Gothic Truth & Fiction
Goth, in all its forms, appeals to the dark side of the human spirit. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, even in the shadows, there is light.
Sometimes, a single word contains many definitions. Goth is one of them. The Gothic is a slippery and ever-evolving aesthetic concept. It is stone and it is rock. It is dark even as it seeks enlightenment. So, what does Goth actually mean? Starting in 12th century France, Gothic trends in architecture would result in massive eerily beautiful buildings, much like this one, all over the world.
Sarah Guérin: In a lot of ways, Gothic is never something that goes completely out of style, that is always an architectural mode that’s appreciated somewhere from its birth in the 12th century all the way to today.
And though at first filled with light and celebration, many of these buildings fell into disrepair, and over the years, increasingly decrepit versions of these once grand spaces came to embody a sense of foreboding. By the 18th century, such sites would offer perfect settings for many of the dark and psychologically thrilling tales of the Gothic literary movement.
Ellen Ledoux: The Gothic is all about the carnivalesque, about people’s unspoken desires, the things that are socially unacceptable. The reason why the Gothic tries to put you in that space is so that you think about: Well, what does constitute the human? What does it mean to be alive?
The literary genre and its many offspring, including Southern Gothic, Female Gothic, and New Gothic, all have a great capacity for melancholy. And beginning in 1970’s Britain, this penchant for brooding would manifest again in fans of so-called Gothic music, a loosely-defined genre of emotionally driven rock and roll, featuring plenty of black clothing.
Alicia Smith: It came out of punk and just was sort of more introspective, moody, emotional, just kind of spooky atmosphere.
(“Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” 1982)
White on white translucent black capes
Yet the very first use of the word ‘Goth’ referred to an East Germanic ethnic group. It included the OstroGoths and VisiGoths, two tribes that helped bring down the Roman Empire. The first Gothic buildings appeared many centuries later and resulted from three key innovations brought together on projects in and around Paris. They were: The ribbed vault, the flying buttress, and the pointed arch.
Guérin: The pointed arch is a improvement on the Roman innovation of the rounded arch. And essentially what the pointed arch brings is that it translates this lateral push into a stronger vertical push. But there is still a little bit of this lateral push that’s going to come off, even from a pointed arch, and that is where flying buttresses come in. A flying buttress is a strong piece of masonry that pushes against the building right where there’s the most force, so it accepts these lateral or horizontal thrusts that are coming off the vaults. The way that Romanesque architects accepted those lateral thrusts was by just having thick heavy walls. It’s going to accept all of that outwards push. But the Gothic architects wanted to have big windows, so they don’t want to have big, thick heavy walls. They want to have light entering in. So it’s almost like that you’re swinging that wall out 90 degrees to get your buttresses. So it’s bringing it out so that you still have the thick heavy masonry, but it is on the perpendicular and allows light to come into the building. And then the third innovation is the ribbed vault, and essentially what it does is, it makes the load-bearing parts of the vault strong in a heavy masonry. And the parts of the vault that are not needed for load-bearing are in a really thin, light material, such as slate.
AJC: Is there an emotional quality that we associate with the Gothic as much as those architectural tenets of it?
Guérin: The emotional qualities of Gothic are really in tune with awe and wonder. It exceeded expectations of what a stone building could be. They were higher with thinner walls with more light than people had ever seen before, and it was feeling of awe and incredulity when they entered into these buildings and they were still standing.
But not everyone was so fond of the style. Gothic architecture eventually got its name in the 1530s when the godfather of art history, Giorgio Vasari, described the approach as monstrous and barbarous, but named it Gothic. Today, the term may still be slung as an insult but with a different set of connotations. Alicia Porter Smith found community in her hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, with a group of young people who also liked listening to Gothic music and wearing dark clothing. But in the 1990s, Smith found her subculture on the wrong end of the satanic panic and decided to retaliate with a website offering her view of things.
