Connection between goth subculture, mass shootings appears tenuous

Mercer emphasized that he was not blaming Heavy Metal music for Gill’s actions and “It doesn’t matter actually what music he liked.”

A few months before the Gill killings, there was another incident in Canada which was connected to goth. It was known as the Richardson family murders. In April 2006, the 12-year old daughter of the Richardson and her 23-year old boyfriend Jeremy Steinke, killed the Richardson parents and their 8-year old son (and the girl’s brother) because the family objected to the relationship (the girl’s first name was never published because, according to Canadian law, names of children younger than 14 when they commit a crime cannot be published, even when they become adults).

The boyfriend said he liked goth music and vampires, and used to to wear a small vial of blood around his neck.

One killing which may have contributed to the early association of goth and killing was the killing of Gary Lauwers. In 1984, Ricky Kasso murdered Lauwers, who was a friend of Kasso, in Northport Long Island. Two other teens were also present at the time of the murder and all four men were on what they thought was mescaline, but was most likely PCP or LSD. Kasso was known to be a fan of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne.

Kasso was arrested two weeks after the murder and killed himself while in prison two days later.

Another incident where goth culture may have played part in a mass killing is a shooting that took place in 2005 in Red Lake Minnesota. Jeffery Weise, 16, went on two separate killings sprees on the same day. Weise killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend before taking his grandfather’s police vehicle to Red Lake Senior High School, where he shot and killed seven more people before committing suicide.

In interviews conducted after the shootings, classmates described Weise as a loner who wore black clothing year-round and was labeled as a “goth kid” by many of his classmates.

The goth culture-mass shooting connection was headlined in media reports in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings in Colorado, with many in the mainstream media pointing to goth culture as playing a part in the murder of twelve students and one teacher and the wounding of twenty-one others.

Marilyn Manson took the brunt of the media’s firestorm unleashed on the rock music industry and goth culture in the days after the Columbine shooting. Manson was forced to cancel an upcoming tour after the shooting and soon after released this statement to the media:

“The [news] media has unfairly scapegoated the music industry and so-called Goth kids and has speculated, with no basis in truth, that artists like myself are in some way to blame. This tragedy was a product of ignorance, hatred and an access to guns. I hope the [news] media’s irresponsible finger-pointing doesn’t create more discrimination against kids who look different.”

It was later determined by investigators that neither Manson’s music nor goth culture played any part in the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two school students who committed the shooting at Columbine High School.

David Cullen, who wrote the definitive book on the Columbine shooting, said in an article he wrote before the book came out that the two  killers, who held goth music in contempt, were not involved with the goth subculture.    

Even thought there is little evidence for it, many argue that goth culture has played a part in mass shootings in the last thirty years. The argument is being offered that lonely, isolated, and socially maladapted teenagers get sucked into the dark world of goth, with intimation of death and alternative value system, and that this new context acts as an en enabler, offering legitimacy and validation to dark impulses, further isolating these fragile teenagers from reality, and pushing them to commit acts of violence which otherwise they would not have committed.

Psychologists who have closely examined both goth culture and recent mass shooting find little evidence to this reading of goth.

In fact, some psychologists say that goth should be noted for offering a context which may help some youngsters. Thus, Michael van Beinum, a psychiatrist for children and adolescents, who advised on a study published in the British Medical Journal (vol 332, 2006) says: “For some young people with mental health problems, a goth subculture may be attractive as it may allow them to find a community within which it may be easier for their distress to be understood.”

It is not as if there is no violence associated with goth, but psychologists say that this violence is much more likely to involve self-harming, rather than harming of others (the British Medical Journal study found that about half of teenage goths have deliberately harmed themselves or attempted suicide; see also this BBC report).

The conclusion that there is no apparent connection between goth and mass shooting should be qualified further for one main reason: goth is an imprecise term, and goth culture is ill-defined. Alicia Porter Smith said it best:

But what does gothic mean in regards to the group of people? Here’s where it gets confusing. There are things that many Goths like that are not gothic (Industrial or Classical music). There are things that are gothic that many Goths dislike (vampires, interest in death). There are things that some people think are gothic that are not gothic (bands like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails), and there are things that do not call themselves gothic even if they are considered gothic by most people (bands like Sisters of Mercy and Dead Can Dance). However, there’s no Grand Gothic Judge to decree what is truly Goth and what is not, although there are plenty of people who claim to be it. It’s an ambiguous label with many people using it that don’t understand what it means. The people who do understand it often have many different definitions.

Middle-age outsiders are quick to put the goth label on any teenager who is wearing a trench coat and black clothing to school, and who is using an eyeliner and dying his hair. Psychologists and people involved with youth say this is a mistake: not every teenager who is going through the typical teenage rebellion phase, and who may be wearing a trench coat and black cloths to school, is goth.

In any case, goth culture, to the extent that generalizations can be made, is a subculture which appears to draw weak, inwardly looking teenagers who are more likely to harm themselves than others.

Thus, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold may have taken to wearing trench coats and black clothing, but they despised the goth at Columbine as needy and delusional.

Moreover, psychologists say that most young mass shooters are too isolated and socially awakward, too consumed by their own inner demons, to be closely associated with or drawn to anything outside of themselves — social groups, sport teams, school clubs, or subcultures. They form no attachments becasue they are incapable of attachment.

What psychologists advise, therefore, is that if adults want to identify signs of disturbance and danger in teenagers in order to intervene in time and prevent another tragedy, these adults need to go beyond trench coats and eyeliners, and even music, to look for true signs of danger.