Sorrow Gothic: Thoughts on a Goth/Gothic Revival



The Gothic is undead; long live the Gothic.

It’s been roughly 40 years since the Gothic genre was rejuvenated – after decades on the relative sidelines of mainstream attention – by the fresh blood of a new musical style and the community that grew out of it. A concept, a mood, a method, an aesthetic; however defined, the Gothic was pulled from the bookshelf, dusted, and set to a soundtrack that gave birth to a Goth subculture that has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but has so far resisted being fully staked by changing tastes.


… the dead may travel fast, but even they must slow down eventually. And so, years after Goth’s heyday, we find the number of nightclubs greatly diminished, legendary stores (like Toronto’s Siren) shuttered, and leading magazines out of print. Even Hot Topic, contentious among Goths for its commercialism but somewhate underappreciated for its efforts to celebrate alternative music and subcultures, has shed much of its counter-culture charm by embracing pop-culture franchises. New bands do emerge, of course, and a few dedicated Goth/Punk/Alternative retailers like Tripp NYC, Lip Service, Heavy Red, and others remain to leverage the Internet to cater to an international clientele. Yet for the most part Goth has become stagnant for a number of reasons: aging demographics; trends in youth culture; the diminishing popularity of Goth’s parent genre, rock, in favour of hip hop and new country; and the niche status of its muse, Gothic literature, at least in its classic form.

Another reason for Goth’s apparent stagnation arises from the nature of group dynamics. Open arms and lack of authority has made the culture wonderfully decentralized, organic, and welcoming to social “misfits,” but its vague definition all-too-easily reduces to style over substance. As the old saw would have it, we don’t always know what Goth is, but we know it when we see it. The consequence is that, like almost anything, Goth’s original expression has been diluted by variations over the years, some relevant, others tangential at best, and still others irrelevant. (Illustrator Trellia demonstrates with a none-too-serious classification of Goth stereotypes at DeviantArt). Without some sort of impartial reference, overly personal definitions sometimes become exclusionary gestures in communal settings (e.g. the curious gother-than-thou snobbery), which hardly fosters a sustainable cultural identity. It doesn’t help that Goth is easily caricatured by both the sympathetic and unsympathetic.

As for the Gothic in literature and other media, we could debate to what extent it really is marginal. With its decayed architecture, gloomy landscapes, and Victorian sensibilities, Classical Gothic memorably appears from time to time in films like Crimson Peak and Sleepy Hollow but is otherwise a rare beast in today’s menagerie of genres. As a general influence, however, the Gothic continues to exert pressure on modern genre variations such as Southern Gothic as well as contemporary horror, albeit in the crude sense that the Gothic is often used interchangeably with the supernatural and lurid.

What can be done to invigorate a near-moribund genre and its supportive subculture? It would be too much to suggest a restoration of old regimes cleansed of their shortcomings and polished for the 21st century; the past can’t be repeated. A revolutionary reinvention would present another kind of problem, namely, that of straying out of the Gothic altogether. The question, then, is what sort of evolutionary gesture can we propose?

To answer the question, it’s necessary to trace what we might call the Gothic Idea – the unifying thread between the Gothic from architecture through music and culture.


The Gothic Idea A Brief History


“Gothic” was not the given name of the architectural style that expanded the Romanesque design philosophy. As a pejorative invoking the barbarian hordes, the label was used as a shorthand criticism of Middle Age architecture by later Renaissance architects and critics who viewed their own neo-classical approach as a superior and refined expression of civilization. The label stuck, mostly without its negative connotation, and it continues to describe a singularly unique architectural design philosophy.

