Birgit Richard
Black nets: a classic subculture extending into the area of the media, the Gothic or Gothic Punk scene

The subculture of the Gothics, in Germany called "grufties", starts in Britain in the early 80s and derives from the gloomy, resigned side of Punk and New Wave, in the field of music called "dark wave" or "doom." It is noticeable that there are many coexisting terms for this style. The Gothics take the "Gothic novels" of the romantic period [1] as a point of reference, which can be deduced from the English expression "Gothic Punk." They also like to call themselves "the blacks." The German term "gruftie" derives from the motif "Gruft" [2] (=tomb). It is not a proud dissociation from the normal citizen, but a kind of stigma. This self-labelling is not completely unproblematic, so in the 90s the not totally serious Gothcode 1.1. (resembling a programme with updates) is supposed to make it easier to get in touch with other "blacks" on the internet. The opposite number can decipher from codes to what category another Gothic assigns himself/herself. There is, for example, the "Jammergoth. Life is a permanent existential crisis -you simultaneously weigh up what is more unsettling, the expanding conflict in Bosnia,..., the transitoriness of things" or the "shy goth: please, don't look at me,.... I hope they are not talking to me..." Other manifestations are the muntergoth, grantelgruftie, sarkigoth, der-goth-der-nur-noch-dahinvegetiert (German terms expressing different kinds of character and philosophies of life).

The melancholic condition of the "blacks"

The large acceptance of the internet contains the indication that Gothics are not a "street style." The public sphere is not of essential importance for the presentation of the style. Meetings are held in private or at isolated places like cemetrys, where the scene is not disturbed.
You enter the "black scene", when a certain philosophy of life shall be expressed: loneliness, isolation, lacking affection and communication, problems at school, identity-problems and disappointment in first love affairs. [3] Helsper gives another reason: the basic alienation from and indifference to children in the family. In addition, the style opposes highly controlled structures like they can still often be found in small towns and villages. Far away from parents and schools, which no longer offer any security or support, the style becomes a place for reproducing socialisation. The individual gets a forum and a symbolic-cultural opportunity to express herself/himself to deal with problems and doubts about the meaning of life in an imaginary way. Introverted sadness and melancholy, which are based on disappointments subjectively experienced and collectively shared by all members and trigger a mental processing of a resigned and pessimistic philosophy of life, are characteristic. A network of the lonely is formed, who also realize their strong desire for contact at particular meeting points, like "black discos," where, however, you rather get the impression of a cultivated isolation.
The internet, too, as a new medium of communication through international links selectively does away with the individual isolation. The existing "black nets", which were launched on festivals and by fanzines, are expanded. The WWW offers the opportunity to communicate directly and exchange information with like-minded people (e.g. information on concerts and records, Gothic clubs and scene-boutiques, films, comics, books, poems and online-games), which is independent of physical proximity. The decisive structural feature for Gothics is the "link", the link to other Gothic-sites (e.g. Death Homepage (1995), The Darkening of the Light, The Dark Side (all September 1996)), which guarantees that a permanent linking-up with other "blacks" all over the world can be sustained.
The net is also carrier of the style's values like e.g. the important internal taboos of the style. One of these is the "gool", the gravedigger, digging up mortal remains on cemetrys to use them to decorate his rooms or himself. This figure, very popular in the relevant media and attracting attention by rituals at the grave and necrophile activities, which is perceived to be the epitome of the Gothic style, is rejected by a large part of the scene. Digging up mortal remains, for Gothics represents a proximity to death which is no longer tolerable, because the direct intrusion into the sphere of the dead lacks the due respect. These extreme Gothics, who only leave their flats at night and do no longer go to discos, have done away with the constituent, existentially important social contacts of the style, which enable them to process their basic mentality of proximity to death.
A myth of a forbidden zone of the black culture is formed. The persona "gool", inaccessible for strangers to the cult, is, despite the vehement verbal rejection, a fascinating feature of the scene. It represents the existence or real death, while the rest of the scene stylizes death. The rejection of these practices sets limits to the fascination with death specific to this group. The second fascinating feature thus mentally processed is suicide. The notion of suicide is familiar. However, it is not accepted as a solution to their own existential problems, but as an admitted failure due to their own emotions of loss, death and sadness. Therefore, the Gothics are no subculture of death, driving members to commit suicide, as is reported in the media and asserted by politicians, but rather the opposite: an attempt to pursue a critical and joint analysis of their own loneliness and proximity to death. In the awareness that they live here and now and have to deal with their problems, they develop a different relationship to death, having overcome the overwhelming fear of death shown by other human beings.
Another important part of the style is the preoccupation with religion. Supported by the process of " bricolage of religion" (Helsper), the Gothics deal with elements of Christianity, religions of other ethnic groups and occult traditions. The latter are attractive for Gothics, because they are linked to another era or to another stage of the development of civilizations. Symbolism rejected as irrational by other parts of society enables them to express dissatisfaction with the institutionalized church and the completely rationalized modern civilization.
The reflecting examination of religious and occult traditions does not lead to an occult Gothic religion. The opposite is true: it would be contradictory, if the Gothics voluntarily entered a restricting, closed system, after having stylistically broken out of a rustic-religious one-track environment. The "main article of faith" is not the belief in Satan or God, as reported by the media -Gothics can rather be considered to be atheists-, but a belief in death as a higher power no mortal is able to elude. The "bricolage of religion" creates a kind of private religion of death, which reminds its followers of their mortality, but has no comforting function of providing relief.

