Media Finds Monster in 'Goth' Subculture

Never let the facts get in the way of a scary story.That take-off on an old newsroom joke could well sum up much of the mass media's reporting on the apparent "gothic" leanings of Columbine High School slayers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.Though the dead killers' connections to the gothic scene are still unclear, the media took off with the gothic angle like a cadre of headless horsemen racing for ratings.Leading the charge was ABC's news magazine 20/20."The boys may have been part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic Movement and some of these Goths may have killed before," said 20/20 anchor Diane Sawyer on the evening after the massacre.Then came this from grave-sounding ABC correspondent Brian Ross: "It's what's known as the Gothic Movement, violent and black."The piece relied on only one expert source, a Denver detective who described "goths" as a violent cult led by pop-icon Marilyn Manson.And for all its resources, the national network news program was unable to scare up an interview with even a single goth, running instead a few glib soundbytes from some kids at a Marilyn Manson concert.It wasn't just national TV tabloids that marched with klieg lights in hand in a quest to find a modern-day Frankenstein in today's growing goth scene. That same night, a local KKTV report anchored by Heidi Collins segued to coverage of last week's concert by heavy metal band Slayer, referring to those waiting for the show as "members of the Goth cult."Never mind that the ominously named death-metal group is not a "goth" band per se Ñ and that most goths aren't particularly impressed with Marilyn Manson either Ñ such distinctions were missed by a mass media intent on lumping almost anyone who wears black into some pop-music doomsday cult."I think [the goth angle] gives people something to blame [the Columbine massacre] on," said Brett Hegr, a 22-year-old UCCS computer sciences student who identifies himself as part of the goth scene.The anti-goth media frenzy reached even more fevered pitch in this city after local schools fell victim to a series of copycat events, some of which were reportedly perpetrated by kids donning the goth look.The episode that got the most attention came a day after the Littleton tragedy, when Colorado Springs Police Department reported that "a group of teenage 'gothics' dressed in black trench coats and black masks," drove to Coronado High School to mock the Columbine episode.The four black-clad teenagers were met by angry Coronado students, and school officials quickly called police. The incident was promptly picked up by everyone from the Associated Press to National Public Radio.But according to the school principal, Lou Valdez, the media's reporting on the event was overblown. Only one of the students, he said, was wearing a trench coat, and only one of the students put on a mask: a rubber, Halloween-style skull mask."It was a prank, a very distasteful prank, but no one was in danger," Valdez noted.Disturbing, yes, and even frightening under the circumstances, still one trench coat and one mask does seem at least a bit less sinister than the image of four people, uniformly wearing black masks and black trench coats marching up toward a high school.(And despite reports by city police and the media, a father of one of the teens did not have a heart attack and was not rushed to a hospital after a confrontation with his son. "It was reported on TV that he had a heart attack and that wasn't the case," said Valdez. "I saw him walk out to his car.")The episode shows how far and how quickly just a little misinformation can travel in today's live media market. And it shows how effectively each newsbyte adds fuel to an increasingly menacing image of goth culture.Other goth-related news reports highlighted random acts of heinous violence perpetrated by others said to be allied with the goth phenomenon. These reports, typified by the one on ABC's 20/20, never bothered to mention whether goths are more or less likely than any other group to commit violent crimes.While many stories quoted experts as saying goths were part of a dangerous and violent subculture, only a few small sidebar stories quoted sources who urged against a rush to blame."It's like blaming Judeo-Christianity for the Oklahoma City bombing," Brian Levin, a professor of criminology in New Jersey, told the Rocky Mountain News last week. "You have this elastic pool of troubled kids, and to blame any one movement is shortsighted."Interview with some GothsUnlike the teenagers who provoked mayhem at Coronado High School last week, goth Gabriel Salazar has been dressing down for the last few days.For one thing, he hasn't been wearing his black leather trench coat.It's partly because the 23-year old fears a backlash due to media's linking of the Columbine episode to goth teenagers. But the main reason Salazar said he's not wearing his full regalia, is out of respect to the Columbine victims."It's too fresh in people's minds; people might take it the wrong way," said Salazar, a slight, soft-spoken Colorado Springs resident who talked in between shifts as a cook at an upscale coffee and tea house downtown.What the "gothic movement" is depends on who you talk to. But to Salazar, gothicism is less of a movement with a single defining ideology, than a very diverse group of young people whose lifestyle finds beauty in the darker side of life."It's really an aesthetic movement," said Salazar. "It came out of the late '70s as the new-aesthetic movement, finding beauty in normal pretty things like flowers, but also seeing the beauty in things like growing old and having a peaceful death.""Like cemeteries can be beautiful places, for example," he added.The movement was fueled by post-punk-rock bands like Bauhaus and Joy Division who