Unlike Romanesque buildings that feature a denser massing of building forms, simple ornamentation, and details such as rounded arches, Gothic buildings use innovative structural elements such as flying buttresses and a highly ornamental design vocabulary including pointed arches, stained glass windows, and ornate facades. It’s no surprise that our overall experience of Romanesque and Gothic buildings is quite different, and it is in this difference that the Gothic Idea emerges. Where Romanesque conveys a fortress-like impression, the Gothic uses space, light, and highly artistic ornamentation to create an expansive experience. If we feel small in a Gothic volume, it’s typically because we are small. When that feeling of smallness is contextualized by architectural and artistic elements, it becomes, to the sympathetic, an experience we could provisional label as “awe;” beautiful yet terrifying, comforting yet alienating, sacred but fully aware of the profane. This last quality is particularly noteworthy, because it points to why Gothic architecture can be judged as both beautiful and grotesque/ugly: it formally acknowledges the brutish aspects of living that later renaissance styles suppressed in the pursuit of a bright, refined aesthetic (i.e. a purified beauty).Of course, a Gothic cathedral’s ecclesiastical function purposely interprets awe as an encounter with divinity. The architecture shapes the congregant e
xperience to connect with the Church and with the divine. But it isn’t necessary for the meaning of this experience to be religious, as demonstrated by the use of Gothic architecture in the academic realm. Here, the experience of awe is not that associated with encountering the divine, but with our encounters with the mysteries of the universe.

The Gothic in architecture, then, can be described as using the built environment, though a specific design vocabulary, to elicit an experience of awe (religious or secular), which we might also refer to as the uncanny or the sublime.


Unlike the ambiguity of architectural experience, the clearest – although by no means absolute – articulation of the Gothic Idea comes from Gothic literature. Scholars generally point to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, as the first definitive Gothic novel, but textual elements as well as the author’s admitted indebtedness to Shakespeare makes a case that the Gothic originated, in prototypical form, with Hamlet. Walpole’s innovation was to take elements of Hamlet such as the ghost and medieval setting, and heighten them with terror in a narrative that blends the fantastical with romance. Firmly establishing what later became genre tropes, we find in the novel gloomy medieval buildings, dark passages, secrets and mysteries, supernatural phenomena, lingering menace, and a sense of foreboding and mystery. These DNA molecules positioned The Castle of Otranto as the genetic ancestor from which the Gothic genre evolved and splintered. 
Following Walpole, and surpassing him, were two authors whose prominence marked a split in the nascent Gothic genre. The first was Ann Radcliffe, a literate genre innovator who proved a popular and respected novelist in her time with six Gothic novels, a book of poetry, and a travelogue to her credit. Her work, as exemplified by Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and The Italian, was notable for its romanticism, evocative (if lengthy) descriptions of nature, and gothic plot elements involving a vulnerable heroine, menacing villain, and remote castle setting. The supernatural played a part in her novels as well, but in the form of the “explained supernatural,” strange phenomena that eventually receive a rational explanation. Only in Radcliffe’s turn to the sublime (in line with Edmund Burke) is the supernatural left unexplained, its occurrence ultimately left to a broadly-hinted theistic level: religious characters will, naturally, leave God to God. The sublime also factors in her focus on terror, a complex and related concept. In a posthumous essay titled On the Supernatural in Poetry, a character discussing Shakespeare with another points out,  
“The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquility tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail."

By contrast, Matthew Lewis caused a scandal with the publication of The Monk in 1796, a lurid tale of a pious monk corrupted by lust into treachery, rape, murder, and demonic pacts. Grafted onto the prototypical expression of horror in German fiction of earlier periods, it proved a milestone in establishing the horror branch of Gothic. Less concerned with touching on the sublime, if at all, and eager to depict rather than imply the menace (albeit in a level of detail that’s tame by today’s standards) The Monk is the pulpy counterpart to Radcliffe’s work. Its lurid character prompted Radcliffe to write The Italian, also about a malevolent cleric, in response before quitting writing altogether. But despite Radcliffe’s low opinion of The Monk, its stylistic departure from Terror Gothic proved popular and enduring. Lewis’ indulgence of the supernatural fantastic, along with an emphasis on the lurid, is arguably one reason why the Gothic, the supernatural, and the grotesque are linked to the point that the terms are often used concurrently.
As to the distinction between terror and horror, once again we can turn to On the Supernatural in Poetry for insight. Radcliffe highlights the key distinction while proclaiming the two to be incompatible:

“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror [note: terror and horror?], but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?"

