Goth: A Short History

Goth is, it can safely be said, a very modern phenomenon. Being a primarily aesthetic subculture (as opposed to being based on a political alignment, central activity, etc.), it requires an access to mass-produced material goods and a freedom of self-expression not available until relatively recently (and not equally available to everyone, as I’ll get into later). I discovered goth on the internet as a preteen, and so I think I had unconsciously assumed that, like everything invented before I was born, it had always existed. It was only while watching videos from the Batcave’s heyday a few months ago that I began to wonder about goth’s pedigree. How old is it really, and how did it take the form it has now?

First, a caveat: this is an anglo-centric account of goth history, and one painted with broad strokes. Whole books can be (and have been) written on single geographically-localised goth scenes, never mind a global history. In future I would love to learn and write about how other, non-anglo peoples’ histories have shaped their goth scenes, but at present I can only write on the English-speaking world and ask the reader to bear in mind that its history is widely influential but not universal.

Second, we should be on the same page as to what goth actually is. While there’s no universally satisfactory definition of the term, I think goth can best be described as an aesthetic subculture centered on the romantically dark and spooky in art and personal appearance. Goth has always had a heavy focus on music, having begun as musical genre, but visual art, literature, and media with relevant themes also shape the culture. To understand those themes, we need to get into goth’s direct ancestor, the gothic.

The 18th century

It seems to be generally accepted that the gothic, as a literary genre and aesthetic tendency, begins in the anglophone world with Horace Walpole, his faux-medieval Strawberry Hill House, and his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. I’ve written a separate article on Walpole because his story is so interesting, but for our purposes here it should suffice to say that his obsession with the art and architecture of the European late medieval period kicked off the first consciously revivalist style (ie. one which romanticises the cultural past) in English history.

Why the term “gothic”, though? The history is murky, convoluted by over a thousand years of nationalism and xenophobia. The goths are written into history by Roman chroniclers at the end of that empire’s age, reportedly a central and/or eastern European people who lived at the margins of Roman territory until they decided to invade sometime in the 4th century, ushering in the so-called ‘dark ages’. This gave the goths rather a bad reputation, and until the early modern period the term was used by literate Europeans as a synonym for barbaric and primitive.

The tide began to turn for the goths’ PR when England separated from the Roman Catholic church (in the late 16th century) and rolled back the authority of the monarchy (most notably in the 17th century, when England was briefly a republic, but beginning with the Magna Carta of 1215 - a copy of which Walpole kept on a shelf by his bed). English intellectuals sought a political precedent and, more importantly, proof of their racial superiority to Catholic Europeans. They found this (mostly by making things up) in the aforementioned Roman accounts of the goths, whom they rebranded as the freedom-loving ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons who rose up against Roman tyranny and (most baffling of these claims) respected women.

To avoid getting any deeper into the dreary annals of English political history, let’s return to Walpole, who was nominally a politician (his offices were all acquired for him by his father, England’s first prime minister) but more professionally an eccentric dilettante. It was only a matter of time before some tastemaker, taking this revisionist history to heart, began reappropriating anything that European artists and intellectuals had labelled ‘gothic’, and Walpole did this in spectacular fashion.

The Castle of Otranto, the first edition of which claimed to be a translation of a manuscript written by a Catholic priest in the late middle ages and recently discovered in an old English manor house, sets the precedent for the gothic novel forever after; the setting in a gloomy castle, ghosts, murder, usurpation, almost-incest, madness, mystery. Now, if you’re like “hang on – what you’re describing is Hamlet,” you’re right! By the mid-18th century the English hadn’t deified Shakespeare yet, as the fashion in fiction was for “Enlightenment”-aligned realism. Walpole sought to bring Elizabethan romance and melodrama back - albeit via the persona of a medieval Italian author – and he succeeded.

The 19th century

The gothic novel exploded in popularity across social classes in the late 18th century, especially among women. The latter fact induced many contemporary men of letters to disparage the genre and even claim that the excitement and morbidity of the stories were a danger to womens’ weak intellects and mental stability. Despite this, the gothic romance only fell out of fashion when it reached a point of over-saturation in mainstream English culture.

Simultaneously, a new appreciation for ruined medieval buildings among the leisured classes, as well as the development of archaeology as a field of study, lead to a revival of ‘gothic’ (ie. Late medieval European) architecture by the middle of the 19th century. This revival was in no small measure motivated by nationalism, as England’s unprecedented imperial power and technological development created a need for a concrete national identity; a glorious inheritance that could unite all classes and be exported as needed. Canada’s parliamentary buildings, for example, are of the gothic revival style.

By the latter half of the 19th century the (now well-known) pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and arts and crafts movement brought the gothic revival into British art, design, and fashion, this time with watered-down feminist and socialist sentiments. It’s perhaps only natural that, in a culture so interested in looking back on a romanticised past, some would find material for critiquing their present. Unfortunately, these milquetoast ideals were lost in the general appeal of an aesthetic fully amenable to conservative tastes.

I couldn’t reasonably write about the roots of goth in the 19th century without mentioning the elaborate and arguably flamboyant grieving rituals developed by the Victorians. While it doesn’t pertain to the gothic per se, the goth aesthetic clearly owes some debt to upper-class Victorian mourning culture and the ways it made grief visible through fashion and performance.