Salazar said "were very much interested in revolutionary ideas of the punk movement, but found that the punk movement had become coarse, violent and crude and in that sense hypocritical."While punk attacked society's ills with angry rebuttal, the gothic scene offered a more refined, reflective approach. As the phenomenon grew, the goth scene took on a fascination with both futuristic sci-fi, as well as arcane literature, music, architecture and art.Goth kids are just as likely to be reading Emily Dickinson, as science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Many listen to anything from Beethoven to industrial or hard-core rock music."Goths are more into the cerebral thing," said Erik Schroeder, manager of an underground music club attracta a goth following. "The culture tends to attract poets and artists. Kids who are a little different than most 15- or 16-year olds."While goths are often described as social misfits Ñ even by goths themselves Ñ Schroeder said they are not necessarily behavior problems. "It's not a culture of violence," he said of goths. "It's not a hate culture at all.""The fashion is what people are shocked by, but as people they are some of the most articulate and well-behaved people we get at this club," he added. "They're really kind of passive."Betty Fisher, owner of Betty Boop, an all-night diner that's become an occasional goth hangout, agreed. "Their behavior is fine," said Fisher, an evangelical Christian. "It's the way they dress that is way, way out there."A conservative, evangelical Christian, Fisher doesn't approve of the goth lifestyle. But she says she's never felt intimidated by the teenagers, who often come into her 24-hour diner wearing black clothes and face make-up."I don't fear them at all," said Fisher, noting that some volunteer and help out around the restaurant. "I trust them as much as I trust anyone."Along with an aesthetic that calls for dark candle-lit rooms, ornate candleholders and baroque furniture, there's also an attraction to role-playing games (on the internet or face-to-face) and music that some label as fixated on death, violence and even satanism.But goths say people too often confuse fantasy role-playing, or sarcastic lyrics that protest violence, with promotion of the real thing."It might be dark, but it's not violent," said Colorado Springs goth Brett Hegr. "If you're going to stereotype goths, it would be that they're wrapped up in their own depression, not that they're interested in killing people. The music has nothing to do with that sort of thing."And while many goths are influenced by pre-Christian or pagan belief systems, they do not necessarily worship Satan, said Tony Garcia, a Colrado Springs deejay who has been connected with the goth scene for 20 years."The whole thing is misunderstood," he said. "[The media] have lumped in all metaphysical beliefs with Satanism. Goths are not all into even white witchcraft, let alone Satanism."And in this town, anything that is not Christian is viewed as satanic. If it's metaphysics, if it's crystal, if it's aromatherapy, it's Satanism to some people."Some older goths (those in their 20s and 30s) concede that younger goths Ñ known as "baby bats" Ñ who are newer to the lifestyle may not all carry on the more passive ideals of the original goth movement."It's like some of the kids I see in the store," said Delaney Utterback, a DJ and a record buyer. "It's not so much critical thinking as finding cultural template to fulfill and to have rank within it. It's not about creation or deep thought, but acquiring the necessary things to be part of the scene."Still, he said even those attracted to the more nihilistic aspects of goth culture are not to be feared. "Absolutely not," he added. Nazi-goths?Moreover, Colorado Springs area goths say they have little in common with the two teenagers who planned the elaborate mass murder at Columbine High School last week.For one thing, the goth scene has generally been open to gays, bisexuals and heterosexuals Ñ as well as people from Christian and non-Christian backgrounds. Some goth men even wear skirts as part of the gothic fancy for things that hearken back to eras when men wore clothes that were graceful and flowing. (One reason trenchcoats and cloaks fit in with the goth aesthetic).Such things are hardly compatible, they note, with the apparent neo-nazi affectations of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.These contradictions have not stopped the media from drawing surprising connections between the troubled pair in Littleton and the gothic lifestyle.Among other things, many news reports linked Colorado industrial rock band KMFDM, popular among some goths, and the nazi-skinhead movement. "They identified KMFDM as neo-nazi skinhead band," said deejay Garcia "This is a simply a mistake."The band's lyrics, Garcia noted, are about fighting oppressive racist systems and bringing people or many races together, he noted. The band has denied any racist or fascist leanings and has issued a statement lamenting the Littleton shooting spree.Meanwhile, many Colorado schools have banned trench coats under policies that allow school authorities to regulate clothes that could interfere with the learning environment.But as school districts revisit their crisis-management policies in the wake of last week's shootings, Coronado principal Lou Valdez said it's important look at behavior, not clothing styles."It's unfortunate," Valdez concluded of goth kids. "A whole segment of society may have to bear the brunt of a stereotype because of a couple of individuals."***Goth Milk? For more info, check out the Colorado Goth Web page, which features links to goth-related individuals, businesses and groups playing internet role-playing games. http://www.gothic.net/~anri/co-goths/

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