Where horror is direct, on account of showing the particulars of a horror (the gory details, as it were), terror is ambiguous, providing gaps that require interpretation and imagination. Horror is a reaction to the known, physical, and actual, while terror is a confrontation with the unknown, psychological, and potential. As a result, horror is something to be survived while terror is an ambiguity that requires resolution into certainty. Terror leads to a greater awareness of life while horror is merely deadening. Naturally, the distinction in practice became blurred.

For all that Radcliffe’s Gothic was informed by theories of the sublime and terror, another key distinction between her work and that of Lewis’ is one of genre. As opposed to Lewis’ prototypical “crime thriller” approach, Radcliffe’s narratives were structured as romances, with stories typically dealing with young people in love who must overcome circumstances and misunderstandings before finally being allowed to marry. Whereas romantic comedies will place mistaken identities and other obstacles between lovers, Radcliffe’s novels place terror in between them. In this sense, we could more usefully describe the Terror Gothic branch, as represented by Radcliffe, as Gothic Romance – taking care to note that in literary history “romances” were not strictly defined as love stories, but more broadly as heroic, typically chivalric, adventures with fantastical overtones.

Of the two branches, Horror arguably became the most prolific. Where Gothic Romance delivered the Bronte Sisters’ works and a few others before quietly retiring to the bookshelf in wait of the occasional revival in modern forms (e.g. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca), Gothic Horror spawned the penny dreadfuls and grand guignol that evolved into contemporary horror. Before the Horror genre began shedding its original Gothic trappings as new narrative forms were developed, the Gothic found memorable expression in three well-known genre milestones:

  •  Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Following Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla ,James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, Stoker’s classic is the literary culmination of the project Lewis began with The Monk. It continues even today to serve as the standard-bearing model of supernatural horror. Gothic in its presentation with remote castles, graveyards, and night-bound monsters, Dracula memorably blended terror and horror through the menace of death, implicit sexuality and, worse, a predatory post-death in which a victim’s very identity is corrupted. Significantly, Dracula anchored the vampire into the popular imagination; as villain, as hero, as tragic figure, as a manifestation of morbid romance and eroticism, as the iconic representative of Gothic Horror.
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While often interpreted as a cautionary tale on the hubris of scientists playing in God’s sandbox, Frankenstein is in my view less about forbidden science than it is about the way in which a lack of compassion leads to alienation, which in turns breeds resentment and ultimately homicidal hatred. It’s a tale of humankind’s inhumanity. Although the Creature’s murders are horrific, the novel revolves around Victor Frankenstein’s terror over artificially creating life – a terror of the sublime knowledge of life and death that tragically blinds him to his failures towards the Creature. As Terror Gothic’s counterpart to Horror Gothic’s Dracula; Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, evolved the explained supernatural of Radcliffe’s work to its logical form as science fiction. (A similar observation could be made of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s works. Death, madness, grief, guilt, insanity, and sometimes the supernatural – Poe’s stories encapsulated the features of both Terror and Horror Gothic. Example: The Fall of the House of Usher in which the narrator arrives in a quintessentially gothic environment (complete with gloomy, sublime weather), meets with the borderline-insane Rodrick Usher, and is an unwitting observer and participant in a live burial. Poe’s work not only joined Shelley and Stoker’s in shaping later horror fiction, but paved the way for another of Gothic’s descendants: detective fiction, in which the explained mystery takes the place of the explained supernatural.

So Gothic’s genealogy is roughly as follows: Shakespeare’s Hamlet followed by Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, leading to Radcliffe, the Brontës, and Shelley’s Frankenstein in one branch and Lewis’ The Monk and Stoker’s Dracula in another – with many other works in between. The branches hold hands in Poe’s works before penny dreadfuls and grand guignol evolve into contemporary horror and contribute to erasing distinctions between terror and horror gothic. To this we could add the influence of romanticism, beginning influential works such as Gottfried August Bürger poem Lenore, published in 1173, but I’ll leave that to the literary scholars to explore.

