Passionate Terror, Terrible Passions: Moving between the Gothic and the Goth

The dance floor is washed in black light. The air reeks of cigarette smoke, though some find the sweet, cloying hint of cloves that flavors this smoke to be closer to a perfume. Only the club regulars are dancing to this song; most of the younger teens have gone home, and the dancers seem oblivious to the few left off to the sides, chatting and smoking in the black-lit gloom (perhaps because the regulars realize that many of these observers will never return to the club after tonight). Indeed, each dancer seems concerned solely with the lines formed by his or her black-clad body as it cuts a shape in space. With each synthesized, amplified beat of electronikbodymusik, commonly referred to as EBM, boots lift and feet kick slightly while waists and shoulders sway sensuously and hands execute abstract patterns, gestures of gathering and dismissal. A few of the dancers mouth along to the lyrics: “Despite the wisdom of defeat / I bore my heart for all to see the wonders I’d seen, the wonders I’d seen…” (VNV Nation) It’s 1 A.M. at Chasers, an all-ages dance club in Aurora, Illinois that advertises its Friday night as being “Gothic/Industrial”.

When a sample group was interviewed, few clubbers were willing to identify themselves as Goths. Those who did nearly always indicated some degree of hesitation as they did so, and those who did not frequently expressed a real antagonism towards the term. The reasons for this antagonism ranged from the claim that “labels are too harsh” and a reluctance to place the self in any category, to the stated perception that the Goth culture is “conceited” (“Labels”). In general, the attendees of Chasers’ Gothic/Industrial night seem to have bought into the “sensationalistic” portrayal that the Goth culture has received from the mainstream media (Porter). The reason for this portrayal, and the reason why the Goth gets so strongly stereotyped, certainly needs to be examined. However, the stigma attached to the term ‘Goth’ is nowhere near as fascinating as the confusion that exists regarding its relationship to the term ‘Gothic’.

Those interviewed at Chasers who believed these terms could be used interchangeably seemed, on the whole, ignorant about the history of both. Others considered the term ‘Gothic’ to refer to a sort of elite within the “Goth Nation”; in this view, a person who is ‘Gothic’ makes the ideal his/her lifestyle, while those who are merely ‘Goth’ considers the ideal to be an excuse to dress up once a week and play a part (“Labels”). Also, those interviewed who were of a more academic bent seemed to believe pretty firmly that ‘Gothic’ should be used exclusively to refer to the writings of authors like Edgar Allan Poe, or to the medieval period of history renowned for producing the flying buttress, not to refer to the modern subculture. Absolutely none of the youth interviewed seemed able to connect the manner in which they were spending their Friday night to the Gothic literary tradition that captured the imagination of many readers in the nineteenth century. They are not alone in this oversight; there is little discussion of modern-day Goths in the sort of academic circles that are fascinated by Gothic literature. However, critical analysis ironically reveals that those interviewed who seemed the least knowledgeable about these matters may have had the correct perspective. It makes perfect sense for this subculture to appropriate the term Gothic, because everything significant about it can be traced back to the conventions of the literary genre (whether it makes sense for the literary genre to have appropriated the term from medieval history is a topic for another node entirely). This means that, while Goths can take pride in carrying out a tradition that has proven more enduring than any other found in popular literature since the eighteenth century (Day 1), they also need to accept the fact that this tradition has some distinct limitations.

When David Bowie used the word “gothic”, on record, to describe his album Diamond Dogs in 1974, he had no inkling that there would soon be an entire post-punk movement, spearheaded by bands like Joy Division, UK Decay, and The Bauhaus, that the press would label “Gothic” and their fans, “Goths” (Scathe “Bands”). Similarly, when Horace Walpole published the feverish, dream-inspired text The Castle of Otranto on Christmas Eve of 1764, he had no inkling that he would later be regarded as the first author of the Gothic canon (Clery viii-xi). The Gothic novel tapped into a well of dark emotions that dwelled in the psyches of those “cut off from the traditional rural culture of their forbearers, on the one hand, and on the other, from the high art of past eras”, that is, the English middle class of the nineteenth century (Day 3-4). The Industrial Revolution changed English society fundamentally, down to its foundation in stable gender and familial identities:

Men increasingly worked outside the home, earning money in economic structures that had no necessary relationship to the family, where the man lived his private life. Middle-class women were more and more tied to the home, where they functioned, not as producers of wealth, but consumers of it, spending the money their husbands earned to maintain the home as a refuge. Thus the family foundation-— the men and women who lived as husband and wife, the mother and father-— was based on a fragmentation of roles and functions… These new situations in male and female roles, these new functions for the family, locate and frame the specific anxieties and fears to which the Gothic fantasy was a response… The central emotion that underlies the Gothic fantasy… is the immediate and pressing fear that wells up from the deformation of identity and family resulting from the unresolved problem of sexuality in modern society.(83)

This problem of sexuality continues to haunt the middle class in the modern Western paradigm of thought, and the Gothic remains a type of solution. It is worth noting that, although Aurora and other nearby suburbs of Chicago have thriving minority and working-class communities, only one of those interviewed at Chasers identified himself as having a blue-collar background, and all were white (“Labels”). One girl present, a goggle-wearing friend of the interview subject Patrick, had a duskier skin tone, and one or two attendees had somewhat Asian features, but white skin was very evident as being a part of the Gothic. “This could be because some Goths want a sort of undead look; or they want to embody the Victorian aesthetic that says pale skin is a sign of nobility; or because tanning causes skin cancer. In general, Goths view paleness as much more aesthetically pleasing than being tan(Porter), let alone black, brown or red. This is perfectly in line with the anglophilic tendencies of the original Gothic literature.

Before the observer becomes too dismissive about how exclusivist such tendencies are, it should be remembered that the Gothic was created to address an unresolved problem of sexuality, a problem that can cause fear, anxiety, terror, and dread for anyone involved with modern society. “The great power of the Gothic stems from its capacity to transform these fears into pleasure.” (Day 5) At its heart, this is the purpose of the Gothic movement, both in literature and in life: to transform that which mainstream society considers to be monstrous and/or frightening into that which is erotic and/or desirable.

Erica, an interview subject at Chasers, exemplifies this process of transformation. Her hair, bound back in a ponytail, falls to her waist; her ears have been pierced in so many places that the earrings are indistinguishable from each other; she has an exposed tattoo of an ankh on her shoulder. All of these traits mark her as a social undesirable, but one aspect of her appearance in particular crosses the line from that which is acceptable to that which is monstrous. Not only does Erica dress entirely in black, she wears black lipstick, and extremely heavy black eye makeup that extends beyond the corners of her eyes and including drawn-in eyebrows with unnaturally tilted corners. This makeup transforms her face into a mask that references conventional notions of death and the demonic; it breaks down the binary pairing of human/inhuman, and blurring such lines is precisely the quality that makes a monster monstrous.

The supernatural being, the monster, is part of the distortion of reality common to the tradition. It abolishes time, space, and all other expectations… lives both inside and outside time, and though he can act within the conventional world, he does so by suspending its rules; he is always its enemy, always challenging it.(34)
However, at no point in her interview did Erica indicate a desire to inspire the sort of fear and revulsion which monsters are supposed to inspire. The reaction she seeks to provoke is of an entirely different nature. Asked about the nature of the Gothic, she responded, “The Gothic is more of a mood, more of an emotional state, it’s all about passion… this is just a costume, this is a façade for what’s inside, and what’s inside is Gothic.” When asked what is inside for her to express by dressing and dancing the way that she does, she answered, without missing a beat, “sexual intensity.” (“Labels”)

