Goth culture: a primer

You’ve heard about it in the media, particularly in the wake of the tragic Dawson College shootings in Montreal. But what exactly is “Goth culture” – and if your kids or grandkids are Goths, should you worry?

The history of Goth culture
“I did go through a Goth thing, but that was a long time ago. I just like artists that shake it up, that piss people off or make people think or rattle the cage somehow.”
–Lisa Maria Presley

Although it’s difficult to trace the exact origins of any subculture including the Goth culture, it seems to have begun in the 70s as a backlash against the flash and glitter of disco culture.

The term “Goth” was first applied in the British press in the 1980s to describe a punk rock band as having a Gothic twist; the first recognizably Goth club was the Batcave which opened in London’s Soho district in 1982. But it was in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Goth punk rock culture began to fuse with an influence of new romantic culture to become the dark, brooding image that it is today. The Goth music and dance scene remain central to Goth oday.

Notable Goth bands past and present include Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Cure, The Sisters of Mercy, and Fields of the Nephilim.

What is Goth culture?
“Goth is fusion. It’s a frame of mind, fashion, music, life style and personality rolled into one. It’s about seeing the beauty in everything around you, while at the same time knowing eventually it will die or destruct. And finding that beautiful as well.”

Like any subculture it can be hard to pin down exactly what Goth is. For some youth who identify as Goth it can mean that on the weekend they dress a particular way to go hang out and dance with their friends; for others it seems to permeate every aspect of their lives. Goth activities range from the usual – shopping, listening to music, hanging out with friends – to the unusual, such as creating or participating in elaborate role playing games centering on an imaginary world of vampires and other creatures of the night.

Central characteristics of Goth culture include:

• An overall aesthetic similar to Romanticism in the late 18th century, in particular the image of the dark, brooding, Byronic hero
• Creativity is central to most people who identify as Goth and many write or produce art
• Wearing black clothing, or in some cases dressing like a schoolgirl (known as “Lolita Goth”), light colored makeup, unusual hair styles, and body piercings
• A fascination with medieval, Victorian and Edwardian history
• Wearing of symbols such as a cross, an ankh, or a pentacle
• An appreciation for depression or in some cases, a sense of being depressed
• A sense of alienation from mainstream culture
• An emphasis on topics of societal evil: war, genocide, racism, and murder
• A fascination with death, and with art and literature relating to death – this particularly includes works about vampires

Although there is a perception that Goth is related to Satanism, Goth is not a religion, and so Goth individuals may come from a variety of religions.

Despite media attention to Goth culture due to the actions of a few, the vast majority of Goths are non-violent, and no more into drugs or alcohol than other youth their age.

When to worry
Many youth identify as Goth for a period of time – even into adulthood – and turn out just fine. In fact, the Goth subculture may be an excellent match for teenagers who feel different – but want to hang out with others who feel the same way. As Charles Taylor wrote for in 1999:

“Goth provides, simultaneously, an outlet for teen rebellion and an invitation to wallow in teen self-pity. Like the punks did, Goth kids attempt to transform what they perceive as the ugliness of the world around them by co-opting that ugliness as a form of beauty that is itself an affront to conventional notions of what is beautiful.”

Of course that ugliness can be the sticking point for many parents and grandparents. Goth youth dress in a way that’s often shocking. Here it will be part of your family dialogue what is and isn’t important to you. Is it acceptable to dress all in black for school, but tone down the makeup? What about to a family dinner? You may choose to let some things go in the name of self-expression and chalk it up to adolescence.

At the same time some aspects of Goth culture – particularly the preoccupation with death and the sense of alienation from mainstream society – can signal a much more serious problem. The most important thing remains staying in touch with your particular Goth. Ask what he or she finds attractive in Goth culture. Meet his or her friends. Make sure that any activities he or she participates in are ones that you find acceptable.

If you notice the following, it may be time to intervene:

• Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
• Hopelessness
• Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
• Persistent boredom; low energy
• Social isolation
• Low self esteem and guilt
• Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
• Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
• Difficulty with relationships
• Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
• Poor concentration
• A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
• Alcohol and drug abuse
• Self-injury