What essential ideas unites these works in spite of very significant genre differences (e.g. horror, romance, science fiction, mystery) and author idiosyncrasies? Two key points emerge:

The by-now stereotypical aesthetic of the Gothic genre – medieval settings, remote castles, stormy weather, ruins, labyrinths, secret passages, graveyards, and so on – all serve as reminders of change, impermanence, transformation, and mortality.
Whether called the sublime, the uncanny, or simply awe, the Gothic goes beyond awareness of mortality to emphasize existential ambiguity – ghosts, vampires, and other creatures that defy death highlight a fundamental quality of life, namely, the mystery of existence. But even without the supernatural, the universe itself, with its fundamental mystery, provokes existential anxiety.

Stripping away the fear inherent in terror and horror, we are left with impermanence/change and mortality as the key concepts underlying the Gothic in literature.

Music and Subculture  

After the Gothic’s consignment to a covert undeath in the early 20th century, it came back to overt life as the Goth musical genre via the late 70’s punk scene – an emergence made possible through a feedback loop between the British music press, fans, and bands. Although it’s debatable to what extent the first wave of gothic bands welcomed the Goth label – as is typical for art, the categorization often came later and from the outside – the label eventually stuck. What began as casual uses of the word “gothic” by rock journalists in the 1970s to describe offerings by artists such as David Bowie and the Doors eventually grew into the sustained recognition of a musical genre encompassing bands such as Joy Division, Siouxie & the Banshees, the Damned, and others who pursued a distinctive sound, lyrical content, and performance aesthetic very much influenced by Gothic literature.

If there can be said to be milestones to formally inaugurate Goth as a culture, even if only as a musical appreciation community, then we could begin with Bauhaus and the release of their seminal “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in 1979. But it is with the Batcave, a London nightclub opened by Specimen lead singer Ollie Wisdom in 1982, that the Goth culture finds its most significant milestone. As the host for notable gothic rock bands and musicians such as Bauhaus, Sex Gang Children, Alien Sex Fiend, Nick Cave, Siouxie Sioux, and Robert Smith, the Batcave gave the nascent genre a focal point for both the genre’s innovators and the community that grew around their music.

The growth of Goth culture was not confined to the UK, however. While British bands certainly gained popularity elsewhere around the world, the kindred genre of deathrock evolved in the US through bands such as 45 Grave and, notably, the pioneering Rozz Williams and Christian Death.

From these scattered beginnings, Goth finally assumed an identity distinct from its punk progenitor as a musical expression of Gothic literature and even architecture, one that increasingly adapted a variety of musical genres from rock, punk, and electronic music to classical and avant-garde. Succeeding waves of bands emerged, this time deliberately adopting for themselves the Goth identity while gathering around them a community of Goths who made possible a cottage industry spanning fashion, art, nightclubs, and festivals with often surprising diversity.

What of the Gothic Idea? The content of Goth was not essentially different from the content expressed in literature, but the subculture that arose from music fandom succeeded in making the Gothic Idea a lived rather than passively consumed experience. For a while, at least, Goth served as the proverbial fertile ground for new ideas within a renewed Gothic that could stand as its own genre, unlike literature where the Gothic was invariably grafted onto other genres (e.g. romance and horror). Most importantly, Goth came to emphasize the role of the “Other,” whether literally in terms of being inclusive of marginalized identities (i.e. alternative lifestyles, LGBTQ persons, etc.) or figuratively by embracing those “darker” aspects of life mainstream society strives to keep hidden (death, insanity, paganism, depression, and so on).


Defining the Gothic Idea

With all that, let’s define the Gothic Idea.

