Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Tales From the Dark Side

Exploring the Goth subculture.

By Jim Mahanes

MAY 18, 1998:  It's almost the witching hour, and the Second Avenue club is filling with Tuesday-night regulars. Down the dark stairwell at the Underground comes a girl, 19-ish and dressed in red tatters. Her face is painted stark white, except for the dried fake blood that streams from her forehead. Out on the street, men decked out in poet's shirts and ascots and women in tight black corsets and red velvet frocks provide a macabre fashion show for the gawking tourists. It looks like a cross between Victoria's Secret and The Munsters.

This is "Goth Night," an Underground tradition that draws a young, pale, fashion-conscious crowd downtown at an hour when most of the city is dark. Each week in Nashville, and all across America, mall rats and computer nerds, doctors and college professors shed their workday uniforms and don cat's-eye contact lenses and more black than even Johnny Cash could muster. The majority of them are young, white "weekenders," determined to challenge social boundaries--but within the confines of a carefully controlled environment. Once a week, they escape everyday society and enter a world where dreary is chic and darkness is beautiful.

By the standards of Goth society, Johnathan, 34, seems almost geriatric, since the local Goth crowd is mostly 17 to 24. That means Goth Night is an all-ages affair, and The Underground's owner, Ferras Yasin, says drink sales are slow. For two years now, Johnathan and a group of approximately 60 other local Goths have been coming to the club "to dance--and that's about it," Yasin says.

Still, for London-born Johnathan, Tuesday night at The Underground is a weekly ritual. On this particular evening, he is not wearing his prosthetic fangs. But his outfit is quintessential Gothic--black pants, black shirt, black boots, a full-length black coat, powdered face, black eyeliner, black hair, and a black leather top hat. As it turns out, "Johnathan" isn't even his real name. It too is part of his Goth get-up.

Over the past decade, hundreds of clubs in the U.S. and Europe have started catering to self-styled Goths, a growing subculture fascinated with the trappings of vampirism and Victorian chic. At one time, Goths were simply a subset of the punk culture that emerged from England in the late '70s--a group that adopted dandified outfits, an unhealthy pallor, and hedonism as an alternate form of social outrage.

But Goth obsessions and Goth style have seeped into the mainstream. They're obvious in the sepulchral novels of Anne Rice and her imitators, in the nightmare-city movies of Tim Burton and Alex Proyas, in a burgeoning industry of TV shows, role-playing games, comic books, and outfitters. When Nashville's Mockingbird Public Theatre staged Hamlet recently, the court of Elsinore rocked to Nine Inch Nails, and actor David Alford played the melancholy Dane as a troubled Goth in white facepaint and black leather--a kind of Hamlet Scissorhands. Even Saturday Night Live now features "Goth Talk," a talk-show parody hosted by pale, pretentious geeks in a high-school boiler room lit with candles. As awareness of the Goths increases, Hollywood and even Madison Avenue are rediscovering the allure of the endless night.

"Goth explores the darker side of things," says Terry Sanford, a transplanted New Yorker who owns Karma, a clothing store on Lower Broadway catering to Goth tastes. The look, she says, attempts to express a dark beauty rather than a fascination with death and evil. "It's beautiful," she explains. "You know, the 1800s, Victorian fashion. A guy in a dress--that's sexy."

Perhaps inevitably, Goths have been stereotyped as lovers of death, Satanists, bloodsuckers, black magicians, or "downright bad people," as one young scenester says. Even in their daytime life, Goth's adherents are frequently considered "weird" by the mainstream, and they enjoy their outsider status. In some cases, Goth has attracted a lunatic fringe whose excesses--violent and sometimes even murderous--have tainted all the by-no-means unified factions that make up the Goth movement.

As a result, many Goths feel mistreated by the media, which have used a handful of lurid high-profile cases to demonize anyone who likes his music, his makeup, and his clothing dark. They feel misjudged by society, which labels them freaks while ripping off their style. And now that their look is being sucked into the mainstream, true Goths just want to be left alone.

Many Gothic subgroups overlap, and they will admit that the lines of definition often blur. All of these factions despise the labels placed on them, yet they freely toss labels of their own at anybody who, in their opinion, "doesn't get it."

"I think [Goth is] a counter to today's pat optimism," says Linda Badley, an MTSU English professor who teaches a popular course in Gothic and horror literature. "Goth overlaps into so many things it's hard to say what a Goth really is. It's subjective and deeply personal. To someone who is a Goth, it's not something you go around defining."

