When I saw the dark, Alien-like horror film Pitch Black, it made perfect sense to me that the same director had done The Crow, just as it made perfect sense to me that the director of Seven and Alien 3 had also co-written the proto-Matrix sci-fi noir Dark City and many comic books.
Of course, I was mixing up four different people.
For the record:
As a nerd who is fond of film, sci-fi, comics, and 80s pop, I probably should have felt guilty about mixing the four gentlemen up—and about having to write their names down in a list to keep them straight—but maybe it’s not just me. There is a sort of Axis of Goth at work here, and each man seems to be operating on the theory the darker the better.
That is not to say that the films are nihilistic or nasty: All of them are in some way about triumphing over incredible odds and keeping one’s psyche and conscience intact, even if a lot of people get shot/eaten/punched/rained on along the way. Pitch Black’s criminal protagonist Riddick (played by Vin Diesel) comes to realize that he cares about the survival of others trapped on a planet of nocturnal monsters. The Crow comes back from the dead to avenge a murder. The hero in Dark City leads a computer graphics–intensive revolt against aliens who are trying in vain to dissect the human soul while keeping humanity enslaved with illusions (and this one year before The Matrix, a film that reused some of the actual sets and props from Dark City). Fincher’s heroes keep fighting in the face of a world full of serial killers (Seven), ruthless interstellar corporations (Alien 3), conspiracies and ennui (The Game), burglars (Panic Room), Nietzschean aggression and ennui (Fight Club), and Puritanical aristocrats (“Express Yourself”).
It’s an important reminder that the Goth sensibility is not necessarily at odds with moralism, any more than film noir was before it. On the contrary, it is a basic principle of drama that we care more about the protagonists if they face some sort of tension or crisis, and surrounding our heroes with vampires, man-eating monsters, and other dark menaces fosters more tension than surrounding them with fairies and helpful sales clerks. Though some recent critics of movie violence and pop culture “darkness” manage to overlook it, there is a big element of life-affirming playfulness in the willingness to explore the dark places and come out the other side intact. That’s what makes Halloween such a popular holiday, after all. Play-acting the roles of ghosts and goblins is not necessarily an endorsement of the behavior of ghosts and goblins (menacing people who live in old mansions, etc.).
In fact, the paint-it-black Goth sensibility can sometimes be combined with Halloween frivolity. One director who is at no risk of being mixed up with the dour bunch listed above but is clearly a Goth at heart is Tim Burton, almost all of whose films feature a pale or ghostly hero (Beetle Juice, Pee-wee Herman, Batman, Edward Scissorhands) who, cast out of normal society, dwells in a cave or abandoned building and battles monsters or misshapen freaks. Burton himself affects a style of dress best described as a cross between the Cure’s Robert Smith and Willy Wonka: black suits and wacky bow ties, not so different from some of his characters. (But then, even the Cure’s Smith quickly tired of all-black-all-the-time and by the mid-80s threw in flashy hightop sneakers and videos in which he cavorted with puppet octopuses or wore teddy bear costumes.)
Even in a visual medium like film, it’s important not to judge by mere appearances. The Goths and gothic-toned films may look scary, but they aren’t necessarily trying to hurt you. Tickle a Goth, does he not giggle? Bite a Goth hard enough on the neck, does she not bleed?
This lesson may seem too obvious to be worth stating, but we live in a world in which the (highly unusual) Columbine shootings led to Congressional hearings on the dangers of the Goth subculture (around the same time that The Matrix, with its infamous black leather jackets and machine-gun massacres hit theatres). Mere hearings wouldn’t worry me so, except that Congress is so shallow and likely to misunderstand things. Witness the mid-90s Congressional report on TV violence that mindlessly counted acts of violence per hour in television shows without taking into account their moral context. In the end, this bean-counting approach led to Star Trek: The Next Generation being put on the top ten list of most-acceptable shows and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine being put on the list of least-acceptable shows. As most viewers suspected, they used the phasers a lot more on Deep Space Nine—though no one in his right mind thinks the prevailing ethos of one Star Trek show is significantly different from another (Star Trek always prioritizes reason and diplomacy over combat). Appearances are not enough evidence on which to base moral judgments, a point we must strive especially hard to remember when faced with things that are easily lumped together by visual characteristics alone, such as films or members of an unfamiliar ethnic group.
Perhaps the films of the Axis of Goth are destined to blur together in the eyes of posterity (as they have to some extent even in the mind of a sympathetic viewer like me). Even if they form an undifferentiated dark cloud over the last decade or so of the twentieth century, let us hope they will not be misremembered as having had a negative impact on the culture simply because the darkness frightens us and makes us anticipate bad things.
Todd Seavey is a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow, edits HealthFactsAndFears.com, and is writing a book called Conservatism for Punks.