Goth Subculture Spirituality and Unique Visual Aesthetics

Kevin Healey
Kevin Healey

We agree with Siegel that Goth is a meaningful form of resistance to “regimes of sexual normalcy” that buttress consumer capitalism (Siegel, 2005, p. 2). Indeed, we underscore how Goth’s “new eroticisms” and unique visual styles “make possible new ways of thinking.”

Unlike previous research, however, we are specifically concerned with how Goth’s appropriation of religious imagery, and its otherworldly sonic aesthetics, catalyze experiences of spiritual transcendence.

From its twelfth-century inception, Gothic aesthetics have aimed to create a sense of sacredness and transcendence — a departure from the earthly realm. Today’s Goth event attendees, clad in unconventional styles and submersing themselves in the sonic somnolence of Bauhaus or Skinny Puppy, create a ritualized space beyond everyday experience not unlike those Gothic cathedrals which transported threshold-crossers into sacred spaces of worship.

The goal of ritualized transcendence reflects Goth’s socioeconomic roots in 1970s’ punk. A backlash against Woodstock-era naiveté and Thatcherism’s contempt for the urban poor, punk’s rough-cut edges, risqué imagery, and D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) safety-pin look represent a British working-class revolt. A darker alternative to punk, Goth originated among a culturally literate, predominantly Anglican audience in the United Kingdom.

Like punks, Goths lost faith in the church and state as tools for addressing unemployment and crime (Herrick, Personal Interview, 2014). Goth retained punk’s ethos of separation from the mainstream (Hebdige, 1979, p. 4), emphasizing individuality and self-expression through a style that pointedly refuses to use dress as social camouflage (see Barnard, 1996). Through its preoccupation with darkness, death, and literary aesthetics, this emergent subculture departed from its punk roots, fusing a postpunk mentality with androgynous elements of glam-rock.

Goth is distinct from earlier twentieth-century movements in its tendency to gather inspiration by looking backwards (Goodlad and Bibby, 2007, p. 3). Drawing on Romantic notions of death and darkness, Goth fuses punk subversion with anachronistic elements of historical fashion. A wardrobe consisting of black garments, lace, and pale makeup evokesWestern funerary traditions.

Recalling traditional religious myths of transcendence beyond the mortal realm, Goth incorporated elements of religious symbolism with growing frequency as the movement gained momentum.

Packaging disillusionment as art amid a frail institutional and social atmosphere, Goths called upon religious themes to reveal a more profound meaning buried beneath the secular guise of rock and roll.

Crosses and other symbols from Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, pagan, and occult traditions differentiated Goths from outsiders while forming a congregational sensibility. Discovering solidarity with other social misfits, Goths came together through shared critique, and a common language of the darkness felt in other aspects of their lives.

As Siegel (2005) observes, “Goth appropriates the mainstream’s designation of everything that does not fit into its systems of signification as dead or deathly”.

Goth arguably began with the 1979 Bauhaus track “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” The meandering, nearly 10-minute single epitomizes Goth’s sonic aesthetics, which are characterized by “deep, icy vocals, tribal beats, mesmeric melodies” (Baddeley, 2002, p. 202, qtd in Siegel, 2005, p. 12).

These sonic elements had appeared previously, as in the Velvet Underground’s 1966 track ‘Venus in Furs.’ Yet Goth musicians amplify the latter’s sadomasochistic themes with self-conscious references to the Judeo-Christian norms such lyrics willfully betray.

Consider, for example, the Goth band Christian Death’s 1993 cover of ‘Venus in Furs’: its cover art features artist Paul Gustave Doré’s engraving of a scene from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, in which Pope Adrian V looms over the grieving souls of purgatory.

Goth icons like Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy or Christian Death’s Rozz Williams build cultural capital by expressing their unique individualism while artfully manipulating such commonly known religious signifiers.

Through this masterful balance, they attain a quasi-religious authority (Hodkinson, 2007, p. 327). While their work’s sonic elements are important, Baddeley (2002) rightfully insists that throughout Goth’s history “the defining characteristics would remain thematic or visual rather than musical” (p. 202, qtd in Siegel, 2005, p. 12).

