Gothic Text files Helter Skelter

Date: Tue, 25 Jan 94 18:32:10 PST
From: ivo <>
Subject: Anthropology and the Goths...

Ok... finally, here's an abridged form of my term paper (parts have been cut out because the pictures and flyers included with the paper couldn't be included here). I just ask you to keep in mind that this is an anthropology paper, written from an anthropologists point of view for people that have absolutely no understanding of the gothic culture at all, this was not meant for entertainment. Ok.. so now that we have that taken care of, we can move on... so let's, shall we?

Helter Skelter

J Beswick
30 November 1993

836 N. Highland Avenue. Hollywood. The location: The Probe. Friday night. 10PM. The club: Helter Skelter. Helter Skelter is, for all intents and purposes, _the_ foremost gothic club in Los Angeles. Established in 1989, Helter Skelter has built in its four year history a following and a reputation such that the name Helter Skelter has become synonymous with the term "gothic." Before examining Helter Skelter, though, it is important to examine first the gothic movement and the development of the gothic subculture.

In the 1970's, in both America and Britain, a new movement much like that of the hippie movement was being established, centering around music and dress that reflected the general ideals of rebellious youth. This was known as the punk movement. As Clinton Heylin puts it, "the New York and London scenes shared similar antecedents, reflecting a common disenchantment with the rock and roll status quo" (xi). The music was hard, fast, and loud. The dress was a bricolage of ordinary, everyday clothing put together in an abhorrent way. The attitude was that of total rebellion, a spitting in the face of authority.

"Lurex, old school uniforms, plastic garbage bags, safety pins, bondage and sexual fetishism were developed into a self-mocking, shocking image. Hair was shaved close to the head, dyed out- rageous colours, then later spiked up into cockatoo plumes of startling design" (Brake, 77).

The punk movement formed among society a new subculture, or as McGuigan puts it, a "youth culture." The term youth culture can be deceiving, though, because the punk movement didn't create a whole new culture, but was created as a reaction to the already existing hegemonic culture.

"The importance of spectacular subcultures here is not that they represent the whole of 'youth' in some homogenous 'youth culture' but, in their practices of 'winning space' within and against the hegemonic order, they constitute fragile, transient and minority forms, issuing symbolic challenges to the dominant culture and its definitions" (McGuigan,96).

Toward the end of the 1970's, the British and American punk movements found themselves moving in two very different directions. This is mainly because American punk bands "saw themselves as self-consciously drawing on and extending an existing tradition in American rock and roll" (Heylin, xiii), and the British didn't. Where the American bands focused on rock and roll, British bands tended toward more synthesizer-oriented music. This music was known as new wave. New wave "was what punk became as influences became more disparate, musicianship improved, bands fragmented, new permutations emerged and record labels realized that punk was unmarketable" (Heylin, xii-xiii).

Gothic music emerged in the early 1980s, around the same time as new wave. On the one hand, gothic bands were "death-punk" bands: more punk-oriented, guitar based bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus. On the other hand, gothic bands were new wave bands with a darker edge: the synth-oriented bands like Soft Cell, The Young Gods, and The Cure. A third type of "goth" music developed also that was a combination of guitar and synth, music that was as much orchestral as it was rock. This music was dubbed ethereal-gloom pop, or, as many "Goths" so affectionately call it, "swirlie-girlie music," named so because most ethereal-gloom bands like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Bel Canto had female singers.

So if gothic music was just a reworking of punk and new wave, a bricolage of a bricolage if you will, one would ask how it is possible that the gothic movement became a separate entity from its parents, punk and new wave. If we look at Dick Hebdige's discussion of subcultural style, we may find a working explanation. Hebdige says that subcultures are "interested in the most mundane objects ... which ... take on a symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of a self-imposed exile" (2). Using this as a guide, it can be said that the gothic movement developed its own independent subcultural characteristics because its self-imposed exile was not only from that of the hegemonic culture, but from the subculture which bore it, the punk movement. Gothic culture took specific items from punk culture, like black clothing, leather and bondage and disregarded most of the rest. There was an even deeper element to gothic culture, which made it so unique. Where punk culture was out to shock, gothic culture was out to blaspheme. Crosses, rosaries, crucifixes, images of the Madonna, Christ, and angels were juxtaposed with gargoyles, vampyres, demons, and Satan.