"It's virtually impossible to pigeonhole us," boasts Johnathan's roommate, Victoria Gwaed (or Victoria Graham, if you're into real names), who runs The Nashville Gothic Page and two other Web sites devoted to the Gothic subculture. She classifies herself as a "true Goth" and says she's been one all of her life. Nashville has so few true Goths, she explains, "because you can't lump us in with the shock babies and vampire kids."

True Goths, she says, are the purists--the ones who live the lifestyle 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They get up in the morning and slip on all-black or crushed-velvet regalia. They go to work as clerks, temps, office personnel, computer programmers. They return in the evening to houses filled with black candles and decorative skulls. They religiously watch the Sci-Fi Channel, which broadcasts anything from the Gothic soap-opera Dark Shadows to the vampire cop show Forever Knight. Even so, the lifestyle is mostly affectation. After nightclubbing, the true Goths turn to Denny's and Waffle House--not to each other's jugulars--for a late-night snack.

Like Johnathan and Graham, who "thinks" she is 28, true Goths are usually older and direct descendants of the punk movement. Even though they say they tend to take themselves less seriously than the many Goth wannabes, they're quick to point out that Goth is their identity, not just how they dress. Growing up, Graham says, she always had candles and Halloween paraphernalia in her room. Her preoccupation didn't thrill her parents, "academics" who had to adjust to their daughter's unusual fascinations.

"I feel I was born like this," Graham says. "It's something we are, not something we do."

As in any other fashion-obsessed subculture, Goths constantly debate what is and is not authentic. The classifications are endless. There are vampire Goths, industrial Goths, fetish Goths who are into S&M gear, and countless other substrata; the descriptions vary as much as the shades of scarlet they wear. Lowest of all are the "shock babies," or "shocker kids," who listen to Marilyn Manson and act Goth to raise their parents' blood pressure. They take the most ribbing from other Goths.

"Everybody looks at Marilyn Manson and says, 'he's Goth,' " sneers Graham. But she says Manson himself knows the difference: "He told me he's 'shock rock.' "

Graham and Johnathan are especially skeptical of the so-called "baby Goths," who make up the majority of today's Gothic subculture, both nationally and in Nashville. These third-generation Goths congregate in Internet chat rooms, where they link up with tens of thousands more on the World Wide Web. The Web gives many a chance to find inspiration, share ideas, and gripe about their parents and others of the "closed-minded." They spend hours telling fellow Goths across the country what clubs, restaurants, and coffee shops are "Goth friendly." They travel great distances to be with their own kind.

Nashville's Goth scene may be small, but in other cities the dark subculture is an inescapable presence. The V Club in Washington, D.C., draws close to 600 wraith-like creatures each Monday. In New York, the Gothic lifestyle draws stockbrokers and other professionals by the thousands. In fact, taking into account the many categories and subcategories of Gothic fashion, local Goths might number in the hundreds.

Goth is not a religion. Many Goths practice Christianity, while many others are agnostic. Some practice witchcraft and Satanism, but there are just as many who are pagans. The Gothic movement has its true roots in punk rock. In the early 1980s, the London media revived the term "Gothic"--a literary epithet most often associated with 19th-century spookfests such as Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone--to describe the minor-key melodies and morbid lyrics of bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Sisters of Mercy.

By that time, punk had been coopted by the commercial mainstream into new wave. As a result, rebellious London youth (like Johnathan) found their fashion statements had lost their shock value. Goths adopted punk's loathing for conformity, mixed it with glam-rock's androgyny and decadence, and threw in a little Bram Stoker for flavor.

As with punk, Gothic music fueled the fashion, which fueled the subculture, which in turn refuels the music of bands like Leatherstrip, Wumpscut, and London After Midnight. But Goth lacks punk's political fervor. Punk's angst was focused outward, but Gothic brooding is introverted, even self-absorbed, focusing on personal struggles of life and death, good and evil. Gone are the undertones of socio-economic unrest. Goths don't "protest" anything, except mainstream society's lack of individuality.

"Most of us are not trying to shock anyone--that's not what we're out to do," says Graham. "We're not really rebelling against anything like punkers did. Goths just have a very rich sense of beauty which happens to be on the darker side."

