You’ve seen us lurking in the shadows, clad in black, listening to dark tunes and exuding a sense of mystery. We’re goths and there’s more to us than meets the eye. The goth subculture is multifaceted and not a teenage phase. In an ode to Goth Day that is on the 22nd of this month, I wanted to offer an introductory course on this dark and beautiful community. Let’s call it Goth 101. I’ve combed through the alphabet selecting words that are related to the subculture to provide deeper insight.
Ready to begin your lesson? Class is now in session.
Existing on the fringes of mainstream, goth is undoubtedly an alternative subculture. From music to fashion, it’s outside of the norm and that’s one of the community’s most endearing qualities.
A term used to refer to an adolescent that’s new to the scene. Just as adolescence is an awkward period for anyone, the baby bat stage can be equally as awkward for a young person trying to learn about and integrate into the subculture. Some think it’s a derogatory label, but I think it aptly describes a goth’s early days. I refer to my pre-teen goth days as my baby bat years.
This Los Angeles-based record company played a pivotal role in the growth of goth music during the 1990s. Bands such as Switchblade Symphony, Razed in Black, Nosferatu and Rosetta Stone were signed to this label. Cleopatra Records’ goth compilation CDs were my gateway into the goth music scene as a teen.
A genre of music that developed from Post-Punk and New Wave during the late 1970s/1980s. It’s defined by gloomy, melancholy sounds and lyrics typically focus on more macabre topics. Bands include The Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, The Crüxshadows, Bella Morte and Collide. The label Projekt Records specializes in this genre and has published dark wave music by many influential groups.
A term essentially referring to a seasoned goth. There is no specific age when one becomes an elder goth and, like with the phrase “baby bat,” there are conflicting views about it. Some say you must be over the age of 40, others that you had to have been a part of the scene since its inception to be considered an elder. Although opinions differ, I do feel that one common denominator that unites all elder goths is that the subculture was never a phase, rather it’s an intrinsic facet of their identity.
The fetish scene is not part of the subculture, but it is frequently associated with it. The fashion aesthetic is probably why since black attire, PVC, vinyl, latex, boots and spikes are styles that are seen in both the fetish and goth worlds. The goth nightclub Bar Sinister in Los Angeles has a fetish playroom and other events aimed at the goth community tend to have a fetish element. But I must make it clear that it’s a stereotype that all goths are into fetish or to assume that if a person is goth they must be into kink. And vice versa, not all people in the fetish community are goth.
At its core, the goth subculture is music-based. It sprouted during the late 1970s/ early 1980s from the post-punk movement with the emergence of goth rock. But many other factors have influenced the scene over the years, including Gothic literature, the Victorian period, Romanticism and horror, to name just a few. I plan to expand on this topic in a separate blog post.
For many a goth, Ministry got it right when they sang “Every Day is Halloween.” It’s the one holiday that celebrates the darker side of life and its pagan roots are also appreciated among those of us that follow alternative spiritual paths.
You can’t talk about Industrial music without mentioning Throbbing Gristle, the progenitors of this genre. The music fuses heavy rock and electronic sounds. Although Industrial never officially claimed to be goth music, it has a wide following within the subculture. Nine Inch Nails is one of the more popular bands associated with the genre, but other examples include underground groups such as Razed in Black and Kidney Thieves.
This man’s creations embody gothic fantasy. Vargo is an artist, writer and music composer. His works depict macabre realms where vampires, gargoyles, witches and magical creatures dwell. I own a few journals with his drawings and his stunning vampire tarot deck. I highly recommend listening to Nox Arcana, a music ensemble he formed whose sound is darkly ethereal.
An occultist and paranormal researcher who has written books such as Gothic Grimoire, Vampires: The Occult Truth and Nocturnal Witchcraft: Magick After Dark. He was also the vocalist for the goth band Bell, Book & Candle whose music was featured on a few cd compilations released by Cleopatra Records.
Lip Service was among the first alternative fashion brands I was introduced to as a baby bat. At one time, the line was carried at Hot Topic. It was founded in 1985 and its aesthetic embraces dark, edgy style. The brand has inspired similar goth clothing lines, such as KillStar and BlackCraft Cult.
Macabre & Mourning
I couldn’t decide which word to settle on for the letter “M,” so I chose two! I feel the pair go hand-in-hand. The first evokes morbidity, the grotesque, death and cobwebbed ruins—all things intriguing to a goth. For the second, I thought of the tradition of Victorian Mourning. The Victorian period is popular with many goths, including myself. It was a dark period that witnessed the act of mourning morphed into an art form, the séance craze, growth of horror literature and industrialization.
Is it any surprise that goths have a proclivity for the night? These hours exude mystery, especially when bathed in the moonlight. Not to mention, some of the best horror scenes from books and films take place at nighttime. And my favorite creatures, vampires, are nocturnal.
No one religion defines or is associated with the goth subculture, despite the stereotype that we’re all Satanists. Some might be, but not all. Some are even Christians. You’ll find many in the community that practice alternative spiritual beliefs, including occultism. Mystic and esoteric symbolism are prevalent in the subculture, and can be found in fashion pieces, home décor and other lifestyle elements.
