Saturday, September 5, 2015

Goth 101: A Guide for Anthropology Students

This article is a bit different than the ones I usually write so regular readers, please bear with me. I've been running The Everyday Goth blog for a number of years now and during the academic year I always get a lot of questions from Anthropology students studying subcultures and wanting to ask about the Goth subculture for their projects. I'm also a student so I understand the importance of these assignments but I do tend to answer the same questions over and over again so I thought I would condense all my thoughts into one blog post.

What is Goth?

Goth is a subculture of people with an interest in darker music, literature, art, fashion, and other kinds of aesthetics.

Where did Goth begin?

Goth started out as a musical offshoot of the dwindling Punk music scene in the United Kingdom in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Earlier musicians have a more noticeable punk influence but as the eighties went on the post-punk Goth genre became more distinctly dark and melancholic. I'm fond of describing the difference as being more ""lullaby about unrequited love" than "screaming about the benefits of anarcho-capitalism."

Like any popular band from yester-year, Goth bands had followers. These (primarily) young followers, called Goths, translated the melancholic sounds of their favorite bands into an aesthetic and intellectual sensibility. Goth fashion is perhaps the most iconic of these aesthetic sensibilities and is often what non-Goths will think of when they hear the word Goth, but these interests can also include darker taste in literature, films, etc. The subculture has also spread from the UK all over the world and incorporates people of all different social backgrounds.

What are some common misconceptions about Goths?

The most popular misconception is that Goths must be depressed because we have an interest in music that is best described as dark and melancholic and tend to dress in all black. Of course, there are Goths who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses but I know just as many non-depressed Goths as I do depressed non-Goths and the assumption really is just false.

The general populace, spurned on by fear-mongers in the media, assumes that because Goths have an appreciation for darker things that we must be somehow dangerous to ourselves or others so we get cast as suicidal or, indeed, homicidal. This is absolutely not true.

People often assume that Goths are either Satanic or practitioners of Wicca/Paganism but while there are Satanist and Wiccan/Pagan Goths there are just as many who are members of more mainstream faiths, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Goths are also stereotyped as "sexual deviants," often in reference to being LGBT+ or a practitioner of BDSM, possibly in reference to the fact that Goths often wear clothing that is described as fetishistic, but that is also not necessarily true.

The last common stereotype is that Goths are all angsty young teenagers who will grow out of the Goth subculture. While some people do dabble in darkness during high school and then abandon it, the Goth subculture hosts many people who are older, including the lovingly-named "Elder Goths" who have been with the scene since the beginning. Goths can be of any age.

What are Goth interests?

Some common interests: Dark music (1980's post punk, rockabilly, metal, industrial, etc.), Goth fashion (in all its various forms), graveyards, Halloween, bats, anatomy and skeletons, night time, history, crumbling ruins, vampires, horror films, rainy weather, the Addams Family / The Munsters, high fantasy, occult studies, Tim Burton films, etc.

That being said, Goth doesn't own the above interests and there are absolutely people who enjoy them who aren't Goths.
That being said again, Goths can and do enjoy things that are not on the above list. There are no interests that would make someone less Goth. Goths can like sports, popular music, daytime television, etc.

How does one become a Goth?

Goth is all about identity. If a person decides that they like many things associated with the subculture and that they enjoy being around other Goths, they will likely decide to refer to themselves as a Goth. They might decide to attend Goth clubs, meet-ups, or music festivals, or otherwise interact with other Goths. That being said, there is no official induction into Goth. It's really just about what you call yourself and to what extent you involve yourself in the scene.

Does the Goth subculture involve any rituals?

No, the Goth subculture does not involve any rituals.

What is the goal of the Goth subculture?

There is no real goal for the Goth subculture except to network with other people with similar interests and make friends.

Are there any rules or laws for the Goth subculture regarding diet, dress, etc?

No, Goths can eat whatever they want. While Goths stereotypically dress in all-black, it is all a matter of personal preference and Goths can wear whatever they like just like non-Goths.

Are there health or any other forms of risk associated with the behaviors in the subculture?

No, unless you count risking heat stroke while out in the sun in all-black.

Are any forms of the subculture’s activities and beliefs considered taboo/illegal/or another way of violating social norms?

The Goth subculture as a whole doesn't condone or encourage illegal activity. As for violating social norms, yes, dressing a certain way and liking certain music does upset some non-Goths but there are just as many non-Goths who aren't at all bothered by the way Goths act or dress.

What other sources should I use?

Some of the most popular books about the Goth subculture which should give you an idea about the history are:
Gothic Charm School: An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them by Jillian Venters
Gothic Dark Glamour by Valerie Steele
What is Goth? by Aurelio Voltaire
Goth: Undead Subculture by Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby
The Goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined by Nancy Kilpatrick
Goth Chic: A Connoisseur's Guide to Dark Culture by Gavin Baddeley
Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture by Paul Hodkinson
The Art of Gothic: Music + Fashion + Alt Culture by Natasha Scharf

And there you have it! This page should serve to answer most of your questions about the Goth subculture. If you still need to interview me for your paper or project you can e-mail me at


  1. I bet some kids would be happy with this post! Great answers!

  2. I like this post, nicely done! Good reading list, too. There are a couple there I haven't read, must look for them.

    Of course, clubbing COULD be considered by some to be a goth ritual. :-) And I have heard of Buddhist goths as well, so you could add that to the religions list if you like.

  3. Hello!, This is The Count from the Cemetery Confessions podcast. I would actually say goth is a highly ritualized culture, it just doesn't cross over into the arena of dogma or religion. It hinges on how we understand ritual. Here is an excerpt from a paper called "Club Culture, Neotribalism and Ritualised Behaviour" by Christina Goulding and Avi Shankar.

    "Essentially, rituals may take many forms, but they are usually formal, significant, symbolically intended and complex actions (Gellner,1999). Intrinsically they are sets of actions that are recognized as set apart from mundane activities. Nonetheless, despite the lack of an accepted all embracing definition, it is necessary to distinguish between the different types of ritual. For example, there are everyday social interaction rituals, enacted in greetings, expressions and non verbal communication (Goffman, 1959); second there are ‘performance’ or ‘dramaturgicl’ rituals (Handleman, 1997; Turner, 1974), such as those associated with religious ceremonies or carnival; and third, rites of passage rituals that accompany life changing events, embroidered in the fabric of birth, coming of age, marriage, and death (Van Gennep,1960). In his crtique of the key anthropological work on ritual and tourism MacCannell (1992, p. 261) argues that ritual is more than action and it is more than symbolism: Ritual can overlay all social behaviour, potentially providing a basis for common regard and common action even on the empty meeting grounds of the post-touristic community. . . We situate our study within an eclectic interdisciplinary framework that draws on the literature on ritual to develop an understanding of the clubbing penomenon. We propose that ritual in this context is made up of a number of components that include the concepts of; mythology; formulism; sacredness; communitas, and transformation."

    "In this paper we develop the concept of ritual as an explanatory framework for understanding the clubbing experience. Clubbing, whether experienced abroad as part of a vacation, or at home as part of a weekend break, is predicated on ritual, ceremony, play and cultural aesthetics (Graburn, 989) and is characterised, with other tourist experiences, by a number key factors. First, clubbing involves the individual or group leaving behind the normal rules of everyday society. Second, this is for a limited duration, at some point the individual must return to normality and e-engage with societal norms. Third, the experience may involve a sudden and unique set of social relations that can include role reversal, the mixing of classes and the instant formation of friendships, even if they are transitory. Fourth, the experience may often be one of intensity involving pleasure or sensuousness."