What Did the Gothic Counterculture Have to Do With the Columbine High School Shootings?

Combining those who consider themselves social outcasts, the gothic counterculture has made an impact on society since the early 1980s. In the days, weeks, and, now, years following the Columbine High School shootings, the identity of the gothic culture has been misrepresented and misconstrued in the media. As the two young killers were identified in the news as being part of the gothic culture, the culture immediately became the media’s scapegoat. The blame in the media translated to a blame in society, leaving a lasting impact both on the minds of America’s public and on the lives of those within the gothic culture. Through the finger-pointing and unverifiable connections produced by the media, America’s general population turned its blame upon the gothic culture for the Columbine High School shootings, forever tarnishing the gothic persona by installing an ignorant framework of the gothic culture in the mind and in the eyes of Americans looking for the cause of such evil.

The gothic culture is a modern movement which arose from the punk-rock scene of the early 1980s. The first establishment dedicated to the culture was a London nightclub called The Batcave where popular gothic bands played. The modern term gothic as it refers to the culture was first used by Anthony Wilson, manager of a popular show on the BBC, when he said that certain bands seemed gothic in comparison to the pop music of the time. The gothic appearance is what sets the culture the farthest apart from mainstream culture. Goths dress in extremely dark clothing which contrasts the pale, white make-up they wear. Multiple piercings and unique hairstyles are also common for the goth. The well-known fascination with death the goths maintain is often a reason for scrutiny of the culture. Despite the commonly misunderstood fascination with death, gothic ideals follow a non-violent and tolerant approach that has not been fairly portrayed in the media post-Columbine. Although no set constitution of the gothic culture exists, the non-violent beliefs of the culture are reflected throughout media created by members of the culture including stories, poems, song lyrics, and websites. While the gothic media may seem abnormal to mainstream culture, the violence connected with the culture has not been present exhibiting the ignorance displayed by the media post-Columbine.

Throughout the eighties and most of the nineties the gothic culture was looked at as being different but no harm to society. With clubs throughout the nation, the culture was looked at like any other group of people who wanted to be different from what was considered normal America. Despite the strange glares goths would receive based on their choice of clothing, they found nothing wrong with what they did: “[One gothic teen’s] dad writes off his sartorial style as part of being artsy. But it’s more than that, Brian [Atkin] said: ‘I see what I do as being normal'”(Jones 1). The goths found themselves to be a separate group of people within the larger part of society. The media coverage, although little, reflected the same basic idea of the culture being unique and different, but it still included them in society. The fascination with death and some of the anti-religious symbols worn by goths were part of the reason for their separation from mainstream society. While their appearance dawning certain symbols seemed offensive to some, the reasons for the goths wearing of the symbols was easily interpreted by the media: “But the use of these symbols, along with the church paraphernalia and images of Hell, is for the most part a lot less threatening than it seems. Most Gothics enlist them for their shock value with little consideration for their greater meaning”(Jones 1). The media understood why the goths did things the way they did, and with this clear message being displayed in the media, the goths were understood in a way that many other cultures had not been in the past. They may not have necessarily been appreciated, but the goths were always accepted.

On April 20, 1999, however, the acceptance and neutral media coverage would change forever. On that day, two students of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, entered their school’s cafeteria and opened fire on helpless students and teachers. The decision made by these two young killers left 15 dead including both of the killers after committing suicide, 25 wounded, and countless people in shock throughout the nation. The two killers had been best friends throughout their schooldays and were friends with a boy who was part of a group of kids at school called the “Trenchcoat Mafia” because some of them wore black trenchcoats to enhance their gothic look. The two shooters, however, had little to no connection with that group of students. Throughout their youth, they had created websites with instructions for building bombs, made videos where they staged the murders of athletes in school hallways, and had been in prior trouble for stealing. With these activities leading to the school shootings, the nation faced an event that would leave a lasting impact. The nation suddenly became scared of similar events happening anywhere in any school. Despite the shooters lack of connection with the gothic culture, the media made a connection and the shootings, therefore, had a lasting impact on the gothic culture as the media used the culture as its scapegoat.

In the days following the shootings, the question of who was to blame became the target of all forms of media throughout the nation. The media quickly teamed together and pointed their finger at the gothic culture. The gothic culture became the target of overpowering scrutiny and could find no way to escape the blame as the media used its tricks to enhance its claim. Quotes from interviews often appeared out of context or explained improperly such as a quote by one of the killers’ friends, Kristin Thiebault: ” ‘It was just this constant battle of who kills who'”(Wilgoren 1). The quote is describing the way the boys played a videogame, James Bond: Goldeneye. The article, however, does not explain that a large portion of America’s youth is playing the same game saying the same things about it. The computerized violence in the video game is being translated into real violence by the media in this article, in order to strengthen the connection between the gothic culture and violence. The article also makes it seem as if the killers had been playing the game as a sort of gothic activity, but this connection has absolutely no basis as the gothic culture favors non-violence. Unnecessary descriptions also became commonplace in the post-Columbine media, in order to enforce the differences between those of the gothic culture and those of mainstream America. In one article, where a girl is being interviewed about the gothic culture at Columbine, the article states: “Denee Taylor, 17, who has six rings in her ear and a stud in her tongue”(Wilgoren 1). The description of the girl does not need to be in the article, but it is there to enhance the differences of the gothic culture making it easier to place the blame for the shootings on them. The media found its scapegoat for the shootings and then enhanced the differences of the culture in order to place it as far away from mainstream society as possible.

