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Originally published Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 11:28 AM

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Forever goth: Elders not about to lighten up

Goth lives on for some.

The Oakland Tribune

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The makeup may be toned down, a little easier on the eyeliner. Locks dyed a raven's black might obscure wisps of gray for those now in their 30s, 40s, even 50s and beyond. Many are — perish the thought — settled, even married or with kids, meaning few or no nights at the clubs.

Yet don't be fooled by such mundane trappings. Darkness of a midnight dreary still lurks in the depths of their inner 19th-century souls — and sometimes in their closets — proving there's no expiration date on being goth.

"We're elder Goths, a term that started out as a joke to describe someone who's been goth for ages," says Jillian Venters, known as the Lady of the Manners on her Gothic Charm School website and who, at 43, says she has indeed been goth for ages.

"It is a lifestyle," she says. "There are a lot of people who go through ups and downs with it. Some used to be more hard-core. Others still look like they're living in a Tim Burton movie. Either way, there's nothing wrong with being goth. It's not a symptom of being bad or depressed or being a scary individual. And it's not a teenage phase for a lot of people.

"For me, it's about looking for beauty in dark and possibly frightening places," Venters says. "And there isn't any cutoff date for that."

Yes, this is goth, the same genre outsiders considered a mere fad in the '80s and '90s, associating it — sometimes justifiably — with moody teenagers wearing black. And while it was truly a phase for some (Jennifer Aniston recently revealed she was goth as a teen — who knew?), the oft-misunderstood scene never went away and in fact continues to thrive as one of the longest-lasting subcultures around. Death Guild in San Francisco, said to be the oldest goth/industrial club in the country, has been running longer than some of its current patrons have been on the planet, celebrating its 19th year in March.

Having emerged from the post-punk scene in England nearly years 30 ago, goth has evolved, often evading definition. It now incorporates styles like steampunk (think H.G. Wells) and swing goth (sort of "sock hop" goth). There's also death rock, new romantic goth, dieselpunk, EBM (electronic body music), rockabilly goth, corporate goth and more.

Aging right along with the scene are many of the people who got it started. David "Decay" King, founder and operator of Death Guild, is now 41 and has seen goth kids come and go, often growing into "elders" themselves.

"One woman has been coming to the club so long, she now has a son who's old enough to come," King says. "Her son doesn't, but she still does."

The young may rule the clubs, but the "elders" still express their gothic sensibilities in myriad ways. Many find meaning in the macabre, beauty in darkness, and they live with gothic elements through art, music or life philosophies. Or sometimes funeral parlors.

At least Maggie Simpson Adams does. The 33-year-old Oakland, Calif., artist who works in the media center at the California College of the Arts says her art is "100 percent gothic." She has created several striking works that focus on heavy images, such as an interactive installation titled "Mortal Ebb" — basically a room decorated like an elaborate flower-filled Victorian funeral parlor with a life-size coffin that spectators can climb into and have their picture taken.

"The effect is a postmortem image of themselves, allowing contemplation of mortality and their fears and superstitions around death," she says. "Some people think that's creepy, but I find it really beautiful. I also subscribe to the Tibetan beliefs that if you can't accept death, then you can't ever really live."

Venters, the Lady of the Manners, gets numerous letters on her Seattle-based website from fellow elder Goths, particularly women, on how to age gracefully and still proudly display their shadowy tendencies, and she offers practical advice.

"Stereotypical signifiers of gothdom may not always be appropriate for us black-clad eccentrics, especially the ones celebrating their 21st birthday multiple times," she says. "Makeup, yes. But sometimes you have to accept that maybe the swirly eye look isn't right for you anymore. There is a difference between charmingly ghoulish and looking like you fell face-first into your makeup box."

But she cautions not to give up romantic goth ways just because of age.

"Society as a whole tends to be quite youth-centric, and the goth world is no different," she says. "But we elder Goths can do our part in changing that by showing that goth, much like classic literature and fine wine, ages very well indeed."

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