By John Craton

No doubt it may seem odd that someone who is often described as an old-fashioned, staunchly conservative stick-in-the-mud like myself might confess to being goth. But the more I learn about the present-day ‘goth subculture’ the more I am convinced that my late best friend Bobby and I were thoroughly goth back in high school long before the world even knew of such a term.

Defining exactly what we mean by the word goth (or gothic) could be an essay in itself. Already there have been any number of attempts to define what is meant by this elusive term. In working toward a definition, I can affirm that the stereotypical view that comes to the mind of the general public tends to be categorically inaccurate: the idea that all goths belong to a subculture that is obsessed with death; wear nothing but black; worship Satan; sport any number of body piercings, body art, and grunge-like hair styles; wallow in depression, forlornness, and self-pity; and plot violence while listening to goth rock-and-roll. While it may be possible to find someone who calls himself goth and who fits all these stereotypes, he (or she) would be in a very small minority.

Various people both within and without the goth community define goth in a myriad of different ways. Some insist that at its core goth is a musical style, and those who do not adhere to that style are not really goth. Others say it is a way of life; still others believe it is merely a fashion style, while yet others will define it as a philosophy.

While each attempt to define the term has its merits, I believe that at its most fundamental level goth is an aesthetic. There are goths who adhere to any number of different philosophies (and religions), who love many different genres of music, who follow many different life-styles, and who don’t all adopt the same clothing fashions. What, to my mind, all goths have in common and is generally true regardless what other differences may exist is their ability to see a certain beauty in what most of society would consider the ‘dark’ aspects of life. For instance, while goths are not, as the general public often believe, obsessed with death, they nevertheless are able to see a certain hallowed beauty in the unknown. Goths (especially Christian goths) view death not as an end but as a transition and a continuation and therefore containing a certain divine beauty. There is likewise an appreciation of what many consider ‘sinister darkness,’ which often includes (but is not limited to) black and other dark colors often incorporated in older (i.e., gothic) clothing styles.

Although I have known all my life that I shared certain affinities for many of the things that modern-day goths tend to be drawn to, it did come as a modest surprise to find that I fit the classification of a goth even at my age. In the course of my research into the current subculture which, as I read, kept causing me to reminisce back to attitudes I cherished during my own adolescence, I decided on a whim to take some of the silly surveys on the internet which purportedly show whether or not one is a goth. Though hardly scientific, these tests do, I suppose, give at least anecdotal evidence of the degree to which one might or might not be attracted to the subculture. I answered these surveys honestly and fully expected them to tell me either that I am not goth at all (especially given my age) or that I am a mere poser (given that I didn't even know who some of the people/groups mentioned in the surveys are). To my surprise, the results I got actually reaffirmed that I've tended toward this subculture all my life. One survey concluded that I am an “Elite Goth,” defining the term by saying, “You are spiritually goth, and you are goth all the way. This isn’t a ‘phase’, it’s who you are, and it’s the way you’ll stay.” Another, which I fully expected to reveal that I wasn’t goth at all, instead said I am “Ubergoth,” and stated remarkably accurately, “You’ve been [goth] longer than it’s actually existed.”

That last quote is one I have come to believe to be entirely true, because I have said for years that, had the subculture existed when I was in high school, my best friend and I undoubtedly would have been a part of it. But since we were, in effect, goths before such a term even existed (except to refer to the ancient Germanic peoples who helped bring down the Roman empire), I prefer to refer to us as antegoth, meaning literally ‘before goth.’

So what exactly made us antegoth? We did not fit today’s stereotype of morose, social misfits (which is not what most modern-day goths are anyway), so what did we have in common with today’s goths?

First off, we were very much into gothic horror and the paranormal. Nearly everything of such like fascinated us — vampires, ghosts, werewolves, etc. Of course, this fascination didn’t mean we actually believed in them, but we found reading about them enthralling. And perhaps because most of the stories we read took place during the Victorian era, we were enchanted by the fashion and architecture of that period as well. And we were very ‘into’ vampires long before they became in vogue, which occurred on a grand scale around the time the television serial “Dark Shadows” aired — we of course became die-hard devotees of the show once it began, though our ‘vampire phase’ started considerably earlier. (I can remember watching the older comedy “The Addams Family” and hoping someday I’d have a home like theirs. In point of fact, I did not acquire such a home, though it is interesting to note that my nickname in high school was Lurch — a name bestowed on me not by a fellow student but by a teacher!) Bobby and I were fascinated by anything to do with vampires. Had such been available to us, we likely would have had posters of Jonathan Frid, Christopher Lee, and Bela Lugosi taped to our bedroom walls.

But artwork of that sort didn’t seem to be around back then. Instead we had to create a lot of what might now be termed ‘goth paraphernalia’ on our own. Bobby was a rather talented artist and did several vampire paintings. Neither of us, however, knew anything about making clothes, but if we had we’d have dressed in 19th-century style. We both cherished someday obtaining an Inverness cape and an appropriate walking cane, but the closest we ever came to imitating modern-day goth dress was when the priest where Bobby served as church organist once gave him some long, full-length, black woolen cloaks the priest had owned at seminary. Obviously we did not wear these cherished items on a regular basis, but we did don them on special occasions.