Erica’s desire to differentiate herself from those who conform to the Goth aesthetic in dress, but who do not have that which is “inside” and makes one truly Gothic, connects directly to the popular stereotype of the Goth. One of the stereotypical Goth’s three core traits (the others being angst and a preoccupation with death) is pretension. “The stereotypical Goth is excessively vain, and when he/she goes out dancing, will stare at him/herself in the mirror. They spend hours doing their makeup. Every ten minutes, they check to see if it is smudged.” (Porter) This perception of the Goth as being pretentious and vain can be traced back to the New Romantics, one of the Gothic subculture’s influences when it was first splintering away from the punk movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Since the earliest days of Punk there had always existed within its ranks an energetic little clique of self-proclaimed Posers who took more interest in dressing up and clubbing than in formulating an ideology of anarchic revolution… as Punk tended more and more towards a stereotyped uniformity and as the 'Hard Punks' (like the 'Hard Mods' before them) turned their backs on fancy dress, these exquisite Posers were increasingly left out in the cold… it was time for them to find both a new home and a new direction. Or perhaps an old direction - as what was required would clearly have to be pre-Punk in origin. And, given the preoccupations of the Posers, it would need to be glamorous and experimental in terms of gender definition… whether they were Ziggy Stardust-inspired futurists in silver lamé or 1930s nostalgia-inspired sophisticates in white tuxedos and evening gowns, what the New Romantics had in common and what separated them from the Punks was an addiction to the glamorous.(Scathe)
Although the music of the New Romantics had little in common with the sound of the first Goth bands, this penchant for glamour leaked into the fledgling Goth club scene, and with it the insulting label ‘poser’.

No part of this process of association should surprise those who are familiar with Gothic literature, as it too was always preoccupied with appearances. One of the criticisms frequently leveled at the Gothic novel is that it is obsessed with form to the point of being devoid of content, that it is simply “a sensational spectacle, a product designed to shock its readers with sadomasochistic tales of monsters and demons, incest and violence(Day 13). Criticizing the Gothic in this manner does not take into account the idea that much of the Gothic is allegorical, and therefore the “surface of the Gothic fantasy is its substance.” (14) “The Gothic makes its appeal to the reader, not through action, character, ideas or language, but through spectacle” (63); replace ‘reader’ with ‘clubber’, and you have a fairly accurate description of the Chasers scene. The purpose of this appeal is, of course, the aforementioned transformation of the frightening into the pleasurable, and the spectacle “asserts the reality and importance of the inner life, it reveals that life to be a dark and mysterious thing, perhaps essentially unknowable, or knowable only at our own peril.” (68)

When asked about what she considers to typify the Gothic, the interview subject ‘Bella’ responded with a list of elements for the spectacle: “bondage, Anne Rice, Giger, Dali, Poe, boots, lace, corsets, fishnets, and kinky sex.” (“Labels”) Examining the meaning of these elements sheds further light on the shared nature of Gothic and Goth. They can be grouped into three categories: artists (Anne Rice and Edgar Allan Poe will be excluded from this examination because they are already considered part of the Gothic literary tradition), articles of clothing, and certain aspects of the BDSM phenomenon.

Artists: H.R. Giger and Salvador Dali
It is worth noting that “most Goths are dabblers in the creative arts, e.g. photography, music, painting, writing, drawing etc.”; in the field of visual art, far from simply being Bella’s personal preference, “Goths tend to like” Giger’s biomechanical phantasmagoria and Dali’s famous brand of Surrealism" (Porter). The obvious reason for this is that both types of art portray monstrous states of being. An image typical of Giger’s style centers on a disembodied female head, eyes open and apparently alive, conscious, and completely calm; the head is supported by a network of coils, pipes, and girders, that also incorporates skulls, vertebrae, ribcages, and bizarre limbs that appear at their bases to be pairs of female buttocks, but which terminate in tendon-strong masculine hands (Giger). The divisions between mechanic and organic, life and death (and to some extent male and female) get erased. The result is something eerie and queasy, but a snake, threaded through the eye-sockets of a skull to droop down over the forehead of the central face, adds the perfect touch of phallic symbolism and pulls toward the erotic. Dali’s most popular work, The Persistence of Memory, has become the textbook example for Surrealist art. In this painting, clocks that would normally be rigid behave like limp fabric, and one has been draped over a dead tree branch. This tree grows from a projection of earth with geometrically perfect rectangular sides (Dali). Admittedly, there is little of the erotic in this painting, but there is much of the monstrous. Clocks are not supposed to drape like fabric, and hills are supposed to be formed out of smooth curves, not right angles.