By displacing the gothic culture from the mainstream, it became easier for the media to create an identity for the people within the culture in the minds of society. The media’s displacement created a gap, essentially, between “people” and “goths.” Creating this gap dehumanized the gothic culture, removing any positive thoughts society may have had of people within the group. The ignorance of society about the gothic culture turned into the media’s forming of a gothic identity which reflected dark, violent individuals. While the claims the media were forcing onto society lacked supporting evidence, the ignorance within society welcomed these ideas and made them their own. The new, violent gothic identity became the target in the media who used it to create a scapegoat for the Columbine shootings.

With its scapegoat set, the media searched for some sort of a leader of the gothic culture, ending up with rock artist Marilyn Manson. While Manson has little connection with the gothic culture, his fascination with death allowed the media to not only associate him with the culture but to place him in a position of mass blame for the shootings. The media tore apart Manson’s shows, pulling out anything and everything that they could connect to the violence at Columbine: “[Manson’s] stage show features arson, self-mutilation and crucified girls […] he even tried to stage an elaborate hoax to have himself assassinated from the audience”(True 26). Although the acts at Manson’s shows may seem violent and repulsing, none of these acts reflect the kind of mass shooting that occurred at Columbine High School. Both the self-mutilation and faked assassination represent violence upon Manson. Nowhere in his array of acts does he shoot or kill anyone or do anything to represent the act of murdering as a positive event or even a neutral event. The difference between Manson’s stage antics and the Columbine shootings is a reversal of the murderer and the victim. As members of the media exposed the “frightful truth” of Manson’s shows, other members discussed his lyrics where they discovered “countless” mentions of violence and death. The plethora of anti-Manson articles gracing the pages of magazines and newspapers across America aroused an overwhelming feeling of disgust and often hatred towards the unjustly blamed Manson. Not only was he considered the cause of the shootings by much of the media, but articles surfaced stating that Manson did not even care about the events at Columbine. An overlooked fact, however, shows a different story: “The week after the Columbine High School tragedy occurred, both the National Rifle Association […] and Marilyn Manson were due to appear in Denver, mere miles away from Littleton. [Manson’s] show has been cancelled. The NRA conference hasn’t”(True 26). Not only does this fact display that Manson does care as he canceled his show out of respect for the tragedy, but it also shows an overlooked target for blame. How could the nation’s largest pro-gun group essentially escape any responsibility or blame for youth shootings, while a musician is bashed and dehumanized in the media? One answer to this question reflects a larger picture in society: “Even more predictable was that the brunt of the bashing was directed at designated demon Marilyn Manson. (Had the crime been black then gangsta rappers would have taken the fall)”(Plasketes 15). This opinion places the musical artists who have some violence in their lyrics and who share the race of the violent members of our youth in society at blame. While this point echoes the unfair finger pointing and fabricated connections, the problem of the media’s creation of an individual or group of individuals as responsible for the blame still exists.

The blame placed on the gothic culture is based on their assumed role as a “trenchcoat mafia.” The phrase “trenchcoat mafia” started at Columbine High School one day when some of the more popular kids at the school noticed the trend beginning with a few fellow students. The new trend, wearing a long, black trenchcoat, became a popular way of dressing for a small number of the “gothic” kids. As these kids tended to assemble into one group, they were given the name “The Trenchcoat Mafia.” Despite receiving negative remarks about their style all through high school, these gothic kids were soon made fun of more than ever before. Rather than fight back, the gothic kids remained non-violent throughout the harassment and even began calling themselves by the same name. According to some of the students and teachers at Columbine High School, there was nothing wrong with the group at all: “[It was] just a tiny clique of boys long seen as losers, finally finding a place”(Wilgoren 1). Despite comments such as these from people associated with the kids at the school, the media saw the word “mafia” and immediately made a connection with violence. Reports were made that this group had even placed a picture in the high school’s yearbook under the title: “The Trenchcoat Mafia.” In the yearbook from Columbine High School, a picture with this title does exist but what the media often omitted is a description of the picture. There is not a single trenchcoat present anywhere in the picture, but there is something else important that is not present in the photograph. Neither Eric Harris nor Dylan Klebold, the two shooters, are present in the photograph. They were not in the picture because they were not actually part of this group of friends. The connection between the shooters and the group was made by a media source who found the phrase, “trenchcoat mafia,” on one of the boy’s websites. It was through this false connection that the media then was able to connect the shooters to the gothic culture as the friends who were in the photograph tended to be members of that culture.

