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The Dark Wonders of Goth

Updated: Mar 2

Why the dark and deathly themes of Gothic Art can paradoxically make us happier, more creative human beings.



The spirit-world around this world of sense

Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere

Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense

A vital breath of more ethereal air

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A Feeling


Last week while driving to my chiropractor, I listened to a post-punk industrial Goth band from the 1980s called Sisters of Mercy.  Their thumping base lines, gloomy lyrics, and haunting tones pulled me into a piston-pumping factory of feeling that sent writing ideas flying into my head.  As each one landed, I voice recorded the idea onto my phone.  When my chiropractor finally began treating me, the ideas just wouldn’t stop, so I stopped him, hopped off the table, and spouted the ideas into my phone.  When I finally finished, he began his shock therapy (on my hip).   

  

There’s something about dark sounds, settings, and moods that open rusty doors inside me.  And when they open, all I want to do is feel and write.

  

The dark prince himself, Lord Byron, once wrote, “The great object in life is sensation, to feel that we exist.”  And paradoxically, no genre of art fills me with more feeling than the decay, doom, and death of Gothic art.  So today, I'm writing about feeling; specifically, how the dark themes of the Gothic can billow a special feeling inside me (and you) that paradoxically makes us happier, more creative human beings.

  

Convincing you that darkness will bring you light won’t be easy, and maybe that’s why this is the hardest piece I’ve ever written.  Because explaining feeling is never easy.  But I'm glad I took an extra couple of weeks to write this piece because I think I nailed it.  So away we go… over to the dark side.    

 

The Goths

 

Before I say why Gothic art can inspire you (and me) to be happier and more creative people, I think it’s worth defining what is “Goth” and exploring its history. 

 

In a nutshell, Goth is any art form – poetry, prose, music, painting, fashion, dance, etc. – that evokes dark subject matter.  Dreary settings, crumbling mansions, lurking vampires, weeping widows, and creaking cemetery gates all dot the Gothic landscape.  Through these dark themes and motifs, Goth exposes our obsession with death and the mysteries of death, like what happens when we die.   

 

To better feel the Gothic, I recommend listening to “A Forest” by The Cure, hearing “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, or watching “The Crow” with Brandon Lee.   

 

Like all genres of art, Goth has its own subculture.  If you went to high school in the 1980s or 90s, you’ll recall passing “Goth kids” in the hallway.  Pale-faced with permanent frowns, they dressed head to toe in black, wore dark eyeliner, red lipstick, and never seem to talk -- or at least they never talked to jock assholes like me. 

 

And while their non-conformist aims included pissing off dad and mocking cheerleaders, their fashion and musical tastes were the product of a long and dark history of non-conformity that celebrated the macabre.

 

Goth History

 

Around the Fourth Century, the Huns began pushing eastern European tribes into what is now Germany.  The Romans called these fleeing tribes Visigoths (western Goths) and Ostrogoths (eastern Goths).  

 

A hundred years later, these Goths were no longer fleeing, they were attacking, and then sacking the center of the western world: Rome.  When Rome finally fell for good in 476 AD, its vast empire in Western Europe fractured into feudal kingdoms ruled by barbarian warlords.  Thanks in large part to the Goths, Western Europe fell into a Dark Age of decay and disrepair.  And ever since, the word “Goth” has been associated with decline, darkness, doom, and ruin. 


The Course of Empire: Destruction by Thomas Cole

 

By the High Middle Ages, there was a “Gothic” revival in architecture (think Gothic Cathedrals), which seemed to have a whole different meaning.  Yet, centuries later during The Enlightenment, the word “Gothic” once again became a pejorative term that enlightened thinkers used to label anything they considered “medieval,” i.e. backward, barbaric, or superstitious.   

 

When The Enlightenment hit Europe in the late seventeenth century and lasted a century, the world changed and became modern.  It was a time of great scientific, economic, and intellectual progress. Writers like Voltaire and Gibbon changed minds, statesmen like Jefferson and Madison created republics, and thinkers like Newton and Adam Smith made science and capital central to daily life.  These cerebral men praised logic while condemning religion as superstitious nonsense blocking human progress. 

 

When I consider the pros and cons of The Enlightenment, I'm reminded of similar pros and cons in our digital age. While I welcome material, political, and scientific progress, I also lament the casualties such progress produces, like the recent regressions in vigor, wonder, and fellowship.    