The Goth’s love of such monstrous works of art hearkens back to the atmosphere of Gothic literature, in which “the appearance of the monstrous or supernatural corrodes the vision of reality that confines such things to the world of nothingness.” (Day 34) However, “it is the impression of strangeness, the sensation that one is in the presence of that which suspends and calls into doubt the laws of the universe that is essential to the Gothic,” (35) because this impression can be worked with, played upon, to create pleasure.

Clothing: Lace, Corsets, Fishnets, Boots
The Goth manner of dress is extremely eclectic. Several aspects of Gothic fashion are actually drawn from fetish culture (see below), while others have an antiquated feel. Besides lace and corsets, other motifs of the Goth look that have been drawn from the past include “thin, plucked eyebrows or shaved-off and drawn-in eyebrows”, “poet’s shirts”, “opera-style capes or cloaks”, and “opera length gloves(Porter). Such motifs, which did not become popular until the Sisters of Mercy-era second generation of Goth bands, combined with the first-generation Goth look—-

The early goths looked similar to punks, except that the predominant colours were black for hair & clothing (with the occasional outburst of white, red or purple) and silver for jewellery. Thus they had ripped clothing, and even mohicans, though the "Goth Mohican" was usually black and much wider than the punk version (shaved at the sides only). They also tended to spout a lot of fishnet (more usually on the arms for men) and had a distinctive style of makeup, with very white faces and lots of black eyeliner (for both men and women). Hair was usually dyed black, crimped and backcombed.(Scathe)
to produce an overall effect is sometimes referred to as “Neo-Victorian”, which “seeks to combine Victorian elegance and ornamentation with the clean lines of modern styles” (“Neovictorian”). An example of this aesthetic is interview subject Patrick’s description of his friend, which he gave jokingly upon being asked what typifies or is exemplary of the Gothic: “somebody who’s wearing a long black skirt, with brown hair, maybe, and some goggles…” (“Labels”) This eclecticism directly reflects the “twilight world of the Gothic fantasy”, which was “made out of fragments, bits and pieces of the romance, the realistic novel, religious and scientific versions of reality” (Day 59). Goth fashion cannot be all of one piece, because the Gothic identity is fragmented.
The Gothic fantasy certainly makes no attempt to portray life as it really is, nor does it seem to be attached to any systematic vision of reality… it rejects the mythos of romance and is attached to no allegorical system. The Gothic fantasy portrays a world spun purely out of the human imagination… It is made up of the fragments of other versions of the world, versions that the Gothic reveals as incomplete and inadequate to describe its imagined world.(43)
This fragmentation also explains the wide variety of musical sounds and styles that have become associated with the Gothic. One of the interview subjects, John, was quick to assert that the music played at Chasers is not actually Gothic, but is properly known as EBM, which he claimed is “an excuse for Goths to listen to techno(“Labels”). Gothic music itself can be further categorized as either Gothic Rock, Folk Gothic, or Darkwave, which can be split into Ethereal and Darkambient (Porter). There is also a lot of crossing over between Gothic music and Industrial music; the fact that Chasers has to advertise its Friday nights as “Gothic/Industrial” highlights this.

Goth fashion exhibits another quality, in addition the sense of fragmentation that is also present in the Goth sound. Upon re-examination the relevant portions of the quote from Bella, “boots, lace, corsets, fishnets,” reveals a preoccupation with the feminine. One might consider this to be due to the fact that Bella is herself female, were it not backed up elsewhere.

