Black And White And Dread All Over? It's More Than That
Janet I-Chin Tu, Alex Tizon, Putsata Reang
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
PARTICIPANTS IN THE GOTHIC SCENE immerse themselves in the macabre, but they say there's a big difference between talking blood and spilling it. Their world is about music and rebellion. And they decry the slaying of a Bellevue family, allegedly by two teens active in the subculture. ----------------------------------------
Meet Doug. He's a short, roundish man, 28 years old, with math-teacher glasses and a shiny bald head. And, oh yeah, he looks like a vampire. From his deathly white face and his blood-red fingernails to his flowing medieval black outfit, he is a vision from the Dark Side.
No, it isn't Halloween. And, no, he isn't on his way to a costume party. Doug Carter is a Goth, the self-ascribed label taken by those in the so-called Gothic scene.
It's been called a movement, a phenomenon, an outbreak. The Gothic scene is a subculture that glories in all things dark and deathly in music, literature and movies. Goths like to paint their faces white and dress up in black outfits.
Estimates of the number of hard-core Goths in the Seattle area go as high as 1,000. Hundreds more dabble in the scene, from disaffected street-corner teens to prim software executives who like to "play Dracula" once in a while. They tend to hang out at nightclubs such as The Vogue, The Catwalk, Machine Werks and The Fenix. Their favorite coffeehouses are Cafe Paradiso and Bauhaus Books & Coffee on Capitol Hill. Younger Goths congregate at Denny's restaurants and the Hurricane Cafe on the north end of downtown.
Lake View on Capitol Hill is the cemetery of choice.
Although the Gothic "community" is a fluid, loose-knit network of vastly disparate groups, it has seemed to come together to decry the recent slaying of a Bellevue family of four. Two teenagers active in the Gothic scene have been accused of the crimes.
The suspects, Goths say, do not represent the Gothic community. True, Goths dwell in the realm of horror, but it's a big leap from talking blood to spilling it.
"Just like any other subculture, you're always going to have your extremes," says Carter. "Occasionally, like in anything else, you get people who take it a little too far, and you end up with nutcases."
Most Goths tend to be more like Carter.
Skulls, spiders, crucifixes
Known by his fellow Goths as "Eternal Darkness," Carter hardly seems to dwell in any sort of eternal darkness of the soul. He talks energetically, with theatrical flourish, posing now and again for effect.
His garb is quintessentially Goth.
He is adorned with a black beret, multiple earrings, multiple facial piercings, including a "suicide chain" (a nose-to-ear strand of silver), a white poet's shirt with puffy sleeves and a crushed black velvet vest. There's also the black spider-web fingerless gloves, the spiky belt, black pants and black boots. Dangling from various places on his person are the obligatory Gothic accessories: skulls, spiders and crucifixes of all shapes and materials.
Underneath all this, however, in the sober light of day, he is Doug, regular guy - a former Mormon from Idaho with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a minor in mathematics who is now a full-time employee at Microsoft.
"I answer phones," he says dryly.
At this moment, Carter is at The Vogue, a nightclub in Seattle's Belltown area.
It's Gothic night at the club, and a crowd of 50 has gathered inside. Nearly everybody wears head-to-toe black, some with elaborately lined eyes and black lipsticked mouths over made-up white faces that shine ghoulishly from a distance.
Goths are generally heavy into art, music and literature. They like to listen to Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Switchblade Symphony - music characterized by cascading chords, minor-key melodies and often morbid lyrics. Many enjoy the works of Poe, Shelley, Baudelaire and Anne Rice, and are drawn to the macabre in all art forms.
Vampires are central symbolic figures: the ultimate outcasts, but kind of sexy at the same time. Goths search for those works of art, strands of music, loveliness in faces, that evoke an intensity of emotion. They revel in things that are simultaneously exquisitely beautiful and painful, horrifying and seductive.
Many also love history, especially of the medieval period and the 18th century, and mythology.
Being a Goth can also be a statement to the world: an act of protest against a society and world gone awry. It's a way to understand and come to terms with the darker aspects of life, some Goths say. American pop culture focuses too much on the new and shiny, the bright and happy, they say. It does not deal well - if at all - with pain, loss and death.
And despite their fascination with the darker side, many Goths do have a sense of humor, albeit typically of the macabre variety.
Refuge for intelligent outcasts
The dark humor and outlook, the literature, art, music and aesthetic: Those who consider themselves Goths incorporate these elements into their lives to varying degrees.
For Carter, the Gothic scene provides his spiritual center, social circle, public identity and recreational outlet.
"It's my life," he says.
His gradual drift into Gothdom mirrors the experience of many other Goths. As a teenager in the Boise area, Carter was what one might call a fringe dweller, not accepted by the jocks or preppies or cheerleaders. He lived in their orbit, an outcast from the start, intelligent but not fitting in, and in a sort of reciprocal disdain, he rejected them as well.
