If you've ever read an authentic Gothic romance, then you understand the interplay of virginal innocence, infinite sorrow and darkness is as seductive as it is sinister. The language is inflated by modern standards, but stylized tales of pale, shuddering damsels trapped in the menacing architecture of abandoned castles and formulaic plots had 19th century literati spellbound. From this obscure fictional mold and the collapse of Great Britain's late seventies punk scene sprang a distinct subcultural incarnation--Goth. Like punk, the Gothic label has come to mean many things, and outsiders are left to decide whether black clothes and make-up are elements of style or identity woven with the music, mysticism, rituals, occult studies and practiced melancholy that remain icons of Gothic culture.
The exact genesis of the Goth subset is as uncertain as its form, but it is widely believed that the 1979 Bauhaus release "Bela Lugosi's Dead" triggered the musical and pop-cultural shift from hardcore punk to the introspective morbidity of bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Damned. This first generation of Goth icons were not labeled as such until many years later, but they introduced an untried musical perversion that wove dark, even macabre poetry with disturbing imagery and a sound layered with pounding bass and dissonant melodies. The routinely disenchanted, youthful masses were primed for just such a sound, and the movement exploded in the early 1980s in a flurry of black hair, red lipstick and vinyl.
Like many other decade-oriented, cultural mutations, Goth faded almost as quickly as it appeared. But lost momentum was due more to lack of definition than substance, and a new wave of self-declared Goth bands paved the way for an international resurgence. Rosetta Stone, The Shroud and London After Midnight were among them, and they all pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be Goth. By the mid-to-late '90s, Goth culture had filtered into something of its own mainstream, and dark aesthetics and supernatural inklings became more and more associated with the mood of the music. This was due in part to artists like Marilyn Manson, a figure whom most "real" Goths dismiss as the masthead of rebellious teenagers going through a phase, but his notoriety invited the world to take a closer look at dark subculture as it morphed from repressed fascination to full-blown lifestyle.
Despite Boise's decidedly white- bread majority, the population bristles with rebellious, tight-knit minority groups, including a healthy community of Goths. Two years ago, that was not the case. While working on another story about the local club scene, I was introduced to Raine Saunders, a "full-time" Goth who was one of only a handful at the time. Before our meeting, I had already constructed her from the powdered skin down to the distaste for anything happy and pastel. My only experience with Gothic culture up to that point came from Saturday Night Live skits and interaction with experimental Goths in high school, and I assumed Raine would be aloof and disgusted by my "normality." Much to my surprise, she and her friends were immediately warm and enthusiastically transformed me into one of their own. Their bustles and corsets were made of materials that looked almost liquid--vinyl, velvet, satin, silk, lace and even PVC--in a spectrum of black, gray, white, red, purple and silver. Their hair was functional art that crowned a visually explosive mixture of turn-of-the-century elegance and modern erotica. Watching them prepare for an evening of revelry, I realized the effort that goes into the Goth aesthetic. And after hours of dancing and talking with such lively, genuine women, I realized how much unfair judgment they endure in a society that preaches understanding, however hollowly.
Since then, I have harbored a growing curiosity about Gothic culture, especially in a state as conservative as Idaho. And when a copy of Gothic Beauty magazine landed on my desk, the still shots of frowning models inspired me to track down the women who had bucked such stereotypical "gothness."
Gracious as ever, Raine agreed to be Virgil to my Dante in the deliciously dark landscape of the expanding local Goth scene. We agreed to meet early on Sunday and make our way to The Balcony around 11 p.m. I was surprised that Industria, or "Goth Night," was still happening, but Raine assured me that the crowd had multiplied by the dozens since I last donned a satin cloak and stilettos. She has been one of the most active members of the Goth community, bringing national bands The Cruxshadows and Black Cape for a Blue Girl to Boise this summer. Turnout was low, but Raine was encouraged by the 60-plus crowds and the promise of greater things to come. She invited me into her home in the North End, a tidy space filled with dark wood, heavy drapes and piles of plastic toys. Raine and her husband have a 4-year-old son, another fact that somehow surprised me. I just couldn't imagine a Gothic family, and even though Raine is the only member who looks the part, it alerted me to the fact that stereotypes run deep, even amongst those who consider themselves open-minded and progressive.
