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TRAGEDY IN COLORADO

Gothic Subculture Not to Blame for Violence, Its Adherents Say

Style: Experts say similarities to youths who killed classmates is limited to attire. 'We just sit around and do nothing,' says a Fountain Valley practicer.

April 22, 1999|MATEA GOLD and HEIDI SIEGMUND CUDA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The deadly school rampage by two black-clothed Colorado students Tuesday has drawn attention to the Gothic subculture, a scene characterized by a macabre fascination with all things dark and dramatic.

An alternative style that grew out of the punk scene of the late 1970s, the Goth scene is embraced by many alienated youths who express themselves by donning black clothes and heavy makeup.

Although it's unclear if the shooters at Columbine High School were full-fledged Goths, it appears that some members of their so-called Trench Coat Mafia bore some of the trappings of the subculture, darkening their nails black and painting their faces white.

But that is where the relationship between those students and Goths most likely ends, experts said. Although Goth culture embraces the occult, it is not considered a physically violent fringe but rather a style of sinister music and clothes that gives disaffected suburban teenagers a group with which they can identify.

"Goths are about image. It's not real substantive," said Larry Samuel, an analyst with Iconoculture, a consulting firm in Minneapolis. "People who live that lifestyle become outsiders intentionally. You choose to do it; it's a luxury almost.

"They do feel marginalized, but they do it to themselves to give themselves another set of rules. They define themselves by creating a world in which they are victims of other peoples' biases, which in turn makes them feel like they are a part of something."

Nancy Smith, owner of the Melrose Avenue curio shop Necromance, who says about 20% of her customers are Goths, adds that she does not "associate Goths with violence."

"I think it's to have a different personality," she said. "They don't want to be the jocks, the cheerleaders, on the spelling team.

"Parents should be concerned when their kids are on the Internet learning how to make bombs, not because they're painting their fingernails black and wearing makeup."

As the public casts about for answers to the horrific shootings in Littleton, many Goths said the lifestyle should not be blamed, arguing that their fascination with the dark side is a harmless form of self-expression.

"You don't have to worry about [Goths]," said Erica Newberg, a 16-year-old sophomore at Fountain Valley High School, who places herself in that group. "We just sit around and do nothing."

Newberg was dressed in jeans and a tank top Wednesday--"this was a dare," she said. Normally she wears "head to toe, all black," and sometimes a light amount of white powder on her face. Her tongue is pierced with a half-inch spike, and her nails and hair are dyed black.

There are about 25 to 30 "weirdos" like her at the school, she said, and they are all relatively harmless.

Other students say Goths and other social groups purposely isolate themselves from the mainstream, rather than being pushed in that direction by others.

"It seems they don't want to fit in," said Aaron Burden, a 17-year-old junior at Fountain Valley High School. "They like being different. Nobody's openly mean. I think they prefer it the way they are."

School psychologists said that belonging to a particular social group such as Goths is not necessarily an indicator of a potential problem. Rather, said Lee Huff, school psychologist at Fountain Valley High School, parents and teachers should be concerned about a combination of signs such as aggressiveness and violent imagery in writings for school.

"I've got kids who dress in all black," Fountain Valley Principal Gary Ernst said. "I've got kids who've got green hair. In most cases, they're not misfits."

Peter Thomas, the owner of Retail Slut on Melrose Avenue, said what characterizes youth in the Goth scene is the music--dark, brooding bands like The Cure, Bad Religion and Christian Death that lean heavily on Gothic archetypes in their lyrics and concerts--and the dress, which encompasses everything from bat wings to black vinyl pants and is topped off by white makeup that makes Goths look like ghosts.

Thomas said there is violence in the Goth world, but it's not normally expressed outwardly, as it was in Colorado.

"There are a lot of kids who don't feel good about themselves. That leads to a lot of self-mutilation, I think, and sometimes even suicide or attempted suicide," he said.

Back in the late 1970s, Goth was a gloomy art-school spinoff of punk rock. Like most alternative scenes, it was born out of youthful rebellion, angst, frustration, depression and a passion for art and music. The music of choice was commonly referred to as Death Rock, and bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned and Sisters of Mercy reigned supreme.

A small faction of today's Goth scene influenced by industrial music is very militant, Goth music experts acknowledged.

But the subculture, in general, does not promote violence against others and encourages people to connect through music and artistic expression, musicians said.

Fate Fatal, whose group, the Deep Eynde, is at the forefront of L.A.'s underground Gothic music scene, said he is offended at the notion that because they dressed in black and wore dark nail polish, the Colorado shooters will be lumped in with the Gothic set.

"Mark my words, there will be a witch hunt," Fatal said. "They'll blame it on the music, just like they tried to blame suicide on Black Sabbath and the shootings of cops on Ice T."

Times staff writers Matthew Ebnet, Jeffrey Gettleman, Kurt Streeter and Kastle Waserman and correspondent Harrison Sheppard contributed to this report.

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