I am not your typical Goth. I don’t have piercings or tattoos (I refuse to pay for pain), I have no mental illnesses and, most shocking of all, I am heterosexual. On the other hand, my birthday is on 22 May, World Goth Day, so maybe it was my destiny.
I find comfort in the gothic world. As a child, horror films never frightened me because I knew they were fictional. What really gave me nightmares were the ‘Kill your speed, not a child’ adverts. I memorised the Bride of Frankenstein film to stop me thinking about those terrifying adverts as I went to sleep.
While I didn’t start wearing black clothes ornamented with skulls until I was 16, I was always drawn to the macabre. I think the first time I found a woman attractive was while looking at photos of vampires from Hammer Horror films.
I suppose I became a full-blown Goth when I started going to Slimelight, Britain’s oldest Goth club. I quickly noticed that nearly everyone there is isolated from mainstream society. Some of the stereotypes about Goths are spot on: a lot of them really do love poetry and suffer from depression. But I have known only a handful who were Satanists and I suspect that was mainly for shock value.
In a gothic club, you encounter lesbians with their spiky hair and leather jackets, autistic people debating Game of Thrones theories for hours, ADHD people talking twice as fast as everyone else, naval veterans with PTSD, schizophrenics talking about the ghosts and angels that speak to them, and trans people sharing their horrific childhood stories. The most striking group are the bipolar people, who are usually resplendent in the most exquisite costumes and make-up, though they always worry about not looking good enough.
Gothic clubs are a haven where you can escape reality. In her book Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich looks at how ancient societies treated depression by wearing masks and dancing till they were exhausted. I’d suggest that gothic culture offers a similar escapism. Becoming a Goth is a way to own the darkness, to armour yourself against it by dressing up and making it fun. Confronting death can in fact help some people cope with depression.
This for me is the best aspect of gothic subculture. A stiff upper lip is a great attitude if you are in a bomb shelter, chasing a gazelle or leading men into no-man’s land. But the gothic approach is to focus on your darkest feelings, which I think has its merits, particularly after a year like the one we have just had. Modern gothic culture is fixated on finding solace within the dark. I can recommend it.
On Facebook, I frequently see Goths chatting about their mental illnesses. Some people think social media causes mental illness; I think it has just made it more visible. When depressed Goths meet each other, they swap tips on how to deal with life. When one of my Goth friends was suffering from seasonal affective disorder, I told her to close the curtains and watch videos of tropical fish. It worked.
For anyone who wants to give gothic culture a try, these are my tips. I recommend reading ‘The Judge’s House’ by Bram Stoker, a wonderful short ghost story involving a lot of rats. As for his most famous work, Dracula has a fantastic beginning and end, which are the parts set in Transylvania — but unfortunately, it has a long tedious middle set in England. But do read Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories: ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ are especially good.
If you like weird curiosities like absinthe glasses and three-headed animals, look around the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in Hackney. For modern gothic culture, visit Camden Market and, of course, Slimelight (round the corner from Angel, Islington) which hopefully will reopen once lockdown ends.
And finally, whatever you do, wear black. See you on the dark side.