When I was in my late teens and early to mid twenties, I was quite heavily into the Goth scene and subculture.
It started at the age of about 16 with films. I would devour everything gothic, from ham-acted Hammer Horrors to beautifully crafted vampire movies by the likes of Roman Polanski (the Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967) and Werner Hertzog (Nosteratu, 1978). It was there, I think, that I got hooked on the dark beauty of the gothic aesthetic. (These films also sparked my fascination for Central-Eastern Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and whole ‘Woods and Werewolves’ trope).
From there I got into gothic literature (broadly conceived, everything from the proto-gothic imaginings of William Blake, through classics like Mary Shelly, E. A. Poe and Bram Stoker, to the ghost stories of M. R. James, and even some of the more contemporary American-gothic stuff).
I started to explore gothic music: from old school goth rock like The Cure, The Mission, Jesus & Mary Chain, Sisters of Mercy etc from late 80s/early 90s, through to more EBM and instrumental and experimental neo-folk, neo-medieval stuff.
I soon discovered that I liked the clothes. I went to a private, all-male school where (I kid you not) we had to wear business suits, and I grew up in a situation where well-pressed shirts and shiny shoes were, for some inexplicable reason that I never found out, considered to be really important. I hated that. It seemed so pointless and constraining. One outlet for me in my earlier teens was drama – which gave me the opportunity to dress up and to be a different self – a self that felt comfortable, and not one that was imposed upon me. I guess I carried that love of dressing up and acting into the goth scene, only, the person I was ‘playing’ way my self. Strange and evil silly as it may now seem, when appearing in public dressed head to toe in black (with maybe a bit of purple or red for trimming), with frills and capes and pointy boots, doing a bad impression of a 19th century Polish nobleman, I really felt that I was playing the character of the real me. It certainly felt more real than the suited, clean-cut version of me that I was required to play at other times.
In all these cultural artifacts, whether they be film, literature, music or clothes, I liked the gothic aesthetic. It spoke to me in its dark romanticism, its intricacy and delicacy, its acknowledgement of the darkness, sorrow, fragility and preciousness of life. It didn’t pretend to be upbeat, cheerful or optimistic. It made room for lamentation, despair, uncertainty, ambiguity and even for the sort of nostalgic, wistful melancholy which was at the time my most common emotional state.
I gradually got involved in the goth scene, going to goth clubs in Edinburgh and Birmingham, and making a semi-regular annual trip to the Whitby Goth Weekend. I liked the fact that the atmosphere was generally one of fun, friendship and acceptance. There was a common bond that make striking up conversation easy. My confidence soared. It felt safe in other ways, too: I never saw any violence or antagonism, and I never saw anyone use any drugs harder than beer or cider.
Of course, there was one snag: as well as being a goth – and actively self-identifying as such – I was also a Christian, having become one during my first year of University. To be a Christian and a goth was a strange combination. From the age of about 19 to about 27 I experienced a chameleon-like sub-cultural double life: I was, as far as I knew, the only Christian in my circle of goth friends, and I was, as far as I could tell, the only goth in my circle of Christian friends.
I was well aware of the tension between these two things. Sexual ethics were one notable area of difference, and in this field I regret that I sometimes slipped rather further into the mores of the gothic subculture than I should have. There was also a fairly large overlap between the goth scene and the pagan-wiccan-druid scene.
Yet, Christianity and gothicism did not seem to be necessarily contradictory. Indeed, so much of the gothic culture really seemed to be about a longing for God, for the kingdom of God, and for a deeper shalom. The presence of goths in town centres and shopping malls seemed to be a kind of ‘momento mori’ – a witness against the vanity and the shallowness of a self-centred consumerist life. Gothness seemed to stand in opposition to a life of ‘keeping up appearances’ and of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, calling us to reconnect with a deeper, more spiritual humanity and to experience the joys and pains of life in all its fullness. Even the iconography of the gothic style (its use of crosses and religious motifs) seemed to express a sort of longing for elements of the medieval christendom that modernity had made so alien to our way of thinking – but that our souls and our senses could still pine for, and that our imaginations could embrace.
I no longer self-identify as a goth. Although I still like the gothic aesthetic in art, architecture, music, film and literature, I no longer feel the need to be part of a ‘goth scene’ or to dress up in goth clothes. I don’t feel the need to express myself in that way anymore. The christian thing, though, has continued. Through all the ups and downs it has actually become a stronger, more central and more foundational part of my life. Leaving the goth scene behind was probably part of growing up: getting married, turning thirty, having a proper job and a mortgage. But I also think that leaving the goth scene was a response to a growth in christian maturity. The despair, the lamentation, the fear, the longing – all these are still there, as I worry about the state of the world and the future of humanity; yet these feelings are, they must be, overlayed and interlaced with a sort of hope – a hope I can sometimes barely see, but that is there nevertheless – of transformation, restoration, wholeness, healing, peace, joy, love, justice and freedom.
Yet, although I seem to have now mostly grown out of it, I can understand and empathise with people who are christians and goths. The gothic culture, seen through a Christian lens, recognises that we are lost, but not abandoned; broken, but not cast out; sinful, but capable of being sanctified; in a world that is often full of evil, but infused with a good and holy power. That’s still a beautiful thing.