 

Romanticism

 

Like any progressive movement that goes too far (which is all of them), The Enlightenment felt its own inevitable backlash.  Beginning with Rousseau in the late eighteenth century, the backlash became known as Romanticism.  

 

The Romantics were tired of science, economics, and politics.  All this logic and civilization, they argued, was becoming a real drag on the human spirit.  All this technology and industry was making man more cog than human.  The solution they offered was art and spirituality.  Man needed to feel again.

 

Rousseau and others encouraged men and women to “return to nature” and release the shackles of a civilization that valued science and law over feeling and expression.  In many ways, the Romantics were the first countercultural movement of the modern era. 

 

Following Rousseau, the English Romanic poets hit the scene with a bang.  Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Blake, and his royal darkness, Lord Byron, poured out poetry that praised nature, condemned industry, and obsessed about death. Painters like Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole did the same through misty landscapes, heroic journeys, and the decaying cycles of life.  A few years later, American writers like Irving, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe joined the black parade.  Often melancholy and always introspective, the Romantics produced, according to historian Tim Blanning, “a culture of feeling” – a feeling often conjured by the dark themes of decline, decay, and death.

 

Eventually these dark themes became known as “Gothic” because they seemed more “medieval” (i.e. dark and doomy) than “enlightened” (i.e. bright and cheery).   

 

From that point on, you can draw a dark and crooked line from Lord Byron to Edgar Allen Poe to Anne Rice to Robert Smith to the Goth kids at your high school. 


Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Smith


So back to my question: Why do Goth’s dark themes of death paradoxically make us happier, more creative human beings?  The answer seems to lie in human nature and our relationship with death.  

 

The Paradoxical Death Effect

 

Gratitude


Why do so many of us watch horror movies or serial killer documentaries?  Why do we enjoy strolling through ancient ruins and crumbling cemeteries, or reading books by Stephen King and Agatha Christie?  Why are we – like the Romantic poets and Goth kids before us -- so obsessed with death? 

 

In his book, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene offers an answer.  The more we’re reminded about death through art, and through our own close calls with death, the more relieved we are to be alive.  In short, Greene contends, close reminders of death give us a special gratitude for life.  Life is finite and we’re all on borrowed time; consequently, all we have is today to hug our spouse, smell the roses, taste the wine, write the story, or travel the globe.

 

This feeling of gratitude is why local news crews chase ambulances, and why tabloids and social media are obsessed with celebrity deaths.  Reminders of death (from a distance) make us think, “Wow!  My life is better than I thought… pass the popcorn.”  For our increasingly unhappy, isolated, and angry society, death has become our guilty pleasure – a cheap opiate for getting through the day.    

 

Yet, the paradoxical death effect does have its limits.  I’m not going to visit the city morgue to feel better, nor will the death of a loved one cause me anything but suffering.  But that’s where Gothic art can help us.  Through horror movies, Ouija Boards, gloomy graveyards, mystical poems, and haunting music, we can feel death with enough distance that we feel more gratitude than sadness, and more elation than exhaustion.

 

In his Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, the great eighteenth century statesman and philosopher, Edmond Burke wrote this: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delights… but at certain distances and with certain modifications they are delightful.” 



Urgency


There’s an old graveyard in Portland, Maine my wife and I visit every year in the Fall.  Some of the tombstones date back as far as 1668, just two generations after the Mayflower.  They’re engraved with skulls, angels, and even poetry about death and the afterlife.  The whole setting of cold ocean winds, gray skies, rod iron gates, and crows perched atop gravestones feels so damn Gothic.  And if that’s not Gothic enough, there’s a thousand decaying corpses just beneath my feet. 

 

As I walk the scattered rows of cracked stone and tilting headstones, I periodically kneel to read the engravings.  I notice the poetry, the age of the deceased, and maybe how they died.  More than a few of the tombstones are missing corpses because the dead they honor were fishermen or sailors lost at sea.  Walking along the damp grass below dark hanging clouds, I think of the dead buried below.  I also think of the billions who have lived and died before me. If they’re lucky, they got a barely readable tombstone.  But for most, there’s nothing left. They are gone forever, and no one alive will ever know they were here.  

