‘Goth is always a symptom of hard times. Rising nationalism, the cost-of-living crisis, the pandemic… youth culture is rising again, because it’s a rebellion to find joy and beauty in darkness.’
It's exactly the kind of direful prophesy on culture’s future that you'd expect to fall from the black-painted lips of a goth artist and DJ called Parma Ham (the name’s a protest against how social media packages us and markets us like meat). But even so, Ham has a point. Jenna Ortega’s viral goth dance in Netflix’s Addams Family remake ‘Wednesday’ last year felt like more than a kitschy throwback – thousands of TikTokers mimicked her death stare and wildly flailing limbs, in an ironised but heartfelt act of mutiny against an increasingly sanitised cultural landscape.
This year has seen the publication of a haunted library’s worth of books memorialising goth culture, including John Robb’s ‘The Art of Darkness’ and Lol Tolhurst’s ‘Goth: A History’. Among them, Cathi Unsworth’s ‘Season of the Witch’ made a powerful argument that punk music’s late 1970s lurch to the dark side – as championed by bands Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, the Cure and Magazine – was a direct response to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power.
It feels like an unlikely argument when so many gothic cultural touchstones are old ones: think Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, crumbling monasteries or kitschy horror flicks. Can goth really be reborn, horrifying as ever, in 2023? London’s current crop of goths certainly think so, as they find new ways to raise a 50-year-old subculture from the grave.
A potent rebellion
‘Changing politics seems so far out of our reach,’ says Ham, ‘but valuing a DIY, transgressive kind of creativity feels like a rebellion in a world that’s trying to squeeze all that out of society’. From their home in a ‘definitely haunted’ flat in Soho (‘things get a bit spicy at night time’, they say), they make disturbing sculptures from silicone and household objects, creating distorted, fleshly shapes that resemble tortured bodies.
As night falls, they get ready to venture out with their housemate and friend Dahc Dermur VIII. Once, goths flocked to Camden like vultures to a corpse: now, the scene's fragmented, split into one-off nights at artsy east London club FOLD, Colour Factory, or Electrowerkz, which has been hosting dark nights since 1987. As Dermur jokes, ‘we’re always late everywhere, because obviously it takes a very, very long time for us to get ready – we always end up sharing make-up and clothes.’ There’s something nakedly theatrical about their elaborate costumes of monochrome face paint, leather straps, fishnets, studs and towering spikes of hair (Ham often has to lie down on the floor of a taxi to protect their updo). But Dermur’s adamant that goth isn’t just a costume, it’s a way of life.
It’s about finding your truth, finding your voice.
‘I dress goth 24/7,’ he says. ‘When you eat, breathe, live this lifestyle, authenticity bleeds through whatever you do, seeping out of your pores. It’s very different from playing dress up on the weekends.’
At the age of 57, Dermur is over three decades into his goth journey, so he knows what he’s talking about. ‘People want to make it a trend or the hot thing right now, but people have paved the way for it to happen. Sometimes you see people going out wearing a ‘goth look’ because they’ve seen it on Instagram but it’s not really something that goes down to their core.’
For Dermur, goth is about way more than just partying: it's a way of reckoning with his past, with growing up as a queer Baptist Christian in a town that was literally called Normal, Illinois. ‘It’s about finding your truth, finding your voice,’ he says. ‘Like any lifestyle, it’s intense, but it’s also so full of love and joy and people who’d give their last penny to help you get a roof over your head. On the scene, my nickname is ‘Mother Goth’. I used drugs for more than 30 years but now I’m teetotal and sober, so I want to be a shoulder to cry on for other people who are struggling.’
Once, you could predict the soundtrack of a goth club long before you darkened its doors: Bauhaus, Siouxsie, Killing Joke, the unfortunately named Sex Gang Children… perhaps a dash of Marilyn Manson flamboyance as the ’00s wore on. But the current crop of goths are widening their sonic horizons. DJ Cosmic Caz is a self-described cyber goth who explains that this once-maligned spooky techno sound is evolving beyond its faintly cringey ’90s associations to become the future of goth music: ‘it’s becoming more experimental, more futuristic, as people are exploring technology to move their aesthetic forward.’
Once, Caz’s Filipino heritage would have made them a rarity in a white-dominated scene, but that’s starting to change: ‘We’re definitely out there, and there are more and more platforms for people taking goth in different directions,’ they say.
Goth isn’t rebellious if you’re listening to the same music your parents used to listen to
They wear eye-scramblingly intricate 3D-printed corsets and jewellery pieces that show how tech can drag the gothic love of elaboration into the 21st century, alongside weighty metal facepieces that give them an otherwordly look (‘I like the idea of not looking human,’ they say). But it's their techno-inspired sounds, as much as their aesthetic, that people come for: they're freshly back from pulling huge crowds in Japan and Korea's booming goth scenes.
It’s the kind of thing that goes down a storm at monthly Electrowerkz goth night Slimelight, the epicentre of the London scene. But it might well ruffle (black) feathers at the trad goth events that still happen up and down the country, like Whitby Goth Weekend, which focuses on 1980s-inspired sounds.
