Did you wake up this morning filled with a sense of impending doom and a creeping feeling of bleakness and gloom? Well, it wasn't just because it's Monday; today is also World Goth Day, a holiday on which modern goth culture is celebrated. Goth is one of the world's most popular subcultures, stretching from America to Argentina, with particularly strong hotbeds in Japan; people the world over revel in the culture's obsessions with everything from Victorian mourning-inspired fashions to dark-eyelinered bands.
However, the gothic as we understand it today isn't just about aesthetics and belonging. It has its roots in historical literary romantic excess and massive architectural drama, and to be truly "goth" involves more than just black nail polish and lipstick (though that's a decent start); the heart of gothness involves a mix of the macabre and the eccentric, the dark and the subversive.
Goth culture has existed in very different forms for centuries, and the people who laid the groundwork for today's goth culture weren't necessarily the darkest, most tormented individuals: the 18th century author Ann Radcliffe, who helped to found the genre with her novels (which feature weird supernatural events, imprisoned maidens, dramatic fainting and a lot of spookiness), was by all accounts a rather retiring type, and the origins of 'gothic' as a term describing strange, over-the-top narratives with copious weirdness was actually a joke by Horace Walpole.
Over the centuries, however, there have been several individuals who've really encapsulated the gothic spirit, with their taste for isolation, supernatural experiences, high drama and serious grotesquerie. From deadly kings with black-clad troops to blood-and-mummy-obsessed 15th century doctors, here are the most gothic people in the history of humanity. Please take this list with a heavy dose of black hair dye.
Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim ("Paracelsus")
The 15th century Swiss physician, occultist and alchemist Paracelsus (he changed his name from his longer traditional moniker to sound more "ancient") had some distinctly brutal ideas about how to deal with diseases. His beliefs were an interesting mix of modern science and more, well, gothic methodologies.
Several of his suggested "cures" involved blood — whether it existed in a powdered form, was extracted from "a healthy young person" and made into a kind of syrup, or was simply taken from the patient and fed to a hungry dog. (This was meant to somehow transfer the disease to the dog.)
He was also a big proponent of one of the medical crazes at the time, which was using mummified human flesh, either from excavated Egyptian mummies or from more recent corpses, for health reasons. He advised, for instance, that a person who was ill should take some of the flesh of a prisoner who'd recently been hanged, put it in the earth, sow some seeds in it and then water it every day with water that had been washed over the diseased body part.
It was, however, in his ideas of "artificial man" that Paracelsus reached his greatest gothic heights. He preceded Frankenstein, one of the greatest gothic novels ever written, by centuries, by proposing how to make your own homunculus. His recipe? Get some sperm, put it in horse dung, leave it for 40 days, then feed it with human blood for 40 weeks until it becomes a "true, and living infant." While some of Paracelsus's methods seem to have been thought of by other men, this was an innovation all of his own, and it's gothic as hell.
Ivan The Terrible
Ivan the Terrible is tied with Vlad the Impaler for the Eastern European figure whose legacy contains the most (possibly idiosyncratic) bloodthirstiness and strangeness. Ivan's life was one long series of drama, misery and darkness, a truly gothic tale that also happened to be true. Reportedly a lover of torturing small animals as a child, he embarked on an eccentric and deadly career as the ruler of Russia, complete with a black-clad police force who rode everywhere on black horses.
Ivan was, however, also deeply afraid of death, and seems to have been willing to do basically anything — including attempting witchcraft and deals with the Devil — to avoid it. People of the time reported that he gathered 60 witches and wizards to court in 1584 to try and predict his death, and it seems that when he was on his actual deathbed he collected witches and astrologers to try and charm him better. (Given that a lot of people appeared to believe he and his family were demons, this may not have seemed completely unrealistic.) Ivan has since been given full gothic-horror treatment by artists and writers, though it doesn't seem as if he needed much help.
Maria Eleanora Of Brandenburg
You may be acquainted with Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg's daughter, Queen Christina of Sweden, she of the famous Garbo portrayal and the reputation for donning masculine garb. However, while Christina is an icon of arts and culture, it's honestly a miracle she was able to accomplish anything at all — because after the death of her father, Gustav Adolphus, in 1632, her mother went so high gothic it's entirely possible that she took leave of her senses.
