My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Saturday, 13 June 2015

How I Came To Realise I Was Goth


One of the most frequently asked questions I get is "How did you become a Goth?", but I don't think I became anything, I think I just followed the road marked out by the things I like.

I think my preferences happen to align with the Goth subculture in many ways, but when I decided "I am going to be Goth" it was not really with any understanding of what Goth was, and what I became was a pretentiously 'rebelious' teen for a few months, and then over the next few years discovered more and more of how this subculture I had chosen for all the wrong reasons was actually home for all the right reasons. Usually, when I am asked this, I have to either explain in conversation, or at best get a paragraph or two to write - I wanted to write out the story of this chapter in my life a bit more fully. I've written thousands of words here, I know, but even that has not touched on everything.  

One of the things I have written about in the past was ::this article:: on how Church music, and spending a lot of my childhood in various ecclesiastical buildings has influenced me. I looked at these incredible structures towering over my head, lit by the sun shining through stained glass, interiors often painted white or beautifully decorated with murals, filled with richly carved wooden furniture, the music of the choir and the sound of pipe organs, and to me this was the closest to Heaven you could find in the human world - I always felt the wild was the closest you could get to Heaven while still alive, as far away from the rest of the human race as possible, but the beauty I experienced in church made a close second. I rarely felt spiritually connected by church services, but I felt something close in singing old polyphonic choral songs with the choir, when the harmonies rang out just right and summoned a glimpse of something holy and glorious. If Heaven had cities, in my imagination, they were entirely built of medieval Gothic architecture, like the illustrations in old manuscripts of white shining cities of spires and towers, and filled with music of angels singing. I was never entirely sure there actually was a Heaven or a Hell, but I liked to imagine that there might be, just so there could be somewhere perfect and untainted.

It was never cool amongst those I encountered to have this sort of imagination, especially as a child, not even a teenager. It wasn't something I could share with other children - even my more religious peers seemed to think there was something a bit dorky or strange about my feelings, and very few seemed to have any sort of personal religious experiences. I was starting to have more and more of those sorts of experiences... but outside of Church and the framework of Christianity (but this would diverge into the territory of "how I became Pagan"). 


I definitely became aware at quite an early age that my reaction to this sort of thing was unusual, and as my peers became teenagers, and my spirituality diverge further from Christianity, I felt quite isolated and unique (in a bad way) in my reaction. I don't think I actually am unique, just that during that point in my life, there was nobody I knew who seemed to have the same reaction, to feel the same way and as strongly. Perhaps they did, but those people were probably adults and felt uncomfortable talking to a small child about these sorts of things, or perhaps other children who felt like this had the social understanding to realise that speaking up about these sorts of things wasn't considered normal. I seemed to see jewels in the pictorial windows where others only saw painted glass, and the glory of the Divine glittering in the candle light where others just saw fire, and heard the voices of angels echoed in the practice of the parish church choir where other people just heard accidental dischords and humble harmonies.

This difference between how I felt about Church was one of the many things that taught me the bad habit of not talking about what made me happy because it would often just be something else that set me apart and probably get me into trouble. Being able to openly talk about what I enjoy is probably the greatest blessing of the Gothic subculture. I have this blog, I am a member of online communities, I have Goth and Goth-friendly friends, and I can actually rejoice and talk at length about what I love, openly, freely and with enthusaism, knowing that others feel the way I do about these things and share that passion and interest. 

I didn't feel any connection to the Christian concept of God, but I could see there was something genuinely Divine in truly spiritual art, and the first spiritual art I came across came from a Catholic and Church of England context, so I wasn't aware yet that I would feel the same when I came across Buddhist chants, statuary and artwork, or that I would feel completely humbled by the sky at Stonehenge rather than the stones themselves. I guess in some ways this sort of strong emotional connection to the art, architecture and music of medieval to Victorian Britain and Europe gave me a direct connection to the Gothic in the art historical and literary meanings of the word.