‘People are protective over the music they grew up with, and often want to define goth as one particular sound,’ says Ham, ‘but goth isn’t rebellious if you’re listening to the same music your parents used to listen to. We have to keep going forward and making new sounds, and that should mean upsetting your elders.’
A dark lineage
Goth culture is currently struggling under a weighty paradox. Now, the internet makes it easier than ever to cross over to the dark side, to become overnight experts in its sounds and aesthetics. But at the same time, there are fewer and fewer places where people can envelop themselves in a welcoming fug of gothic gloom. John Robb’s goth history ‘The Art of Darkness’ is saturated with nostalgia for a very different era. ‘In the early 80s, every town would have a goth club,’ he reminisces, calling me from a ferry over to the Isle of Wight as he tours the UK, promoting his book to former scene acolytes. ‘A lot of those towns had never even had a club before, so you got esoteric cultures emerging in cultural vacuums. That sort of circuit of clubs doesn't really exist any more, it's more just one-off nights.’
Now, the same bands nurtured by these tiny clubs are playing massive stadium tours, with Siouxsie Sioux currently spellbinding an intergenerational audience at her first shows in a decade: ‘They would have had a countercultural vibe, but now they’re playing on a more conventional circuit,’ says Robb. ‘And at the same time, the internet means that if you’re 17, it’s so easy to listen to music made 40 years ago. You can make your own journey, find your own culture.’
Singer-songwriter Freya Beer is part of a younger generation who stumbled upon goth culture online. ‘Pop music just felt so generic to me,’ she says. ‘I fell into goth by accident, and felt like musically, it was a place where I could be free.’ Now, she's got her own Islington Radio show, Freya's Gothic Disco, inspired by her fantasy version of a school disco with ‘David Lynch on the decks and the whole Addams Family on the dancefloor.’
But has goth lost the potency that comes from being nurtured in smoky basements and hidden back rooms? Ham got into goth as a '00s teenager, thrilled by the tacit permission that artists like Marilyn Manson gave to experiment with nail polish and break out of gender binaries: but they also feel a borrowed nostalgia for goth's under-the-radar heyday. Still, they add that ‘the internet has also taken away so many of the barriers to discovering goth culture. My largest following is in Mexico City, Sao Paulo… places that didn’t have access to what was happening on the scene 1980s.’
In the 1980s, London brewed endless subcultures in dank squats where young people could live on the dole and devote their whole lives to a scene: now, a shifted economic landscape means that subcultures are pushed to the margins. Still, Robb finds hope in goth’s global renaissance, saying that ‘in the UK we tend to create all these brilliant cultures and then forget about them, while the rest of the world embraces them.’
As goth mushrooms across the world, a sense of local specificity it once had is melting away. ‘It’s almost like a monoculture that’s happening in the UK, where goth, punk, emo have all amalgamated into this one thing,’ says Ham. ‘It’s kind of a sensory overload to be honest but it’s still a subculture, and the power of the internet is to break those barriers between scenes down.’
Still, there are a few barriers in goth’s way as it envelops the world in a tidal wave of black lace and sweaty pleather. The same global rise of social conservatism that makes goth so compelling right now also means that the powers that be are trying their best to stamp down, hard, on content it deems transgressive. Jenna Ortega’s ‘Wednesday dance’ might have become a viral smash on TikTok, where an abundance of influencers show off their ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ inspired ‘#whimsigoth’ outfits. But the platform's moderators will generally remove videos using words such as ‘death’ or ‘kill’: songs by Killing Joke or Christian Death will sink from view like a weighted corpse.
Over on Instagram, posts involving nudity, blood, or frightening imagery are likely to be shadowbanned (a mysterious process that hides certain posts from other users), and the axe doesn’t fall equally. ‘If you’re queer, or POC, or otherwise marginalised, the algorithm is more likely to hide you,’ says Caz. ‘You just disappear. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people.’
Goth is getting new life from its struggle against homogenised, online culture
‘The online world is becoming sanitised,’ says Ham, who’s built a massive Instagram following despite regularly getting their posts blocked. ‘We’re limiting so much of the human experience to what is suitable for a 12 year old, even though we’re all adults. As a subculture, goth is quite fucked in that regard.’
In 2019, Ham pushed back against online censorship with an LA art show called ‘Community Guidelines’, which showcased Instagram-banned goth artists including Latex Lucifer and Fecal Matter. ‘Even then things were pretty bad, but it’s even more grim now,’ they say. ‘If you silence queer and transgressive artists, you really impact the trajectory of the scene.’
If goth culture gained its initial strength from the anti-Thatcher fightback, now, it’s getting life from the struggle against homogenised, online culture and a brutal economic climate.
Instead of seeing goth as emerging from the grave, perhaps we should see it as making yet another of the regular evolutions that are core to its five decade history. ‘Goth survives because it keeps transforming,’ says Dermur. ‘I love seeing the kids mix it up and put a different spin on it, and seeing teenagers party alongside 50, 60, even 70 year olds.’
Ham agrees. ‘Goth is so deeply rooted in the past, but that’s what pushes me to reinvent it, to make it interesting again. Every five years it has a metamorphosis, and we’re in the middle of one right now. I’m excited to see what’s coming next.’