In a narrow diner in Honolulu's Chinatown, a corseted DJ spins NIN's "Head Like a Hole" for a woman flailing her limbs like a Victorian marionette. The Nightmare Before Christmas streams on a flat screen behind the cherry-lit bar, and the smell of clove cigarettes wafts in from the sidewalk of the half-seedy, half-gentrified Hotel Street. If you squint really hard, you could almost believe it was 1994. But looking around at the small group of darkly-clothed people gathered for Hawaii's only regular goth night--which a few months later will move to a pool hall and change its name from "Kore" to "Vortex"--it's obvious that goth's heyday, at least in paradise, may well be behind us.
In the past five years, the number of goth events has taken a dive in many cities across the country, as has attendance at those that still exist. In New York, weeklies top out at a possible two. In San Francisco, even the 23-years-running "Death Guild" has experienced a bit of a recent slump--perhaps not just because young people have been priced out of the city, but because this is a generation more engrossed with cultivating their identities online. But this sweeping downturn is arguably most striking on an island of just under a million people, where the farthest crowd a dwindling subculture can attract is no more than 35 miles in either direction. Plus, you know, it's Hawaii, where a sunny disposition and a chill vibe reign supreme.
"Put on a reggae night and people will come," said longtime Honolulu DJ and goth promoter Nocturna, who, with choppy bangs and in a black tee-and-blazer combo, could easily be mistaken for Siouxsie Sioux's more casual cousin. "But anything else? It's hard." Indeed. At the bar across the street from Kore, I once saw two dudes bang away on bongos as a DJ spun Avicii. Everyone enthusiastically danced around them.
I was born and raised in Honolulu. In the peak of the goth-enamored 90s, I could twirl around in my long crushed-velvet skirt to Cocteau Twins and Gene Loves Jezebel several nights a week at makeshift bars and all-ages warehouses that popped up throughout the decade. I hung out at the Sub Club, Valentino's, Temple; events at After Dark, Access, Fusion, Rendezvous, 1739; and the ultimate bondage fete, "The Dungeon," with its multiple rooms, fetishes and dance floors, held once a month for crowd of up to a thousand. The 80s may have invented goth, but alternative subculture climaxed in the 90s, making it the paramount time for young people in Hawaii who were sick of Jawaiian and surfwear to really thrive in the legitimacy of their community--whether that community was punk, metal, goth, ska or techno.
These days on Oahu, however, alt culture is mostly comprised of EDM with a Burning Man flair. The third wave of goth, or what's left of it, is a mishmash of post-punk/industrial old and cybergoth new (think more synthesizers and dreadfalls with a smidge of steampunk and Japanese Lolita fashion thrown in for good measure). There is essentially that one goth/industrial night held every month at the pool hall, plus a couple of 80s nights where you might hear a Cure song, a few annual events and only two promoters regularly trying to keep the goth scene alive.
"If this was a different place, like Germany, then goths would be all you'd see at a goth night," said Nocturna. "But here, you just don't have a very big crowd. It's kinda fading; they're not interested. I mean, people are, but they're really young and I don't know how to get them out."
Nocturna explained that the late-nineties/early-aughts crowd, like her and myself, have obviously gotten older--they're married, they have kids, they would rather just stay home and listen to their favorite songs. Furthermore, many of the alt youth who don't totally fit in with Hawaii's laid-back vibe grow antsy and move away, like I did fifteen years ago. "I rarely see people from the old scene anymore," she told me. "It's not the same."
What I remember most about Nocturna from days past is that she would magically appear on the dance floor during an especially moody cut. It always happened after midnight, when everyone well past drunk, and she would sway away in her own little carved-out space, arms overhead, eyes closed, feeling it. She was one of few there purely for the music, an enigmatic loner that gave no shits about the socio-politics of the scene or what people thought.
"For me, this is not a phase," said Nocturna. "I've been doing this forever. I still have my collection of records, and the thing that keeps me going is that I get to play it on the radio." Nocturna's goth/industrial/ethereal show on college station KTUH, "Feast of Friends," has been going strong for fourteen years. When dark-themed events started to slow down in the early 2000s, she decided to start throwing her own, like the classic-goth-heavy "Camera Obscura" in 2003. A few years ago, however, she saw numbers dwindle, even though she was essentially the only promoter of her kind left in town. In response, she began to focus on bigger, annual events, like Miss Vamp Hawaii, a vampire beauty pageant with a "moon-bathing" (lingerie) competition, which spawned a local reality show. "I stopped doing monthlies because it wasn't picking up like it used to. When you only have, like, 20 people there, it's not worth it."