"Dark culture, vampire stuff--that's what people immediately think of. There are people who call themselves blood drinkers or vampires who might sleep in a coffin or donate blood for rituals or drinking, and then there are people who just like to dress that way. No matter who you are, you make assumptions," Raine said. "There is so much more to me than this, but I really identify with it. It makes me feel more like myself than anything else."
Raine offered up her closet as a solution to my jeans-corduroy combo. Almost everything was black with a few lines of red and silver, a far cry from the Polaroid she showed me of a girl with a perm and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. And the shoes--knee-high leather boots laced all the way up, platform sandals and even saddle shoes, all very shiny, very black and very steep. With Raine's help, I chose a clingy Betsy Johnson dress, a handmade necklace of beads with an antique looking crucifix and those terrifying boots (which turned out to be supremely comfortable). She decided on a tulle skirt, a black peasant blouse and the kind of corset you only see in vampire movies. It was molded to fit the body, painted with metallic flames and laced with thick ribbon.
"I'm still making payments on it," Raine chuckled.
Then it was off to the abode of a delightful woman named Analisa, a registered nurse, mother of two, Webmaster and dead ringer for Kathy Najimy. She has what you might call a nuclear family, but her daughters play with pierced, raven-haired dolls, and her Yale-educated, psychologist husband is perfectly comfortable in chinos and a turtleneck while standing next to his wife in full Gothic regalia. Her living room was full of people dressed to the nines, and no two looked alike. She wore a floor-sweeping gown with black platforms, and her matching dreadlocks were swept up and back, adding even more height to her already towering frame and long, pale face. Corsets and candles were everywhere, but the guests sat talking and sipping red wine like anyone at a cocktail party. Analisa's daughters bounded through the house saying hello to familiar faces and politely greeting my unfamiliar one. There were elements of Goth in their appearance, but they were happy, personable and seemingly well adjusted--just kids being kids.
Raine led me into Analisa's bedroom where I could comfortably transform. Ceiling-high shelving bowed under an impressive collection of vintage and new action figures ranging from Star Wars to Hellraiser. Most of them were from the horror genre, and I wondered how Analisa could be so sweet and so into gore.
"I saw a lot of scary stuff," she said, explaining that her work as a ride-along ER nurse and film tech in Hollywood numbed her to horrific visuals and spawned something of a fascination. She is not obsessed with horror; she simply appreciates its cinematic artistry, and if we all get really honest with ourselves, there is a part of every human psyche that is just as fascinated; most of us are just too scared to admit or explore it.
When Raine and I were alone, I slipped on her stretchy frock and the intimidating boots. Then came makeup. A tan, voluptuous woman named Debbie sat down in front of me. Her layered, reddish hair fell about her bare shoulders, and I couldn't help but compliment the glorious decolletage that peeked from her cinched, pink satin bustier. Black eyeliner curled away from her lids in an Egyptian flourish, and her red lips came to dramatic peaks below her powdered nose.
"You have great eyes," she said, promising to make me look like a "gothier" version of myself. As she shadowed my eyes, touched up my mascara and muted my skin, Debbie talked about her upcoming trip to Hawaii.
"Aren't you already a little tan for a Goth?" I asked.
"I'm just Debbie," she said. I suddenly understood--the definition of Goth depends on the individual. It's a choice, a lark, an impulse--an aspect of self expression that is different for everyone and as arbitrary as jeans and a cardigan. And while some Goths follow a strict code of etiquette and aesthetics, these particular Goths are all about being who they really are. "Beautiful," Debbie said leaning back to inspect her work. She had kept her promise. I looked different, but even with smoky eyes, white skin and severe lipstick, I looked like me.