Gothic architecture gives us the sublime, the uncanny, the awesome – what we might call an existentialist experience. Literature confirms the importance of impermanence and mortality in distinguishing the Gothic from other literary forms. Goth music and culture emphasizes the importance of the Other. Put together, the Gothic Idea we have been tracing is an existentialist awareness of mortality and impermanence in a mysterious universe.


Towards a Gothic Revival

By what criteria can we describe a Goth/Gothic Revival? What would such a revival achieve?

First and foremost, the revival should have a specific definition, yet be open enough to enable creativity. Like a sandbox, it should have boundaries to distinguish it from its environment yet allow for considerable freedom with the sand it contains.

Second, the Revival should be about practice and not personality. Just as not everyone finds Gothic Cathedrals beautiful or Goth music enjoyable to listen to, not everyone will be drawn to Revival Gothic. However this might be explained by psychology, explaining the revival by turning to personality or other psychological contrivances risks creating identity politics that, invariably, tend to be divisive. Far better to set aside the intangibles and let it be personal choice – based on a clear understanding of what Revival Gothic is and is not – that guides participation in the effort. The Revival should be open and accessible to both practitioners and spectators without a litmus test beyond choosing to adopt the new Gothic framework as defined.

Finally, and rather obviously, the goal is not to rewrite the book on Gothic but to add a new chapter. The Revival should be enriched by its heritage without being chained to it.

Up to now, horror and terror have served as the dominant (although not exclusive) paradigms for expressing the Gothic Idea; both have reached a conceptual end. As a matter of general genre practice, horror declares, if not outright celebrates, the triumph of evil; the proof rests in the number of memorable (and recurring) villains and monsters relative to heroes, the common pattern of depicting the gory slaughter of innocents, and the “twist” endings that underscore the futility of heroism. (These endings are typically predictable based on the plot, hence: the failed exorcism, the uncontained plague, the surviving or reproducing monster, insanity induced by exposure to forbidden knowledge, and so on.) Horror is primarily a reactionary genre, a reflection of societal anxiety that is often cynical and nihilistic. Its best examples offer compelling characters and narratives, while at its worse the genre is fetishistic and rooted in the arbitrary magic of fantasy storytelling. In either case, it’s a question of craft and identifying contemporary fears to replace old fears (of sexuality, for example) more so than genre innovation that challenges how we conceive, and relate to, fear and violence. There is only so much to be said of fight-or-flight survival scenarios, revenge-driven atrocities, and their ilk. The same applies to terror, which today overlaps so strongly with horror that the distinction is hardly useful.

So where can a Gothic Revival take inspiration from without resorting to a traditional association with horror and terror? We can find hints in two sources:

  • The sublime, uncanny, or what we might term “awe,” in which terror isn’t the only emotional experience. As Immanuel Kant wrote in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, “melancholy characterizes those with a superb sense of the sublime” – an idea expressed in an entire subgenre of melancholic art.
  • The subset of Goth culture that takes its cues from funerary practices, such as Victorian mourning garb and an affinity for cemeteries.

The answer, then, is sorrow and the constellations of emotions associated with it – from the melancholy experience of solitude and alienation that arises when confronting a mysterious, awe-inspiring universe to the sorrows that come with living a life marked by change and transitions.

Of course, sorrow as the topic of art isn’t in itself a “new” idea, not even within the Goth subculture. But its relatively marginal position within Goth provides Revival Gothic with a thread of continuity. And just as the Gothic defined a particular approach to terror and horror in contrast to non-Gothic approaches (for example, compare a Jane Austen romance with a Brontë romance), the idea is to give form and function to a Gothic approach to drama.

What might we call it? Sorrow Gothic? Melangothic? Winter Gothic?