 

Graveyards, the quiet sanctuaries of the dead, remind us that death is coming for us all.   Strolling along with the dead beneath me, I know that I will one day join them as my body becomes nothing more than microscopic debris scattered across an infinite universe.  But I believe my spirit will remain.  And like the ascending spirits from the disintegrated bodies beneath my feet in Portland, Maine, I too will haunt the living.  After I die, my spirit (like yours) will remind the living that their time is precious and short.

 

The paradoxical death effect, Robert Greene writes, also spurs us with an urgency “to realize our goals.”  Like an ailing old man telling his grandson to seize the day, the cemetery dead has an urgent message for the living: “Whatever you wish to do one day, don’t wait, do it now.”    


Eastern Cemetery: Portland, Maine. Three young sons, two of whom died at sea.

                                                     

Mystery

 

Before The Enlightenment, while most medieval Europeans believed in the all-powerful Christian God, they also believed in the occult.  Demon possession and Witchcraft were taken so seriously that books like the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”) were written to help law enforcement officials identify demons, witches, and sorcerers.  

 

In medieval Europe, there was also a blending of the scientific and supernatural. Astronomy blended with astrology, chemistry with alchemy, and mathematics with casting spells.  In fact, Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser was a man named John Dee, who while a skilled mathematician and scientist, was also an occultist who specialized in alchemy, spells, and talking to angels through a divine language he decoded. 

 

From John Dee to Isaac Newton (also an alchemist), these brilliant men were open to all possibilities and committed themselves to unlocking the mysteries of the universe.


John Dee, Isaac Newton, and Malleus Maleficarum


By the early nineteenth century, however, The Enlightenment’s writers, scientists, and philosophers had widely dismissed the occult and religion as hocus pocus nonsense.  As our Age of Reason marched forward into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” and the poet Wallace Stevens announced, “the death of Satan [as] a tragedy for the imagination.” 

 

The modern world felt less mysterious and magical than the medieval one before it.  Yet, Richard Davenport-Hines writes in his book, Gothic: 400 Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin, the death of Satan (and God), was “the saving of the twentieth-century Gothic.”  With the decline of the supernatural, Gothic artists picked up the slack, reminding us of the mysteries still swirling around us.  

 

I’m so grateful they did.  Because amidst the banalities of modern life – the rigid schools, cold bureaucracies, and corporate jobs that treat us more like numbers instead of humans, art reminds us, through feeling, that we are still human beings -- and that the world remains an imaginative and mysterious place. 

 

To add mystery to our daily lives, I think it’s important to be more like these Gothic artists and stay a bit naïve and open to the supernatural and inexplicable.  Where do ideas come from?  What happens after we die?  Is there a reality beyond our five senses?  Climbing into these mysteries can fuel our creativity and give us a feeling that I consider the ultimate feeling for any curious person: the feeling of the Sublime.

 

The Sublime

 

In The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene defines the Sublime as “anything that exceeds our capacity for words or concepts by being too large, too vast, too dark, and [too] mysterious.”  The resulting feeling, he explains, is one “of fear but also awe and wonder.” 

 

The awe and wonder we feel from the Sublime, Greene concludes, “is the perfect antidote to… the petty concerns of daily life.”

 

If that isn’t the best reason I’ve ever heard for consuming the fear, awe, and wonder of art then I don’t know what is!  When I started “The Barbarian in You,” I did so to help free myself and others from the tedium of modern life through the feelings of vigor, wonder, and fellowship.  Through feeling! 

 

In today’s world, feeling often come cheap and artificial through our phones.  A thousand years ago, feelings came strong and imaginative, and often through the supernatural.  Death was everywhere, forests were haunted, and saints guided us home.  We slept beneath the stars, bonded around the fire, and what we lacked in knowledge, we made up for in imagination through folklore, magic, and religion. In those olden days, our ancestors felt the Sublime daily.  But due to “progress,” those days of mystery and belief seem gone.

 

But are they?  

 

When I read dark poems, hear Gothic music, or walk through graveyards at dusk, I feel the inexplicable feelings of the Sublime billow inside me.  As that magic swirls beneath my skin, I am grateful to be alive, and feel an urge to write and express myself.

 

Even amidst the digital distractions and tedium of modern life, the old-time doom, decay, and death of the Gothic can help us, as William Blake wrote so long ago, “wash off the non-human” and “bathe in the waters of life.”

 

"Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich

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