Original Darkness: Style and spirituality in Goth Subculture

Kevin Healey

Kevin Healey

“Arriving early, I wander through the mostly-empty space at yet another Friday-night Goth event in this dingy downtown nightclub. I encounter a young man clad in tight-fitting black pants, with bone-white decorations in half-skeleton arrangement. His black t-shirt features an Orthodox cross in outline. Text within the cross reads ‘Sleep is the cousin of death’ — a reference to sixteenth-century poet Charles Sackville. We exchange pleasantries in respectful, if awkward, anticipation of the louder atmosphere that has yet to coalesce.”

“Hours later, while making my way off of the dance floor at night’s end, I bump into Wren — a fifty-something veteran of the Goth scene. His hand bejewelled with rings, including one featuring the Egyptian Eye of Ra, he gestures up to the heavens, having reached an elevated state of reprieve after suffering the doldrums of the week. He ends our encounter with a teasing glimpse at future conversation: ‘Remind me to tell you how I rediscovered spirituality on the dance floor.’”

These two scenes — bookends for a typical night at one basement-floor Goth venue — are based on our observations of weekly gatherings in an urban district known for its Goth underground.

This venue, a well-attended gay bar in a large, northeastern US city, hosts a range of alternative subcultural events with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ), fetish, and rave themes.

The basement floor, used frequently for drag shows, serves a local Goth community ranging in age from mid-twenties to upper-fifties. Although this downtown location attracts more minorities than other regional alternatives, most attendees are white with a self-conscious intellectualism that belies the privilege of a liberal arts education.

Our research, conducted in the fall of 2014, confirms key observations from previous nightlife scholarship. Bailey (2013), for example, has noted the cross-over between Goth and LGBTQ scenes, and our observations buttress his argument that such communities offer “an enduring social sanctuary for those who have been rejected by and marginalized within their families of origin, religious institutions, and society at large” (Bailey, p. 6).

Our observations also echo Bailey’s description of regional ballroom scenes, which involve “collaborative relationships between scenes in two or more cities” (Bailey, p. 5).

Although local Goth scenes remain largely separate, we observe clear links between our urban venue and those in nearby cities — a reflection of mutual attendance at high-profile concerts of iconic Goth, industrial, and darkwave performers. At the local level, however, loyalty and consistent attendance is of paramount concern.

Ten years after their studies, we maintain these authors’ insistence that Goth remains academically relevant. Waxing and waning since the 1982 opening of the famed Batcave in London, Goth persists in “making possible new ways of seeing” (Siegel, p. 12). Our research highlights this aspect of Goth’s sonic and visual aesthetics, but enriches Goth scholarship through regional insights beyond Siegel’s study of US West-Coast and Northwest coast Goth, and Powell’s research in North Yorkshire, UK.

More importantly, our study of the northeastern US Goth scene shows how a deft sonic and visual appropriation of religious symbolism is effective in catalysing unconventional, hybridised identities. This aspect of our work sharpens Delgado andMuñoz’s (1997) argument that music and dance structures consciousness in ways enabling new modes of identification (p. 14).

Like voguing in US LGBTQ communities, or samba and capoeira in Afro-Latin contexts (pp. 17– 21), Goth demonstrates the social significance of motion and sound, highlighting the body’s importance as a site of social contestation (p. 9).

Through its shared language of music and style, our Goth community enables an individualised experience of transcendence. Speaking the common language of Goth, participants “rediscover spirituality on the dance floor” even while positioning themselves as virulently secular or anti-Christian.

Yet Goth spirituality is not a repackaged instantiation of conventional religion. It is a ritual performance of resistance against two normative institutions — religion (the Church) and psychology (namely, secular self-help culture) — for their failure to afford marginalised subjects a sense of personal integrity and collective solidarity (Siegel, 2005, p. 14).

Goth’s embrace of darkness is an intervention aimed at enabling a meaningful spiritual transformation — one which might overcome the “wholeness hunger” characterising postmodern culture (Roof, 1999, p. 62).

In this sense Goth’s countercultural spirituality, like drag performance, is a form of cultural labour. It serves as “a creative and crucial response to a crisis” insofar as it “challenges the dominant discourses that construct the epidemic” (Bailey, 2013, p. 20).

Goth is an alternative to conventional religion and conventional psychoanalysis alike, embracing desire as an unacknowledged, shadow element of mainstream culture. As we note in our conclusion, however, this relatively privileged set of concerns echoes Saldanha’s critique of whiteness in rave subculture.

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