He fell into a punk crowd, listening to punk rock and wearing a colorful mohawk. Eventually, he met some people from California who introduced him to the bands Bauhaus and Dead Can Dance, and as the punk movement evolved into numerous new strands, Carter followed the one being identified as Gothic.
The music is central to the movement. You might find people who listen to Gothic music who aren't Goths, but rarely will you find Goths who don't listen to Gothic music.
"Music is an integral part of the scene," he says. "You won't find someone dressed like me who'll say, like, well I'm gonna go home and listen to Conway Twitty."
`Beautiful and romantic'
The start of the Gothic movement can be traced to England in the 1970s, with punk-era bands evolving into what came to be called Gothic. Many of the bands' members wore black clothing, pale faces and dark eye makeup, and dyed their hair black.
It's not clear exactly how the term "Gothic" came to be used to describe the music and eventually the subculture. But much of the ornamentation that characterizes Gothic architecture and the dark, tragic-romantic feel of Gothic novels came to be part of the Gothic movement.
In the 1980s, the Gothic scene took off with bands such as Sisters of Mercy and Alien Sex Fiend.
Younger Goths these days are even calling their older counterparts "Old School Goths."
These older Goths, who, for the most part, no longer do the full makeup or the club scenes, can still come out in force. Some 600 did for last week's concert at The Fenix by The Swans, a well-known Gothic band.
"When I was 15, there were more punks than Goths," says Gayle Nowicki, 29, whose store in the University District, Gargoyles Statuary, has a dark, lush ambience that attracts Goths. Her store specializes in sculptural replicas and period-influenced pieces from the Gothic, Renaissance and Victorian eras.
"People who were more into Goth music were more sensitive, more emotional - less into the harsh music of punk."
Nowicki was drawn to the "beautiful and romantic" aspects of the Gothic movement: the poetry of Byron and Shelley, the architecture of medieval cathedrals. Creative people tend to be attracted to Goth, she says. "It allows you to be very artistic in your looks and how you present yourself."
It's also a way of reacting to the world.
"A lot of Goths I've known are really concerned about the way things are going," Nowicki said. "This is their way of mourning the way things have gone."
Now Nowicki is concerned the slayings in Bellevue will make people vilify the movement.
"I'd be saddened if parents will say to their kids: `Don't wear black now,' " she says. "They're afraid of people who wear all black. People are afraid of what they don't understand."
A night out with the Goths
These are, in general, what Goths are not: Satan worshipers, fetish and sadomasochism devotees, street punks, Wiccans, black magicians, vampire wannabes, role-playing gamers - although small sections of these groups overlap into each other and into the Gothic community.
That is especially true at The Catwalk.
The Catwalk, a dance club in Pioneer Square, hosts the largest weekly gathering of Goths in the Seattle area. It's actually several subterranean rooms, reached by descending a steep staircase. Saturdays are Goth/Industrial Nights at the club. In the main room, about 300 people, dressed in everything from denim overalls to strappy leather fetish gear, dance to industrial music - characterized by heavy-metal guitar foundations and clanging drum-machine beats.
In a smaller, dark concrete room in the back, lighted only by the eerie glow of a few red light bulbs on the ceiling, about 150 Goths are at play. A black-and-white silent movie, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," is projected on a screen on one wall.
The air is redolent with spicy incense. Figures with white faces and black lipstick bathed blood red by the bulbs sit on sofas against the wall or promenade across the room. A small crowd dances, again, each alone.
One man in an elaborate Victorian outfit of white shirt, white lace cravat, red satin waistcoat, black pants and top hat, dances as if making sweeping flourishes with a sword. He dances next to a few people in leather harnesses.
"Goth and industrial are usually grouped together at clubs usually because the size of the scenes are small," said Alex von Hochtritt, 28, the dancer in the Victorian outfit.
There aren't enough Goths to support a Goth-only night in most clubs, he says. The Catwalk usually gets anywhere from 300 to 800 people on Saturday nights; The Vogue gets around 80 for Goth Nights; and The Fenix usually sees up to 300 for its live Industrial/Goth bands on Thursdays.
Subcultures within subculture
Goths run the gamut from street kids to blue-collar workers to affluent techies. They're mostly white.
And although for many the Goth scene provides an acceptance they may not have found anywhere else, it can also be cliquish. There is much pointing of fingers at "posers" - those deemed to be not "real" Goths, but who have taken on the look as a fad.
" `Poser' is one of those labels that are used like a weapon," says von Hochtritt, who by day works as a Webmaster for a local business and by night has been hanging out with the Seattle Goth club scene for about 10 years. "I have facial piercings. That might disqualify me as a Goth to some people. I don't wear makeup. That would disqualify me to some people."