When I was at primary school and the other girls in my class started caring about being pretty and fashionable (or at least wearing the kinds of clothes popular with other girls their own age, rather than fashionable in terms of what grown women would have considered fashionable in the mid 1990s), I was more interested in wearing tomboy clothes and my big black duffle-coat, and a bit later, when I tried experimenting with make-up, I decided I wanted to look scary rather than pretty and drew my eyebrows in arched and pointed, and painted my lips deep red; when other girls wanted to be a Spice Girl, I wanted to be Morticia Addams. Later, in my early teens, I decided that purple and black eye-makeup like a tonally-shifted Cleopatra was what I wanted - not a long distance from the Siouxsie-esque dramatic make-up of Trad-Goths! I think this is when I started to realise that a) what I cared about in regards to my appearance was not really in line with what most other people cared about or thought was the "right" way to look and b) that not looking "normal" was going to get me bullied even more.

For a while after I started boarding school, I decided that as it was a clean start that I would at least try and look normal and fashionable, but I could never quite get the look done 'right'. Like the rest of my attempts to pass as normal and give the impression of normalcy in order to try and fit in, it just added to my fears and anxiety, and left me feeling constantly worried about when I would be "found out" as a "weirdo" and "freak" - something that came about soon enough. My feigned interests in popular culture was always caught out as faked when I just didn't have the shared cultural knowledge base of those genuinely interested, when I couldn't pretend to be enthusiastic convincingly enough, when I made a constant stream of little faux-pas, when I accidentally let slip my genuine interests... 

I eventually gave up the pretence for the sake of my sanity, and it was at this point I used my mistaken idea of Goth and attemptedly Gothic fashion choices as a way to signal that yes I was a "weirdo", a "freak" and "creepy", but that I was PROUD to be those things, and that maybe those who had been bullying me and ostracising me ought to be a bit afraid - of course, with my attempts at Goth being so poorly executed, I think I managed to be more pathetic than intimidating, but at least I felt confident at the time, which is more than I had ever been before. I would imagine that this last paragraph resonates with quite a few of my readers, as this seems to be quite a common experience amongst Goths and other Alternative lifestyle folk.

Of course, I was not really a Goth at that point, or really part of Gothic culture - I had grasped onto something through which I felt I could resist the pressures around me - both by rebelliously trying to appear as the antithesis of what was expected of me and the opposite of what those around me lauded as good and proper, and by doing something that felt very freeing, as I decided to shed all that was conventional and desired of me, and do something outrageous, something that meant I would never again have to pretend to be "normal" by the very narrow standards of those around me. This initial "Goth" phase was short lived, but I had thrown off my shackles through it, and it started me on the path to actually becoming a Goth. 

After that point, I became more interested in actually Gothic things - I had always loved science fiction and fantasy, and had already a tendency towards liking the darker parts of what I'd had access to - the latter Harry Potter books had plenty of rather Gothic themes in them, and out of all the strands in those books, these were probably the aspects I had liked most, and I had loved books like Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy. I loved the worlds these authors had crafted, full of magic, Gothic architecture, monsters, villains and people who had to accept that their world wasn't perfect and good, just as ours is not perfect and good, and as I became a teenager and started reading more books aimed at adults, I looked towards more books that would satiate this. I began with Michael Moorcock's Elric novels, with the sadistic Melniboneans, the strange and beautiful worlds, the cursed sword and other elements that while still High Fantasy of an almost surreal nature, were definitely erring towards the darker and more bloody. 

I then got into vampires and started reading the Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice and their lavishly described dances through time and place as the long and fascinating lives of her vampires were recounted just drew me in - even her latter novels, which I now recognise as not necessarily being her best, drew me in as a teenage fangirl. I wanted to live life for the experience, travel the world, and have grand adventures, and long centuries to do so, like one of her vampires, and of course, have some torrid romance with a beautiful creature of the night (oh, how foolish of me!). I was also reading comics at this point, especially things from the Gotham world by DC and also Witchblade, which I initially thought horribly violent, and then thought was actually pretty cool. 

I didn't deliberately choose my reading by "what is Gothic", otherwise I would have probably read far more vampire books at that point! I just read what I found interesting, what fed my imagination, what transported me to worlds far away from the life I currently had, from my depression, from my isolation, from everything that made me unhappy. It was escapism, but at least it was imaginative escapism full of creativity and full of themes that introduced me to stuff that I probably would not otherwise have found to be interesting. I tended towards more traditional high fantasy when miserable, and then darker fantasy when I was more cheerful and thus not liable to end up morose from reading too many novels full of sadness and tragedy. 