We also made some of our own jewelry (though we didn’t wear much back then) and had to construct some of our own candelabras and lanterns that we loved for their spooky effect because buying such things usually wasn’t an option. We each wanted to build our own coffin, but that’s something we never did. I’ve sometimes wondered whether either of us would have gone in for body art or piercings, which are inordinately popular today, but I somehow doubt it — certainly not back then when piercings (other than of the earlobes) were unknown and tattoos were worn only by ‘old men’ who’d served in World War II. Even today I personally find tattoos and piercings unattractive and, in many cases, simply stupid. But that’s neither here nor there.

Did we fit any of the other of today’s stereotypes? I don’t think we did, which makes me conclude that the stereotypes are grossly inaccurate. We weren't depressed — certainly no more than your average adolescent — though we were conscious of a sense of ‘not fitting in’ with the crowd. Besides the ‘dark stuff’ (which, ironically, most of our classmates did find intriguing) we were devoted to classical music, poetry, literature, and the like, making us basically social outcasts from the more accepted rock scene. Our differences caused some hard feelings early on amongst colleagues, especially during my junior-high years, but later I simply decided to accept our differences and found to my delight that my classmates were willing to accept ours as well, so we all got along fine. Bobby and I were, on the whole, quite happy people with an overriding optimistic view of life ... and of death, though neither of us harbored any desire to hasten it.

And we didn’t sit around plotting violence, either to ourselves or to others; neither do the vast majority of goths today. That misperception seems to have glommed onto the goth persona since the tragedy at Columbine, but the perpetrators of that atrocity actually were far less goth than they were simply deranged sociopaths. Sad to say, these types of people can be found within the goth community, but so can such misfits be found in virtually every other culture and subculture — though fortunately they are rare. Most goths, rather than advocating violence, exhibit far more a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude toward all.

Bobby and I were not into gothic rock, mostly because it didn’t exist back then, but also because both of us instead were deeply involved in classical music (Bobby became an accomplished organist). We did give thought for a while of forming what today would be known as an indie alternative rock band and naming it Vampyre (we were even going to use one of Bobby’s vampire paintings as the cover of our first album), but it never came to fruition. Of course, the band might have stood a better chance had we been rockers instead of classical nuts, but our idea was to form a kind of synthesis of rock and classical, which would have been well ahead of its time. Bobby did like some rock music, but I remained a devoted classical snob (though I will confess to liking Alice Cooper; but since I was known as a classical nut I could be only a closet Cooper follower during my youth).

And as for religion, we definitely did not worship Satan, one of the most despicable of all the stereotypes that abound about people in the goth subculture. Sure, one can find adherents who become so engrossed in the dark scene that they go all the way to this extreme, but again, they are rare. In point of fact, there are even today quite a number of Christian goths — and Jewish goths, and goths of many other religious persuasions — as well as agnostic and atheist goths. Since goth is an aesthetic, it is, in the realm of religious beliefs, no different than, say, your typical opera or theater crowd. Bobby and I both were quite religious (both of us Christian, but of different faiths) and were very conscious of where we had to draw the lines sometimes in our pursuit of the ‘dark things.’ We knew vampires weren’t real, but we delighted in dressing up like them on occasion and wearing wax fangs we’d made for effect. But as Christians the idea of actually drinking blood was anathema, so we never ventured that far into our parody. Nor would we ever attempt to call upon or summon demons as we often saw done in horror movies — these were properly off limits.

Some may ask that since one has to draw lines in order not to offend Christian sensitivities, then shouldn’t the goth subculture be off limits entirely to all Christians? I see no rationale to such thinking. All Christians must, in every area of life, consider where to draw lines. This applies not just to things pertaining to the goth subculture but to every area. A Christian who becomes involved in the theater must sometimes draw a line, as must even Christians who attend the cinema. Not all roles and not all motion pictures are suitable for someone attempting to live a holy life; neither are all conceivable aspects of the goth subculture appropriate for a Christian walk. But that does not invalidate the entire aesthetic.

So I guess the final question one might ask is, Did we grow out of being antegoth? I suppose in a sense one could say yes, since as we grew up and had to face life more seriously we didn’t have as much time to devote to such things. Too, we grew apart after we each went to different universities post high school and lived in different states after that. But our shared fascination with what now are known as goth things stayed with us always, even though it took more of a back seat in our lives. Bobby and I could always reminisce about “Dark Shadows,” the Hammer horror classics, The Devils, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, etc., at the drop of a hat. Sadly, Bobby passed away in 1985. But whenever I read about today’s goth culture, I think back and miss him, remembering him like a brother.

I still maintain a great deal of empathy for people in today’s goth community, despite the age difference, and wish I could wear the styles of clothing they often choose — though at my age I fear I’d just look damned silly. For most of my life I’ve felt I was simply born in the wrong century and would have been more at home having lived 100 years earlier; but in reality I see that in many ways I always have been well ahead of my time: I was goth decades before the term even came into existence; I wanted to don 18th- and 19th-century attire at a time when it would have been unheard of; I wanted to wear wire-rimmed glasses years before John Lennon made them popular again for anyone but ‘old people’ ; and I had the idea for alternative rock music a full generation before it actually took flight. Maybe more people should pay attention to the things that interest me today, knowing that in all likelihood these will become the fads of tomorrow.

Copyright © 2012 by John Craton. All rights reserved.

Return to Home Page or to Other Writings.