Components of black style

Among its prominent representatives the Gothic style runs through the whole environment of life: their room, clothes, hairdo, music, dance [4] , places, spheres, media (fanzines -magazines-internet). The WorldWideWeb enables Gothics to transfer music and pictures of their admired bands like Sisters of Mercy, Cure, Alien Sex Fiend, Ann Clarke, Skinny Puppy, Fields of Nephilim, Christian Death, Current 93 from generation to generation.
As with all subcultures, the epi-centre is the music. From all areas of Independent Music examples with sad or dark lyrics or musical structures, which correspond to their melancholic sense of life are filtered out. Sound collages of ordinary noises, quotations from religious contexts (Gregorian chants or instruments like church organs), harpsichord sounds and self-manufactured instruments made of bones are put alongside Punk and Electronic Body Music.
The preoccupation with lyrics dealing with unrequited love, death, religion serves the purpose of an outlet to overcome depressions endangering their existence. A band like Joy Division is supposed to be very authentic, because the depressive basic mentality of vocalist Ian Curtis, who commited suicide because of an unhappy love affair, can be found in their lyrics and music. The absolutely passive anti-dance [5] of the Gothics is a meditative concentration of energy on the inner sphere of the individual, a retreat into an inner exile. The autistic form of dancing, reminiscent of movements of Frankenstein's monster, is also described as North-South-Course by those who mock the style. It consists of a monotonous, staggering walk up and down an imaginary line, without ever heeding the music's rhythm. The body movements have nothing to do with physical activity, a release of energy or aggressions, quite unlike the Pogo of the Punks or the self-experience of the body by Hippies.

