As a subculture, goth is easy to recognise, but tricky to pin down. Ask the average passer-by and they might just picture some dude in a mesh vest, platform boots and a Slipknot wallet chain. Ask your mum and she may unearth an old photo from the 80s where she’s in winged eyeliner and backcombed Siouxsie Sue hair. Go to Camden Market and you might bump into some cybergoths decked out in colourful latex, surgical masks and tube hair extensions. My point being, unlike the colour black, there are endless types of goth, each incarnation from various times and places, dating all the way back to 1967 when some bloke used the word to describe The Doors.
For me, personally, “goth” represents my closest friends, chill hangouts in old churches, heavy synth music, DIY clothes and an interest in haunted stuff. Unlike the punk scene, which I found myself heavily identifying with growing up, goth feels less angry and politically inclined, attracting people who lean inwards, and more towards the reserved. But it’s also about being interested in the darker side of existence – not necessarily in a Satanic “let me suck your blood” way (although if you’re into that, fine) – more in the sense that goth recognises death as part of life, and celebrates it with music, fashion and flamboyance.
But from the outside, goth is in a weird place in 2018. Trend forecasters have told us that style tribes are on their way out, academic research has claimed punk was the very last subculture and the internet makes it look like kids are more into memes and cryptocurrency. With all that in mind, what does it even mean to be goth right now? Is it dying? Is it evolving? Has it plateaued? To answer these questions and more, I make my way to the 27th edition of Wave-Gotik Treffen Festival – widely recognised as the largest goth festival in the world – to sleep, feast and party with the 20,000 goths who’ve descended upon the city of Leipzig for one long weekend.
Despite its quaintness, Leipzig is clearly the ideal location for a festival like Wave-Gotik Treffen. With its rich classical musical history (Bach, Mendelssohn and Wagner all lived there), various churches from diverse architectural movements (including Gothic) and an imposing Monument to the Battle of the Nations that sits in the middle of town, a certain theatricality threads the whole thing together. And that war monument is also close to Südfriedhof, an incredibly beautiful cemetery that predictably becomes a hotspot for hangouts over the weekend, amounting to quite a few extra hearses casually parked outside.
The city’s inhabitants may have once harboured concern about the vampiric creatures that started billowing through their streets once a year, but these days they’ve clearly adopted Wave-Gotik Treffen as part of their yearly calendar. Many of the aforementioned buildings are open for special events surrounding the festival, and when I ask around, older shopkeepers happily say things like “The goths are like family to us!” and make offhand comments about how they smell like patchouli, sounding like grandmothers speaking about a slightly weird but very nice cousin who visits once a year and brings them an antique orb that they don’t really know what to do with, but appreciate nonetheless.
Saying that Wave-Gotik Treffen is like “Coachella but for goths” would be barely scratching the surface. Yes it’s technically a music festival – there are over 200 artists on the line up, although if you’re not heavily into goth stuff the only name you might recognise is The Jesus and Mary Chain – but there’s a lot more going on than that. The area is crammed with stalls, selling everything from lace Elizabethan collars to full-body chainmail and miscellaneous potions, and there are a bunch of delicacies available to sample, including jet black soft serve ice cream (which looks amazing, btw) and an alarming amount of absinthe.
If you’re not interested in watching bands or eating food, though, you can also head down to Heidnisches Dorf, a field beside the camping area. Here, visitors are able to watch dramatic retellings of Nordic mythology and soak in a public bath with other goths – which sounds weird as hell so I didn’t try it, but I’m sure it’s fun for some people. Basically, as I learn during my three days here, Wave-Gotik Treffen isn’t necessarily about live music, and it’s not even really about the food or activities either. It’s more about a community coming together from different parts of the world, and can be enjoyed even if you sit on the same spot all day, watching life (or death) go by.
So what does goth mean in 2018? If this festival is anything to go by, the subculture has so many factions that what ties it together is more of an ‘essence’ than something concrete. “Yeah there’s no ‘right’ way to be a goth,” confirms Franziska, 30, who has been coming to the festival for six years. “You can do what you want, wear what you want, be what you want. It changes over time, but there’s no one thing. It’s music, it’s a lifestyle. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can speak with all generations.” It’s hard to disagree with him. Goth continues to trundle along without aiming for “coolness” or trying to stay “relevant”. In that way, even when clearly defined, tribal subcultures may seem to be dwindling, the elasticity of goth is what keeps it going. Those who identify with goth will gravitate towards it, and the many generations you find at Wave-Gotik Treffen each year feel like proof of that.
Punter Ulrich, 57, from Stuttgart is a clear example. He tells me he onlys dresses up for the festival yearly, and has been visiting for five years. “I like the flair, the people, the atmosphere, their clothing… Everyone is very kind,” he says. “I wanted myself to dress like the other goths. I wanted to be Victorian and to go back in time.” Ulrich is one of many “seasonal goths” here – not all who take part in the festival are “lifestyle goths”. In fact, lots of them don’t get the chance to explore this part of themselves in their daily lives, or say they were attracted to the panache of the event rather than the actual goth scene. Some people I speak to have travelled here with the sole purpose of enjoying the Victorian Picnic, a gathering in the beautiful expanse of Clara Zetkin Park, and which is open to the general public. There, Victorian and Elizabethan-style goths, joined by a few other subsections, are able to relax, showcase their DIY costumes and enjoy tea and cakes, all while being constantly photographed by local newspapers.
When asked what it feels like to attend the festival, most replies include the words “freedom”, “community” and “home”. While here, the thing that strikes me the most was how being a goth evidently has less to do with worshipping Satan, collective misery or eating children – and more to do with the radical idea that you can wear what you want and have fun without looking down on anyone in the process. This festival specifically offers a space where these communities can thrive, and where people who might’ve been considered “weirdos” in their respective hometowns are celebrated.
If there’s one thing all the people I’ve spoken to have in common – be they steampunk, Medieval, trad, batcave, Victorian, rivetheads or cybergoths – it’s that none of them felt they had to alter their authentic selves to belong within goth. Rather, they’ve found a scene that expresses what they’ve already been feeling inside for a long time. I know you could say the same for most subcultures, but what makes goth stand out in particular is that no one is there to out-cool each other. Goth is a subculture, many point out, that has no hierarchies, no rules. Sure, most are interested in the slightly macabre and have a flair for the dark and dramatic, but it’s more a style that offers you the chance to embrace freedom in whatever way you see fit.
I felt unexpectedly sad on the journey home, already mourning my return to the dullness of non-goths and their light-wash jeans. But overall, my perspective of goth after three days of full immersion confirmed what I knew deep down already: that Goth in 2018 is the same as it’s always been. It’s not really about how many skulls you wear on a daily basis – although obviously the more the better – but about celebrating creativity and self-expression in whatever form that takes. And because of this general openness and elasticity, goth essentially has the potential to be immortal.