But some goths refuse to accept the dwindling state of the scene and are hell-bent on reviving it. Nephilim Halls, a small collective of millennials who were bummed when goth-friendly clubs like Pink Cadillac and 1739 shut down in the mid-aughts, put together a website in 2011. For the past four years, it's served as a sort of ongoing goth newsletter to keep communication thriving and the community apprised of what events are left. And when Nocturna started focusing on bigger--and more infrequent--stuff two years ago, they decided to throw events themselves, including Kore and Vortex.
Two of the brains behind Nephilim, Void and DJ Nightfox, will concede that the movement is in a low ebb right now, but they aren't giving up. "We're lucky that our scene fluctuates less than trendy ones, like dubstep, for example," said Nightfox. "Dubstep blew up here--everybody was holding dubstep nights at clubs and doing monthlies--and then suddenly it just died out. Our scene has experienced ups and downs, but it's never fully died out."
Others are less impressed with the island's darker options. "It sucks in Hawaii," said David Johnson--who, at over six feet in his black platform boots, was quite literally the standout at Kore. "I mean, I'm glad this is here," added the 29-year-old from central California, noting that he met many of his friends and his wife at goth parties in Honolulu, "but there's lots more to do in San Francisco or the Bay Area."
Johnson's day job is in the military--a population that has long made up a good chunk of Hawaii's goth/industrial crowd, especially at BDSM events, where, in a sea of exotically mixed women in bustiers, blond guys with crew cuts and slightly misplaced Korn T-shirts tend to stick out. According to Nightfox, the attraction might have to with the militaristic aesthetic of rivetheads (those who lean more industrial) and the aggressive nature of EBM (Electronic Body Music, like mid-80s Ministry). Or, as is the case with Johnson, these tastes were already cultivated where they were raised, where the music was more readily available. Or it could simply be that the military itself draws misfits seeking structure. Regardless, a clientele on a three- or four-year tour has an expiration date, adding to the turnover problem that Hawaii's scene already faces when kids move away after high school and college.
"We lose our military boys all the time, and then we get new ones," said Nightfox. "It's a constant struggle trying to get the word out to them because we know they're there."
Another problem local promoters might have: too much aloha, too little business acumen. "We don't this for the money," said Nephilim's Void. "We do this because we want to listen to the music and hang out with our friends. And that's why we keep doing it." I, personally, can attest to this: For a short while in 1999, I ran a goth/dark-wave biweekly on an off night at a gay bar. While I was very proficient at designing fliers with cool, swirly photo collages of Robert Smith and dancing whenever the fuck I felt like it, I struggled with getting new people interested and especially with making my friends pay a cover. Plus, the more people I did meet, they more they became my friends, and the less money I had to settle my vodka tab at the end of the night.
But living in a close-knit community has its perks, too. One plus about living on an island is that practically everyone is a friend, and thus a potential supporter. Even though I'd left the scene more than a decade ago, I still found myself included in this phenomenon: Nocturna told me that she once asked my high-cheek-boned little brother if he wanted to run for Count Dracula, the male equivalent of Miss Vamp, and the dude shooting the shit with Kore's door guy was the cousin of a former boyfriend of mine.
In my golden years, seemingly distinct scenes ranging from punk to hip-hop had a lot of crossover. Even if you identified as goth, you'd still support pals who were MCs, or you'd go to a local ska show because it gave you something to do on a Thursday night. All scenes seem smaller now--with metalheads, goths, punks, belly dancers, anime geeks and general weirdos blurring into one another on the fringe--but the inviting disposition is still there. Even the most intimidating pale-faced Lurch motherfucker will meet you with a smile if you smile first.
When I tell people outside of Hawaii I used to lurk in the goth scene there, I'm usually met with scoffs and bewilderment, as if it's impossible to remain a brooding mope in a perfect, green 82-degree backdrop. And under that stereotyped definition, they're right! I may've worn patent-leather boots instead of slippahs and twirled around in my bedroom to Peter Murphy on repeat, but it's a local's inclination to show respect if respect is given and to not to take herself too seriously--and that has always made the Hawaii scene strangely more authentic and probably more foreign to the standard hardcore goth. Today, that general spirit remains--at Kore, everyone I spoke to was warm, unarmed. There were far more people standing around laughing in their fangs and trench coats than glowering and posturing.
I asked Nocturna if she, like many of her old friends and acquaintances, has ever considered leaving the island for a bigger city. She said that she has, but has family obligations that keep her in Hawaii. "Also, I like it here," she added. "You'll never find a sunrise or sunset like this anywhere else."