Through unfair connections created by the media post-Columbine, members of the gothic culture have been constantly subjected to the stereotypes of violence and murder. As the media’s rampage of finger-pointing at the gothic culture continued to grow, a mother of a gothic student at Columbine High School discussed the situation her son and his friends were experiencing, ” ‘All of them are in shock. They’re all destroyed. I don’t know – they’re never going to be the same'”(Wilgoren 1).These gothic students attending Columbine High School not only had to experience the tragedy of the shootings, but they also had to deal with the blame that the media was holding their culture responsible for. The media was punishing these individuals for the way they dressed and some of their interests. The criticism placed on the culture by the media absolutely “destroyed” these individuals because the media had stolen their identity. After the media’s post-Columbine rampage, the goths had two choices: they could change their identity, or they could try to live with the identity the media had placed in front of them. Through all of the struggles, one student said that the picture being portrayed of the shooters and the gothic culture ” ‘is not at all accurate'”(Wilgoren 1). Even when members of the gothic culture attempted to rise above the negativity being shot in their direction, their comments often fell on deaf ears against the power of the modern media. The stereotypes created through the media’s misrepresentation of the gothic culture in the weeks and months following Columbine echo on as time progresses. In an article about a Boston high school, information shared by a junior at the high school show how the stereotypes have spread across the nation: “[Her] high school classmates gave her friend Mike the nickname ‘Columbine’ because he wears long trenchcoats”(Sweeney D1). Not only has the stereotype been proven to have spread across the nation, but the stereotype is echoing through history now as well. The nickname, ‘Columbine,’ was given to this student over five years after the shootings had taken place. The fact that the stereotype is lasting through time reflects the way the media used its tools to convince the public of the gothic culture’s blame.

The evidence that the media is responsible for the stereotyping of the gothic culture is overwhelming, but it is the reasons for the finger-pointing that members of the gothic culture are searching for. There are many different answers that can be given to try and create some kind of understanding about why the gothic culture was hit so hard by the media. A high-school-aged gothic girl, Cyrena Upton, blamed it on the fact that the gothic culture is a counterculture and is different from the mainstream: ” ‘Honestly, I think it’s easier to blame the outcast of a social group than it is to blame anyone else, because they’re different'”(Sweeney D1). By blaming a small group, the media would create less controversy while still being able to “solve” the problem of the Columbine shootings. Perhaps, it was a way for the media to not lose its popularity at a peak in audience numbers as number always rise after a major event. When the media chose to focus most to all of its blame on the gothic culture and icons such as Marilyn Manson, they erased “any and all accountability elsewhere, including parents, friends, antidepressants, guns, law enforcement, schools, or obvious but ignored warning signs”(Plasketes 13). If the blame had been placed on any of these things rather than the gothic culture, then the media may have created more uproar in society and angered the people who were an audience for their medium. No one-hundred-percent definitive reason can be given as to why the gothic culture was considered responsible for the school shootings; only assumptions can be created, similar to those created by the media post-Columbine. Novelist Tom Robbins’ reaction to the media coverage of Columbine explains the situation in a way others may never think about, ” ‘The wrong headedness of our reaction as a country is almost as tragic as the event itself'”(Plasketes 24). While it is difficult to compare unfair media coverage to the tragedy of the Columbine shootings, the stereotyping created by the media continues to live on, disrupting countless lives of individuals part of the gothic culture.

While blame was being placed on the shoulders of the gothic culture and figures “connected” to the culture, things such as the presence of weapons in America’s youth society were being overlooked: “One million American students are estimated to carry guns to school. You can buy a pipe bomb […] for just $2 on the Net. And it’s a f*** of a lot easier to kill someone using a gun than using a record”(True 26). Although the gothic culture will continue to be responsible for the Columbine shootings in the eyes of many throughout the nation and even the world, no one should overlook other factors that could have had a much stronger influence and contribution to the final result in Littleton, Colorado. If the media had considered these factors in their initial post-Columbine reports, then perhaps the problem of gothic stereotyping would never have existed at the level society has seen it these past few years. Unfortunately, the reports focused on the gothic culture and its fabricated connections to the shootings and violence in general. If the media had done more research into the background of both the story and the gothic culture, then they may have discovered the lack of connection the gothic culture has to violence and, more specifically, the Columbine shootings.

Jones, Rose Apodaca. “Modern Gothic Clothes, Clubs Celebrate Theater of the Macabre.” Los Angeles Times 8 July 1994: 1. Plasketes, George. “Things to do in Littleton When You’re Dead: A Post-Columbine Collage.” Popular Music and Society. Vol 23, Iss 3. Bowling Green: Fall 1999, 9- 24. Sweeney, Emily. “Mistaken Identity: These are the Dark Days for Goths, Who Say It’s Wrong to Tie Them to School Violence.” The Boston Globe 14 October 2004: D1. “The Goth Culture: Its History, Stereotypes, Religious Connections, etc.” 6 April 2005. http://www.religioustolerance.org/goth.htm. True, Everett. “Blood on his Hands?” Melody Maker 8 May 1999: 26. Wilgoren, Jodi. “Society of Outcasts Began With a $99 Black Coat.” New York Times 25 April 1999: 1.

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