The sprawling, battered, hand-me-down sedan had slowed down to a putter alongside me in the dark for at least a block or two, but I willed myself not to acknowledge it. Head down, bangs yanked over eyes, one combat boot clomping in front of the other, I tried mightily to will myself to disappear into the night air – or at least brace for impact.
The passengers exploded into laughter and peeled off down the suburban avenue. They’d not offered any specific critique or cause for their verbal assault, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was black lipstick I was wearing. Possibly the long black skirt and black fingernails. Definitely the dog collar.
It had not gone unremarked upon before; in fact earlier that week, my mother – generally a supporter of my right to individual weirdness – had sat me down in the kitchen for a serious talk. “Mrs. B. said she saw you walking along Fort Thomas Avenue and she was worried you looked like a…a…punk rocker!”
Author Kat Kinsman in high school, circa 1990.
I sighed and rolled my eyes, as 17 year old girls are contractually obligated to do when dealing with parental figures. “Did you mention to Mrs. B. that I was a National Merit Finalist, got a 5 on my A.P. English exam, had been a varsity cheerleader, am the editor of the yearbook and got into every college I applied to – with scholarships, even?”
She nodded grimly. “Of course I did. It’s just that you’ve started to look so…different…”
I snapped back, wounded. “And by the way, Mom. I’m not a ‘punk rocker.’ Geez. I’m Goth. I’ll be downstairs.”
“Downstairs” was my parents’ basement. Cliched, yes, but it was increasingly the only place I felt any semblance of safety. I painted, made sculptures, wrote dreadful and lovelorn poetry, listened to the dark and bloody-voiced bands that I adored and generally bided time until my impending escape to art school. Life just hurt less down there, and I felt comfortable in my own moon pale skin.
It was true that I looked different on the outside than I had before, moving from pastel flowered miniskirts, jelly shoes, polo shirts and jean jackets to shredded black tights, witchy dresses, clunky boots, cross necklaces, purple-tinted hair and eyeliner galore. I wasn’t trying to stand out. I was trying to match my appearance to my inner self. I was trying to be beautiful – even if no one else thought so.
In the late 1980s in suburban Kentucky, there was no Goth.net, no “Lady of the Manners” Jillian Venters offering sage advice online to babybat Gothlings struggling to come out of the coffin, no Goth Cruise, no copies of Gothic Beauty magazine gracing the shelves of my local Waldenbooks. While so many of us have found and befriended each other later in life – catching a glimpse of a slightly ornate ring, spying an old cemetery-posed picture on Facebook, or a mutual “like” of a band like Bauhaus or Siouxsie and the Banshees – there’s a constant refrain: “Where were you when I was younger? I needed you. I was the only one where I was.”
While some young Gothlings managed to find a kindred soul at their school or at their local alternative club, so many of us were left to our own devices. We stayed up through the bleary hours, hoping to catch a Camouflage or Ministry video on MTV’s 120 Minutes. We rifled through bins of 12” singles at record shops, read Anne Rice books in college coffee shops, wandered through cemeteries with cameras and sent away for Burning Airlines band T-shirt catalogues – all in the hope of finding another soul singing in the same key.
Now, twenty-some years later, there’s a light in the crypt. With the advent of the internet, a 15 year old girl in rural Indiana is not just scribbling verse upon verse about rose thorns and bloody tears into a journal she tucks into her backpack; she’s posting them on her Livejournal for all the world to see. She’s got Goth friends – who, technically, she may never have met in person – but she’s not alone. Gone is the record store scramble and snail-mailed mixtape for a penpal in another state; it’s a Last.fm or Spotify playlist or jockeying for a turn to DJ in front of a virtual crowd in a turntable.fm room. There is guidance just a click away from ElderGoths who’ve seen it, done it, bought the concert shirt and written a book on how to do it with style and grace.
For those who seek it, there is community in both online and off, via message boards, mailing lists, Facebook groups, blogs, dance clubs, elaborate Steampunk parties (Is Steampunk part of Goth or not? Discuss.), Goth Weekends and other forms of assemblies. For the more reserved among us (last year I went to a Gothic picnic and knew no one and tried to talk to groups of strangers and it was wicked awkward), there is the quiet peace and pleasure in knowing that that we’re not the only ones perusing sinister and pretty items on Coilhouse.net and pictures of people we might well have known, way back when on nowthisisgothic.tumblr.com. The emotional and aesthetic solidarity does my dusty old heart an awful lot of good, and I’m sure – at last – that I’m not alone.
Those of us who stumbled through the dark alone may have toned down our lipstick shade (which didn’t stop a makeup artist from suggesting he style me as “CNN Goth” as he was prepping me for a recent live TV shot) and spider web necklaces to meld more seamlessly into the work environment, but if you look closely, the little details shimmer through. An elementary school teacher in Las Vegas has barely-covered tattoos and Peter Murphy on her car stereo. A high-level executive assistant in midtown Manhattan sports black polish in his fingernails and a suit-wearing real estate executive in the West Village wears a heavy, silver cemetery cross ring and plays Dead Can Dance on his iPod on the subway. A Chicago restaurant marketing director posts Sisters of Mercy videos on his friends’ Facebook walls late on a Friday and a London internet creative uploads pictures from yes – the Goth Cruise. Old Goths don’t die – we just dress that way.
At its core, Goth is not about liking a particular band, the height of one’s hair, rejecting sunlight and obsessing about death. The outward manifestation varies wildly, from Hello Kitty fetishists and Victoriana recreationists to Pagans, Steampunks and closet Corporate Goths. It’s notoriously difficult to pluck out the common thread but I’ve come to believe this to be true: despite many of its outer trappings, it’s not a fixation on or desire of death – quite the opposite.
Goths are in love with a darker beauty – a life scored in a minor key and played with great passion. While some people may dally and dabble for a while and toy with the accoutrement (I was not annoyed several years ago when black nails and lips were all the mainstream rage – it just meant I could stock up on better brands), every now-adult Goth I know says essentially the same thing. “I didn’t decide to be Goth. I just…was.”
And it wasn’t easy. Though the outer trappings may float into fashion (okay – I’ll admit that I am cranky at Ed Hardy for appropriating our lettering, cemetery crosses and fleur de lis, but mostly because it all looks so dopey – and while we’re on the subject, vampires may dominate books, film and TV right now, but this incarnation is Emo, not Goth), people can be downright cruel – even murderous [Sophie Lancaster], or at least rudely inquisitive. It’s up to each one of us to decide how high to let our (black, studded, shredded, skull-bedecked) freak flags fly.
As it happens, some six and a half years ago, rifling through responses to my online dating ad, I came across a message from a handsome, black leather jacketed man leaning up against a stone graveyard monument in his profile picture. We got married on the altar of the deconsecrated 1850s Gothic stone church in which we now live together, and for our five year anniversary, we’re going to Northern England’s Bronte country and Scotland to tromp around castles and run through the moors screaming for Heathcliff.
My inner 17 year old self might be rolling her eyes at how giddy and lame that sounds, but I bet when I look away, she’ll crack a smile.