Pagan Love Songs: Goth Subculture, Religiosity, and Occultism

Raven Digitalis, author of Goth Craft: The Magickal Side of Dark Culture, argues that “The Craft [of Wicca] very well may be the path that vibes best with Goth culture, not only because of its mystical allure, but also because of its emphasis on nature, magick, and the self all being interlinked, as well as the interconnectedness of light and dark.”

Likewise, says Dunja Brill in Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style, Goths “display a strong interest in religious or spiritual questions.” Drawing motifs from “occultism, paganism, ancient cults, [and] Christianity” for their material culture, Goths are often led to a highly personal religious outlook.

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The quality of articulation in regard to religiousness and spirituality, within Goth, has grown over the decades. The subculture certainly exhibited these tendencies from the beginning, but references to the esoteric, in song lyrics, for example, were largely unsophisticated, and occasionally hostile. Take, the line “Pass the crystal spread the Tarot In illusion comfort lies” from the Sisters of Mercy single “Alice,” for example.

While some Goth bands openly reference occult works, Goth itself has been happy to draw on Christianity, in unorthodox ways, at least, most especially through its romantic interest in the question of mortality.

Unusually, in Cambridge, England, in around 2005, the Reverend Marcus Ramshaw, associate vicar at St Edward King and Martyr Church, began holding regular services for local Goths, about twenty of which attended regularly. Ramshaw – himself a Goth – wrote a special liturgy and replaced the usual hymns with music from bands such as Depeche Mode and Sisters of Mercy (I’m not sure if Depeche Mode really qualifies as Goth, by the way).

The congregation itself turned up to church wearing black, with occasional accents of red. Ramshaw said he realized that many of the people he knew, “were spiritual rather than religious and were desperately looking for a spiritual home,” which the regular church was not, apparently, providing. Whatever our reaction to Gothic church services, that Goth music could be made to fit a religious ceremony tells us the degree to which this subculture is imbued with a sense of the otherworldly.

Goth music and church services might not be as incongruous as they first appear. The promoter of northern British band Joy Division described as their sound “gothic” in 1978, and, at around the same time, the edgier British music press used the term to describe Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Unlike punk, which created a solid noise of vocals and instruments, this new sound created the illusion of distance through the use of effects, such as the echo, and through mixing vocals into the background. When aficionados spoke of “gothic” they meant to refer to the spaciousness of the gothic cathedrals.

Joy Division: Closer (left) and Love Will Tear Us Apart (right).
Joy Division: Closer (left) and Love Will Tear Us Apart (right).

Less well-known, but no less influential, was the band Psychic TV. It was formed in 1981 by Genesis P-Orridge, the former singer of the punk band Throbbing Gristle, and was, in effect, the musical wing of the occult organization Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, of which P-Orrifdge was head. Psychic TV’s early music also has that spacious, “gothic” quality. (The song Guiltless, features Marc Almond’s signing, violin, church-like organ and bells.)

Gothic music created a sense of “spacious ambience,” partly romantic and partly ominous, evoking a world — or, rather, netherworld — well beyond that of Thatcherite Britain, and the credit card economy.

As the inherent character of music, the spatial lends itself to ideas of movement, architecture, and purpose; as a whole, theater. It was perhaps inevitable that the slowly awakening Goth movement would be a partly theatrical one, but the suicide of Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, and the artwork for the covers of the band’s single, “Love will Tear Us Apart” (1979), and album Closer (1980), which featured statuaries in an Italian cemetery, undoubtedly helped to set it on this path.

There was a romanticism of death and immortality, as an absolute rejection of a society that seemed to be devoid of any sense of the transcendent. As Goth developed its iconography, the painted deathly-white face became an essential for female Goths as well as many male Goths. (Some even occasionally dowsed their dyed black hair with flour, to make it look dusty, as if they had just woken up in a mansion after a century-long sleep.)

Notably, the Goth vogue for china white faces emerged as Laker Airways was making headlines with its cheap flights to sunny holiday destinations. Tanning and getting drunk in sunny Majorca or Ibiza was seen as something to aspire to. Goths clearly disagreed. They turned to wearing black, and presented themselves as sober and somber persons.

Smiling was regarded as something that only stupid people would do for the camera. Their ideal holiday destination was smoggy, grim, Victorian Britain. Female Goths sometimes wore Victorian corsets.

Velvet, associated with royalty and bohemians, and lace – an obviously feminine fabric – associated with veils, widows, and craft (as opposed to mass production and modernity) were favored. Although less common, male Goths sometimes wore frilly Victorian shirts and top hats. Clothing had to be black, although touches of red, white, and purple were permissible.

With songs such as “Spellbound,” “Halloween,” and “Voodoo Dolly” – all on the album Juju – Siouxsie and the Banshees was only one band in the Goth genre to reference occultism, witchcraft, and eerier mythologies. However, Goth’s interest to the esoteric during the 1980s was limited to aesthetics. It did not advocate a particular spiritual or religious position. Instead it created an arcane religious atmosphere through its music, clothing, dancing, etc. Its rejection of fun, as usually understood by society, was puritanical, even fundamentalist. Its music and dancing, though, was more pagan – at least as understood by many neo-pagans today – and ecstatic.

Pagan Lovesong by the Virgin Prunes (left) and Moonchild by Fields of the Nephilim (right).
Pagan Lovesong by the Virgin Prunes (left) and Moonchild by Fields of the Nephilim (right).

The ecstatic, spontaneously pagan side of Goth is revealed, for example, in “Pagan Lovesong” (1982) by the Irish band The Virgin Prunes, and in the performance of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus’s lead singer, Peter Murphy, at the beginning of the movie The Hunger (1983), a modern – and quite Goth – vampire story starring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie.

On the cover of “Pagan Lovesong” was a photograph of one of the band’s singers, Guggi, painted with thick tribal-like make-up and a “Mohican” haircut. On stage at this time, members of the Virgin Prunes wore cosmetics and women’s dresses, and danced erratically, as if performing something more like a Voodoo ritual than a rock concert.

But, Goth did become associated with the occult, and with Wicca, in the popular imagination, as well as with some Goths themselves. Formed in 1984 by lead singer Carl McCoy, British Goth Rock band Fields of the Nephilim has made frequent use of occult imagery and tradition. The band released its single, “Moonchild” — named after a novel by British occultist Aleister Crowley — in 1988. Also released this year was the album The Nephilim, which featured Moonchild as well as another Crowley-influenced track, “Love Under Will.”

Then in 1999, the single “Psychonaut,” was released. This was named after an occult manual by the then relatively unknown contemporary British “Chaos magician” Peter J. Carroll. Remarkably, Moonchild and Psychonaut both made it into the “top 40” best selling singles of the week – a benchmark then of peculiar emotional importance for contemporary British music. Although now evident in the lyrics of some Goth music, it was the 1996 movie, The Craft, that really associated the subculture with Wicca and the occultism.

Goth, despite everything, is really a romantic movement. It can be Wiccan, occult, Christian, or merely theatrical and artistic. As a subculture formed largely around markers of identity, such as music and clothing, it does not necessarily offer any answers, but, as a subculture, it has the endearing quality of having an interest in the eternal questions.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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