The Balcony was like a killer Halloween party that night. Just as Raine predicted, many were vamp, some wore street clothes, some the spikes and leather of "rivetheads," or Gothic punks and others a confused mixture of Edwardian robes and club kid kitsch. What only a few years ago had been a struggling theme night was now a thriving social scene. Everywhere we turned, someone else was hugging hello and catching up on the latest news. It seemed strange. I always thought Goth parties were somber affairs, but the joint was definitely jumping. I ran into Raine's friends T'Rina and Brandy in the bathroom, and they addressed the stereotype with vigor.
"Everyone thinks we're depressed all the time, and some Goths try to look that way," Brandy said. She explained that big city Goths tend to be cliquey and exclusive and that having a good time is frowned upon. "It's so extreme. Everyone spends so much money on clothes. They never smile and it's really dramatic," she said. "A 'cool' Goth has no emotion, but after moving here, I realized I could have a good time. My friends put life in me," she said. Brandy has battled real depression for many years, and dressing in black began as a way to express her inner turmoil. "The Goth thing became part of me, and it helps. I couldn't see myself being any other way, and my friends here accept me no matter what," she said. T'Rina, one of the funniest, most unapologetic people I've ever met, burst in and said, "Built the way I am, people are going to look at me anyway, they might as well look at me on my terms."
Thirty-five-year-old T'Rina is not a small woman, but her opulent curves are draped in the rich fabric of handmade gowns, her delicate features enhanced by noticeable but not overly dramatic makeup. She sees herself as the fun-loving aunt of Boise's young Goth set, and above all, she keeps a sense of humor about being judged not only for her size, but also for her clothing, taste in music and penchant for midnight knitting at Denny's.
"Goths never die, we just dress that way," she laughed, adding that she's losing weight on the Goth diet (i.e. mass amounts of caffeine with just enough beer to get sick the next morning and clove cigarettes to kill appetite). She got involved in the local Goth scene in the early 1990s, and discrimination now is the same as it was then. "People have told me they don't want me around because I don't fit in, but these people tell me I'm beautiful and wonderful. They don't care how I look or what size I am, because who you are is how you treat people," she said. "I like snakes and spiders and dark stuff--not because I'm depressed, because it makes me happy, just like other people like pink flowers and puppies."
So-called "first-generation" Goths like T'Rina have a tendency to doubt the intentions of younger followers. They believe teenage angst is the main motivator and that such fire burns too hot and fast to contribute anything lasting to the continuance or enjoyment of the lifestyle. This is often true, but some Goths insist that they are born Goth, a predisposition as viable as sexuality. Silverwitch, the affectionately titled "old codger" of Raine's raucous group, could be considered one of these natural-born Goths. At 45, he has been involved in the scene for almost two decades, but unlike his 20-something friends, his look is subtle--except for the foot-long knife he keeps in the pocket of his leather jacket.
"I sell knives and swords and other sharp, pointy items. I just like scaring people," Silverwitch said, chuckling and letting the light play down the length of his glossy blade. Of the dozen or so Goths crowded around two tiny tables, he immediately established himself as the "peanut gallery," a playful, almost paternal character with a denigrating sense of humor undercut with love and respect for his "family." "I'm a walking contradiction--non-conventional, yet I do languish in conventionality. I like to bowl and play pool and watch Shrek," he said. "You find that with almost everybody here. We don't let ourselves be defined into one narrow way of thinking. I'm probably the oldest person here, but these people support and respect me. They're my family." In addition to selling decorative cutlery online and at Goth events like Goddess Fest, Silverwitch is an ordained Christian minister and a heterosexual advocate for gay rights. "My spirituality is eclectic, I don't focus on any particular path. I've studied many religious beliefs and dogmas and pieced together in my own mind what makes people believe what they do," he said, adding that the color black is significant to Goth spirituality in its inclusion of every color in the spectrum. "It's not a morbid fascination with things that are dark. For me it's natural; and I'm colorblind, so wearing black makes it easy to coordinate."
For Ginger, darkness is part of the fun of Gothic life and the essence of its psychology. The slender, porcelain-skinned redhead spoke wryly and thoughtfully, revealing pronounced, extra-sharp incisors every time she smiled. I could tell she was suspicious.