The 20th century

By the end of the 19th century, gothic novels like Dracula and The Curious Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde began to more pointedly reflect bourgeois concerns about moral degeneration, racial impurity and the collapse of empire. The gothic was incidentally brought out of the rural, feudal past and into the urban industrial present, perhaps as England’s bright, modern future cast dark shadows that were growing difficult for the reading public to ignore – but more pragmatically because it made the horror more potent by setting the stories in the readers’ world.

Science crept into the genre as well, whether in the form of the sadistic doctor, Frankenstein-esque mad scientist, or ‘psychical’ (ie. paranormal) technobabble. Spiritualism had been in vogue since the mid-19th century and spawned all sorts new-agery, from neopagan cults to paranormal pseudosciences, which made regular appearances in gothic horror from then on (like the murderous neopagan in M.R. James’ Casting the Runes). There are many socio-cultural reasons for spiritualism’s emergence and sustained popularity, but most important for our purposes is its assertion that there were still dark and mysterious phenomena in a world that science, industry, and colonisation seemed to have otherwise thoroughly demystified.

Gothic stories had always done well when adapted for the stage, so they were a natural fit for film and television adaptation. Some of the very first moving pictures featured gothic horror themes, and by the time tv came around there was such a rich and distinctive gothic visual culture that pastiches like The Addams Family could achieve popular success. Entertainers like Vampira and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins could create stage personas that audiences would immediately recognise as, if not gothic, then generally spooky, through the use of this visual language. But there wasn’t yet a single word or concept for this nascent aesthetic.


Part of the explosion of youth cultures in the latter 20th century, goth seems to have appeared in a puff of machine-generated smoke and stuck around, persistently haunting the realm of “alternative” fashion and culture ever since. As I hope I’ve successfully illustrated, goth wasn’t without historical precedent, but its emergence as an aesthetic subculture was so sudden as to be given a precise date; 1979, the year British post-punk band Bauhaus released their single Bela Lugosi’s Dead.

Punk was largely aesthetically defined in the early ‘70s by Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren (Westwood's partner and manager of The Sex Pistols), as well as the costumes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975; designed by Sue Blane), a campy rock n roll tribute to sci-fi and gothic horror films. Punk quickly evolved musically into post-punk and the new romantics, which introduced a slower, more desolate sound and a femmier, historically-inflected look to the alternative scene respectively. Then Bauhaus, with their monochromatic, German Expressionist-inspired look and minimalist sound, released a 10-minute long ode to Bela Lugosi’s iconic 1931 portrayal of Dracula and it all came together.

In the early 80s the goth look coalesced at clubs like the Batcave in London, collectively created by the bands that performed there and their fans. The name ‘goth’ seems to have been an invention of the British music press, which took note of the genre’s evolution for the better part of a decade before growing bored with it. This popular coverage meant that goth took hold across the anglophone world and beyond before sinking into the underground in the ‘90s. Every few years some publication will claim that goth is having a renaissance, but the fact is that goth has lived on in the periphery, ever-changing yet distinct, for over 40 years.

In that time, goth has absorbed just about everything pertaining to the macabre and unheimlich, leading to an array of internal trends and sub-styles. However, as observed by Paul Hodkinson in his anthropological study of British goths in the ‘90s, some features of the subculture have remained more or less constant since its inception. Most positively, the androgynous-to-feminine standards of beauty and gloomy romanticism central to the goth aesthetic have made the subculture a relatively machismo-free, queer-friendly space. The first goth event I ever attended was a party called Gay Goth Night (c. 2015), so I think it’s fair to say that goth has only grown more openly queer since Hodkinson’s study.

Less positively, 39 percent of respondents to Hodkinson’s questionnaire were university students, and a ‘whopping’ (his word) 97 percent self-identified as white. This shouldn’t be assumed to indicate active exclusion of, nor lack of interest on the part of, BIPOC, the working classes, or older adults; rather, the nature of goth as an aesthetic subculture is a barrier in itself. In order to be goth you have to look goth, a decision which in most areas makes you less employable, less likely to be taken seriously, and more likely to experience rejection and harrassment – in short, a reduction in privilege which the already marginalised can seldom afford. Unfortunately, this socio-economic ‘natural selection’ can lead to the subculture being perceived as a safe space for racism and culturally appropriative practices, creating further risk and discomfort for nonwhite would-be goths. While I would expect a similar questionnaire to yield happier results today, the riskiness of adopting a non-normative appearance is still unevenly distributed and goth probably remains a majority white, middle-class youth subculture.

History, politics, architecture, literature, music, movies, fashion; a lot has gone into the making of goth, though few things have been contributed intentionally. Goth is primarily a scavenger culture, borrowing bits of everything and stitching it into something distinctively dark and strange - yet fun and romantic. I think that that variability and balance is at the heart of goth’s perpetual appeal; while the subculture has often been characterised by the mainstream as depressing and dismal, goths are united by a delight in creatively romanticising and celebrating all that which might lurk in the shadows, beyond the light of the banal.