Goth style has expanded from black jeans and black T-shirts to include long capes, crushed-velvet dresses, and bustiers. When it comes to dress, the Gothic scene is notoriously finicky. And it is fickle. The accepted look can change slightly from week to week in an ongoing Vanity Fair, and men spend just as much time on their "look" as their female counterparts do.

"Girls go out to look at what other girls are wearing, and guys look to see what other guys are wearing--it's a show," says Terry Sanford. "But it's not this big evil thing."

David R. Mandel, a 31-year-old professor of psychology at Stanford University, has followed the Goth subculture for several years. Mandel says Goth's appeal is based on its undertones of sexuality and romanticism. The dark imagery is just part of the fantasy. "As is true for the entire population, people like to talk about things that they wouldn't really do," he says, adding that most people turn to Goth as an occasional escape from the doldrums of their everyday lives.

And yet the glamour of "the dark side" is central to the Goth movement. A sizable Goth cult has developed around the figure of the vampire--not the skeletal, ratlike ghoul played by Max Schreck in the German silent classic Nosferatu, but a worldly, sexually omnivorous immortal like Anne Rice's hero, Lestat, who ultimately finds his calling as a rock star.

It's easy to see the vampire's appeal to the Goths. For people who consider themselves largely social outcasts, the vampire lives outside the jurisdiction of mortals. For people obsessed with youth, beauty, and fashion, he's a narcissistic fantasy figure who never ages, never dies. In the time of AIDS, the fatally seductive Prince of Darkness or Queen of the Damned is a compellingly ambiguous hero--one whose irresistible appeal to both men and women equates sex with power, sex with addiction, sex with death, and sex with immortality.

Last Halloween, in New Orleans--the home of Anne Rice, and thus a sort of Goth Mecca--the tables at Cafe du Monde were filled long after midnight with caped, top-hatted Draculas and their pale, velvety brides.

But for some Goths it's not enough just to wear the costume. They have found a way to assume the life of a vampire, however briefly, by participating in live-action role-playing games, or LARPs.

In recent years, games based on vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night have hit the market. Among these is Vampire: The Masquerade, a cross between the controversial 1980s role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and an interactive Interview With the Vampire. The Masquerade's "gamers" adopt vampire alter-egos, who walk the earth for eternity in clans with names like Malkavian, Gangrel, Brujah, and Assamite.

There is no final "object" to the game, and there's no script. The game's entire plot comes from the improvisational acting of the players, who are encouraged to dress in costume and speak in florid language borrowed from the Victorian era. To heighten the sense of realism, games are usually played in public places and can last anywhere from hours to months, depending on the story line. Each week across America, "vampire kids" turn parking lots, living rooms, and nearby cemeteries into stages and enter a dark world of illusion.

With its combination of power-tripping and play-acting, the Masquerade draws thousands of younger Goths who love to disappear into the game's theatrical fantasy world. Meanwhile, outsiders have taken one look at the vampiric premise, connected it with the Goths' general oddness, and pronounced them both unhealthy.

Underground regular Kris Bristow, a soft-spoken 23-year-old office worker and part-time club deejay, plays a medieval battle game called Dagorhir every Sunday in Elmington Park. For him, as for many other Goth gamers, LARPs are simply a harmless release from workday stress.

Whether they're dressing as vampires, Victorians, or medieval conquerors, the Goths are obsessed with staking out an alternate world that's more welcoming than the one from 9 to 5. It is dangerous only when the illusion becomes delusion--which is what happened two years ago in Murray, Ky., with gruesome results. The story of that incident still makes local Goths cringe and roll their eyes in disgust.

In 1995, James Yohe, a self-styled "drama enthusiast" at Murray State University, formed a group he called VAMPS. Yohe, whose brother David is a gamer in Murfreesboro, wanted to use the Masquerade's loose story lines to hone his acting skills. For a brief time, VAMPS' membership included a frail 16-year-old named Rod Ferrell, whose home life made the traditional "dysfunctional family" look like Ozzie and Harriet.

When playing the Masquerade, Ferrell turned into "Vissago," a vampire character he invented using a name from the short-lived Fox series Kindred: The Embraced. The show depicted a world of warring, all-powerful vampire clans. Over a short period of time, friends say, Ferrell became increasingly intrigued with vampirism and the occult. Eventually, they say, he became more Vissago than Rod Ferrell.

Ferrell become bored with VAMPS' "acting" and organized his own group. This time, however, the bloodletting was real. His new group held bizarre ceremonies in the rural cemeteries of Calloway County.

