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Discussing the horror influences of the goth subculture

For today’s edition of the Far Out Fear Club, we’re examining some of the horror influences of the goth subculture genre. I appreciate that this is a dense topic in of itself – and one that is usually left to academia – but we’re going to turn our heads to a handful of factors that helped to establish an inherent horror of the first wave of goth outside of Bela Lugosi and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

These days, goth has many offshoots that come under its umbrella, but we want to focus on the original goth movement of the late 1970s and early ’80s in an attempt to account for some of where it sprung up from aside from Stoker’s huge influence. Outside of the punk, new wave and glam influences that bled into what would become goth music, in terms of essence, it drew its life force from a variety of places. Theatrical and moody, it took inspiration from B-movies, horror films, various mythologies and, of course, the realm of gothic literature. Like with punk, at its core, goth also contained inherent Dadaist and Situationist outlooks on society and life.

So why did the horror come in? Well, one has to note that both goth and punk were reactions to the bleak socio-economic and musical landscape of the 1970s. In terms of Britain, by the early ’70s, the country was labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’, witnessed a three-day working week, and endured the horrific ‘Winter of Discontent’ between 1978-79. Things could not have looked bleaker for young people. By this point, punk had already flourished and imploded like an angry fireball, and it was now the ice-cool post-punk that had risen from the smouldering ashes to soundtrack our sclerotic society. Look no further than the music of Joy Division whose ‘Northern Gothic’ style captures this sentiment best.

It was only fitting, then, that goth should arise out of a time that was so horrific, just not in the way that the word would instantly make you think. The complacent, everyday horror was mixed with the pronounced fictional horror to create a subculture that has permeated popular culture ever since. Whilst we could spend all day discussing every single influence that helped goth’s establishment, we are going to discuss three that had a significant impact. 

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The first is the explicit ethos of gothic literature, such as Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. An incredibly raw social commentary, like with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, it combined romance with darker elements, creating an allure that many at the time found solace in. They were foreboding but bewitching in the same breath.

The beauty of the gloom that drove these novels helped to establish goth in the way that its adherents were able to find beauty in the brutalist, post-industrial wasteland of Britain at the time. There were many parallels to be drawn between what they saw out their window and the ruinous castles and monasteries of the books. The lyrics of ‘Wasteland’ by The Mission are the best example of this point. 

Gothic literature also inspired goth on a more tacit level. The adoption of dark eyeliner and dressing in black, outside of the direct connection to punk, can be found in the inherent melodrama of gothic and romantic literature coupled with its visual representation in the art of Ruskin and Everett Millais. Another song where you can hear this is on The Sisters of Mercy’s 1985 classic, ‘Marian’. Aside from this, the ominous works of H.P. Lovecraft, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Washington Irving also helped to instil the first wave of the goth movement with the essence of horror. A preface to Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) by Baudelaire has also been noted as an early type of “goth malediction” by the academic Nancy Kilpatrick.

It reads: “It is Boredom! — an eye brimming with an involuntary tear, He dreams of the gallows while smoking his water-pipe. You know him, reader, this delicate monster, —Hypocrite reader,—my twin,—my brother!”

Goth’s first cultural hubs were The Batcave in London and Le Phonographique in Leeds, Manchester, and Belfast. It was at these nightclubs that the aesthetic and spirit of goth were truly crystallised. Under the enchanting waves of the music, in these small establishments, ‘goth’ entered the lexicon as a label for the subculture that was starting to find its feet. 

The Batcave Club, London. (Credit: Mick Mercer)

We have to remember that to begin with, aside from what was happening in everyday life, some of the original horror references in the music and images were intended as tongue-in-cheek, owing to the Dadaist elements that inspired the scene in its infancy. However, as the subculture became a more unified force under the dark lighting of the nightclubs, bands and audiences began to take the connection a lot more seriously. The morbid and occult became more pronounced themes within the subculture. The connection between horror and goth at this time has been highlighted in the 1983 vampire film, The Hunger. Starring one of goth’s heroes, David Bowie, alongside Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, the film featured goth-rock pioneers Bauhaus performing ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ in a club. Never before had there been such a concise audio-visual representation of goth in popular culture. After the film’s release, in tandem with the popularising effects of the clubs, the defining elements of goth had been cast in iron, and now they had a guidebook of how to operate. As an unscrupulous British politician from the time once said: “This is what we believe”.

Then, as we moved into the 1990s, the goth subculture would become even more affected, and then as we got to the early 2000s, the ‘mall-goth’ subsect would become a blight on the whole movement. Like with everything, it became skewed by poseurs, but that did not sway the true goths from the movement; it only reaffirmed their beliefs more, pushing goth to more high-flown aesthetic and musical choices.

Goth is still alive and well today, and horror stills courses through its veins, but just as in every cultural movement, there are now innumerable offshoots, all taking the original ideas in different directions. It now exists in dance music, haute couture and academia. For as long as there is a symbiosis in life between light and dark, goth will likely always survive.

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