On a spring evening last year, 400-plus revelers tuned in to Virtual Cryfest — a no-cover, gloomy-tunes online dance party for fans of Goth and “darkwave” music. Normally held at D.C.’s Black Cat, this event instead offered viewers a live shot of a stage with two screens showing videos of the fright-rocker Robert Smith on an eerie loop while the sound system blasted the proto-Goth classic “A Forest,” by Smith’s band the Cure: “See into the dark / Just follow your eyes / … I’m lost in a forest / All alone.” In the center, the event’s emcee and DJ, Stephen Petix, adjusted his turntable and cuddled a black cat.
Watching the proceedings from her Baltimore home was Leah Bush, 38, a PhD student in American studies and anthropology at the University of Maryland at College Park. Since 2014, Bush has chronicled the rituals of her forebears in Maryland’s Goth community. Her contention is that “participation in the Goth subculture presents an alternative to being aged by culture.”
In other words, there is a better, more Goth way to grow old and to prevail over life’s many challenges. It’s a hypothesis that Bush pursued in her master’s thesis, and last year she began attending virtual Goth parties in a final round of field work before defending her doctoral thesis later this year.
Bush’s focus on “elder Goths” makes her unusual in the specialized world of Goth studies — just as her academic bona fides set her apart in her side gig, which until the pandemic entailed playing guitar for a Goth and ’80s-inflected darkwave rock band at shows up and down the East Coast.
As Bush and her Goth studies colleagues explain it, so-called elder Goths — who came of age with the music decades ago — possess a kind of road map through life that doesn’t exist for fans of more youth-obsessed musical genres.
For starters, there is the subculture’s deep reverence for the antique. “In the music, the focus isn’t about youth,” Bush tells me. “It’s about more universal themes. Lyrically, it casts a wider net than most pop music. For some reason a Cure lyric keeps popping into my head, the opener to the Cure’s ‘Pornography’ album: ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die.’ ”
“Goths value experience and history. ... And so that makes them more reflective about the aging process,” explains Lauren Goodlad, an English professor at Rutgers University and co-editor of the book “Goth: Undead Subculture.” Creepy Victorian dolls, haunted chalices, the collected works of Baltimore’s own Edgar Allan Poe: Gothic icons take well to the patina of age.
Bush’s research subjects confirm this. There’s the veteran Goth-ster who’s also an Anglican priest — and sees little contradiction between the two callings. “Jesus,” he argues, “was the most countercultural figure who ever lived.” There’s the married woman who launches a second act peddling the sinister accoutrements of Goth fashion: black leather jackets for men, dark velvet robes for women — and vice versa (Goth bars are second only to queer clubs in their acceptance of androgyny and gender play).
Another one of Bush’s informants, a prominent DJ in the Baltimore darkwave scene named Neska, praises Goths’ willingness to explore emotions like sadness and fear. “I think [darkness and light] balance each other completely, and I think they’re both necessary in order to be a whole person and to live a life. ... If there was no darkness, we wouldn’t appreciate the light.”
Bush says her hometown of Baltimore is a more hardscrabble Goth town than New York or D.C. Unable to “have it all,” many of Bush’s elder Goth friends — mostly in their 50s — had to choose between continuing their path through Goth nightlife, or pursuing goals like higher education and parenthood. Some chose to put their Goth families first. “Their lives aren’t perfect. Nobody’s are. But they seem to be content with the choices they’ve made,” Bush says. “I think Goth is a way to keep people happy.”
“Happy Goth” may seem like an oxymoron — but that’s the point. Bush argues that Goths’ success in aging has a lot to do with their ability to juggle opposing, seemingly paradoxical energies. Take Goths’ emotional intensity: While off-putting to some, Goths’ willingness to harnessdark feelings such as despair, gloom and hopelessness, rather than repress them, can prove healthier in the long run, Bush says. Equally vital is Goths’ ability to find humor, irony and beauty in supposedly “ugly” sources, such as flowers that grow by a cemetery or the absurd frailties of the aging body. In a culture, for instance, that already treats older women as frightful, why not own that, and become the most fabulous grand dame of darkness the world has ever seen?
According to Bush, the subculture’s most important element is a fierce sense of community. Goths feel united by their embrace of difference: As one older Goth puts it, she’s grateful to have a scene “with people who are my age and maybe a little older, who are still living life on their own terms, where they said, ‘I’m older but I still want to go out, I still want to listen to wild and crazy music, I still want to look freaky.’ ”
Bush believes that this same community spirit will help Goths find their way through the terrors of the pandemic. What she’s discovered, while hopscotching the world’s virtual Goth nights, has inspired her: “We’re finding new ways to connect each other.”
Indeed, as D.C.’s Virtual Cryfest began to wind down, the mood was somehow both black and light. As a farewell encore, the DJ put down his cat and played the Cure’s “Fire in Cairo”: “The eastern hollows catch / The dying sun / Nighttime follows / Silence and black … / And through the dark / Your eyes shine bright.”
There was death on the set list that night, and plenty of it — but there was also dancing, pageantry and life. “This literally has been the best hour of my week. Thank u,” one attendee wrote in as the crowd said its final goodbyes.
David Walter is a writer in New York.