Some of the guys will wear makeup, skirts, corsets, or heels. It’s not really meant to be cross-dressing because they are not actually trying to look like women. Gothic tends to be a very androgynous thing, where some of the straight guys like to look or dress feminine, either to challenge social gender barriers, to show that they have an open mind, or as just a fashion thing. (Porter)
The sensitive nature of this topic is evident by the guarded tones in which it is explained, but let’s be blunt and call a spade “a spade”. A man wearing a skirt is the definition of cross-dressing; the fact that he is not actually trying to look like a woman simply means that he is so tame compared to the truly transgendered that, in the existing system of classifying transsexuals, he is not considered a transvestite (Bornstein 67-8). He is a cross-dresser, and men cross-dressing does not make the Gothic an ‘androgynous thing’. A movement towards androgyny would necessitate the presence of women attempting to appear male, but such women are marked in their absence from clubs such as Chasers.

The fact that there are so few drag kings to be found among Goths can be traced back to the fact that there is no real place for them in the gender roles of the original Gothic aesthetic. “The fantasies have a heroine, derived from the female protagonists of the sentimental romance” (Day 16)-— and these female protagonists rarely challenged conventional notions about what it means to be a woman (in fact, such protagonists helped to create the image of the passive, irrational, helpless female, which the feminist movement has been attempting to dismantle for decades and which has so far proven extremely tenacious). There is, on the other hand, definitely a place for the cross-dressing man in the Gothic, because “male heroes in the Gothic fantasy take on feminine qualities of passivity and endurance, rather than the conventional hero’s capacity for action.” (16) Here lies one of the chief limitations of the Gothic world: both its heroes and heroines are victimized, and “neither is capable of effective action. The heroine is by definition passive… The hero is usually engaged in furious action, but this gets him no farther than passivity does his Gothic sister.” (18) All action undertaken in this world is futile, because it leads to a state of enthrallment.

Returning to the idea that the Gothic transforms that which is monstrous into that which is erotic,

the vision of the Gothic world evokes in the protagonist both fear and desire. The stimulation of desire come from the apparent possibilities of self-creation and gratification in the underworld… Yet… the prospect of infinite desire infinitely satisfied proves an illusion. What had been an object of desire becomes an object of disgust.(23)
This reversible process results in a downward spiral of enthrallment, in which “all objects of desire become objects of fear, and all objects of fear become objects of desire. His goal becomes what he flees from, what he flees from becomes his goal.” (25) It is this state of enthrallment which has led to the two other perceived traits of the stereotypical Goth, that of being obsessed with death, and that of being in a constant state of angst.

Fetish and BDSM: Bondage and ‘Kinky Sex’
The fashion trends in the Gothic that have been cribbed from BDSM and/or fetish culture—“leather, PVC, latex, rubber, vinyl and bondage gear”, “chokers—- a dog leash with spikes, a bondage collar, or a velvet ribbon tied around the neck”, “wearing lingerie that shows (garters, teddy, bustier, slip, camisole)”, “chains”, “spikes/studs” (Porter)-— may be the most obvious example of Goths transforming what has been socially constructed as monstrous into the erotic. While BDSM, an acronym which expands to ‘Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism’ has been proven to be extremely popular, and its espousal of “Safe, Sane and Consensual” practices of control speaks very powerfully to people from many different walks of life (“BDSM” 2), it is still firmly considered to be a deviant lifestyle; some aspects of it are even illegal (“BDSM”). Erica’s black vinyl corset, the choker Brad wears that has been constructed out of chain, the way in which the tight bodice of an anonymous dancer lashes up the back, all are examples of the Gothic referencing implicitly its connection to the lurid horrors of sexual deviancy, which Bella referenced explicitly by including “bondage” and “kinky sex” in her list of all things Gothic.

Many practitioners of BDSM would probably have taken offense if they had heard someone subsume their lifestyle under the label of “Gothic” as casually as Bella did in her interview. However, she did not do so without cause. In truth, sadomasochism was present in the Gothic from its literary inception.

