From New York
The Bank opens its doors at 11 p.m. Tuesdays for "Goth Night," but this Manhattan bar doesn't begin to fill until just after midnight. And then, even though it's a weeknight, it becomes crowded with black-garbed, somber dancers. Up a flight of metal stairs, in a sound booth that looks like a mad merger combining the Unabomber's cabin with Crazy Eddie's Electronics Superstore, DJ Roger Xian (pronounced "Christian") flips through his collection of Gothic and industrial CDs. He keeps an eye on the door for friends and regulars. He gets the money patrons pay at the door; the bar keeps the money it earns from the drinks. It's a good night; more than 200 wraiths with black hair and pierced everythings have come out of the cold and into the Bank's dark, gauzy sanctuary to hear music from bands such as Christian Death, Faith and the Muse, the Cure, and Switchblade Symphony.
Crowds have been growing, he says, as the Gothic subculture spreads from cities and college towns to the rest of the nation. Gothic music (an ethereal offshoot of punk rock) pulsates from Goth bars in Boulder, Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Tulsa. And it's creeping into mainstream culture. It's in the dark atmospherics of the Batman films, in the books of Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire; Lasher), even in Saturday morning children's programming (Beetlejuice--the Wynona Rider character, Lydia, is a Goth; ABC's Bonechillers, a series about gothic-dressing teens at Edgar Allen Poe High School).
In many places now, there are LARPs--Live Action Role Playing games. More than 3,000 people play every Friday night in the Puget Sound area, according to the Seattle Times. They turn "parking lots, city parks, and living rooms" into stages for these games, filling roles such as "vampire" and "fallen angel."
More disturbingly, the gothic subculture and its vampire subset are showing up in the news:
n Last month, police in Bellevue, Wash., charged a 17-year-old self-described Goth, Alex Baranyi, with four counts of first-degree murder; they say he killed an entire family. His actions have been linked to his obsession with a vampire role-playing game.
n Police charged four teens in Florida in the slaying of another teen's parents in Orlando. Rod Ferrell, 16, Sarah Remington, 16, Scott Anderson, 17, and Dana Cooper, 19, are accused of bludgeoning to death Richard and Ruth Wendorf. The couple's 15-year-old daughter, Heather, was with the group after the murders, in a stolen car heading to New Orleans (the new Goth Mecca). Heather has not been charged. The group were members of a "vampire cult," they admit, cutting each others' arms and drinking the blood.
n And last month in Virginia Beach, Va., a self-proclaimed vampire who sexually molested and bit teenaged girls was sentenced to 26 years in prison. Jon Bush, 27, was convicted of the suitably medieval-sounding crimes of carnal knowledge, crimes against nature, and indecent liberties for molesting eight girls in 1995 and 1996. They were all troubled girls, ages 13 through 16, the Associated Press reports, whom he lured into his "vampire family" through a role-playing game. He told them they could become vampires by having sex with him, or by allowing him to bite them on the torso, hard enough to draw blood. They would often dress in gothic-style clothing for trips to the mall.
Mariana Bonne is a 24-year-old bookkeeper by day. By night, however, picture an undead Cyndi Lauper: orange girls-just-wanna-have-fun hair, white makeup, blackened lips, and hollowed eyes. She's smoking a menthol cigarette and drinking a "snakebite," a whiskey-and-tequila potion for drinkers who don't want to waste any time. She says she's a bookkeeper within the fashion industry. Lounging on the edge of a vinyl sofa, away from the dance floor, Mariana wears a flowing dress, but it's gray-on-black. At the other end of the sofa, one vampirish boy flirts with another. It's clear the boys are annoying Mariana--not with their open homosexuality but with their overly obsessive garb and mannerisms.
"Goth is more than just gloom," she says, gesturing far too vividly with a cigarette in a crowded bar. "We're not a bunch of vampires; we're not a bunch of suicidal freaks. Goth just reflects the way we feel."
A deeper look at the Gothic subculture confirms this: Suicide and vampirism are common themes, but not the dominant ones. No, at the core is something more basic, more universal: a search for "eternal love beyond the grave," according to film and culture critic James M. Welsh, "the poetic wish for eternal love after the pain and loss of human existence," with "the afterlife as peaceful, final destination."
In short, the salvation bought and paid for by Jesus Christ.
If Christ were any clearer, you'd think Goths would trip over him. And indeed, many do, falling face-down before they ever reach him. Christian symbols are everywhere, from the heavy pewter crosses around pale necks to the religious imagery in their lyrics and literature. But Christ is consistently missed--or worse, mocked.
And then, as if in answer to its own longings (or to salve its own wounds), Goth weaves in the nihilism of punk rock and the for-tomorrow-we-die excesses of postmodernism. For every cross, it seems, there's a corset; bondage and bisexuality are recurring themes. Designer drugs such as Ecstacy and Ice are popular too, though that can be said of almost any nightclub in Manhattan or many other realms as well.
And yes, horror is present, though to be horrific is not necessarily to be Gothic. "It's the romance of vampire lore, not the blood," Mariana explains. "It's the time periods, the Victorian graces, the romantic clothing, the language. It's looking at a funeral as beautiful, not morbid."
So in terms of movies, for example, Bram Stoker's Dracula is gothic, while Friday the 13th is merely horror. Edward Scissorhands is a Goth, while knife-gloved Freddie Krueger is not. In popular fiction, Anne Rice's steamy vampires are gothic, while Stephen King's animal-like vampires in Salem's Lot are not. Musically, Goth is not death-metal, nor is it properly punk. Those are comparatively uncouth styles, compared to the sweeping synthesized chords of Goth. The group Black Sabbath was not gothic, though the group Siouxsie and the Banshees was.
Siouxsie's music is a regular on the racks at the Bank on Tuesday nights; she's wailing now about "silver waterfalls." A leather-clad, black-haired man of about 30 is calmly smoking a joint as he chats up a 19-year-old girl wearing fishnet gloves and Doc Martin combat boots. He's buying her drinks because she's old enough to get in, but not old enough to get served at the bar. They're leaning against a wall, next to deafening Marshall speakers the size of file cabinets. It's soon evident why they guard their spot, though; the sound is directed past them, and they've found a tiny bit of relative quiet. It's like standing under an awning during a cloudburst.
"Goths are an intellectual bunch," says the man, who introduces himself as Vlad Turner--then even before the girl can catch the joke, he amends it to Brad Turner. Intellectual or not, the girl starts discussing her piercings. Why, she's asked, after she talks of how much the eyebrow piercing bled, why pierce your eyebrow (and tongue, and navel)?
"Lots of us do it. I guess it's to express ourselves individually," she says, missing the irony in her own statement. Vlad--Brad--picks up on it, though. He smiles broadly, then lets it go.
"If the body is the temple of God," he muses, "maybe [those who pierce] are just ornamenting it a little. In case God ever wants to visit."
He smiles even wider, this time, at his own wit. "Yeah," the girl says. "That'd be cool."