Von Hochtritt is a short, slight man with close-cropped bleached blond hair who sports a small hoop near his brow bone. He became enamored of Victorian clothing while working as an actor.
"It's really odd," he says. "In the Goth culture, sexual orientation, relationship status - they don't really matter. Musical taste and what you look like is the criteria on which you're judged. The outside stuff - where you work, what you do - doesn't matter. . . . (But) the Goth scene can be very hostile inside. Sometimes, it's very superficial. The wrong makeup or clothing can get you labeled out. . . . It's so picky and finicky and subdefined."
There are all kinds of Goths: Pretentious Goths, Perky Goths, Kinder (young) Goths, Street Goths, Net Goths (who play out their Goth lives on the Internet). Indeed, one Goth Website distinguishes 150 types of Goths at last count, including Merchant-Ivory Goths (Goths "of the dandy variety," inspired by the period films of the Merchant-Ivory film team) and BarbiGoths (those who collect Barbie dolls and dress them up like Goths).
Many Goths, of course, hate the labels.
"Sometimes it's hard to define what's what because there are so many scenes that lap onto one another," says Amber Bird, 23, von Hochtritt's friend. A Mormon Sunday-school teacher, Bird is also part of the role-playing-games scene. She's role-played vampires, cyberpunks, Victorian-era denizens.
The Goth "community," as such, is really a community of individuals, she says. The one thing these individuals do agree on is that Goth means different things to different people, and that for most of them, it's an outlet for personal expression.
`Society is a cesspool'
For teenagers, the Gothic movement can also be the perfect expression of angst, anger and rebellion.
Ryan Hughes, for instance, says he used to be into anarchy. Now the 16-year-old says Goth is a way to express his disgust for mainstream society, which "discards the knowledge they've discovered earlier" and which "discards people" who are on the fringes, he says.
"Everything's being thrown away," Hughes said. "Society is a cesspool."
Being Goth is an alternative way of expressing his pain and anger, which used to come out through cutting himself. "The pain drew your mind away," he said.
But he and his friends at Denny's can also kid each other about being Goth. Those who get a little too melodramatic are chided by friends who raise the back of their hands to their heads, and with a feigned expression of torment cry out: "Angst! Oh angst!"
Some will concede that a large part of the attraction of being a Goth is its shock value.
"A lot of people at school think we're freaks because of the way we dress," says Joseph Scott, 17, at a Marilyn Manson concert last week. Manson, whose shock-rock style puts the band at the heavy-rock end of the Gothic music spectrum, attracts many Gothic teens who roared with approval when Manson spit and flicked his sweat at them during a concert.
Many of the concert-goers were out to shock as well: wearing green hair, black fingernails and lipstick (guys included), fishnet pantyhose and fake fangs.
But Goth may be in danger of losing its shock value, as more teens adopt the look and sensibility of movies such as "Beetlejuice" and "The Addams Family."
"The Gothic people hate trendy," says concert-goer Aaron Waddell, 15. "Now it's becoming trendy in itself."
Somewhere, a Goth must be finding dark humor in the thought.
Seattle Times Eastside bureau reporter Putsata Reang contributed to this report.
Also there was a follow up letter to the editor:
Letters To The Editor
`Gothic Subculture' -- Non-Sensational Coverage Of Nontraditional Culture Was A Breath Of Fresh Air
Editor, The Times:
I've come to expect articles about fringe culture to be exploitative and sensationalist. Your story about the Goth subculture ("Goths - Black and white and dread all over?" Janet I-Chin Tu and Alex Tizon; Jan. 22) was a breath of fresh air! Not only was it written from a nonjudgmental point of view, it was accurate. I really appreciate the willingness of the writers to actually do the hard work of researching Goth culture well when they could have whipped off a sensationalist piece as so many others have done.
Recently, an episode of "America's Most Wanted" (AMW) offered "tips" on how to tell if your teenager is in danger of joining a "vampire cult." One of the tips: teens start wearing "strange clothing." We can all rest peacefully in our beds knowing that AMW is on the alert for dangerous trends such as these! Film clips shown as part of the piece included Goths dancing, but the term "Goth" was never used. Apparently "vampire cult" is sexier.
It was clear that the people at AMW had done only cursory research, and weren't much interested in helping people understand what Goth culture is actually about. I guess fear sells better.
More recently, I've seen story after story about role-playing gamers and how their games can "go too far" (citing the recent Bellevue murders as examples of this). If the perpetrators had been on their high school's football team, would the articles have mentioned (in conspiratorial tones) that the accused were "into football"? It's clear that these reporters have very little knowledge of role-playing games but are willing to tarnish an entire community's reputation for the sake of a story.
Thanks for fighting the trend of fear-oriented, poorly researched reporting and for giving your readers an opportunity to see inside a creative and nontraditional culture. Lauri Miller Seattle
If I ever find Lauri Miller, I'm loving her.