Vampires, monks and witches: black outfits

The rooms of the "blacks" are designed in a special manner: e.g. through small altars, on which accessories like grave-ribbons, crucifixes, grave-lamps, candles and skulls are arranged. Pen-cases formed like coffins are supposed to symbolize death as useable items in ordinary life to be aware of the individual's own mortality. [6] Caves draped in black with tombstone-walls are fairly extreme examples within the scene and are partly smiled upon, partly admired. However, in contrast to media reports, we do not find coffins used as beds or corpses, for that matter. The room shall reconstruct the dark atmosphere of the cemetry, its proximity to death, or serve as a cave that shelters from a threatening outside world. The accessories also bear witness to an element of fun in dealing with things which are unsettling for other people.
Very unusual and standing out from the contemporary, versatile fashion-range is the "blacks'"very homogenously designed way of clothing, reminiscent of figures from centuries past. This style of clothing does not correspond to the "confrontation dress" of Punk, which is supposed to be provocative. To be sure, it is nevertheless shocking, but any confrontation is unintentional.
The dissociation of the Gothics is successful: the colour black, which dominates the style, is primarily associated with old age, death, loss and mourning. At a time when Punk made it possible to wear all sorts of colours -e.g. neon colours- for clothes, a colour loaded with meaning is deliberately chosen as a dissociation from a carefree life, characterized by superficiality and consumption.
The Gothics combine the various cultural meanings of the colour, they are familiar with. For them, black is the expression of a sense of emptiness, a meaninglessness and a symbol for despair and resignation. Beyond, it is an expression of mourning for mankind, which is quite possibly doomed, a premise, the Gothics cannot do anything about. Besides, the colour points to the self-chosen ascetic isolation of monks. For the Gothics, the central meaning of the colour black is the symbolization of inevitable death. The "blacks", as they typically call themselves, alongside the necrophile component of the colour, also promote the traditional symbolization of the evil and the negative, which are turned into positive ideals.
The Gothics put the colour black, under normal circumstances intended for the temporary phase of mourning, therefore having a special position in the spectrum of colours, into the context of ordinary situations. It is detached from any particular purposes as regards time, place or situation and, as a decisive feature of the style, is applied to all situations in life. The colour black is contrasted by silver metal studs and -ornaments on accessories and clothes, floral motifs like the rose or symbols of death like the skull. We find the pointed, tightly tailored buckled shoe, recalling the pointed shoes of the outgoing middle ages, embroidered with death's-head- or bat buckles.
The Gothic style is accumulative; belts, bracelets, earrings, buckles are never appearing in a simple manner. The clothes are unordinary and the opposite of what we might consider comfortable clothes for every-day life. Furthermore, they demonstrate a detached attitude towards their own body. Items of clothing like wide capes, wraps, scarfs, Dracula-capes, monks's habits and cassocks, Turkish pants on men do not permit drawing conclusions on the veiled body. The body's sexual distinctive marks, otherwise so important in society, have no central place in the style's philosophy, since the erotic is passionately referred to death.
The Gothics have nothing to do with the actively aggressive principle of torn clothes and the aesthetics of ugliness and poverty, on which Punk is based. A poetical stage-production creates female, "beautiful" angels of death, corresponding to romantic ideals of the nineteenth century. Thus, the preferred materials are soft, traditional and natural fabrics like lace, velvet or silk, less frequently leather, patent-leather or rubber, representing a tough sexuality.
The four basic patterns of hairdo are an essential hallmark of the Gothics. The most prominent hairdo is the "plate" (also called flat anti-tank mine or plate skull). Gothics talk about "making (themselves) the plate." The covering hair are plastered with incredible amounts of hairspray and formed into a plate-like, flat thing. Another hairdo derives from the shaved head of the Punks, leaving only a ridge between brow and neck, although in most cases hair here is worn longer and backcombed. We also find the waver-hairdo, with upstanding covering hair and very short or shaved off hair on the sides and above the neck. These manifestations are mostly worn by male Gothics.
Women prefer black, long uncombed hair, which is extremely backcombed and supposed to be reminiscent of the tangled hair of witches. In contrast to the fanzines, on the internet we can find practical advice on how to comb hair in a "gothic style", dye it black or "paint to death," putting on make-up, black eye shadow, lipstick and nail varnish to counteract a chalky white face. This "dead" way of putting on make-up, "painting to death" or "walking around dead" as the Gothics of both sexes call it, creates the symbolic comprehensive picture of the dead in living bodies or of vampires, i.e. unworldy figures, and anticipates the fate of the future dead and shall express solidarity with the dead.
Every-day clothes and make-up of the Gothics with their materials, colours and tailoring- patterns represent a permanent celebration of death and mourning.