Whether it was books (which I read a lot of), comics (which I read a few of), films (which I was rarely able to see), video games (which I think is an anachronistic term, and which I only got to play at friend's houses as we were too poor for such things) or TV (which I hardly watched), the themes, characters, imagery and setting I kept being drawn to was what I would later come to identify as the Gothic in the literary meaning of the term. I don't think that it was that these things influenced me to like more and darker things, it is that I seemed to like dark things anyway and went in search of them; these things connected with me on some inner level. 

Gothic novels are so named after the architecture that often serves as the setting, and which is often a part of the plot, or even almost a 'character' itself (I think of the the great citadel-castle of Gormenghast, for example), and that itself stirred a chord, reminding me of all the cathedrals, churches and castles that I loved (and still love, as a quick look through the 'architecture' tag in the sidebar will show!) and I felt at home there, even if these versions were haunted by monsters and ghosts. A lot of the time, in my social alienation, I felt like I might be the monster doing the haunting, not quite human, never truly acceptable. A bit melodramatic, I know, but as a teenager I think I was prone to melodrama. 

Often times, the horror of the Gothic is brought about through an atmosphere of menace, of the anticipation that something horrible is coming - and that tension drew me in. I felt like the world was closing in on me in real life, and to have fictional characters survive more terrible (and often more supernatural) terrors and live in dread of what was to come was something I could identify with, and as the good overcame the evil through personal strength, I hoped maybe I could overcome the things that were troubling me. I still struggle with anxiety issues, and, often feel like everything in my life is about to go wrong, like I am always on the brink of the next disaster (perhaps because I have gone through so many things that have severely impacted my life in a negative way, and I find it hard to believe that any respite from that is anything but temporary, even after years have passed) and as such, that ominous atmosphere was something that seemed familiar, but at the same time was distanced enough through fantasy to be safe, manageable. 

A lot of Gothic novels address the supernatural, some more realistically than others. Most opt for terrible monsters that are quite fantastical (for example, the traditional werewolves, vampires and zombies), but others are stories of magic, ghosts, spirits, and curses - things that I have experienced in the real world, perhaps not always as they are written about in fiction, but they certainly  seem very real and very much a part of our world. I am, after all, basically a witch (even if I'm not overly fond of that word). I have been having supernatural (or praeternatural) experiences since I was a child, and while modern society in Britain is often very secular, atheist and disbelieving when it comes to such occurrences, I have had too many strange things happen to me to claim they do not exist. I guess some people might think me credulous, gullible or perhaps mentally ill for those experiences, or decide that they are a subconscious expression of childhood trauma or something, but as far as I am concerned, they are as real as any ordinary thing. I am not afraid of them, nor think that experiencing them makes me special, they are just another part of the world, alongside more mundane things like trees or cars or toasters. Reading fiction that actually addressed these things, written sometimes by people whose accuracy in what they present compared to what I have experienced, and what I know about things like the occult and witchcraft lend me to believe that the authors have experienced something similar, let me feel a little less alone. Anyone who has seen The Sixth Sense knows that you can't just tell people that you see ghosts! 

(Nobody can talk of why ghost stories are still relevant quite like Neil Gaiman in ::this:: article for the New York Times)