For the most part, they were largely unknown. But that all changed in November 1996, when Ferrell and three other youths ran away from home. Their destination was Ferrell's former hometown, Eustis, Fla., a small town about 30 miles west of Orlando, where they planned to meet up with Ferrell's friend Heather Wendorf.

But after two days, the group cut short its stay in Eustis. Police found Wendorf's parents in their one-story suburban home, bludgeoned to death with a crowbar. Authorities caught up with Ferrell and his companions several days later in Louisiana. They were driving the family's vehicle. They were on their way to New Orleans.

In custody, a defiant Ferrell "warned" his captors that he was a vampire and could turn himself into "a nine-foot demon" at any time. The day before the killing, Ferrell and Wendorf reportedly engaged in a bizarre blood-letting ritual at a nearby cemetery. In affidavits, Wendorf called the act "crossing over," or being "embraced"--terms Ferrell had picked up from the Masquerade.

The media quickly tagged the incident the "Vampire Cult Murders." As the story of Rod Ferrell unfolded, people began asking how four kids from small-town America could think they were vampires, let alone commit such crimes. Attention soon focused on Ferrell's involvement in the Masquerade. Picking up on the story hook, cameras staked out Goth clubs around the country for a glimpse of the white-faced kids outside. Within weeks, Rod Ferrell, vampires, and eventually Goths had become virtually synonymous.

"When I first heard about [the Ferrell incident], I knew it would make trouble for us," laments Graham. "You know, if this had happened in the early '80s, people would have blamed it on Dungeons and Dragons and punk rock. It's unfair when the media links us to the vampires and shocker kids."

Type the words "Rod Ferrell" into almost any Internet search engine today and you'll get over 100 links, including a site calling to "Free Rod Ferrell" and others devoted to mass murderers and killer cults. Most of these Web sites, not including the numerous news stories, have links to Gothic Web pages. The incident has become infamous within the worldwide Gothic subculture, known to most simply as "the Florida thing" or "the Florida murders."

But the Ferrell incident is not as isolated as Goths would like to believe. Months before Ferrell became a celebrity, a 14-year-old Salt Lake City youth died after slipping into diabetic coma at a Goth party. The boy's body was not discovered until someone at the party called the authorities--nearly 24 hours after the party concluded. Similar tales have dotted the pages of newspapers in Colorado, California, and elsewhere.

According to Johnathan, the local scene did suffer for a period following the "Florida Thing." There was the mother "who burned all her daughter's black clothing," he says, but today the local Goth scene is going strong again. "I do have to hand it to the people around here, they stuck with it after that," he says in his thick English accent. "It kind of slowed things down for a bit, but it picked back up and I think it made it stronger. It just made some people more curious about [the Gothic lifestyle]."

Stanford University's David Mandel insists that the percentage of people who practice blood-drinking and other perversities within the Gothic community is exceedingly small--no larger than, say, the number of upstanding Baptists who practice snake-handling. "For someone looking at it from the outside, the perception is that Gothic is [sinister]," he says. "But a lot of it, especially the different categorizations, is real tongue-in-cheek. People who are really into it use it to construct meaning in their lives. They really find beauty in dark things, much the way others find beauty in bright, happy things."

On her local Web site, Victoria Graham says those who claim they "used to be Goth" probably never really were and those who need help becoming Goth don't need to be Goth at all. She says "true Goths" don't have to think about their identity, because they know where they stand in society.

"Goth is melodramatic and vaguely laughable, and those who can't put it in perspective and get pretentious about it are not true Goths anyway," she says. "If you can't step back and have fun with yourself once in a while, you're taking it way too seriously."

Maybe, but as Goth becomes ever more marketable, expect the hardcore Goths to become increasingly protective of their lifestyle. Expect the distinctions about who is or isn't Goth to become ever finer. And expect thousands more to hop on the macabre bandwagon, ironically seeking to express their individuality by adopting a uniform and joining a group.

Perhaps the best indicator of the future is that Madison Avenue, the arbiter of all things trendy and commercially palatable, has started using Gothic imagery to reach jaded twentysomethings. In a recent commercial, a group of hipsters waits for the sun to come up. As the sunrise begins, the only guy without shades disintegrates into cosmic dust. "Someone forget his Rayban sunglasses?" one of the hipsters asks, revealing his long, white fangs. The group laughs, showing their vampiric canines too.

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