Modern Gothic : Clothes, Clubs Celebrate Theater of the Macabre

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's enough to send parents into a frenzy.

Almost overnight, their sweet, "normal" teens take to wearing only black. They pore over Ann Rice books and quote Edgar Allan Poe. Graveyards and gargoyles are revered and satin-lined coffins considered ideal furniture.

The minor-chord drone from their stereos sounds like a track from a Bela Lugosi flick. Even their chums look the part, with their zombie makeup and dyed black 'dos.

And it isn't even Halloween.

Nor is this a part-time masquerade to those in this year-round scene. Call them Gothics or death rockers. Just don't call them weird.

These deadheads emerged as a horror sideshow from the punk movement back in the late '70s and early '80s. At the forefront was London's Batcave nightclub, which featured death rock bands, as well as a tight community of such bands in Los Angeles that played the local club circuit.

The look was--and still is--a combination of punk and 18th- Century dandy for both sexes: hair teased out straight, plenty of black eyeliner, witchie-poo pointy shoes (preferably in patent leather and with loads of decorative buckles), shirts of ruffles and lace and mixtures of vinyl and velvet.

Render it a version of the Theater of the Absurd, with roots that go much deeper in time than the past two decades. Modern-day Gothics cull the more macabre and Romantic elements from the 14th through 16th centuries, known for Gothic art and architecture, and the 18th and 19th centuries, which include the Romantic period.

Among the bizarre historical and mythical tidbits that fascinate them: the corruption of the medieval Catholic Church, executioners, ghosts and vampires. Besides Poe, other icons are Lord Byron, the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire.

Like the undead who never really leave the planet, Gothics haven't really gone away--they've only gone, uh, underground. You may have spotted one out in daylight: the widow wardrobe, pale face and Morticia makeup--on both the boys and girls. Their numbers have been rising again over the last couple of years.

Distinguishing the she's from the he's in this androgynous parade of groovy ghoulies is another matter. It's an issue that caused a rift between Sarah Bronkhurst, 15, of Anaheim Hills and her father.

"My dad says my friends are a bunch of freaks," said the Horizon High sophomore, biting her burgundy-stained lips. She dyed her blond hair to match her wardrobe when she got into Gothic three years ago via her mom's record collection, which included albums by such early '80s seminal acts as Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

All right, so most fathers would react alarmingly to a boy in an ankle-skimming skirt and eyeliner. Sarah finds such a guy "beautiful." Most Gothics take great care in their makeup and dress, she said: "You have to have artistic talent to do the makeup. Everyone is so graceful, they're a work of art." It also takes time. Sarah spends three hours getting ready for a night out.

"I don't like the way preppies or hip-hoppers look," she said. "This is how I express myself. People who get shocked are close-minded. When I first got into this, people would say things and I would get upset and flip them off. Then I realized I was lowering myself to their level, so I decided to ignore them."

Ignoring Gothics or their interests might not be so easy for those unfamiliar or confused by the very different nature of this scene.

Gothics read about devils, but do not worship them. They are interested in the battle between the extremes of good and evil.

The dark side of human nature is both questioned and celebrated by Gothics, as is death. Gothics listen to songs about death as well as write (yes, most of them consider themselves bards) about it. The subject might be the undead in a cheesy B film or those in literature.

Despite the interest in death, suicide is definitely not on the agenda, they say. Gothics say they find nothing glamorous or heroic about such an act. To them, death is celebrated as a natural part of the life cycle.

Then there are the accouterments of death: hearses, coffins, skeletons, black.

But the use of these symbols, along with the church paraphernalia and images of hell, is for the most part a lot less threatening than it seems. Most Gothics enlist them for their shock value with little consideration for their greater meaning, the same way the original punk rockers used the swastika not for racist reasons but simply to annoy others. Names of bands also have shock value: Christian Death, Dead Can Dance and Alien Sex Fiend.

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Although younger Gothics downplay any attempts on their part to shock, veterans still in the scene, like Terri Kennedy, 30, admit it's part of the territory.

"Most parents did crazy stuff when they were young," said Kennedy, who co-owns Ipso Facto in Fullerton, a popular source for Gothic regalia. "It's about experimenting and finding out about yourself."