While ghost stories and vampire novels were giving me an introduction to the Gothic in literature, and to contemporary horror writing, I was still not that much of a Goth yet, and my musical tastes were rather eclectic and I didn't encounter Gothic rock of the post-punk, darkwave, French coldwave and similar varieties until my late teens. The first music that really stirred me, from outside of classical and ecclesiastical music, was the prog rock, folk rock and psychedelia my Dad would occasionally play in the car. I was brought up with Joni Mitchell, Yes (I have my own Yes compilation CD set...) The Moody Blues (before they went commercial), Jefferson Airplane, The Strawbs, Spyrogyra, etc. etc. There are songs from that era that spoke to me, and which I still adore - especially Moody Blues songs about the emptiness of space, the vastness of the universe, melancholia and the transience of life. A turning point was when I heard Melancholy Man by the Moody Blues for the first time, when it goes into the second section, with booming synthesised organ, wailing chorus and dirging guitars - I was transfixed. A song had grabbed hold of something in a way that had not happened since the soaring descant in Allegri's Miserere in church, but this time I felt like a song was singing about someone I could empathise with. I felt like the outsider, who could not see the world like others do, and in my minds eye I was watching something halfway between the rapture and a science-fiction apocalypse as they sang... Sure, it certainly was not Goth rock, and it wasn't even the symphonic metal I started with when it came to attempting 'being a Goth', but it is that same sort of reaction to a song that I have sought after ever since. 

The next song to really change my musical perspective was Severance by Dead Can Dance. I wasn't really into any form of Goth music yet at the point where I encountered Dead Can Dance; I found a CD of theirs that looked atmospheric in the school's archive of music for theatrical performances while working on a production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller (a play about the Salem witch trials, and a metaphor for the McCarthy-era 'witch-hunt' for possible communists). The CD was 'The Serpent's Egg' and the cover and name looked a bit spooky and witchy, so I stuck it in CD player and had a listen. I'd struck shuffle instead of repeat by accident, and I think the second song I heard was Severance - again, I got transfixed by music, my head filled with visions of wide and open spaces, leaden skies, and a solitary tree with its last leaves caught on the wind, birds flying in migration formation high above me... Dead Can Dance became my new favourite band, but I didn't know how they fitted into a musical context, or what bands might be similar, so I unfortunately did not end up getting into Goth via Dead Can Dance as an entry point. 

A few years later I did finally encounter proper Goth rock - in the intermediary years  I did however get into symphonic metal (Nightwish, Within Temptation, etc.) and the kind of music that got labeled 'Goth' by mainstream media that doesn't understand what Goth is (Marilyn Manson, Evanescence, Rammstein).  While I was doing music in my late teens, my teacher/lecturer (I was studying at the local community college) a very classically minded and trained fellow, was also a bit of an ex-punk and knew quite a bit about various rock genres. I think he got a bit fed up with my ignorance on Goth, so when we had to write about an album that marked a changing point in music history, he encouraged me to pick something out of Goth rock history... I ended up listening to a big chunk of the back catalogue of the big-name 'original Goth bands' (Siouxsie Sioux, Joy Division, The Cure, Bauhaus, etc.) and was torn between writing about Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division and Press The Eject And Give Me Tape by Bauhaus... so wrote about JuJu by Siouxsie and the Banshees as I felt it was their first really Gothic album (I tried arguing that in my essay, and now when I look back on it, I'm not sure I was right - but we go to school to learn, right?). I fell in love with this genre of music I hadn't really explored before and I think finally became a proper Goth that understood what Goth actually was, where it came from, and learnt about what the subculture was like beyond the other babybats I had encountered so far. JuJu ended up the first album I bought on vinyl, and my fashion, which went through phases of experimentation with other subculturally affiliated styles but had returned to mostly Goth, fixed itself firmly in black, and my love for all things both Goth and Gothic just grew. 

About a year later I went to a Goth club for the first time, and I started mixing with the Goth scene outside of people who went to college with me or school with me in the past, and suddenly met all these wonderful people and was making new friends - actually making lots of friends rather than having only a small handful of people I talked to. I had a proper social life, I had a community I was part of, and I think I realised that this was where I belonged, and I have never looked back. 

4 comments:

  1. I can completely relate to your experience and discovery of goth, even though my personal path of discovery and entry into the subculture was somewhat different. Like you though, I was completely taken with the music once I heard it. From that point on it was a wondrous road of discovery and integration.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

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    1. I think you might be the only one to have read this all the way through! I didn't realise quite how much I had actually written until I went and did a word-count... it's about 3600 words! That's a lot of writing, and I can't blame a lot of people for not wanting to read all that, especially on a computer. I would really like to hear back from others on what their experiences were in their discovery of Goth.

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  2. References to so many books I love :3

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    1. Hee! I guess we have the same taste in books.

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