The relationship between self and Other is defined by the struggle between the impulse to domination and the impulse to submission. The hero seeks to dominate his world through action, thus creating his own identity; the heroine seeks to protect her identity through passivity… The pattern of all relationships in the Gothic fantasy, then operates on the dynamic of sadomasochism. One asserts one’s power either by inflicting or enduring pain, or both.(Day 19)
This power dynamic becomes eroticized, just like other aspects of modern life considered to be monstrous, because this process is what the Gothic does best. The fact that the BDSM lifestyle also eroticizes this dynamic gives the two cultures more of a coincidental than a cause-and-effect relationship, a coincidence that has proven happy for spectacle-hungry, fashion-oriented, club-going Goths.

All of the trappings of the contemporary Goth, from the art that may decorate eir walls, to the Neo-Victorian pastiche of eir clubbing outfit, to the kinky sex e speaks of enthusiastically (whether or not e actually practices it), link back into Gothic literature, as does eir embrace of these trappings for having a deeper symbolic or allegorical meaning. So does the Goth’s racial, class, and gender identity. Ultimately, the difference between Gothic literature and the Gothic subculture is probably nothing more or less than the difference between a book and a person; Gothic literature is meant to be read, but the Gothic subculture is meant to be lived. As interview subject Brad said when asked to explain the experience of Chasers, “it’s sensual, it’s exotic, it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful, it’s happiness, it’s darkness, it’s music, it’s free living.” (“Labels”) The word 'darkness' only belongs in such a sentence if the speaker is Gothic, because only in the Gothic does darkness become valued as a source of pleasure. This transformation is a valuable method of coping with the tragedy inherent in life, but it carries its own liabilities. In practicing the Gothic, it is possible to go too far, to go from the philosophy of the self-proclaimed Goth interview subjects Kevin and Rob, which is based on balancing dualities and embracing “darkness as a beautiful thing, just as much as you’d embrace light as a beautiful thing” (“Labels”), to a philosophy based on rejecting the light and scorning that which is not monstrous (which would be just as unbalanced as that of normal society, based on rejecting the dark and scorning that which does not cause pleasure).

In the Gothic world, the self is defined through conflict, as a giver or receiver of pain in a sadomasochistic dynamic. In its intensity, pain defines the self, but its logic leads to self-destruction as a final act of self-definition… The terrible, pervasive absence in the Gothic world is the absence of pleasure: the wasteland of the Gothic is a world in which cruelty, violence, and conflict are the only principles upon which the characters can act, only to destroy themeselves. (Day 85)
Fortunately, no one at Chasers seems likely to destroy emself. As interview subject John observed with a grin, “We dance and have a good time.” (“Labels”)

  1. BDSM.” Online posting. 10 April 2000. Everything2. December 2001. id=490474
  2. BDSM - Not Just Kinky Sex.” Online posting. 10 July 2000. Everything 2. December 2001. id=645443
  3. Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
  4. Clery, E.J. Introduction. The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. By Horace Walpole. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  5. Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. viii-xi.
  6. Giger, H.R. No. 251, Li II. 1974.
  7. Labels Are Too Harsh: Original Footage. Videocassette. Dir. Julia Wilder, Hidden Track Productions, 2001.
  8. Neovictorian”. Online posting. 2 November 2000. Everything2. December 2001.
  9. Porter, Alicia. A Study of Gothic Subculture: An Inside Look for Outsiders. 21 July 2001. Personal Publication. December 2001.
  10. Scathe, Pete. A History of Goth. 26 November 2001. Personal Publication. December 2001.
  11. VNV Nation. “Standing.” Empires. Metropolis Records, 1999.
Please note that this is an analysis of a specific example of the Goth scene; not all Gothic/Industrial clubs play EBM, some are more racially diverse, etc. NOR SHOULD THIS WRITEUP BE THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL OF A DISCUSSION ON THIS TOPIC. I look forward to reading the interpretations of others.

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