What Hath Goth Wrought?

A much maligned subculture hits the Net to beat a bad rap

| November/December 1999

An e-mail that begins this way stands out: 'I'm a Goth/Wiccan in Alabama, and for the crime of wearing black lipstick, a trench coat, and a pentagram, I've been a social outcast for four years. In some ways I've had it better than many of your respondents: I'm graduating at the top of my class as a National Merit Scholar with a 1,600 SAT, a finalist for the Alabama All-State Academic Team, and a semi-finalist for the Presidential Scholars, among other things. I'll matriculate at Yale University. I hold these things up as talismans to protect me; all my awards are thin paper shields to keep me safe from the hatred that surrounds me and my friends.'

The message came from Jennifer Andress, a senior at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Alabama. A self-described Wiccan (the pagan religion commonly associated with witchcraft) and Goth (the broody subculture marked by industrial music, black clothing, white makeup, and a preoccupation with death), she is a member of an obsessive, brainy community of oddballs, misfits, geeks, and nerds who know what it's like to be outcasts.

The massacre near Littleton, Colorado, in April hit their world like a bomb. Like so many other kids who don't fit into conventional notions of 'normal,' Jennifer found the massacre and resulting media-fueled hysteria appalling.

'It hurts,' she wrote. 'Why do people assume that a kid in a black trench coat must be a psychotic murderer instead of a National Merit Scholar? Or a kid who plays Doom? Or wears white makeup? Or listens to Marilyn Manson or industrial music? Or spends as much time on the Net as his or her classmates do on the football or soccer field?'

Although many geeks are happy, well-adjusted, popular, and athletic, many are not. They grasp the reality of the alienated, the anger of those who inhabit a world that isn't made for them, doesn't work for them or reflect their values, and sometimes systematically excludes and humiliates them--a brutal fact of life in middle school and high school. And if life was painful before Littleton, it got worse afterward. The media coverage was grotesque, even outrageous. Even serious journalists accepted and transmitted the idea that two students turned to mass murder because they played nasty computer games associated with the gloomy (but nonviolent) Goths, or had access to Internet bomb-making sites.

Dumb and demonstrably false as it is (an estimated 20 million Americans, mostly kids, are into video and computer games; hardly any commit mass murder), this idea was so prevalent that most of the country actually came to believe it. The week after the massacre, a Gallup poll suggested that more than 80 percent of Americans agreed that the Internet was at least partly responsible for the Colorado killings.

And who could blame them? CBS's 60 Minutes devoted a segment to this question: 'Are Video Games Turning Kids into Killers?' Time magazine ran grainy pictures of the two killers under this cover line: 'The Monsters Next Door.' Hundreds of newspapers and TV stations ran stories linking computer games, Goths, Web sites, and other 'aberrant,' 'abnormal,' and 'weird' behavior to mass murder. These messages were almost guaranteed to panic parents and students and to stampede educators into overreaction. Instead of being a force for truth, clarity, and calm, the media transmitted hysteria. The cost of being different--already high--went way up.

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