Debating Goth in a Castle: A Dispatch From the Gothic: Culture, Subculture, Counterculture Conference

Gothic Conference Sign 2

You can argue that intellectualization of any music subculture signals its death knell, but for a genre that prides itself upon already being dead, goth seems particularly desirous of an academic evisceration. Last weekend’s Gothic: Culture, Subculture, Counterculture conference in London did just that, with nearly 70 papers presented by PhD students, professors, journalists and independent scholars on the Gothic literary genre, Gothic architecture, and goth subculture. While the classic blood and guts were all discussed, True Blood, Twilight, and The Walking Dead made appearances, as did Fields of the Nephilim, Sopor Aeternus, and the contested King of (Got)hick, Marilyn Manson.

Out of necessity, the two-day affair was held in a mist-shrouded Gothic castle situated in the west London borough of Twickenham, called Strawberry Hill, which was built and lived in by Gothic author Horace Walpole until his death in 1797. With gilded ceilings, stained glass windows inlaid with religious iconography, and ornate, spire-adorned fireplaces all enshrined in low light, I couldn’t think of a better location to disinter the macabre and the uncanny.

Gothic Conference Castle

The conference began at the unholy hour of 9:00am, and I found myself jet-lagged and wet, trekking through the damp gloom surrounding the white turreted walls of Strawberry Hill to find the entrance. A few laminated signs reading “Gothic Conference” had been taped along a spiked wooden fence, so upon discovery I took the necessary spooky selfies and followed the twisting pathways to the great wooden door that only opened from the inside. Once it creaked outward to allow my entrance, I checked in amidst the learned masses and took a seat in one of the great rooms for the first session.

Attendees sat listening attentively, dressed in business casual—a lot more v-neck sweaters than expected—with a few sartorial signs of the damned shining through: dyed purple hair, excessive silver rings, the occasional Craft-era witch bootie and leather cuff. As presenters conjured vampires, zombies, and memento mori at the podium above wooden tables with carved claws at their feet, the halls began to emit disembodied creaks and groans that seemed to seep from sealed off rooms nearby and interrupt the clicking of Powerpoints and erudite throat-clearing. (I think it was the 300 year-old-heating system). But I digress…

Gothic Conference Intermission

The first lecture that caught my ear was a fascinating analysis of Salman Rushdie and Anish Kapoor’s collaboration Blood Relations, and the ways in which the sculpture and accompanying text concurrently invoked classic bloodbath misogyny and new feminist interpretations of Arabian Nights. Following that, I saw another on the Gothic horror of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the transgressive possibilities of young adult paranormal romances (despite their massive commercial successes), a comparison of the Surrealist movement and the Gothic movement, and an astute analysis of Marilyn Manson’s scapegoat status during Columbine. Others of note included goth scene studies of Germany and Japan and queer readings of Gothic literature, music, and aesthetics. (All of the abstracts are available for perusal.)

My paper, “Cloak and Swagger: Gothic Drag in 21st Century Hip Hop & Pop,” delves into the socio-cultural rhetoric of dark fashion in historically unlikely genres (think Kanye’s “Monster,” ‘Lil Wayne’s “John,” and Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake). Drawing upon fashion from Gothic novels and style from the goth scene as well as fashionable resistance in Victorian-era dandyism and modern hip hop, I conclude that the successful incorporation of goth aesthetics into hip hop and pop music ultimately proves Gothic theorist Catherine Spooner’s assertion that “there is no natural or authentic body in Gothic fashion, but only socially and sartorially constructed bodies.” The authenticity debate ends there, and just as Gothic literature is culturally widespread, goth is no longer underground. Goth’s only hope for survival, I believe, is for its shadow-laced mantle to be picked up and put on by anyone who cares to use those aesthetics to frightening new effects.

While perhaps one of the more ‘pop’ topics, I received helpful responses from those in my session, with a discussion afterward on the African-American Gothic, from voodoo culture and black protagonists in classic horror films to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Gravediggaz. Strangely enough, the moderator of my panel was himself beginning research into a related paper and I have a feeling that there will be a lot more serious discussion of hip hop and goth in academia and pop culture. There was once a time that the very idea of goth and hip hop together would invoke chortles and ill-advised attempts at rapping in Transylvanian slang, but now, as cultural zeitgeist Lil B tweeted in 2010, “gothic is the new hip hop.”

Gothic Conference Sign

Overall, what was most refreshing about the conference was everyone’s lack of sentimentality and willingness to critique where critique was due. In true academic spirit there were no sacred cows (or crows at it were) and this was deftly embodied by one gentleman’s comment on how “counterculture becomes over-the-counter culture” in viewing goth as rebellion today. It was exciting to hear so many Frankenstein-like theories, stitched from music, literature, philosophy and the peculiar odds and ends of pop culture, followed to their uniquely dark and perverse conclusions. With any luck, multiple volumes from this conference may see the light of day in the upcoming year (without disintegrating, one hopes), so more of these radical and not-so-radical ideas can be immortalized on the printed page.

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  1. Good to read a shoutout to Gravediggaz! Six Feet Deep was one of my favorite albums years ago. Cautionary tale after cautionary tale.