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Tamara Keith: A Gothic Tale

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A Gothic Tale

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
Posted April 28, 1999

Photo: Tamara Keith

Tamara Keith.

By now everyone in America has heard the grim details of last week's mass murder at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The basic plot involves two boys walking into their school armed with guns, homemade bombs and a plan to take out those they construed as "undesirables."

In the end, 15 people lost their lives: one teacher, the two gunmen and a dozen other students.

But there's another, potentially devastating plot still thickening over the airwaves and around the water coolers: many people are shifting their focus from the disturbed minds of two boys to question the moral character of an entire generation, blaming the pop culture that defines it.

Soon after the first news of the rampage, media organizations went from reporting the facts to drawing unjustified conclusions about youth culture in an attempt to explain the gunmen's behavior. Within hours, word had spread that the killers had been part of a small clan of students known as the "trench coat mafia" because members wore black trench coats even in warm weather. Some allegedly studied the occult, others mixed Hitler worship with an unhealthy interest in paramilitary hardware. Others spent a whole lot of time on the World Wide Web and played violent video games like "Doom."

Their behavior, according to some experts, was clearly the result of a "Goth" lifestyle. For those not in the know, "Goth" is a subculture that embraces everything from Victorian-era dress to vampire mythology to industrial rock. Except for a few freaks who take the vampire stuff a bit too seriously, violence is not usually associated with Goth.

One police officer who had spent the past several years studying the Goth culture was quoted as saying, "I was always afraid something like this might happen."

Genuine Goths are now afraid, too. They fear that their once subversive culture is being associated with a horrific crime and an ideology that isn't actually theirs.

One TV report the night of the tragedy featured a soundbite from a clearly distraught Columbine High School student saying: "I was always scared of those guys. They did strange things and they listened to Marilyn Manson. Why would anyone do that?" (Marilyn Manson, a gender-bending rocker who borrows dramatic elements from the Goth subculture, is also a top-selling recording artist.)

The Columbine student's reaction to the massacre was much like that of the adult reporters, police officers and pundits trying to find a tidy explanation for such an appalling event. In this case, Goths were the answer.

It's disturbing how one violent act carried out by a few deranged high school seniors can put an entire generation in a negative light. Not everyone born after 1978 is a gun-toting maniac desensitized to violence. Sure, our generation has violent video games, "Terminator" movies, Marilyn Manson and single-parent households, but most of us have managed to keep a grasp on reality. Every generation has its bad seeds -- who teach the rest of us how not to behave.


April 28 - May 4, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 32)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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