Janet Whitney, a marriage, family and child counselor with Coastline Counseling in Newport Beach, agrees. She has worked with teens who were into Gothic. The costuming, the androgyny, Whitney said, "may help them develop an identity and move on in life. (That is) as long as there's no drugs, rituals or threats that could prove damaging. Their role acting is all a part of the theater."

Whitney also said there's nothing wrong with the androgyny as long as they are not acting out sexually.

"Our whole culture is so reserved," she said. "In Europe, people touch each other much more in public. Women go arm in arm. Here we keep our space, we keep everything suppressed inside. These are very sensitive kids; they can be very creative. A little freedom can be very healthy."

If parents support their children, try to communicate with them and not push them away, there's a lot less chance of problems, Whitney said. "Dressing up is not the problem. The problem is the behavior. Parents need to support who their children are."

Ipso Facto's Kennedy considers the themes at play in the Gothic scene a part of the life experience. "It doesn't mean you'll become a druggie or an ax murderer," she said.

Try telling that to mom and dad, you say? Kennedy has. Over her five years in business, she has gotten calls from parents wanting to know more about why their kids have become so scary-looking. Many blame the music for making their children depressed or turning them away from the mainstream.

Said Kennedy: "If you're worried about their safety, drive them to a show. Talk to them. It's better to have a parent who cares. I hear too much about parents who don't."

For Sarah and her friend, Los Alamitos senior Jessica Etter, the stuff of this scene has proven a lot less heavy than outsiders might think. The dramatic attire and mysterious attitude are basically "pretty fun," said Jessica, 16, of Seal Beach, a professional ballet dancer who has been into theater her "whole life."

"I've always liked to overdress and look elegant," she said. "And you can do that here." Recently, she dyed her sister's old prom dress black for a night out to Helter Skelter, a Wednesday-night Gothic nightclub at the Probe in Hollywood.

She and Sarah usually club crawl dressed in gear tougher than velvet and lace, such as shiny vinyl outfits accessorized with plenty of metal and leather jewelry.

Although Jessica finds the Gothic club scene "almost magical," she agrees with others who consider much of it pretentious. Apparently, it has changed little in a decade.

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"A lot of people try to out-Goth each other," said Anaheim resident Brian Gregory Atkin, 16. Because of this, Brian refuses to be labeled Gothic. But his attire and interests belie his intention.

The former Mater Dei sophomore will enter the Orange County High School of the Arts in Los Alamitos in September as a junior to further cultivate his talent. Judges at his audition were wowed by his detailed ink drawings of Gothic cathedrals. He exhibited the series at Ipso Facto in January; another show is scheduled at the boutique in early October.

Even though the Crystal Cathedral is in his neighborhood, Brian signs off the massive glass structure as a "New-Age mess" lacking the beauty of Gothic architecture, which he has never seen in person but has learned about from books.

"I am fascinated with good and evil, life and death," he said. "Cathedrals have all this with their angels and gargoyles and the scenes depicted in the stained-glass windows."

Brian resembles singer David Bowie's Thin White Duke persona, complete with extended Edwardian cuffs on his white shirt and glossy black enamel cuff links. His strawberry blond hair is slicked back, brows manicured and short fingernails filed to a point. Whereas Bowie's Ziggy Stardust influenced Gothic sounds most, it's his refined, brooding Duke that some guys prefer.

A local kid turned Brian on to the music in third grade, but it wasn't until seventh that he began dressing in dark clothes, he said. Too much partying the following year led his parents to blame the scene for his problems. Three years later, Brian said he is now sober and still into Gothic:

"There's Gothic people hooked on drugs and without a brain. But there's a lot of others who are very intelligent and spiritual."

Brian's parents have approached their son's continuing interests with a mixture of support and anxiety. Though they keep communication lines open, his father said he still worries that "he's not into the mainstream."

Blue velvet breeches and a vest, lace stockings and a blousy shirt are hardly the elements of the average ensemble for the prom. But it's what Brian chose when he accompanied a friend to her school's event.

"A lot of ignorant teen-agers and adults think that unless you look like them they can be rude to you," Brian said. "They feel a need to bash just to keep their own egos up. I keep myself open to all kinds of friends. I don't really care if someone wants to make rash judgments of me because I choose not to have friends who think narrow-mindedly."

His dad writes off his sartorial style as part of being artsy.

But it's more than that, Brian said: "I see what I do as being normal."

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