Black art: ankh, bat and ruin

Motifs and symbols of jewellery essentially derive from three closely linked areas: death and physical mortality, Christianity and religions of other cultural backgrounds and the magic.
Since Gothics are fascinated by everything that has to do with death, consequentially their favourite motifs in jewellery are: death's heads, skeletons and bones. The latter, when worn on clothes as real items, become a materialized memento mori, a personal relic.
The religious symbolism used comprises only a few accessories, like crucifixes, stars of David, ankh (an Egyptian symbol) or the pentagram. The most provocative symbol is the cross turned upside down, a historico-cultural symbol of satanism, which in turn reverses rituals of Christianity. Here, it serves as a distinguishing feature from the normal Christian symbol and is simultaneously provocation and diffuse criticism of religion and the institutionalized church.
Also when following traditional religious symbolism, the cross has different levels of meaning: it represents a de-institutionalized Christian faith, a kind of protective pendant against evil or is simply an embellishment. Alongside skeletons and death's heads it refers to anguish and transitoriness.
The embellishment with religious accessories from other cultural backgrounds and eras is directed against the primacy of a restrictive Christian doctrine. With this act of secularization the Gothics conquer the last bastion of fixed symbols for the process of Bricolage. This not only consists of a radical re-codification of Christian symbols, but, through the combination with other symbols, also of opening-up new dimensions of meaning.
In the border area between life and death we find the phenomen of the walking dead, the undead, who is returning, e.g. the pale, bloodsucking vampire. The Gothics stylize themselves to beings who populate the world between life and death. A preferred motif in jewellery, thus deriving, is the bat, an "ugly, dangerous, bloodsucking" beast of the night. This irrational prejudice is accounted for by the bat's association with the powers of evil. While the Punks actually carry around their symbolic animal, the rat, which is also discriminated against, the Gothics have selected an imaginary zoo of animals which, because of their colour or nocturnal life, according to Christian definition since the middle ages are supposed to have beeen symbolic animals of evil. The zoo includes spiders [7] in particular -since so many people are disgusted by spiders, the spider's web is a frequently appearing ornament on clothes-, plus flies, ravens or crows, amphibians, lizards or salamanders, newts, owls, snakes and beetles... The symbolic animals have the important function of taking over the drifting souls of dead humans. Thus, the Gothics use originally religious symbols of death and of evil, in which, nevertheless, folksy superstition has been kept intact.
The imaginary worlds of the Gothics also comprise atmospherically charged pictures of dark palaces, castles, dungeons and nocturnal scenarios, veiled by fog and the light of a full moon. For the imaginative dealing with these unordinary worlds of images, the WWW offers ideal conditions. As a technological medium it permits the construction of virtual-imaginary worlds detached from tough reality. Here, the imaginary figures of the past described above can flourish.
Concerning real spheres, the Gothics predominantly use "gothic-like," dark places like cemetries and ruins. The motif "industrial ruin", for Punks a symbol of acceptance and use of the urban sphere, is of no interest to Gothics. Only an old, crumbling church with a cemetry in a lonely landscape represents an undefinable value, long gone elsewhere, that was able to survive on the fringes of a consumer society. The aura of decay and isolation creates a strong sense of belonging together for the time of the original construction of the building. The ruin is the skeleton of a building and symbolizes the process of ageing of humans and objects.
The places the "blacks" prefer are characterized by silence, isolation, gloominess and death. It is especially the cemetry, a place detached from most people's ordinary life, thereby acquring its aura of the forbidden and mysterious, that is turned into their normal venue by Gothics. They benefit from the reluctance of normal citizens to encounter death and mortality. In the twentieth century, most people do not like to go to cemetries, a place where proximity to death is greatest. For Gothics, this is the decisive reason to stay there. Their every-day sojourn and their mourning, independent of an individual's fate - at their graves, they linger over the history of the dead unknown to them- revives the traditional public function of a cemetry.

