Worshiping Satan never really appealed to 16-year-old Abby Autery.
“But then again, I don’t believe in the Devil, or God, either,” said the Alton High School sophomore, who has 13 body piercings and dyes her hair black, red and silver.
But it’s the assumptions that she is involved in Satanism — just because she wears “bondage straps” and adores a band called Cradle of Filth — that make her want to scream.
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Autery and other area “Goths” are crying foul over such labeling in the wake of the late October academic expulsion of a Goth student from Lewis and Clark Junior High School in Wood River who allegedly made a hit list that included 30 classmates’ names.
Many local citizens are using the incident to claim some kind of intrinsic link between gothic culture and violence, the local Goths say, when such a link just isn’t there.
“Anybody could have done what she did — a jock, a prep — they all could have done it,” said Jon Kemp, a 17-year-old former Goth who lives in Upper Alton. “It had nothing to do with being gothic or anything.”
But Kemp said people also jumped to the wrong conclusions when he started listening to gothic heavy metal, wearing black clothing and putting on black eyeliner.
“They just point their fingers, so I say to myself, ‘Let them think what they want to.’ I know who I am, what I stand for. If they are going to think bad upon me, let them think that. Their opinion doesn’t matter to me,” he said.
Goth is a term applied to young people who dress entirely or mostly in black, listen to certain types of heavy metal and alternative music, and often express a fascination for vampires or similar dark, gothic themes.
Mainstream people seem to have a natural inclination to fear what they don’t understand, said Nancy Kilpatrick, a Canadian author who has written 14 novels of gothic literature.
She attempts to assuage some of those fears with her newest work of non-fiction — “The Goth Bible” — a compendium of all things Goth.
She interviewed 96 Goths for the work, running them through a set of 125 questions aimed at deciphering what it means to be gothic.
“Goth is one of those words that’s really hard to define,” she said over the telephone from her Montreal home. “It’s not something that can really be pinpointed and put out in a sound bite.”
However, she would make a few generalizations.
Goths tend to be artistic, are interested in the darker things in life and are naturally philosophical question-askers.
“What happens when I die? What is it like to die? These are questions any sensitive, intelligent human being is bound to ask,” Kilpatrick said. “This kind of thinking is called dark by people, but it isn’t necessarily dark. To look at death and question it and try to come to some conclusions makes sense to me.”
Gothic culture and identity also tend to be tightly intertwined with literature, fashion and music, Kilpatrick said.
The culture’s character really started to come into its own out of the mid-1970s music scene, Kilpatrick said, as a kind of darker cousin to punk rock.
Goth rock had a darker, moodier tone, and was not as extroverted and violent as the spiky-haired, punk rockers’ ballads.
Today, Autery and other Goths at Alton High School listen to the musical descendents of these Goth-Rockers of yesteryear — bands such as Slipknot, Mushroomhead and Mudvayne.
As for fashion, Autery said she first started wearing metal jewelry and black vinyl in the seventh grade, not because she wanted to shock people or fall in with a group of friends, but just because she liked the style.
“I wasn’t really into wearing bright colors and preppy kinds of clothes,” she said. “I dress like this because I like the hard music, and I like the style.”
And while “just because I like it” may seem a strange answer to some, Kilpatrick said it’s a sentiment echoed by many Goths.
Certain Goths simply find painted black and navy fingernails beautiful, and feel that quiet, rolling cemetery hills are relaxing places to have picnics.
“They’re labeling something macabre that is not intrinsically macabre,” Kilpatrick said. “To me, it’s not crude to see people wearing beautiful, long coats and velvet dresses.”
But John Pruett, manager of counseling and acute services at Alton’s Community Counseling Center, said the appeal of gothic culture is rooted in the subconscious.
Goth teenagers are often attempting to exercise some control over their lives, trying to forge an identity or setting up walls to protect themselves, Pruett said.
“Depending on what the background of a kid is, some will get into things that are a little fringe or extreme sometimes because of a trauma,” he said.
Sexual, physical or emotional abuse pushes some youths to use gothic style as a wall to keep people — and potential traumas — at bay.
“It gives a sense of being able to feel safe, because it makes people keep their distance. For some of them, it’s a protective device,” he said. “It’s a way of hiding what they feel on the inside.
“Human behavior is purposeful. It’s either to get something or to avoid something. So part of this is what do these kids get by doing this, or what do they avoid by doing this?” Pruett said. “There’s a payoff in there somewhere for them.”
He said the writing of the alleged hit list likely was the young girl’s way of expressing her feelings, a kind of venting tool similar to self-mutilation and cutting — tools other emotionally pent-up children sometimes use.
“Sometimes, if there’s not another outlet for what’s going on, they’ve got to find some way of getting it out,” he said.
Autery agreed, saying that students probably made fun of the girl for who she was.
“I wouldn’t blame her. If I got so mad at somebody and couldn’t do anything about it, I’d write it down, too,” she said.
But Kilpatrick said her research shows that people shouldn’t just blame the girl’s actions on gothic culture.
“Goth is the antithesis of violence,” she said. “Everything I read about is Goths being the victims, not the aggressors.”
She said those in the mainstream have a tendency to link gothic culture with violence because of its incorrect association with the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col.
“It set in the minds of people that these two boys were Goths, when they were not,” she said. “This is not a violent culture.”
Kilpatrick said school board members should have recognized this and reached out to the Wood River girl with a helping hand, instead of kicking her out of school.
“This is teenager stuff. Taking it seriously is one thing, but making it into this catastrophe, there’s something wrong with that,” she said. “I feel very sorry for this girl. The message that’s been sent to her is clear-cut: don’t express yourself.”