Like a dead bat in a slingshot, “World Goth Day” came and went last week. When I started noticing Instagram posts about it on May 22, I was in the throes of a fleeting Twitter fast, and could not, on principle, log on to make fun of it. By the time I was back on a few days later, some other thing that is also now completely forgotten had taken hold of the public gaze, and all was futile.
Something about this apparent lapse seems fortuitous. Why, indeed, upon hearing for the first time of this Day dedicated to celebrating the enduring culture born of Gothic rock, was insulting it my first impulse? I’ve left in my digital wake an extensive trail of evidence to suggest that nothing would be more amenable to my tastes. My copious posting related to horror, the tragic bent in much of my writing, my love of hipster metal and “doom folk,” and my dark-hued fashion palette all suggest goth-adjacent sympathies at the very least. And yet just as I reach the precipice overlooking that black velvet void, an unseen force pulls me violently away and leaves me to sigh eternally on a cushion of damp moss in a cloudy sylvan glen. Or so the dream always goes.
There are reasons for this, of course.
One is the most obvious: World Goth Day is dumb. One would think that, in a society that has Halloween, a World Goth Day would be superfluous. What more, for those who are ever antsy for its approach, there is precedent—a radical one, but precedent nonetheless—which posits that to the goth, every day is Halloween. (Jourgensen, A., “(Every Day is) Halloween.” Wax Trax, 1984)
The blowback to that might be that Halloween is for kids and hardly compliments the profound decadence authentic goth culture embodies. And, fair, I’ve heard proposals that there should be a holiday that separates the childish revelry from the various forms of adult bacchanalia. But I am not seeing that from most goths who take advantage of both days. I know this from careful observation. Which brings me to my second reason: goths are boring.
A friend of mine some years ago, just after the goth characters started appearing on South Park, expressed skepticism that such a subculture could ever actually exist. We of course knew goths in our high school days, though they never admitted to being so, and I guess he, unlike me, is kind and took their words at face value. But those were the innocent days before the internet’s performative stage. Before such things as Instagram’s “Explore” function could bring you right to them.
They have their initial appeal, these goths, let’s admit at least that. The goth lifestyle is one of complete and utter commitment to its look and its attitude. Every day the goth wakes up knowing he or she doesn’t just get to be goth but, at his or her core being, must be goth. The goth is compelled to dress, to adorn his or her surroundings, and to consume culture according to goth dictum of memento mori and the infinite sadness. In other words, it’s very fun knowing that someone lives in an apartment in New England with antique furniture, dark drapery, some skulls, and some old Vincent Price vehicle posters—and who probably doesn’t care much for sports.
It was only until I started following several goths that the appeal had faded. I started to notice that one’s routine did not diverge too radically from any of the others. The goth life is one of graveyards, pumpkin patches, “morbid” museums, abandoned hospitals, abandoned prisons, more graveyards, cool arts fairs, the Jonathan Corwin House in Salem, the Edgar Allan Poe mural in Philadelphia, blighted fields of endless fuck-all, and still more graveyards. It seemed to me that the distinction between goth tourism and the Nashville bachelorette party tourism Anne Helen Petersen took great pains to scorn at Buzzfeed was one of style.
To be fair, there are some mitigating factors for why this might be. The algorithm limited my scope to a certain clique in a certain region. Who’s to say that goths in Arizona or Idaho don’t have markedly different points of interest to frequent? This seems only barely possible, but I have not seriously inquired. There is also the broader disconnect in how Instagram works: simultaneously exploiting the curiosity of the followers and encouraging monotony in the followed. But that is a free service that for all its manipulation does not force me to follow anyone. So it might be, as ever, a problem born of someone so vulnerable to boredom that a demon must be dragging him there by an invisible choke collar.
That last one is quite salient, if only as a byproduct for what I believe is the more central reason for this discord.
A recent goth post, another gloomy cemetery, included in the caption a quote from Stephen King’s The Shining. The novel, if you don’t know, tells of a troubled family man and failed writer who takes a job as winter caretaker at an isolated luxury hotel that turns out to be maliciously haunted. At its heart it is a story about overcoming ghosts, actual and personal, in order to save oneself and one’s family. For King, who had his own issues with substance abuse and career struggles, it is a very personal book with a hopeful message. Which makes his giving the rights over to Stanley Kubrick an even greater mystery than any dreamt up by the Room 237 fan theorists. King has regretted it ever since, effectively drawing a line in the sand between the warm, genuine horror storytelling of his novel and the “very cold,” ornamental horror tourism of the film.
I first saw The Shining in full around eighth grade—some 20 years ago—with my mom in the sunroom of our old house. I have watched it at least once a year ever since. Though The Innocents is much better, The Shining is still one of the best horror films ever made. But King’s complaints are not invalid. Kubrick was less concerned with the struggles of Jack Torrance, whether Tony is real, or even with the actual shining, and more interested in exploring the effects of isolation and the incompatibility between man and nature.
It’s not impossible for goths to like both the film and the book, or even to prefer the film to the book as I do. Yet I still sense a philosophical rift between us that is facilitated by King’s distinction-making. The extra-expressive nature of the goths bends them, I think, toward the hopeful view of King. Horror is an expressive palette, an outlet, and an extension of their morality. There’s safety in horror, or what King calls in his horror survey Danse Macabre “reintegration … that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.”
I believe it’s this reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear, and monstrosity, that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical … that and the boundless ability of the human imagination to create endless dreamworlds and then put them to work.
King’s ultimate concern with Kubrick’s adaptation might be in its power as a gateway to aesthetic extremism. Indeed, what is Kubrick’s The Shining if it is not a rebuke of horror’s escapism? Instead of King’s reintegration, Kubrick’s vision is one of assimilation: Torrance cannot leave the labyrinth, let alone Overlook, and neither can we. King, again, is not wrong. This vision of horror as a continuous, overpowering force rather than a passing, peculiar delight greatly appealed to me. It is not the adventurism of exploring a derelict asylum, but the despair of being restrained in a functioning asylum. This is horror not as a lifestyle but as a way of life. There horror finds its most complete expression and unshakable justification.
It is possible that some goths might be inclined to agree with my view, and that the only thing that truly separates me from them is that they are more proactive in dealing with it. Still, I would be happy to meet the goths and get their side of it. It is the polite thing to do after what I have written. But I still get the feeling that whatever superficial understanding we have of each other, the deeper friction will remain. It is possibly the most crucial dispute I have with anybody, and it is the dispute I am least eager to mend. Horror does not have converts; it’s something you’re in. You either see it or you don’t.