Provocative danses macabres

Gothics are a retrospective youth culture. The whole style is a complex, historically orientated form of coming to terms with melancholy and depression, mentally combining individual and collective death (the fate of mankind, apocalypse, last days and destruction of the environment). The Gothics have extreme and direct ways of dealing with death, unsettling for the rest of society. This is owing to the partial release and the removal of taboos of notions and images of death. They construct niches in various media, where the seemingly archaic, atavistic symbols and images can be circulated, e.g. picture galleries in the WWW. The myths of the scene are repeated here. The desire for an ever-present encyclopedia or a genealogy of the images of the style can be realized here in an adequate fashion. The most important function of the gothic homepages on the internet is therefore, besides the online communication, the collection and exchange of images and symbols of death. Repetition and the creation of variants on a basic repertory of images (e.g. gothic image database, gothic/images/index) turn the net into the virtual archive of the style.
It is the keeper of the stories (e.g. about the gool, ghoul, the gravedigger) and the immaterial image-representations of the out-of-the-ordinary symbolism of the style mentioned above, so that they are constantly at the disposal of the internal autopoesis of the style.
The Gothics protect themselves against the latent fascination with these pictures and concepts of death by carefully drawing a line when it comes to the realization of necrophile phantasies. The determined examination of decay and dissolution of physical substance takes place on the imaginary level of ciphers and symbols. While the development of a style in youth cultures normally constitutes an imaginary resolution of real contradictions in the process of reproduction, the Gothic style is all about the symbolic stylization of loss, death and mourning experienced in reality. The aesthetic anticipation of the individual's own death and the realization of the process of mourning through their stylization of a walking dead between life and death suspend the necessity of the individual's own death in its suicidal variant.
Through the symbolic articulation of death, dying and mourning in their style, which develops via the communication within the scene, they do away with deficits in society. The scene considers itself to be a subcultural elite, the only one working against the social suppression of death, which finds its manifestation in speechlessness. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, a large part of society does no longer digest the finiteness of the human existence, because the fear of death and the fear of the return of the dead has become overwhelming, much to the profitable advantage of a number of film-genres, e.g. vampire- or horror films. Gothics stage-manage a subcultural danse macabre by stripping off the term's historical meaning and taking it literally. They are the real reminder of death, a living and naturalistic memento mori, aesthetically and verbally anticipating the future, age-defined metamorphosis.
The Gothics are one of the most conspicuous subcultures, because they work against the supression of death and ageing with their deathly pale faces in a time when sun-studio tanned complexions are the epitome of health. They become the terror of a deathless producing and consuming culture, which marginalizes the process of dying and bodily decay to be able to proclaim the ideal of perpetual youth. Putting death at the centre of their style and their lives becomes a provocation by a subcultural group of adolescents which cannot be forgiven by society. Youth has to look fresh and "tasty"; it is not supposed to walk around "dead." In a society with an ever increasing average life expectancy, dealing with death is suitable only, when a certain age has been reached.
The Gothics, on the basis of traditions of various epochs, cultural backgrounds and media, test the development of their own rituals to come to terms with death. They represent unordinary places and stylistic elements, excluded from the rationally defined modern age because of their embodiment of death or evil.
To make the socially special and detached character of death a matter of ordinary life is a criticism of the increasing social rejection of death in a modern age, i.e. of a completely rationalized ordinary life, in which the extraordinary, the "extremely alien" (Sturm) [8] character of death is only permitted at certain times and places. Thus, the Gothics are a subculture that, on the aesthetic level, does not shirk the responsibility of the modern individual to create rituals for dealing with the finiteness of life.


[1] For the interdependencies between romantic motifs and Gothic cultur see Birgit Richard: Todesbilder. Kunst, Subkultur, Medien. Munich 1995.

[2] For connotations and terminology of "Gruft" see Philippe Aries: Geschichte des Todes. Munich 1980, p. 372 f.

[3] Helsper gives evidence through comprehensive narrative biographical interviews. Werner Helsper: Okkultismus. Die neue Jugendreligion? Opladen 1992, p. 231 f.

[4] Birgit Richard/Heinz-Hermann Krüger: Welcome to the Warehouse. Zur Ästhetik realer und medialer Räume als Repräsentation von jugendkulturellen Stilen der Gegenwart. In: Jutta Ecarius/Martina Löw (eds.): Raumbildung- Bildungsräume. Leske und Budrich. Opladen 1997.

[5] About dance-styles of youth-cultures from the post-war period to Techno see: Work your body. Zur Ästhetik kommunikativer Bewegungsformen. In: Birgit Richard, Robert Klanten (eds.): Icons. (Localizer 1.3) 1997 Gestalten Verlag Berlin.

[6] Here they follow up on traditions like the "vanitas"- ornaments, having its origin in the seventeenth century, when macabre images were introduced into domestic life and jewellery. Rings with death's-heads and crossed bones, so called rings of mourning, were worn; there also were death's-head clocks or brooches shaped like coffins..Aries: op. cit., pp. 419, 422.

[7] For the meaning of animal symbolism see: Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens von Hanns Bächthold- Stäubli/ E. Hoffmann- Krayer (eds.): Vol. 1, Berlin/ Leipzig 1927 and Manfred Lurker: Wörterbuch der Symbolik. Stuttgart 1988.

[8] Hermann Sturm (ed.): Das Fremde. Ästhetische Erfahrungen beim Graben, Reisen, Messen, Sterben. Aachen 1985, pp. 207- 222