Gothic clubs were dark and cryptic. The places screamed of evil. The image of the Virgin Mary loomed over the people dressed in nun's habits and bridal gowns in their white makeup and black lipstick, with rivulets of blood trickling from the corners of their mouths. Goths identified with vampyres and ghouls, outcasts of society. Dracula, Nosferatu, Poe and Anne Rice became idols to the Goths. They thrived on anguish, obsessed with death, and dabbled in the occult. All of this was used not only to completely isolate Gothdom from the dominant culture and make it virtually loathsome to society, but also to give those who felt outside of society, those who felt totally shunned by their culture, something to embrace and identify with, something they could call their own. The gothic culture was a refuge for the freaks and weirdos. This is the main reason why Goth never did more than peek into the mainstream: its goal was to scare everybody off. It was meant to repel, and not to be acceptable.

Gothic culture has thrived in the underground for almost 15 years. In America, this is probably most evident in Los Angeles. Since its establishment in 1989, Helter Skelter has become the most prominent gothic club in the country. As Tara Bai, a regular at Helter Skelter since the beginning, puts it in her article "Still Ghastly After All These Years": "no travelling Goth lets a visit to Los Angeles go by without a trip to Helter Skelter." Through the ups and downs, even during the early 90s, when it seemed that Goth was dead, that finally it had run its course, "Helter Skelter ... remained a constant and dependable foundation" (Bai).

So why didn't Goth die? How did Goth survive all these years later, even after the petering out of punk and new wave? Probably because it symbolized the epitome of rebellion. Although every subculture is by nature a rebellion against society, Goth is different because it uses the most extreme form of revulsion, blasphemy. Goth doesn't just spit in the face of society, it spits in the face of God. That doesn't mean all Goths are Satanists. The blasphemy is just a symbol used to represent the rebellion. Most people are attracted to gothic culture more because of its gutsiness and bravado than its abuse of Christianity, and some just because it is fun to dress up every weekend and escape into this totally surreal, nocturnal place for six hours, becoming just another androgynous Goth in black clothes and make-up.

"Over the last four years, through numerous location changes, one thing has remained constant: Helter Skelter is the one place where those of the nocturnal persuasion know they can go to find a safe haven from the mundane and the bland ... providing a meeting place for friends both old and new, and a place where you are able to listen and dance to the music you don't hear in many other places (Bai).

Now that I have examined the origins of the gothic movement and discussed the subcultural significance of Helter Skelter and gothic culture, I would like to examine more closely specific elements and key symbols used at Helter Skelter. As Sherry Ortner states, "each culture has certain key elements which ... are crucial to its distinctive organization." Helter Skelter and the gothic culture are no exception. If we use Ortner's definition of summarizing symbols, we can easily apply the terminology to certain elements of Helter Skelter. Ortner defines summarizing symbols as "those symbols which are seen as summing up, expressing, representing for the participants in an emotionally powerful and relatively undifferentiated way, what the system means to them." [STUFF DELETED... REFERENCES TO FLYERS,ETC]

The blasphemy theme runs all through gothic culture. At Helter Skelter, variousimages of religious symbols are cast upon the walls along with images of Nosferatu, Dr. Caligari and Satan. The dress at Helter Skelter is equally blasphemous. The rosary beads and crucifixes are draped over shrouds and robes mixed together with spikes and leather, fishnets and garters, chains and collars. Topping off the ensemble, most Goths wear black lipstick, eyeliner and eye shadow with whiteface and black, spiked or dyed hair.

Even the music carries the theme:

"Incurable disease on the day of rest/Walking on the water in a sea of incest/ I've the image of Jesus embedded in my chest ... Crosses burn our temples on Slaughter Avenue ... Time is digging graves for the chosen few ... I've got a spiritual cramp going for my rib ... Jesus won't you touch me/ Come into my heart/ Where the hell are you when the fire starts ... I'm setting 22 tables for the funeral feast/ Satan is by far the kindest guest." -Christian Death "Spiritual Cramp"

As can easily be inferred from these lyrics, anguish, death, and the figurative rape of Christianity are the prevalent components of gothic music.

So far, the statement being made by the gothic culture seems to be pretty much cut and dry. The Goths are telling the dominant hegemonic culture, and anyone else who cares to listen, "We do not accept your religion, we do not accept your beliefs, therefore we do not accept your values and your way of life." From the examples I ahve given, there doesn't seem to be any exception to this rule, but, of course there is an excpetion. That exception is found in the ethereal-gloom gothic music. The music, as I have stated, is very orchestrated, and the vocals are often women singing in high, soprano voices, many times even in foreign languages. It is very soothing, sad, beautiful music. How, then, can this be considered gothic by the defintion given? The ethereal-gloom pop is considered gothic because it deals with the subjects popular in gothic culture, like death and isolation, but in a much different manner, a way that lifts the listener up out of him or herself into a truly spiritual experience: dance.

