When I was 17 years old I threw out my pink, bought a black fringed skirt, crimped my dyed hair, bought Bauhaus' back catalogue and gave my heart to Robert Smith. The pop charts didn't offer solace for my troubled adolescent heart in the same way that Morrissey could. When he sang -- "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside" -- it was like he had written it just for me.
I was a goth.
Growing up in the North East of England in the 1980's, within spitting distance of Whitby, the home of Dracula, there were pretty much two choices of tribe available to me: Goth or not.
I enjoyed the easy access rebellion, the opportunity it gave me to revel in the darker side of life and the kinship I felt with my newfound brothers and sisters in black. It enabled me to assert my independence from my parents and toughened me up. I felt the dual pleasures of reveling in the attention my outrageous outfits elicited and resenting the hassle I received from other people that didn't understand my life or choice of outfit.
After two years of being a card-carrying member of the Goth community I started to tire of black, black, black and more black. Art College beckoned and I felt that there were different ways to express my individuality than wearing the cookie-cutter uniform of a dark rebel. Gradually the black in my wardrobe was replaced by more and more colour and less than six months later Goth was merely a phase I had gone through.
Over 15 years later, I attended the wedding of an old school friend. At school she was the archetypal 'Siouxsie Sioux' Goth with giant crimped hair and heavily kohled eyes that parents despised and I loved. Now in her early 40's, she walked down the aisle a vision in black, channelling Mortiticia Adams from her floor length gown to her black veil. She was so exotic that I couldn't help but feel like a 'mundane' and admire her commitment and staying power.
Seeing this face from my past that really seemed to embody the subculture and made me want to find other Goths who had also stayed the distance. Within a few clicks online, I found thousands of them. Goth is as alive and well today as it was in the 1980's when 'Bela Legosi's Dead' was first released. As the Goth author Voltaire puts it "Goth is undead, undead, undead."
As an artist and documentarian, I was able to pursue this curiosity as I set out to make a film about older Goths. When I found "The Goth Cruise" -- an annual vacation taken by 150 American Goths to the sunshine of the Caribbean, on a fabulously luxurious cruise ship -- I knew I had found the paradoxically perfect environment to make a film about Goth sub-culture.
IFC commissioned my feature documentary Goth Cruise and before I knew it we were packing for a sojourn to the sunshine with 150 'people in black'.
Featured in the film are: Heath aka DJ Storm (NYC), a mild-mannered, black computer programmer by day, cross-dressing Goth DJ by night, Mike and Amanda (NJ) 26 year old cruise virgins on their honeymoon, Lobster X, (NC) an extrovert architect who dresses up as Satan on board ship, Sean T. Lewis a.k.a. The Angry Patriot, (OR) a single dad to teenage Goths and a veteran of the first Gulf war and Ian, Bridie and Kyle (UK), a 24/7 lifestyle Goth family from the UK.
In making the film, I wanted to know:
What is it about Goth that fascinates people all over the world?
How do you reconcile sweeping sadness with Pina Coladas and an all you can eat buffet?
Just what the hell happens on a Goth Cruise?
So, what did I learn?
1. Cruise Ships are very surreal places
Although I studied the 'virtual tour' of the Explorer of the Seas online, nothing fully prepared me for the intense, 14 story, neon-lit experience that was simply walking around the ship. From the towel animals left in our cabins, the 'day of the week' carpet in the elevator floor, to the ice and chocolate midnight buffet, it was very other worldly. The sight of our 150 Goths sauntering to formal dining night, in 'maximum Goth gear,' stood out like a bruise. A cruise ship environment is everything that is the antithesis of Goth.
2. Goth is a much more extreme expression of self in the US
Most of the cruisers were 'Corp-Goths' who keep their Goth identity hidden at work. A handful of cruisers were unable to be shown on film for fear of professional repercussions. To British ears this was unusual and fascinating and I had never come across this before. Many talked about the common misconception that Goth is synonymous with satanic worship in the US.
Curiously, at Whitby Goth Weekend, (the largest Gothic festival in the UK), I was almost unable to find anyone amongst the Brits who would identify themselves as Goth, despite more than looking the part. In the US, choosing to be Goth is a badge of honour and the people I met wore it with pride, even if the way they expressed it was more sartorially reserved than their UK counterparts. Sean, our 'Elder Goth' expressed it like this -- "America tries to force you to be happy being happy... Goths want to be happy, but we also want to be sad, and we want to be angry, we want to have a full range of emotions...You can't have the light without the dark, we're the dark so they can have their light."
3. Goths love karaoke, hot tubs and cocktails
It's fair to say that the Goth group stole the show at Karaoke (aka Scaryoke) almost every night. They accompanied my bellowing of "Don't stop me now" with Shaun of the Dead zombie killing actions and stormed the dance floor to "We are Family." All this was washed down with fruity rum cocktails and most of the singers relaxed afterwards in the adult only hot tub for a nightly stewing of 'Goth Soup.'
4. Every woman should make room in their wardrobe for at least one corset
I was most jealous of the Goth wardrobe on formal night. Watching Miranda Vulture constrain her formidable bosom into a rock hard corset, creating a powerful hourglass outline made me want to celebrate my curves and get tied into a corset of my own. Goth is certainly an inclusive church and the women in corsets proved that beauty doesn't just come in one size. It was very liberating and totally understanding the appeal of wearing a look that curves was indeed a bonus.
5. Little old ladies from Jersey love Satan
Prior to the cruise I had heard a lot about 'Satan Night' where Lobster doesn't just dress up in Goth gear -- he dresses up as the Devil in red grease paint, feathers, horns and a kilt. I had anticipated some cruisers would be offended but everyone duly lined up to get their photo taken with Satan. He was simply another souvenir photo opportunity.
In the end, the people who took part in the film were incredibly generous with their intimate testimonies and really gave part of themselves to the documentary. There are many reasons for coming to Goth and they articulate them eloquently.
Whether you are a 'freak' and seek solace in the company of other 'freaks', you are a boy but want to be a Goth girl, you don't want to wear khakis and be 'a bankers box' all your life, you're 'pudgy' but can dance elegantly in a corset, you're 'a man in black' and will wear black until the world is a better place, or it's simply 'something inside that Goth has brought out.'
I hope that I have captured some of the fun and surreal nature of the cruise in my film but also the very personal and heartfelt reasons for being drawn to this dark subculture. I think ultimately Goth Cruise is a film about acceptance and being yourself, whatever that takes.
Goth Cruise premieres on IFC FREE (VOD): November 27, 2008 at Midnight.