What the Revival Coul Be

Although the Gothic doesn’t explicitly factor into English Professor Eric G. Wilson’s advocacy for melancholy in his book Against Happiness, although he does offer an occasional disparaging comment about Goths, he might as well have been talking about the core idea underlying Sorrow Gothic when he writes:  

“Once we accept these seasons of mental winter as inevitable parts of life – indeed, once we affirm them as essential elements of existence – then the paradox comes truly alive. We actually feel, in the midst of our sorrow, something akin to joy … We somewhere sense, probably deep in the unconscious, that we are now in our melancholia participating in life’s vital fluxes, in the profoundest forces of the earth. We suddenly feel better – not blissfully happy but tragically joyful. We die into life.”

With Horror and Terror having had their time, and in no danger of disappearing, Sorrow Gothic offers a different perspective from which Goth can evolve. But it’s not enough to think in terms of adjusting mood and aesthetics. Fundamentally, the question is: how can the art of Goth move beyond a nostalgic repetition of sounds and images past to incorporating new influences? How can we push the technical skill in support of ambitious artistic visions?

Of course, we can point to bands like Dead Can Dance, Soporus Aerternus, Cinema Strange, and even disbanded Bauhaus with its timelessly avant-garde sound as enduring pioneers (to name but a few). But to thrive, any culture needs a regular influx of new voices that aren’t simply repeating the past. While not identifying as Goth, but unquestionably within its sphere of influence, the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble and its sibling, the Mt. Fuji Doom Corporation, offer an avant-garde path to gloomy and contemplative new musical expressions drawing on jazz rather than rock. Electronic musician Lorn, while again not identifying as Goth, offers a melancholic groove on the theme of personal angst and suffering. This too presents a possible direction forward. And I’m sure, there are other examples that I’m not aware of (yet) that could influence a Goth revival.

Whatever forms the influence take, my feeling is that to succeed a Goth revival would do well to follow the examples of cultural art movements such as Surrealism. While comprised by as many distinct artistic visions as there were artists (e.g. Breton, Dali, Duchamp, Apollinaire), there was nevertheless a general agreement on the principles of the movement. (Only in the most general sense. Historically, the Surrealist movement split into factions, one led by Yvan Goll and the other by André Breton.) This was enough to create a recognizable identity for Surrealism without placing strict limits on the artists who practiced within it. While the elements of a Gothic Revival in the “Sorrow Gothic” vein are already present in the subculture to various degrees, starting with the affinity for cemeteries and funerary symbolism, a revival would benefit from a refocusing of these elements under a coherent framework of guiding principles and vocabularies. There is the risk of reinforcing the stereotype of the depressed Goth, perhaps, but that shouldn’t be a hindrance. Instead, as with anything, it should be yet another challenge to overcome in the pursuit of meaningful art.

And so, subject to revision ...

The Sorrow Gothic Manifesto


With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look'd sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, "My life is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"

-                Mariana / Alfred, Lord Tennyson



Sorrow Gothic …

  1.   is an art movement spanning multiple genres (e.g painting, sculpture, film, etc.) and media.
  2.   focuses on the experience of sorrow (melancholy, grief) with an uncanny awareness of mortality.
  3.   embraces melancholy as a positive rather than negative influence.
  4. is a deconstruction of sorrow and joy in the context of impermanence.
  5.   is symbolic in its approach rather than abstract.
  6.   uses a vernacular of ruin, time, death, change, madness, sorrow, ecstasy, alienation, solitude, liminality.
  7.   replaces the literal supernatural in narratives with allegories, dreams, and the operations of the mind.
  8.   views the nihilist’s task as overcoming nihilism, not embracing it.
  9.   fosters compassion and understanding towards its subject matter rather than fear and stigma.
  10.   insofar as it is political, champions the marginalized, the ostracized, the silenced, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the societal others.
  11. despite the above, should not always take itself too seriously.



While not an exclusive source of information, the Wikipedia entry on Gothic Rock provides a good launching pad to explore the history of Goth. Searching for the history of goth music online will also yield some interesting resources. Of course, as with any research vetting is recommended.



Also helpful is this curriculum outline for a 2013 literary course on the Gothic Experience from Lilia Melani at Brooklyn College’s Department of English




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