"Is this about making fun of us, or what?" she asked. I assured her that I was genuinely interested in the lifestyle, and though her eyes stayed slanted the whole time, she shared a little of her past. As a girl, Ginger dressed mostly in black, "like Emily the Strange, only with red hair," she said. At 14, she started going to underground Dark Wave Raves and hanging out at Dreamwalker with a group of skaterpunks. Her interest in industrial music grew, and with that an interest in the occult.
"I was told you're a vampire," I said, trying not to sound surprised. Fingering the sequins on her gauzy shirt, Ginger answered in the tone of someone explaining for the millionth time. "For me it's a lifestyle--bondage, ceremony, vampire stuff," she said. "And the teeth are real." The "vampire stuff" is mostly ritualistic bloodletting and blood drinking that never involves force. It is a willful sharing of heat and passion, a give and take of life force that Ginger calls a "sensual thing." Within the Gothic heading, blood rites fall into four categories: vampiric imitation, curiosity and experimentation, erotic experience and the extremes of schizophrenics, religious cultists and fanatics. Ginger borrows only from the first three categories, and even in that, she is not unbalanced or even that unusual. Most people have unspoken fetishes and fantasies, hers are just out in the open. And like most people, she enjoys being part of a group that accepts her for who she is. "I love the clothes. You get to dress up and be beautiful like everyday is a masquerade, and I love the music ... and I really love that people who come toward this community tend to be intelligent and well- read and think about what they want out of life," she said.
One such person is Ginger's friend Raziel, a lifelong Goth who still dresses "normal" for family functions and describes the Goth spectrum as "creatively influenced musicians, poets and artists who are emotionally tuned-in and drawn to death."
"We celebrate death like life. It's part of the cycle, the yin and yang," he said. A true intellectual, Raziel cited several academic works on Gothic life as well as classical literature, saying that it aligns with the dark part of the soul. "Your family may not understand, but exploring darkness is important in the life process. Then there's social conditioning; we see it for what it is--the cookie cutter 2.5 children, SUV, white picket fence--and rebel against it," he said.
But rebellion is only a fraction of the spirit behind the lifestyle, a fact illustrated by Behni, a priestess of the Temple of Set, owner of a zombie-mobile and a wealth of Gothic history. Her faith is categorized as Satanic, but much like Gothic culture, socially constructed connotations of the label do not embody the belief. It is based on Plato's concept of forms, identifying Satan as the first isolate intelligence and reality as consciousness separate from an absolute. Many disagree with such beliefs, and Behni accepts and respects this fact just as she does people's unwillingness to recognize the positive aspects of Gothic life.
"This is a subculture of Pagans, Wiccans and even Christians--people dissatisfied with mainstream society gravitate toward untraditional religion, too," she said. "I was Goth before I knew I was Goth. One day I looked in my closet and everything was black. But it's like any subculture. Cowboys have apple pie and hats and a code of ethics. We're the Goth equivalent. We like to touch each other, to comfort and accept each other. I don't know what it is, maybe finding your own type, but there's a lot of love."
My Gothic pilgrimage was a welcome return to the id. I forgot everyday inhibitions and indulged in the sensual pleasures of music, wine, human contact and laughter. My guides moved as if possessed to the throbbing sounds of Suicide Commando and Front 242, the Balcony's dance floor a gorgeous blur of black shapes, white hands and sweat. Brandy's hair spun as she dipped and crawled like some Gothic ballerina. Behni moved in patterns, Raziel like liquid and Analisa in her own interpretive trance. Though I was nervous at first, the music took me. I lost myself for a moment under the lights, and it felt good--really good. I was happy to take off the boots and makeup later that night, but I would go back in a heartbeat. Getting to know Raine and her friends taught me a lot about superficiality and individuality. From Ginger (a recreational vampire) to Normal Dan (a baby-faced computer programmer) to Genesis (a gay drag queen) to Raine (a down-to-earth young mother), anyone is welcome in the Goth community. That may not be so true outside Boise, but each Sunday night, a group of endearing, self-titled misfits get together to have fun and for a few hours, feel like they belong.
For more information about Industria and the Boise Goth scene, visit Raine's Web site www.nightspun.net and look for links to The County Morgue and other local resources.