I just kicked off a long weekend by falling down a YouTube k-hole. The result being that I watched the 2019 documentary Scary Stories.
Like many millennials of a certain age, I remember Alvin Schwartz’s iconic horror anthology Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (SSTTIND), that irresistible fetish object, as a staple of our fifth-grade book fairs, our classroom paperback carousels. After a short phase trying to be the lunchroom leader of a small group of ragtag oddlings, I had blossomed (retracted?) into quite the lone wolf by that time. I was allowed to skip certain Language Arts units by preemptively passing the tests for them, so I often had an excess of free time to read what I wanted in the back of the classroom, slouched down, battered paperbacks splayed across my lap underneath my desktop.
I don’t remember the exact moment of discovery, but I clearly recall the sustained fascination. The pages you couldn’t stop turning, though your lip curled in disgust. The dread of what you’d see next. Being subsumed into a dangerous but seductive world of ambiguous biomatter: hair clots, roots, stray eyeballs. Becoming mired in the tangled swamp of cross-generational allegory. No doubt each of us has a personal bugaboo story or three; mine was “Oh, Susannah!” (the exclamation point still makes my skin crawl) for its charming combination of a sing-song-y tune with a mental image of decapitation.
I confess that, when the movie adaptation was announced last year, I had a passing “ooh” moment. However, I quickly lost interest when I heard the stories would not be presented as a series of disconnected shorts; instead, a scant selection of them would be woven into a contrived plot that had nothing to do with the books. I did check out the Pale Lady scene, which was fairly effective aside from a premature and unceremonious disclosure of the creature’s anatomy. But I’m happy leaving the rest of the film to young-uns who are less familiar with the books than I am and who therefore might not have the same standards for their screen portrayal.
A documentary, however, I was game for.
I’ll mention this up front: I think some of the criticism that has been leveled at the doc is understandable, but its flaws are not fatal. Yes, it would have been nice to have input from trauma-inducing illustrator Stephen Gammell, but he is famously reclusive, and anyway, considering the ruinous spewage of so many cultural icons of late, do we really want to spoil the delicious mystery with too much knowledge about the man? Yes, the doc features animated illustrations that might come off as inadequate gestures toward Gammell’s drawing style – but if taken on their own as art created especially for the film and not compared to anything else, they are serviceable. Yes, a lot of time is devoted to a certain former PTA president’s early-1990’s crusade against the books, spurred on by histrionic parents – but this leads to an intriguing heart-to-heart between that antagonist, who now wears her old talking points dispassionately like a worn-out but comfortable pair of loafers, and Schwartz’s emotionally ambivalent yet loyal surviving son. Despite the fact that she can’t quite part with her revulsion over these books, and he cannot subscribe to her grossly generalized notions of what is “age-appropriate,” the doc villainizes no one, and the erstwhile nemeses find themselves bonding over the beauty of children discovering a passion for the written word. Too pat, some may say, but amid a climate so divisive that respectful disagreement seems a relic long demolished, I found the exchange refreshing.
As I watched the doc’s parade of matured sub-cultural millennials, now parents and educators themselves, sporting spooky tattoos and casually adventurous hairstyles, creating morbidly beautiful art and sharing their nostalgia for this staple of their – of our – childhoods, I felt so like them in one way but so very apart from them in another. Despite my inclination toward darker, introspective media – and the robust obsession with mortality I’ve harbored ever since my tearful preschool-age realization that things break, but people die – I’ve never identified with any semblance of what one might call “goth culture.” My relationship with death and dying never translated into a widely recognizable, unified vision.
Though you’d never know this from the company I’ve kept for years.
I should probably hit up the old M-W before going further.
1: a member of a Germanic people that overran the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the Christian era
often not capitalized
a: rock music marked by dark and morbid lyrics
b: a fan or performer of goth
3: a person who wears mostly black clothing, uses dark dramatic makeup, and often has dyed black hair
Parts two and three of that definition actually strike me as surprisingly shallow. For my part, I’ve always associated “goth” with a befriending, if not a romanticizing, of capital-d Death in an effort to better accept it. Of course, much of the time this involves certain fashion choices, though not always.
The impediment this poses for me – in addition to the fact that my ravenous hunger for variety breeds a dislike for ways of presenting that risk becoming uniforms of a sort – is that I don’t view death as a friend or lover. In fact, I think it sucks. Or at least its attendant handmaidens – decay, suffering, and loss – suck, and I don’t look forward to them. I find the entire fustercluck decidedly unsexy, and no amount of cape-swishing or corsetry or Jack & Sally tattoos or Gorey coffee table books can convince me otherwise.
Nevertheless, like a normal living human I have a fixation with death, and for this reason, I – like my gothier generational cohorts – stand by those media rites of passage like SSTTITD that allow children to confront the nasty parts of human experience, grapple with them, and emerge, stronger, on the other side (a nightmare or two be damned). Not to mention the other invaluable things about the material: how it helped to preserve folktales from across the globe, cleverly handled perennial topics like fear of the “other”, and for years has given schoolkids a masterclass in creating horror, especially by demonstrating that that which is suggested or withheld can be much more terrifying than what is made explicit (for more about this, see this exchange between myself and a fellow Kindertrauma reader re: a series of 1980s drug PSAs).
Fresh off the documentary, a little raven reminded me about Regarding Charlottesville Music, Rich Tarbell’s oral history of the music scene here in town. Understandably, he’s advertising it as a stocking stuffer this year, since everyone’s out of sorts over the inability to go to shows. Investigating it more deeply, I found that the sample chapter he’d posted in advance of the book’s 2018 release just happened to be the chapter most relevant to my experience: the story of Tokyo Rose and our town’s goth/punk contingent. Of course I wasn’t around to witness the events documented – essentially, the rise and fall of the passion project of a disenchanted sushi chef with a soft spot for the area’s misfits. Nevertheless, Tokyo Rose was one of my first Charlottesville memories.
It’s 2002. Somewhere on the Sweet Briar campus, a leggy, subtly unhinged blonde called Karis** who prides herself on getting on with any and everybody, is convincing me – a frizzy-haired hybrid of sultry and sloppy who is still clueless about my sexual potential – and my friend Diana** – a conflicted Christian with daddy issues and an alabaster decolletage – to suit up in black lacy things and trek up the road to something called “Goth Night.”
Goth Night turns out to be a small, damp, foggy club in the basement of a strip mall sushi restaurant. Diana is wary, Karis is performatively relaxed, and to me, the air is electric. I see a willowy man in platform boots and a fishnet body stocking. It’s gender-f*cky and mind-expanding and I like it.
More than six years later, I chase an ill-conceived notion to Charlottesville and find myself a tourist in the very same scene (or its 2008 iteration). There’s a certain familiarity and it’s a given that we all like NIN, Leonard Cohen, Depeche Mode, and David Bowie – but at the same time, I never stop feeling like a bulging thumb. For a handful of years, I’m half in, half out, performing onstage with folks at times, privately getting singed by a flame or two… until finally I withdraw, still not knowing where I belong, just that I don’t belong there.
To this day, I’m a bit nostalgic – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. But some marriages are undeniably marriages of convenience. What I can say for certain is, the closer I get to figuring out what my proper place is and what my unique contribution should be, the more capable I am of appreciating how much someone else’s scene-family means to them.
To the goths of C-Ville: salud. Thanks for giving this bulging thumb, this outcast-among-outcasts, a place to dance sometimes.
**Names changed to protect the not-so-innocent