It’s Not About Death

by Kagan D. MacTane

“If you’re so Gothic, then why aren’t you dead?”

— common Gothic insult

Goths love death. We enjoy it, we groove on it, we get off on it. We dress like vampires, we live every day like it was Halloween — the ancient Celtic day of the dead.

But Goth is not about death.

We wear black. We wear pale-face makeup, dark hollows under our eyes as if we were corpses already. We wear skulls and carry our makeup in coffin-shaped lunch boxes.

But still I believe that Goth is far more about life than death.

We drink exotic drinks, smoke unusual cigarettes, and throw enormous and lavish parties when we’re not hanging about in clubs decorated with rich and brooding atmosphere. We dress in bizarre and outré manners, experiment with bisexuality, polyamory, and even outright promiscuity, and we generally carry on as if determined “to suck the marrow out of life.”

It’s almost as if some of us, at least, are seeking a state such as Byron describes, in which “All is concentr’d in a life intense,/Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,/But hath a part of being.”

And in such a state, death cannot be the enemy it is to the mainstream. If all you’ve known is the white-picket-fence, suburbs-and-minivan “life” of the huddled, grey-flannel masses, then death must be a very cold end — it signals the final end to any hope you might have of experiencing what the world has to offer.

But if you’ve known life, loved life, and danced joyously with life — in smoky clubs, in sunny cemeteries, on hilltops in moonlit nights, in department stores and on rain-drenched sidewalks, in coffeehouses and classrooms and barber-shops — then you can make a friend of death, knowing that no life is complete without it. Then you can greet death as Roy Batty did, saying “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe...”

And then, having made a friend of death, having made your peace with the end (for that is necessary, too, in order to truly appreciate the life you have) — then you can wear death’s face proudly and calmly on your sleeve, on your heart, on your leather jacket or upon your very face, grinning out upon the terrified masses to whom it is the final, implacable, devouring enemy that they refuse to acknowledge, and laugh at their discomfort. When they ask you “Hey, freak, who died?”, you can reply truly: “You did. And you don’t know it yet. I am alive.”

It’s a Nice Fantasy

Do we really do that? Are we really like that?

I have described the best of us. I have not spoken of the most of us, or the average, but of the core of the movement. We can trace our roots back to Byron, Shelley and the magnificent flowering of the Gothic poets of the early 19th century.

There was passion and vigor in them; they were willing to stand up for what they believed in, and willing — like us — to believe in the things their hearts told them were true, whether it got them in trouble with the mundanes or not. Byron died on his way to fight in the Greek Revolution. Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing atheist tracts, and he and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft were later ostracized for their practice of free love (truly, precursors to our movement!).

But where are our radicals? Where is our activism? Where, indeed, is even the impulse to creation in the modern movement? Some of us scribble poetry, much of which is simply wretched, but for the most part, we simply go to clubs and “pretend that we’re dead.” Instead of the joyous embrace of new experience that should go with every chance meeting at a club, I see the endless and pathetic game of “I’m too cool, too disinterested and full of sang-froid to talk to you.” The level of reserve and dispassionate coldness on some people’s faces and bodies would impress a Vulcan.

Perhaps for some of us, it’s snobbishness — “I’ve been clubbing for a whole ten months now and I’ve never seen you before, so I can treat you as beneath my notice.” Which is just another way of avoiding the world, of walling yourself off from new experiences.

But I think that for most people, it’s a simple case of fear. Dancing alone at the corner of the dance floor, avoiding any flashy or risky moves, ensures that no one will notice your dancing and decide it’s gauche, or ungraceful, or simply sub-par. Any time you approach someone to say, “I’ve been looking at you across the bar, and you seem like an interesting person”, or “wow, that’s a very nice tattoo; where did you get it?” or even, Goddess forbid, “I think you’re very attractive”, it’s another chance to be rejected. Far safer to simply oscillate between bar and dance floor, with occasional trips to the bathroom to double-check your makeup. Far better to stay with the people you already know and not try to make friends out of potentially scornful strangers.

I know. I’ve done these very same things myself. I’ve been complimented any number of times on my dancing, by strangers as well as friends, but it still takes me a drink to get on the dance floor — and I’ll still only start with a song I know, nineteen times out of twenty.

But it galls me.

It galls me to feel that fear in myself, just as it galls me to see it written so plain across the faces and actions of everyone around me at the clubs I go to. I know we have more in us than this.

I know that many, perhaps even most of us, are scared in a way that runs completely counter to the things I said at the beginning of this piece. We’re scared of not looking cool, we’re scared of getting hurt and rejected when we try to make friends, or meet new lovers. We’re scared of looking like fools when we express our innermost selves as we dance to songs that touch our deepest feelings.

But I know, just as surely, that we all have the power to be what most of us are simply pretending to be. We have the power, in every moment of life, to make a friend of death. When you make a friend of death, something like the laughter or rejection of some drunk slob in a club just isn’t a cause for morbid terror anymore.

We have the power, in every moment of life, to make a friend of death — and, by so doing, we have the power to live so deeply and richly and passionately that not to do so is a crying tragedy.

And being a Goth is not about death. Enjoy the paradox — with our black and our paleface, our skulls and our coffins, being a Goth is supremely about life.

Kagan D. “Kai” MacTane has been running this site for over five years now. This was the first article he wrote for it. He still believes every word of it. It still takes him a drink or two to get on the dance floor, but he’s learned to start dancing to songs he doesn’t know.