America has a taste for cultural collapse and rebirth, whether in the religious right's mythos of the Rapture or in the left's fascination with nuclear extermination or the cataclysmic results of the effects of global warming as in say, Cormack McCarthy's The Road. This is the mulch that Goth grows best in. American Gothic, the subculture of the doomed.
At the beginning of the '70s, Heavy Metal emerged as a genre separate from Hard Rock. The record Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath, released in 1970, contains all of the essential elements of the genre. Loud, often slow, riffy, hard, blues-influenced rock. Satanic lyrics, long hair and beards, simple silver jewelry and a gloomy melodramatic mein. The band came from Birmingham and reflected the bleakness of an industrial city in decline. Instead of militating against the situation of the four-day working week, strikes, and unemployment that its young men faced, the lyrics of metal focused on fantasies of an escape into a non-specific medieval life of warriors, wizards, and demons.
Metal created the template for Goth, but it could be argued that some of the most essential elements of the fashion were put in place in the stage show The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The music was a combination of poppy rock and Off-Broadway tunes. But it did employ horror movie costumes.
Ozzy Osbourne himself stated that he wanted to create an equivalent of horror movies in music.
Horror movies had been popular since the beginning of film Americans responded to an image of a vague, ancient, amorphous Europe that both terrified and attracted them. The peasant life that many had left behind was reflected back to them, but not from the shtetl, slum, or shanty town window but from behind the castle walls as a suppressed memory. A projection of the oppressor.
The stories of Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein morphed in the new world into a critique of the old. What if the aristocracy could enslave the proletariat even from beyond the grave? Horror changed from the '60s onward, perhaps as a result of the Cold War or as part of a fear of newer immigrants with stranger customs. The wolf was in the fold, in the figure of the serial killer and the psycho. When Goth emerged in the early '80s, it became the drag of both horror movie lovers and high school outsiders. From Carrie to the reality of Columbine, the haves persecuted the have-nots and the have-nots imagined their psychic revenge. Parents, teachers and popular pupils could no longer come near the newly undead.
Subculture pantomimes the youth side of the generational divide. A young Goth girl in corpse paint with her mother becomes a metaphor for the child separated from the parent by death.
The child psychologist Winnicott describes how the child wants the signals of its needs to be mirrored by the mother. 'The good enough mother' does this and also allows the child the space to experience the world for themselves. The neurotic parent is so caught up in their own experiences that they do not reciprocate the look; instead, the child learns to wait for the mother's approval. She is not present to guide them through an all-important transition. Their completely subjective reality is not separated from the mother. They begin to discover that the external world is filled with events they cannot control and the desires of other autonomous beings. As a result, the unprepared child becomes prey to what Winnicott called 'primal agonies'.
Although this is something that occurs to pre-toddler babies, the Goth teenager returns to this crossroads where the subjective universe meets objective reality.
"The site of the monsters in horror films and horror fiction in the psychic economy can be defined precisely: it is at a point of intersection between a social and a psychological space."*
The Goth kid turns their own persona into a version of the '"transitional object" (for babies this is often a security blanket or toy). They do this to make a parallel between the transition from childhood to adulthood and the transition from subjective babyhood to objective babyhood. This object (themselves) embodies their worst fears of separation from the mother in death. It reflects the horror of both the child's' sublimated fear and the one the parent experiences at the loss of the child to a teenage subculture they do not understand. Goth personifies a double death; the image of the death of the child in the eyes of the parent. And for the child, the memory of the loss of the mother and the death of that part of childhood where the mother and child were one.
The toy version sees the world only as other Goths do. This is how they negotiate the transition period. They temper the world's harshness with a range of responses and opinions which despite Goth's many stylistic permutations are very consistent. This helps with both the transition to the adult world and to soothe the trauma of the initial touch of objective reality.
America itself discovers its primal fear of the rest of the world again and again. The world's foremost superpower fears its responsibility for the world's immolation, its financial meltdown, immigrants, deviants and the enemy within, and its own death. American Goth takes the fearful gaze and projects it back at the viewer. - Millree Hughes
Mr. Hughes was born in North Wales in 1960, son of an Anglican priest. He began making art on the computer in 1998 in NYC.
*Xquisite Ex-timacy: Jacques Lacan vis-à-vis Contemporary Horror by Stefan Gullatz, Volume 5, Issue 2 / March 2001