You can scourge the web and books and ask many a “true” Goth themselves but you will not get one pertinent answer. I’ve found the best way to explain what goth is and what it means to be goth is to go through the history on how it started.
History of Goth Subculture
The name Goth was first and foremost given to an Eastern Germanic Tribe which played an important part in the fall of the western Roman Empire. The term later became negative and synonymous with barbarian and uncultured. This was due to the then-contemporary view of the fall of Rome and the depictions of the pagan Gothic tribes during the process of Christianization of Europe.
During the Renaissance period in Europe, medieval architecture was labeled as gothic architecture and considered unfashionable in contrast to the then-modern lines of classical architecture. By the late 1700’s in the UK, nostalgia for the medieval period led people to become fascinated with the medieval ruins. The fascination was often combined with an interest in medieval romances, Roman Catholic religion and the supernatural.
Horace Walpole was the leader of the gothic revival architecture movement in the UK and enthusiasts of this movement were nicknamed “Goths”, the first positive use of the term. Horace Walpole was also the founder of the “Gothic Literature” genre with his 1764 publication of “The Castle of Otranto.” This book contained the more modern connotations of the term “gothic”. He claimed that the book was a real medieval romance that he had discovered and republished. Thus the term gothic was associated with the mood of horror, morbidity, darkness and the supernatural as well as self parody.
The gothic novel established much of the iconography of later horror literature and cinema. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses. The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, madwomen, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, angel, fallen angel, the beauty and the beast, revenants, ghosts, perambulating skeletons, the Wandering Jew, and the Devil himself, (in no way meaning that he is worshiped)
An additional notable element was the brooding figure of the gothic villain, which developed into the Byronic hero. The most famous gothic villain is the vampire, more notably Count Dracula, originally depicted in a novel by Bram Stoker, who was then made more famous through the medium of horror movies.
The influence of the gothic novel on the goth subculture can be seen in numerous examples of the subculture’s poetry and music, though this influence sometimes came second hand, through the popular imagery of horror films and television. The Byronic hero, in particular, was a key precursor to the male goth image, while Dracula’s iconic portrayal by Bela Lugosi appealed powerfully to early goths. They were attracted by Lugosi’s aura of camp menace, elegance and mystique. Credit is given to the band Bauhaus’ first single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, released August 1979, with the start of the goth subculture, though many prior art house movements also influenced gothic fashion and style. Notable early examples include the musical group Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Dave Vanian of the band The Damned. Some members of Bauhaus were, themselves, fine art students and/or active artists.
Some of the early gothic rock and death rock artists adopted traditional horror movie images, and also drew on horror movie soundtracks for inspiration. Their audiences responded in kind by further adopting appropriate dress and props. Use of standard horror film props like swirling smoke, rubber bats, and cobwebs were used as gothic club décor from the beginning in The Batcave. Such references in their music and image were originally tongue-in-cheek, but as time went on, bands and members of the subculture took the connection more seriously. As a result, morbid, supernatural, and occult themes became a more noticeably serious element in the subculture. The interconnection between horror and goth was highlighted in its early days by The Hunger, a 1983 vampire film, which starred David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon. The movie featured gothic rock group Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in a nightclub. In 1993, Whitby became the location for what became the UK’s biggest goth festival as a direct result of being featured in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Throughout the evolution of the goth subculture, familiarity with gothic literature became significant for many goths. Keats, Poe, Baudelaire and other romantic writers became just as symbolic of the subculture as dressing all in black. A newer literary influence on the gothic scene was Anne Rice’s re-imagining of the idea of the vampire. Rice’s characters were depicted as struggling with eternity and loneliness, this with their ambivalent or tragic sexuality had deep attractions for many goth readers, making her works very popular in the eighties through the nineties. Movies based on her books have been filmed in recent years — notably Interview with the Vampire, in which goths appear directly and indirectly.
For me, the Goth Subculture is a romantic, dark yet decadent view of the world and life, an acceptance of the life and death, the light and dark in all our lives and in the world. Goths are indifferent, though not uncaring, open minded, well read and intelligent people. Accepting of diversities and praising differences, enjoying the bad as well as the good in life.