At the beginning of seventh grade, my very, very preppy middle school got a new student. He was dour and lanky, he wore his hair in a bowl cut with two long pieces hanging around his face, and he wore a long black trenchcoat all the time, indoors and out. It was 1999 and the coat was bad timing (the Columbine shooting had happened just a few months earlier), but he told me he’d had it for a long time and he wasn’t going to stop wearing it because of someone else’s bad decisions.
Several of my Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing classmates didn’t know what to make of him, so because of his fondness for black they defaulted him to “goth,” and because of his sour mood and his trenchcoat some of them speculated he was going to kill us all.
I started thinking about this last week when I saw the Daily Mail getting predictably stupid and feigning shock over the fact that one of the Slender Man killers’ dad is goth-y, listens to metal, likes morbid stuff like cemeteries, and (oh god, no) thought his daughter’s fascination with the macabre was all right.
I don’t know how private the New Kid is these days, so I’ll just call him H. H ended up being one of my best friends and a real bright spot in my life. He was sour and stubborn because he was 13 and he’d just moved across the country. He had unconventional taste in music and art, he read Edward Gorey books and made similarly bizarre but really beautiful paintings and ink drawings, he was very well-read, and he had medical reasons to dress like it was always autumn.
It was in large part due to H and the circle of friends that we shared that I was able to embrace and grow into my own identity, which included dabbling in witchcraft, wearing occult symbols on my jewelry, reading lots of fantasy and horror, studying historical atrocities, watching cult movies, and listening to punk rock, goth-pop, and nü-metal. When I read stories claiming that goth or punk or metal culture has something to do with a murder, I just can’t wrap my head around it. I was also besties with a group of girls who had really typical middle school sleepovers and nerded out about Toge+her, and to me there was nothing different at all between the one group watching Stanley Kubrick’s movies and the other watching Billy Wilder’s, or the one listening to Kill Hannah and the other listening to N*Sync.
It’s purely a matter of taste, in other words. Sure, it’s fair to say that unconventional people are drawn to unconventional things, but I think it’s unfair to say the converse is true. Maybe if you’re disturbed enough to be capable of killing someone, you’d be drawn to horror genres (and for that matter, maybe not). But if you like horror genres, it doesn’t mean you necessarily want to kill or die. There are violent people who are drawn to violent things, but there are also violent people who are drawn to non-violent cultural markers and non-violent people who are drawn to violent cultural markers, therefore the proliferation of first-person shooter video games and action movies in our culture.
The Slender Man story lies in precisely the same category as Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Grey, or Interview With the Vampire. Our culture has eaten up all of those books and churned them out into new iterations over and over, and it’s just considered part of our cultural canon. Some people engage with those parts of our cultural canon more easily. The fact that you hang out in cemeteries might just mean that you find them beautiful and peaceful, and it might be that mortality is something you’re all right with pondering, which seems perfectly healthy to me.
In the end, the anti-climactic reality is that being “goth” or belonging to any other subculture is just so much like being anything else. The best memories I ever make in life, I make with my weirdo artsy friends. I have to imagine that the same goes for people who love sports or wine touring or have something in common with a group of people for any reason. It’s easy but incorrect for brow-furrowing news anchors and journalists to turn to the macabre and say “this breeds killers!” In my experience, though, it breeds friends.
[Photo of drawing via Daily Mail]