The Halloween weekend will see several thousand goths descend on North Yorkshire for the Whitby Goth Weekend. An internationally famous gathering, it has dramatically established Whitby’s reputation as the English capital of goth culture since the first festival was organised by a group of NME magazine pen-pals in 1994.
This is a title, however, that Whitby has laid claim to ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published a century before. Whitby had furnished Stoker with the names of several of this greatest of all gothic novels’ characters, some transcribed from the weather-beaten headstones in St Mary’s churchyard, one copied from a book he found in the town’s library which informed him that ‘Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil’. He had immortalised his gratitude by setting some of Dracula’s most dramatic scenes in Whitby.
From the moment a mysterious animal resembling a large dog leaps off a deserted Russian ship which washes into the town’s harbour during a storm, all hell literally breaks loose. The ‘dog’ bounds up Whitby’s famous 199 steps leading to what is arguably the jewel in the town's goth crown – the stunningly beautiful remains of Whitby Abbey, glowering on the East Cliff.
Most prominent among the ruins is the monastery church, built in the 13th century in the Gothic style, and notable for a richness of carved detail and moulding that is remarkable even by the standards of this most elaborate of architectural moments. So in fact, it could be said that Whitby’s goth(ic) credentials extend back much, much further. The history of gothic architecture and gothic literature is well documented, but is it possible to trace goth subculture across the centuries too?
History of Goth Culture
The origins of the kind of goth currency Whitby Goth Weekend deals in are murky. The phrase ‘Gothic Rock’ was first coined in 1967 to describe the music of the Doors. However the first truly goth bands, who channelled Jim Morrison a little, and artists like the Velvet Underground and T-Rex a bit more, all seem to have formed in 1976, which saw the birth of the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division.
The latter’s second record, Closer, made 1980 a sort of Year Zero for the burgeoning scene, which developed, as the 80s progressed, into something approaching an entire way of life for its most ardent participants. The goth subculture draws together such disparate ingredients as 18th-century Romanticism, 19th-century clothing and 20th-century horror under a long, black cloak, and has been one of the last few decades’ most enduring influences on music, fashion and youth culture. The fact that Whitby Goth Weekend is still going strong – and now incorporating late 20th-century goth-ish phenomena, such as Steampunk and Lolita fashion, into the mix – is a testament to goth culture’s important place in our recent history.
Only our recent history, though? Well, perhaps not…
1. Roman Goths: Officers on Hadrian’s Wall
It is perhaps slightly ironic to refer to a Roman as a goth, for it was two different types of Goth with a capital G, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, who brought about the fall of the Roman Empire. There is, however, something about the Roman mystery religion Mithraism that is undeniably goth-like. From its dark, underground cave-temples, known as Mithraeum, which resemble London's great goth nightclub The Batcave in obvious ways, to its self-consciously theatrical ritual re-enactments, it seems fair to suggest that if Nick Cave and Robert Smith had been alive 2000 years earlier, Mithraism would have come naturally to them.
English history's greatest Mithraist goth, though, is surely Litorius Pacatianus, an officer serving on Hadrian's Wall in the early 3rd century AD, who combined different gods and concepts in a unique version of the Mithraic mysteries that was goth-like both in its diverse reference points and its studied avoidance of the mainstream.
2. Tudor Goth: Bloody Mary
This is not the place for a discussion of Mary Tudor's actions as queen. It's time, though, that we talked about her fashion sense, which it would not be too much of an overstatement to term 'proto-goth'.
Mary was obsessed with clothes. The Venetian ambassador remarked, in 1554, that Mary 'seems to delight above all in arraying herself elegantly and magnificently'. She loved satin and velvet, quintessential goth fabrics, and she also stuck to the key shades on the goth fashion colour wheel: crimson, purple, and above all, black. She is wearing elaborate black gowns in the majority of her most notable portraits, and encouraged her friends to do the same. To a 'Mistress Ryder' she once granted a 'rounde tablet blacke enamelled wt the Kings Picture' as a wedding gift. Black for a bride: what could be more goth?
3. Georgian Goth: Philip Thicknesse
As everybody knows, goths are rarely understood by their parents. Philip Thicknesse took the classic goth frustration with this state of affairs – the basis of so much goth literature and music – further than most, running away to America when he was just 16 years old and living 'a true Robinson Crusoe line of life' in a wooden cabin, alone on an island.
His life choices, once he returned to England, serve to burnish his goth credentials even further. An incorrigible romantic, he married three times in 20 years with often tortured results. He loved literature, publishing gothic self-help tomes encouraging the regular inhalation of 'the breath of young women'. And his disastrous relationship with his son, immortalised in a three-volume autobiography titled Memoirs and anecdotes of Philip Thicknesse, late governor of Landguard Fort, and unfortunately father to George Touchet, Baron Audley no doubt ensured that another generation of the family would do things the traditional goth way: pursuing their own path, in precisely the opposite direction to their parents.
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