The dance at Helter Skelter is like nothing that has ever been experienced before. [STUFF DELETED ABOUT THE PICTURES, WHICH YOU CAN'T SEE] I have tried many times to describe the dance and all I ahve been able to come up with is: a kind of sorrowful ballet, that can turn into a frenzied, anguished thrashing-out at any minute.

The evening at Helter Skelter usually begins with the ethereal-gloom music. Not many people have shown up yet, so there are only seven or eight people on the dance floor. Elizabeth Frazer of Cocteau Twins begins singing "Ivo", and almost immediately everyone stops. Those on the dance floor stand stock-still, clutching at themselves and staring down at the floor as if they were standing at a grave looking down upon a loved one. As the song begins to pick up, a few start to glide about the floor swinging their arms slowly and grandly, reaching out for something that seems to be just beyond their grasp. The others fall slowly to the floor, kneeling or crouching silently while clutching themselves even tighter. The night progresses, and the music becomes more death-punk and new wave. Several other dancers have taken to the floor. The music moves faster and harder, the lights begin to flash and swirl. Now there are a hundred or more people on the dance floor, arms swinging and moving about faster, their faces plastered with looks of utter pain. Some, dressed in spiked heels and bondage-gear grope greedily at themselves and those around them, while others collapse violently to their knees, only to spring up again a moment later, and still others bend backwards, stretching thier arms to the ceiling, invoking God's forgiveness or damnation. Gothic dance is something that can only truly be experienced first hand. It is at once a beautifully enchanting and an evilly repulsive sight.

Every facet of gothic culture carries this enchanting/repulsive dichotomy. In the visual effect, a person is drawn to the image of the Virgin Mary, then turned away in disgust by the image of the naked woman with a snake around her neck and 666 painted in red upon her breasts. In the dress, one is captivated by the velvet, the jewels and the silk, then repelled by the leather, spikes and bondage. In the music, one is enamored with the beauty of the ethereal-gloom, then nauseated by the evil incantations of the death-punk. Finally, in the dance, one is entranced by the ballet-type movement, then driven away by violent flailing and sexual undulation.

The gothic culture uses this dichotomy to illustrate their view of society. The beauty of the world, hand in hand with the ugliness of man. This viw can easily be seen in the two most important summarizing symbols in gothic culture: the cross and the skull. They represent not only the gothic view of society, but also the blasphemous and rebellious stand Goth takes against society.

The gothic culture has made itself into a subculture of a subculture, deriving from the prominent punk movement, then moving off into its own domain, turning against the hegemonic culture and at the same time isolating itself from those who attempt to do the same thing. Hebdige says "The word 'subculture' is loaded down with mystery. It suggests secrecy, masonic oaths, and Underworld" (4). This is no more evident than in the gothic culture. Sean Brennan, lead singer of the Los Angeles based gothic band London After Midnight sums up what, to many Goths, is the true meaning of the gothic culture with these words: "Not to place undue importance on Goth, but one cannot deny that the Goth/Deathrock ... scenes are the last bastions of true art, creative freedom and rebellion against corporate 'art'."


Hark, the herald angels in black doth sing
The praises of Helter Skelter, o how they ring.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here-
Nay, they say, 'tis a place of cheer.
Although attired like things most funereal,
and thy pensive gaze, o so ethereal,
yet thine heart be lifted up by the beat of the dirge
as the dance floor fills with the heightening urge.
Glory to the dark and restless nocturne
of pallid youth never to learn
the age old 'wisdom' of early to rise,
for the way of the day is all they despise.
Hail Helter Skelter, and damn the blisters,
for fingers will heal by the grace of good Sisters,
and of Banshees fair and Nephilim renowned,
and all who art hallowed on this sacred ground.
This blessed soil of their hearts desire
burns hot with passion's untamed fire,
a flame born of a world-weary soul
blackened and charred like a lump of coal,
which from the inferno did arise
Phoenix-like with fiery eyes.

O sanctuary
O blessed place
Live on...
-Fred H Berger


  1. Bai, Tar "Still Ghastly After All These Years". Helter Skelter 4th Anniversary pamphlet.
  2. Berger, Fred H. _Ode to Sanctuary_. Helter Skelter 4th Anniversary pamphlet.
  3. Brake, Micheal. _Comparative Youth Culture_. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc. 1985.
  4. Hebdige, Dick. _Subculture: The Meaning of Style_. London: Routledge. 1979.
  5. Heylin, Clinton. _From the Velvets to the Vodoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World_. New York: Penguin Books. 1993.
  6. McGuigan, Jim. _Cultural Populism_. London: Routledge. 1992.
  7. Ortner, Sherry. "On Key Symbols". _American Anthropologist_. 1338-46.