own death and resurrection. Perhaps a Goth might be able to especially appreciate what Christ has done regarding death.
Goths also are often willing to discuss spiritual topics. Listen respectfully and share your own experiences and beliefs as part of the conversation. Keep in mind that many Goths have Christian backgrounds, though these might be only nominally Christian or possibly legalistic forms of Christianity. If their background is Christian, discover what turned them away from Christianity. Find out what their understanding of Christianity is. Be sensitive to bad experiences they may have had with Christianity or misunderstandings of the Christian faith.
Goths will listen to reasons for your faith if you show them respect and demonstrate sincere interest in them. It is a mistake to focus on clothing or worry about their looks if you invite them to your church. They should be welcomed to church regardless of their appearance.
Due to the fact that there are a variety of spiritual views among Goths, it is good to ask questions about their beliefs and see where that leads. Whether the Goth holds agnostic, Wiccan, or other beliefs, remember that we as Christians are representatives of Christ and that others should see Christ in us.
If Jesus were doing ministry today, would he be reaching out to Goths and engaging in dialogue with them? I believe He most definitely would be.
For Goths: If You Read This Far……
Thank you for coming to my site and reading this article. Please email me with your reactions, thoughts, comments, etc. Thank you kindly.
To see the original article, “The World According to Goth” in the Christian Research Journal, go to http://www.equip.org/article/the-world-according-to-goth/