Maria Eleonora received her husband's body from the battlefield where he had died, and proceeded to have him embalmed, then refuse to bury him for a full year. During that period, she kept herself and her daughter, plus her own court of followers, in seclusion in a dark room with no natural light and the coffin beside the bed. (It was, it seems, periodically opened so that the widow could weep over her husband's body.)
Over the bed was the king's heart in a golden casket, and that's where Maria Eleonora forced her daughter to sleep. All things considered, Christina seems to have got out of this without too much permanent damage, though she understandably doesn't seem to have liked her mother very much afterwards.
The Mad Duke Of Portland
Take one giant castle and one person who's absolutely terrified of the outside world, and what do you get? A tale of gothic proportions, though in this case it's more gentle than tragic. The wildly eccentric William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck became known as the "Mad Duke Of Portland" because, it seems, he was so chronically shy that he dug mile upon mile of tunnels and rooms under his gargantuan estate and refused to see anybody. His intense wish for privacy, and his delight at being below ground, may have inspired Kenneth Grahame's character of Badger in The Wind In The Willows.
In a very non-gothic twist, he painted all of his underground rooms pink. However, he also insisted that servants should pretend he didn't exist, although he apparently did occasionally give them lessons on how to row boats on the vast estate lake. Less dark and dismal than simply very rich, very lonely and very weird.
William Thomas Beckford
If your taste in the gothic veers towards architecture (forbidding, extremely big and dark, hugely elaborate, looks as if ghosts haunt the battlements), you'd get along with William Thomas Beckford. His claim to fame as a British nobleman is the creation of the most gothic place in history, Fonthill Abbey, a cathedral so vast and bonkers that it kept collapsing and was lost to posterity.
Beckford loved himself some gothic melodrama; he himself authored a gothic novel, Vathek. Bill Bryson notes in At Home that Beckford's choice of architect for his abbey, Thomas Wyatt, was a case of picking the person who created the epitome of "gloomth," the adjective Horace Walpole had attached to seriously gothic dwellings. Wyatt specialized in gloomth. The giant house had a tower that kept falling down, was perpetually freezing, and would eventually collapse and be torn down after Beckford's own death. (Beckford had been forced to sell the Abbey for money troubles. Undeterred, he built himself a 154 foot tower and lived in that instead.)
Sarah Bernhardt–born OTD 1844–slept in a coffin in lieu of a bed, claiming it helped her understand her tragic roles. pic.twitter.com/5UPA8nBQkj— Jane Hoodless (@JaneHoodless) October 22, 2016
Sarah Bernhardt, the French celebrity, was one of the most important figures in the history of acting, and was also a woman with a flair for the gothic. Famous for both her acting and her many lovers, she cultivated an extremely strange lifestyle that delighted the press. She surrounded herself with acutely dangerous pets, including an alligator and a cheetah; but perhaps her most gothic touch was her revelation that she occasionally slept in a coffin, with a photograph helpfully supplied to prove the point.
She was, according to a biographer, "obsessed with death," loved to take roles in which she died gruesomely on stage, and reputedly kept a skeleton in her Paris apartment. She would also perform for soldiers in World War I despite having an amputated leg, and was well aware of the tie between her often-macabre theatrical roles and her own persona, willing to play it up to the hilt. Nobody can say she didn't succeed.
Louise Elisabeth de Meuron
What do you call a woman who refuses to stop wearing Victorian mourning for 40 years, despite the Victorian age being long past? If you respond "Queen Goth," you win. Louise Elisabeth de Meuron was that most gothic of characters, an eccentric artistocratic woman born at the end of the 19th century; but she pushed it even further than most other pretenders to the title. By the time of her death in 1980 at the age of 98, she'd become a legendary figure in Bern, Switzerland, where she lived imperiously as the last of a noble Bern family and captivated people with her gothic eccentricities.
She would walk everywhere with her Italian greyhounds, a walking stick and an ear-trumpet, a fact immortalized by artists, looking for all the world like an angry witch. She was also notoriously isolated, locked people in her coach-house when they trespassed, and had tantrums about the modern world, including the fact that she never paid a tram ticket because, in her words, "I was here before the tram." Let this be a lesson: a corset, some black trousers and a leather coat do not a true goth make.