Post-Punk (aka New Musick)
A genre of music that grew during the 1970s and branched off from traditional punk rock to experiment with different sounds. Joy Division, The Cure and Talking Heads are commonly associated with the genre. Goth rock emerged from post-punk, evolving over the years, and introducing a darker aesthetic. Since the two music types are closely related, there’s a lot of crossover regarding 80s bands, with many being categorized as both goth rock and post-punk.
In this context, I’m referring to the “strange and unusual” definition of the word since it’s how goths can be perceived, and we have no problem with that. For this reason, the goth community welcomes and empathizes with those who feel outcast, don’t fit in with the mainstream and dare to be unique.
Many aspects of the goth subculture are influenced by the Romantic period, from art to literature to fashion. The works of Edgar Allan Poe are a favorite. A woman’s dark Romantic wardrobe can include frilly blouses, lace and flowing skirts. Men may opt for fancy coats and velvet vests.
Goth is a smaller group within society. This macabre assembly of people has its own set of characteristics that distinguishes it from other subcultures. The subculture is quite diverse and individuals come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Traditional Goth (aka Trad Goth)
Refers to the original goth style (fashion and music) that emerged during the 1980s. The music of Bauhaus is one example of the classic sound and Siouxsie Sioux pretty much set the trend for the trad goth image. Think heavy, dark liquid eyeliner, pitch black hair and lots of metallic jewelry.
Goth is considered an underground subculture because it’s an alternative lifestyle that is experimental, expressing itself through various artistic outlets. Another appropriate term would be “unconventional” since the community doesn’t conform to mainstream tastes.
These nocturnal creatures are adored by many goths. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula is partly responsible for this adoration, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles have had a great influence on the subculture. It may have to do with the timing. The film adaptation of her first novel Interview with the Vampire was released in the early 1990s, a time of significant growth for the goth subculture. It tapped into a dark lifestyle with characters who existed on the fringes of society. It’s not surprising that the film would appeal to the goth community, which has experienced its own instances of ostracism, whether by the media or other groups.
I also want to mention that there is a vampire subculture. It’s widely believed that it stemmed from the goth movement, but it exists in its own sphere and those who consider themselves vampires may not be goth. Instead of having sprouted from a specific music genre, the undead subculture is rooted in vampire mythology and history. I’d have to dedicate an entire blog post (at the very least) to do the vampire subculture proper justice. It’s complex, rich, beautiful, and still evolving. Father Sebastiaan, fangsmith and mastermind behind the Endless Night Vampire Ball, is a great example of someone who is reviving and pushing forward the vampire subculture.
World Goth Day
Occurring annually on May 22nd, World Goth Day celebrates all the dark souls that associate with the subculture. It’s also the name of the official website dedicated to promoting the holiday. Although the site is up and running, I’m not sure how recently it’s been updated, but you can still check out what’s been featured in the past.
This band, which hailed from Hamburg, Germany, was one of the early pioneers of goth music. The group formed in 1980 and created music for about a decade before splitting in 1990. Their sound and appearance set a dark tone and mood, and “Incubus Succubus” was one of their most popular tracks.
You may be wondering what in the world yearning has to do with the subculture. While it’s not a word that is specifically related to goth, its meaning, I feel, has a connection. To yearn is to long for something deeply, which can transform into melancholy. I’m aware of the stereotype that goths always look sorrowful, and, honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely false or unsavory. One of the beautiful facets of the subculture that drew me was the touch of Gothic romance that pervades the scene. There’s an appreciation for the otherworldly, the ethereal; a desire for an essence beyond the veil of life. Can you tell I do plenty of yearning?
For better or worse, I’ve heard zealous used to describe goths. Not often, but it’s happened. To be zealous means you’re full of devotion to a person, cause or object. In this case, it’s a dedication to a subculture. I think many goths feel the need to defend the subculture and how it’s perceived, especially when there are those who label themselves goth for superficial reasons and misconstrue what the scene is about to the public.
It may sound odd, but there has been an ongoing debate, going back to its early days, regarding what constitutes “goth.” Everyone has their opinion, from elder goths to baby bats, and quite frankly, I don’t think the discussion will ever rest in its coffin. With the goth landscape transforming, there are those who worry that the foundation of the community will be lost. I’ve noticed shifts occur over the years and the subculture has changed from when I joined in the late 90s to now. But not all change is bad, and I believe that in the present age, goth is flourishing and seeing its own Renaissance ensue.
Want to know more? There’s some excellent literature that’s been written about the goth subculture. These resources are helpful whether you’re in the scene or curious to expand your knowledge of it. Following are a few books, but several have been published over the years, so definitely do a search to see what appeals to you.
The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock by Dave Thompson
The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined by Nancy Kilpatrick
Goth: Undead Subculture by Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby (editors)
Gothic Charm School by Jillian Venter
What is Goth? by Aurelio Voltaire (This book is out of print, but I’ve seen used copies available via Amazon.)