Smith: A lot of the Goth websites were directed towards a Goth audience, and so I wanted to explain it for the non-Goth to kind counter some of that sensationalism and misinformation.
AJC: And what were some of the loudest misconceptions being expressed at that time?
Smith: Well, that we were a gang, which was untrue, or a cult or devil-worshipers or sacrificing animals and leading your children astray and didn’t understand that it was very tongue-in-cheek and very just about aesthetics and music and culture and not about Satanism or evil.
AJC: Argue with me that the point is not to just wallow and have the woe is me.
Smith: Outwardly it seems that way, but it’s an exaggeration. It’s a theatrical expression of that, and I don’t think people who are truly depressed are very creative about their appearance or creating music, creating art. They sort of have that energy sucked out of them and want to stay in bed. But Goth culture is very creative, and it is very expressive. And so, when you have a place that’s safe for you to express those things that might be considered abnormal or bad, they’re not necessarily bad, they’re an aspect of life, like death is an aspect of life, and it’s not an obsession with it, but it isn’t a denial of it either.
A fixation on the macabre is present in almost every work of Gothic fiction. At one time, the deliciously debauched tales were widely considered nothing more than trashy entertainment, but Ellen Ledoux, author of Social Reform in Gothic Writing, sees them differently.
Ledoux: Oftentimes people read the Gothic as this fantasy that’s about transgression and rape, criminality, theft, extortion, all of these things that we think about as negatives in society, but the more that I read, the more that I found that the books were engaging with actual political discourse of the day. So, this is during the revolutionary period of both America and France and across Europe, and so people are questioning issues about women’s rights, about property rights, about enfranchisement, population pressure, public health, all of the things that come out of the Enlightenment. And Gothic texts, they aren’t just fantasies about being bad. They actually create this sort of alternative space in which you can do thought experiments.
Thought experiments like: What would happen if a benevolent person was given access to unlimited resources? And what fate is likely when a scientist attempts to play god? Gothic stories are defined by a simple trinity: an antiquated setting, a hidden crime, and the transgression of physical boundaries. The very first such tale was The Castle of Otranto, written by the eccentric son of a British Prime Minister named Horace Walpole.
Ledoux: He’d never had any children, he didn’t get married, and he spent his whole life doing what’s called antiquarianism, so collecting these odd objects from the past. And he recreates this castle at his house outside of London, but it’s all like a theater set. It’s papier-mâché and trompe-l’oeil paints that makes it look like an inside of a cathedral or an inside of a castle, but it’s not actually real. And then he uses a lot of money to make the outside look like a miniature castle.
AJC: He sounds like a fun guy.
Ledoux: Oh, he was, yeah, he was a really fun guy, as far as I can tell. He collects sort of theatrical people around him. He is very stylized in the way that he interacts with the world, his lap dog, and for that reason, also, was a little bit of an outsider. So even though he’s part of this really enfranchised elite group of people, he’s always a little bit on the outside looking in. And that’s also part of this Gothic authorship. It almost always tends to be women, people who, for whatever reason, their sexuality or their psychology or their family doesn’t quite fit into mainstream society and so their looking at things from the outside.
Gothic authors are expert at channeling their feelings of alienation into forms of expression that can be shared. They invite readers to examine the ugliest aspects of the human spirit and return from the depths unharmed. And today, Goth remains a refuge for the outsider. For Alicia Porter Smith, the permission to explore the shadows offered by Gothic literature and music alike has helped her to forge many life changing relationships.
Smith: A lot of people that became drawn to this group were sort of misfits in some way or another. All the freaks had to stick together just to avoid getting beat up when I was young. – Was there a joy in gathering together? – I think there is an aspect of a certain celebration. If you like these aesthetics, it doesn’t mean you’re sad. It just means maybe you like the nighttime a little more than the daytime, and there’s nothing necessarily bad or wrong with that.
Indeed, this may be the Gothics ultimate lesson, a reminder to embrace the full spectrum of life’s experiences because there may just be beauty lurking in all of them.