Early Goth icons adopted a predominantly black wardrobe, adorning themselves in silver jewelry and incorporating religious symbolism in their logos, artwork, and stage performances.

As our research shows, crosses and crucifixes are prevalent today, including variants of the Roman-Catholic Papal Cross, the Cross of Lorraine (or “Crusader’s Cross”), and the Byzantine Suppedaneum cross of the Russian Orthodox Church. Surprisingly common is St. Peter’s Cross — an inverse of the Latin cross which is most recently used as an anti-Christian symbol in horror cinema, metal, and punk.

As in the above-mentioned Christian Death album ‘The Path of Sorrows’, lyrical content, performance elements, and artwork also lean heavily on religious symbolism.

While Nick Cave reported an ambivalent relationship with organized religion, he noted that “the brutality of the Old Testament inspired me” (Hattenstone, 2008). Featuring winged skulls and flaming crucifixes, the album artwork from Cave’s first band, The Birthday Party (later The Bad Seeds), reflect this inspiration.

Cave likewise enacted feelings of martyrdom and humiliation through imagery of the crucifixion in his video for the song ‘Nick the Stripper.’

Such secular appropriations of religious imagery reflect a historical shift from traditional institutions to a culture of questing or seeking. The roots of this shift lay in Romanticism’s response to Enlightenment-era separation of religion, science, and the arts.

Focused on the self as a site of direct, personal experience of truth, Romantic themes have flourished from Rousseau to Pentecostalism. Religious experience had once been linked to institutional authority, with belief inherited generationally and reinforced through community ties (Wuthnow, 1998, p. 2). Yet as spiritual experience moved beyond the Church into a consumer-driven “spiritual marketplace,” the threads of mass media and spirituality became interwoven in a complex journey of self-discovery (Roof, 1999, p. 49).

Boundaries between the sacred and once-profane blurred, with individuals seeking the numinous through secular means (Stout, 2012, p. 6). After WorldWar II, individuals moved from dwelling within the Church to seeking spiritual meaning outside of it. Through consumption of fashion and music youth subcultures resisted — and reproduced — this pervasive quest for authenticity (Lewin & Williams, 2009).

The history of quest culture explains why Goth’s “ironic play with religious signifiers” often includes elements of sincere spiritual engagement, and how such ritual play “may sometimes involve spiritual effects” (Powell, 2007, p. 365).

Our account shows that Goth is understood most insightfully in terms of its idiosyncratic construction of the sacred and its ritualistic search for the numinous (pp. 258–259). While evangelical Christians chose to fuse nondenominational spirituality with self-help psychology, and as countercultural Baby Boomers turned away from organized religion toward humanistic psychology, Goth rejected both.

It decries the attempt by the culture of therapy to “fix personal problems” without undermining the “project of the American Dream” — especially as the latter includes an aggressive containment of sexuality within the boundaries of Judeo-Christian norms (Siegel, 2005, pp. 163–166).

By accepting psychological and physical pain — indeed by dwelling within and deriving pleasure from it — Goths contend that “desire is revolutionary” (pp. 13–14). Thus, Goths who “feel rejected by, and in turn reject, Christian religious norms” often “embark on spiritual quests of their own” (Powell, 2007, p. 364).

Goth’s theme of social rejection is consistent with other subcultural scenes, as in Bailey’s description of the drag queen underground noted above. While we found evidence for Powell’s claim (2007, p. 259) that Goths generally avoid explicit reference to supernatural beliefs, today’s northeastern United States Goth culture is nevertheless unique in its “sacramental attitude to life” and its careful cultivation of “spiritual eclecticism and religious tolerance” (p. 373).

Our research thus underscores that while Goth is “not a religious subculture per se,” it nevertheless “encourages a do-it-yourself bricolage approach to spirituality and belief” which “may have socially and spiritually liberatory effects” (p. 371).

While rejecting religious ideology, Goth exemplifies a postmodern ethos where authentic spirituality derives from a highly personalized search for existential meaning (Zinnbauer & Pargament, 1999, p. 23).

For this reason we adopt Powell’s designation of Goth as a “para-religious” subculture (Powell, 2007, p. 373), and aim to understand how its manipulation of religious signifiers, both sonic and visual, enables an experience of personal and social transcendence.

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